Night One and Books (The Sunday Post)

It’s eerily quiet. Not even barking dogs. That may change, of course, but as I type this, in this particular moment, on this first night of curfew (Saturday night in Antigua), it turns out life on pandemic lockdown is…still.

I am reading and writing in and out – my short story collection in progress, the audio book of The Waste Lands from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the early pages of the spec fic anthology Take us to a Better Place

take us to a better place

In the intro which previews the stories, its breakdown of the story by Barbados’ Karen Lord is also eerie (I think you’ll see why).

‘A different sort of dystopia, an uncomfortably realistic one, confronts us in Karen Lord’s “The Plague Doctors.” It is only 60 years from now, and the earth is being wracked by a deadly infectious disease, with bodies from the mainland washing up on an island where Dr. Audra Lee is desperate to find an answer in time to save her pox-exposed six year-old niece. It’s the kind of global pandemic that should prompt all hands-on-deck cooperation, but Dr. Lee finds herself working not only against a disease but against a veil of secrecy and selfishness erected by wealthy elites who want to prioritize a cure for themselves. Will she be tempted to cross the line of scientific ethics to relieve her own family’s suffering?’

commonwealth writers
(I participated in a workshop co-facilitated by Karen Lord, 2nd row, standing, third from left in 2018)

The book, so far, seems to have a couple of climate change and/or humanity annihilating stories (why am I reading this and the dystopic Dark Tower series right now?!), and stories which within that framework delve in to issues of class and ethics. Example, “the lines for vaccines are longest, for example, where the poorest people of color live.” (referencing another of the stories in Take us to a Better Place, The Flotilla at Bird Island by Mike McClelland). More spoilers than I like in the intro but the teasers are certainly peaking my interest.

I found myself listening earlier today to the Barnes and Noble teen/young adult books podcast episode with Cassandra Clare, author of the Shadowhunters series. I actually discovered this series quite recently, via youtube. I haven’t read the books but I have watched the film and the TV series on Netflix and having seen Cassandra I see how the Clarey character is sort of an avatar for the author – both fiery redheads. It’s an interesting series filled with downworlders (vamps and warlocks etc) and people with angel blood protecting the balance and we, oblivious humans, in between. The series has reportedly become quite expansive with other authors even writing in that world – crossovers and alternate storylines and whatnot. Clare’s writing process, as she describes it, seems quite collaborative in any case. Plus she has an assistant – wish I could afford one of those. Anyway, I enjoyed the podcast and since its thing is teen/young adult content, I reached out to see if they’d be interested in an ep on the Caribbean teen/young adult fiction titles that have emerged in to the marketplace thanks to the Burt Award between 2014 and 2020. Fingers crossed but if you want to check out the (Burt Caribbean) titles, see this post on my Wadadli Pen blog.

I also listened to an episode of Origins, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme podcast. One of my takeaways from their conversation with Kirmen Uribe from the Basque, “They do this work of intermediation between your work and the publishing houses.” He was, in a conversation on writing in Basque language and translations of his work, talking about the role of the translator. Interesting note, especially since I have been approached about translation but wasn’t sure how to navigate that. Gives me some sense for future reference of how to frame the conversation.

Well, look at that, my third post in as many days. Hm. I’ll link this one up with the book blog meme I link up with the most (you might call it my favourite and not just because its host the Caffeinated Reviewer once did a positive review of my children’s picture book Lost Cover Front 4Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure), The Sunday Post.

 

Staying Put (and Books)

Well, here we are… state of emergency with curfew as of this Saturday (here in Antigua and Barbuda). Too bad we can’t ffwd through this part of the ‘movie’. May we live in interesting times indeed.

My second check-in in as many days; can’t remember the last time that happened. But here we are. Today, I’ll be doing the Stacking the Shelves book blog meme which is about sharing new books on your physical or virtual shelves. As it happens, I did get a throuple of new books this week. My sister decided that what I needed in this period of lockdown was self-improvement and dropped off a copy of Unique Pieces of the Master Piece Perfectly Designed for Your Purpose – A Love Letter to Women (no, she hasn’t got the memo that I am not a fan of self-help books but she does know that if a book is in my possession odds are I’ll read it, after all it happened with The Secret…I’m upping my DNF game, though, so we’ll see). Also, author Michelle Fox had a free download promotion and I grabbed book 4 of her Henrietta and Inspector Howard series A Veil Removed. And finally Take us to a Better Place stories with contributions from the likes of Karen Lord (an award winning Barbadian speculative fiction writer) and an introduction by Roxane Gay; it is a free download.  My primary reading project, though, is a client novel edit because work comes first; and I’m enjoying revisiting Stephen King’s Dark Tower series with my current audio book listen The Wastelands (book 3 in the series), while still combing through the case studies in Jacob Jans’ Write and Get Paid and inching along the pages of Ross Kenneth Urken’s Another Mother.

I hope you’ll consider adding some of my books to your lockdown reading list; they are available as ebooks and there is one audio book – any way you can support me or any other writer or artist in this time, I’m sure will be appreciated. Here’s a listing of Caribbean writers you might want to check out. For a little teaser on my writing and books, here’s a recent interview I did on ABS TV – click the screengrab to go to the video.

Things Today

Three things…

Our airport closes at midnight this Thursday.

I am listening to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Book 3 (which I’m 99.99999 percent sure I read back in uni when I read the series but I remember liking the series, so)

I did one of those online personality tests (turns out I’m introverted, turbulent, intuitive, feeling, prospective -in that order, and that my strategy is constant improvement…which, I mean, sure)

What’s up where you are?

*

It’s late Thursday night as I write this on a night, in a time when it feels like the rules of reality are changing? Hopefully we can be a little less distant sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, thank God for books, eh?

And for the ‘discovery’ of new book memes like Lynn’s Book Blog Friday Face-Off. which invites participants to share book covers guided by specific themes. This week is a freebie, so I’ll share the covers of the last two books I reviewed (Guabancex ,  a Celia Sorhaindo poetry collection about and inspired by Dominica’s experience of hurricane Maria, which uses a satellite image of hurricane Maria as its cover, and An American Marriage, a Tayari Jones Oprah and Obama book club pick); a cover of a book about which I interviewed the author recently (Happy, Okay?); and the cover of a the forthcoming edition of a literary journal (Interviewing the Caribbean) which uses the cover of one of my picture books (With Grace), and the picture book cover for reference. Click the title above or each cover for the review, interview, and more about the journal and book, respectively. This post includes two illustrators I’ve worked with (the Interviewing the Caribbean cover is by my cover artist and illustrator for With Grace, Cherise Harris, of Barbados, and the Happy? Okay cover is by Trinidad and Tobago’s Danielle Boodoo Fortune, the illustrator of my other children’s book Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure which is set in the waters around Antigua and Barbuda where I live) – look for their names, look for my name (I have a wikipedia entry now and everything) and my books, look for books you have been meaning to read by any artist, sales and royalties needed now more than ever.

Guabancex cover Happy Okay

IC With Grace

This post is also a good fit, I think, for Connect 5 Friday, so I’ll link it with that as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Read Today

Because time feels weird, and I am chronically worried, and reading is still my happy place, and essential like air only there isn’t enough of it and you can’t breathe, or like the cell phone is to some people and their heart palpitates and they are distracted if they’ve forgotten it at home, and reading is coming slower, and reviews slower still, and because I feel like it, I’m journaling today what I read today. Will I do so on another day? No promises. But for now I’ll make this my It’s Monday, What are you Reading? …because it’s Monday and here’s what I’ve been reading.

Having finished An American Marriage, as blogged in my Sunday Post, I started the next of the audio books in the queue. No, I haven’t gone full audio book (if you’re not new here, you know I struggle with this and have to hit repeat every time the ‘reading’ becomes white noise and I miss things) but An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison were the two picks I made with my trial libro.fm promo gift certificate (libro.fm is an independent audio bookstore, sort of like an indiebound.org for audio books…I think). Good selection. Anyway, I started and re-started a throuple of times The Fifth Season which is apocalyptic in the beginning-way the world feels right now… funny, I was musing yesterday that I didn’t understand why so many people in my social media timeline seemed to be gravitating to films of that type (Contagion and the like) and here I had stumbled in to something, albeit fantasy, that seems of a kind. Will see how it goes.

ETA: This past week, I got a review copy of Celia Sorhaindo’s  post-Maria publication Guabancex from Papillote Press; haven’t started yet but it’s in the TBR active reading tower (yes, tower).

This morning, I’ve been reading PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers #18 In Transit. This came out in 2015 and it took me to about 2019, maybe 2018, to start reading it and I’ve been inching through. Why did it take me so long considering how excited I was when I received it. Well, I received it because I was a contributor – I had participated in the PEN World Voices literary safari in 2014 and as a participant was invited to submit a piece for their online journal. I submitted a poem called ‘Ah Write!‘ which, at that time, was sort of a go-to signature piece (it can also be read in The Caribbean Writer Volume 18 and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight: 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings). I was later asked to submit it for the Pen America print journal and was excited to have been invited to do so. That excitement tanked when I read the poem as published and realized it had been chopped up; what I thought of as essential parts cut out altogether, some of the Antiguan vernacular flattened out in to English. I wrote to the editor about these changes being made without me agreeing to them (without me so much as having received an edit note), and she apologized (“I am so sorry that your beautiful and powerful poem was altered, please know that the lost lines were not intentional but the result of a major error in factchecking”). Assurances that it would be corrected in online and reprint editions. I haven’t checked. I appreciated the tone of the editor’s response but it was, at the same time, small comfort. I put the book aside. I mean, I added it to my publishing credits but it didn’t really feel like mine anymore – and not in the way that when you publish something you’ve released it to the readers. I couldn’t look at it. Today, I made myself look at it and the pain is dulled, but there. I know #writerblues right …in a world of real and imminent danger, it hardly seems to matter…except it does.

I have been appreciating other things in this journal now that I’m finally reading it though. I don’t know if I’ll include it in my blogger on books series when I finally finish it, so I ‘ll just mention some favourites – favourites is an odd word as so many of the pieces I liked were more haunting than anything. Like ‘The Missing’ by Anthony Marra, in which people are drawn as a way of remembering them before they are disappeared (violently); ‘Diary of Exile’ by Yannis Ritsos, translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley, poetic journal entries from a 1950 concentration camp (per the text, Wikipedia says political prison) in Makronisos in Greece; ‘an Iranian Metamorphosis’ by Mana Neyestani, translated by Ghazal Mosadeq, a really compelling graphic novelesque rendering of political/artistic/journalistic oppression (torture, tyranny); the utterly (and darkly) surrealist ‘Father’s Last Escape’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska; the darkly humorous ‘Idea for a Sign’ by Lydia Davis; the conversation titled ‘Crazy Little Things’ between Osama Alomar, Lydia Davis, and Sjón in which they discuss their writing and the difficulty of defining their writing; Alomar’s ‘Smiling People’ and ‘Expired Eyes’, translated by C. J. Collins working with the author; the most romantic dramedyesque of the entries ‘Lost Loves’ by Jennifer Finney Boylan; and … today…

Today, I read, well, ‘Ah Write!‘; ‘Enter Cartoon Music’ by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie; and most compelling of anything I’ve read in this journal so far (with the possible exception of ‘an Iranian Metamorphosis’), ‘How to Sacrifice Your Brother when He is an Aztec’ by Natalie Diaz, which, with Justin Vivian Bond’s ‘How to Take a Flying Leap’ formed part of a DIY sub-head. I haven’t read nearly enough First Nations/Native American/Indian literature but I felt a strange kinship with her musings here, in terms of telling stories maybe too close to home and wading through the family response. She writes/says (since this was actually part of a filmed conversation),

“…my mother came to me after reading it and said, ‘None of this happened. It didn’t happen this way.’ My younger sister…countered, ‘What do you mean, mom? That’s exactly how it happened.'”

I had a similar experience when a considerable time after the release of my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, my mom who had by then gotten around to reading some of it said to me, “you got it wrong, this (horribly violent domestic incident) didn’t happen to (this person) it happened to (this other person).” Cue me trying to explain that none of it happened at all, it is fiction. How to explain that even where inspiration is drawn from real life, it is a distortion of it. I like how Diaz explains it, “This is probably the core principle of my writing – it is never the actual object that we see. It’s only the light reflected from the object.” Of course, the reflected light can still stir real memories and the emotion they evoke. Like my sister (older sister in my case) emailed me shortly after the release of The Boy from Willow  Bend to say, “this book has taken me back in time…Tanty’s dying all over again, however, made me cry.” I didn’t tell her that writing Tanty’s death even if only the reflected light of it made me cry too. I chose instead to focus on the part of her email that made me smile, her then, about 5 year old daughter’s response, “(she) wanted to know if you wrote the book all by yourself and why?”

 

This will be my Sunday Post

It is overcast, heavily grey in the sky to my left, peaks of blue in the sky to my right, in my sliver of the tropical paradise known as the Caribbean. I say paradise un-ironically here because the real world troubles notwithstanding (even in less pandemic times), as much as I like to remind that we are more than just where the world vacations, but real people in a real place, it is a beautiful place. And in such times, it is important to lean in to beauty, though our hearts are troubled, to not lean in to despair. The split in the skies above my verandah are a reminder to me in time for this Sunday Post that in any given moment, things can go either way, and we should indeed be mindful of the full clouds of grey about to fall on our freshly hung clothes (and take necessary action), but also let our eyes drift to the blue peaking through, choosing to believe that this too shall pass.

This may change, of course, but my strategy has been to take in only as much news and social media as I need to to stay informed re advisories etc, to reduce contact (emphasis on physical here as it is important to stay connected), wash, sanitize etc. but to turn down the hysteria, walk, listen to music and comedies (all caught up on The Good Place over here), and since I freelance from home anyway (keep working). I am worried about resources (money, stocks – of food and essentials) and about things getting worse before they get better (leadership or its lack is so critical in such times) but I don’t want to sit in that worry; so I stay doing. What am I doing, well, at the moment I’m on my back verandah typing to you about what I’ve been reading.

Not much as it happens but I did finish the audio book of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. An American Marriage 2I liked the book, the audio book-ing of it, less so (though it was good company on days that I had to commute). I didn’t say this in the review but communication and lack of being a key issue in this book, the author’s use of not only direct communication but letters, phone calls, and inner thoughts and things unsaid was masterful.  The way the forces bigger than you (in this case the system of injustice and its hunger for Black lives) can stagnate a life and cause relationships to atrophy is compelling. And the instinctively selfish nature of being (the book making clear there are no villains nor pure beings in that regard) is frustrating but resonant. And yet these are good people doing their best with a bad situation; and can’t we all relate to that. You can read my review here. My other recent review is the children’s book from the Isle of Wight, Milly’s Marvellous Mistakes, a fresh take on the three wishes trope. Read my review here.

I wrote this week about a book I haven’t read, but about which I had a very thorough e-conversation with the author Haitian-American writer M. J. Fievre. It’s a creative narrative about depression called Happy, Okay? Happy OkayRead the interview here.

Finally, I’d like to share from other blogs, Repeating Islands’ share of 5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books Written by Afro-Caribbean Authors, a list which is really good but to which I would add anything Anansi, including Philip Sherlock’s Illustrated Anansi and Imam Baksh’s Children of the Spider (the latter of which I reviewed here on the blog); Bookertalk.com’s 6 Degrees from Wolfe Island to Climate Change, and while I can’t really relate to the current rush on apocalyptic fiction I’d definitely want to check these out at another time including Caribbean read Monique Roffey’s Archipelago; speaking of Roffey her The Mermaid of Black Conch is one of the new books mentioned in my Carib Lit Plus news round up at my Wadadli Pen site; and, finally, speaking of Wadadli Pen, the short list for our Wadadli Youth Pen Prize 2020 Challenge has been posted. Congrats to all the writers.

And to you all, follow the guidelines, this is real, do everything we’re directed to do to keep ourselves and everyone else safe. And happy reading.

Interview: M. J. Fievre

M. J. Fievre is a Florida-based Haitian-American writer. This is a conversation with her about her latest book. I wasn’t sure about posting it here or Wadadli Pen or maybe pitching somewhere but in the end I’m happy to return the favour of her sharing her online space with me when my book Musical Youth came out, and this post will be linked in the latest Carib Plus Lit post (with other lit! news from the Caribbean) on the Wadadli Pen site, and, provided I can find the right angle, there’s no reason I still can’t pitch it somewhere. So, here’s to my literary sistren on turning the pen to such a sensitive, complicated, and in some ways still taboo issue. I haven’t read the book yet; my questions are based on our interactions and the press kit announcing Happy, Okay? Fievre_Press Kit   Here’s our conversation (conducted via email, so apologies for any stiltedness in the exchange).

Happy Okay

Joanne C. Hillhouse: First, who’s the cover artist – I have an idea but I don’t want to guess.
MJ Fievre: You guessed right: Trinidadian poet and artist Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné created the artwork for the cover of the book.

JCH: Second, congrats on the book.
MJF: Thank you. I’m excited to talk to you about it.

JCH: Why mental illness?
MJF: I was taught to write about what you know, and I know my own experience with depression. The worst parts of depression is feeling isolated, hopeless, and powerless to change things—so I wanted to share the ways I’ve managed mental illness. When I’d reach critical low points, I’d often open a book and find hope—or just a voice that resonated and let me know I wasn’t the only person who ever felt what I was feeling (or not feeling, because a lot of the time, I just felt blank). I know now that I’m not alone in having a mental illness, so it’s important to me that other people who are struggling with feelings of powerlessness and isolation know they are not alone, and that they have the power to change their situation for the better.

JCH: There’s still some taboo around that in Caribbean circles. Do you anticipate that being a hurdle to how the book is received?
MJF: Well, the funny thing about a culture of silence is that once the silence is broken, others find a connection, and begin to recognize there’s a problem, and that many people are suffering. Once that happens, more people start speaking up, and eventually, it becomes easier to speak of the unspeakable. So yeah, there’s the awkward first moment when the whole room is silent, and it feels a bit weird to disrupt the quiet, but it’s better to take a risk that I’ll be judged for breaking a taboo, than to pretend there’s no problem. I’ve already started hearing from people who have their own stories to tell, and I hope they tell them, because mental illness is a normal part of being human. We all catch colds. If you have the sniffles, there’s no shame in getting a bowl of chicken soup, and there’s absolutely no logical reason to feel any shame in seeking out help if anxiety or depression are keeping you from living a full life. If I stuck to the cultural norm of not expressing pain or sadness, it would also make it difficult for me to express happiness and solace, and that’s no way to live a full life.

MJ

JCH: Your main character’s name is Paloma? So this is a single long narrative with a single main character? Why this approach?
MJF: Paloma is the main character of the “narrative,” yes, but I chose to present this book in a hybrid form, so it’s not a straight-forward narrative. The opening of the book is a dialog between Paloma and her boyfriend Jose, and while the language is poetic, it’s presented as a play. There’s a struggle between them. I know from my own experience, that when I was going through some of the hardest periods of my life, there were people who loved me desperately, who saw I was hurting, but didn’t understand my problems. Often they thought they could fix me, or make me happy by loving my problems away. For example, if I was going through a period where I felt ugly, that they could make me feel beautiful by telling me how they saw me. Love is pretty powerful, yes, and it can work miracles, but by itself, it isn’t a cure for mental illness, and, in my experience, simply hearing I was beautiful was never enough to convince me on its own. I had to shift my inner narrative and take a good look at myself to see that, and I wanted Paloma to go through that also, to find her own voice, and her own power—and her own path to healing.

So, in the last section of the book, the format changes; in a way, it’s still a dialog, but Paloma is the only speaker, addressing herself, and finding power in her own words; she’s building a manifesto for herself, that she can live with. I’m fascinated with how dynamic our inner lives are, and with how complicated we are as individuals. There are aspects of Paloma that no one else in her life has ever seen. Those secret parts of herself are revealed in the last part of the book, in part, because the conversations we all have with ourselves are much more intimate than any we have with anyone else, but they also tend to be way more brutal, and in the end, that kind of honesty can lead to healing.

JCH: I’m reading Paloma’s symptoms and wondering… is a person okay if their depression is situational, not clinical, if you can still taste mangoes? When do you know if you need help? What do you do if you can’t access the help you need?
MJF: There is a big difference between going through a rough time where things feel bleak, because the situation around you is disastrous, and in going through the chemical imbalances of clinical depression, sure. But in either case, no one should ever have to navigate the experience alone; it’s just the level of assistance needed that differs. Clinical depression requires someone with medical expertise to makes assessments and help formulate an individualized plan of care, whether it’s medication or therapy, or a combination of the two, or something else.

But, if a person going through a situational depression is dealing with it alone, that kind of stress can easily lead to a state of clinical depression. If someone finds themselves in a situation they feel powerless to get through, if they are overwhelmed with emotions, or can’t figure out how to manage a crisis, those people should also seek out help. Maybe they don’t need a doctor, but at the very least, having an objective professional to discuss things with can help, even for a short-term hardship. No one should ever feel like they are being persecuted for having feelings they don’t understand and can’t manage, and no one should ever have to suffer alone.

I’m not qualified to say who needs help and who doesn’t, and unfortunately, too often, those who suffer with mental illness either lack self-awareness to see they need help, or just don’t realize that life is not meant to be lived in a constant state of despair, but if it feels like way too much, or if someone is at that “I-just-can’t-anymore” stage, then that’s a clear sign to reach out.

And if you can’t reach out, hang on. Get whatever support you can from those around you, until you can get to a professional. If there’s nothing in your community, find a community online. Call a hotline. If it’s an emergency; If you reach the point where it’s life or death, get to the emergency room, even if you have to call an ambulance.

Unfortunately, not everyone who needs it will get help when it’s needed. There are many problems with adequate access to mental health services, especially in lower income areas, and that’s a problem that’s going to continue to grow until society shifts its perception of the issue.

JCH: Who is this book intended for? Can you profile the ideal reader?
MJF: Hopefully everyone will read it! But, as I was writing it, I was thinking of my own struggles with anxiety and depression, so I probably wrote it with a late-teen-young adult Black female reader in mind, but I think it’s probably also good for anyone who has been affected by anxiety and depression in some way—so as I said, I hope everyone reads it!

JCH: What are the particular challenges of sustaining a book length narrative in poetic form; talk a bit about how you navigated writing this story from a technical standpoint.
MJF: I think it’s important to realize first, that I didn’t just sit down and write this all at once. This was a book that evolved over many years. The opening section, the poetry play in two voices, was even performed as two distinctly different plays with different characters and different arcs. The last section of the book, much of it I’d written about over the years. But when I had all the separate pieces written in their initial form, I began to see the need for this book, and found a way to sort of sew it together in a way that made sense.

Someone once said that the real writing comes through in revision, and that was definitely the case with this book.

JCH: It sounds like the book is intended to help people navigate certain mental heal trials. Do you believe poetry is healing? And does writing a book like this mean that you have it all figured out or is the book part of your own healing?
MJF: I believe any expression is better than silence, and if I haven’t seen healing through poetry, I’ve found it can at least be a source of solace. I don’t think poetry alone can heal someone with mental illness. The problem is much more complex than that. But, if you look at it as a life and death battle, I want anyone who faces the same fight I’ve had to have every weapon available to them in their arsenal, and poetry is formidable. As for having it all figured out, no. I don’t think I’m done figuring it out; I’m not even sure of what “healing” looks like for a chronic illness. But, what I do know is that it can be managed. It doesn’t have to be fatal, and though it’s not always easy to do the hard work of managing mental illnesses, it’s not impossible.

JCH: Is the title meant to suggest uncertainty and if so is that an indication, a testimony on the state of being okay being elusive?
MJF: I love the ambiguity of the title; part of my reasoning is that too often, at least in my own experience, I’ve looked outside myself to see what “happy” meant, and it’s not realistic to use other people as a gauge to figure out what happiness looks like, because the exterior view is too often illusory; comparison is probably a fool’s game when it comes to life. The title can mean a lot of things. It can mean that reaching a state of “okay” is happy enough for this moment. It can mean, “I am happy to be okay.” It can mean, “I am happy; are you okay?” And it can also mean, “I am happy. Is that okay with you?”

Bad ass Black Girl

JCH: Can you preview Badass Black Girl?
MJF: I am super-excited about Badass Black Girl. It’s a self-empowerment guide for young Black girls. It’s a book I began dreaming about writing when I was a young girl in Haiti. I like to think of it as every Black girl’s best friend. The book is a combination of things. It’s part memoir, about my own girlhood, and some of the important lessons I learned. It’s part compendium, with information about trailblazing Black women in many different fields. It’s also partly an advice book. But maybe most importantly, it’s a book filled with reflective exercises, designed to give Black girls the self-awareness and self-esteem they’re going to need to build a better, badass world.

JCH: Some reviews describe the book as a play-poem or poem-play. Do you see it as a performance piece a la For Coloured Girls? It does sound, from the advance reviews, and the synopsis, like it’s dealing with some of the same themes – not in terms of male-female relationships necessarily but in terms of the ways we are broken and yet struggle to be strong, the ways we crack even as we’re told (especially black women) that we are strong, super even. Off the mark?
MJF: As I mentioned earlier, parts of this have been performed, although in a much different form. I think it could probably still be performed. It might be cool to adapt it into an opera. I don’t think you’re too far off the mark. But the issue of how society, and Black culture, has unreasonable expectations for what Black women can tolerate before they buckle under the load—that’s hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.

JCH: Talk a bit about the physical (external) landscape of the poem. You are a child of Haiti and a woman of Miami, is the book set in these spaces? Somewhere else? Real or imagined? What guided you through the process of the world of the poem?
MJF: Yes, the book is set just outside Miami in the city of Hialeah, and has flashbacks to Paloma’s childhood in Haiti. Both Hialeah and Haiti are in the subtropics, so it’s a vibrant, lush setting, full of sensory imagery: bright colors, spicy foods; trees full of fruit so ripe, it’s bursting— music you can really get your whole body into. The setting was important to me, because of where I live, and where I’ve come from, but there’s more to it than that. In both places, because the weather is so warm, we spend a lot of time outside, and the natural world is so vibrant and full of life. There’s a special poignancy that comes with being depressed when the world all around you is bursting with life. It’s like a cruel joke in some ways: Yes, these mangos are dripping with sweetness, but I can’t taste them. And for practical reasons, that served as a contrast to the bleakness of living with depression and anxiety.

JCH: Who is Paloma? Is she you, women you know, someone wholly original?
MJF: Yes, all those women, and hopefully, someone universal, an archetype. I’d like to think that each of my readers will find part of themselves in Paloma.

JCH: Can you share a favourite excerpt?
MJF: Article XX

I Will Practice Self-Care
It starts with a lightness in the stomach,
my body, empty on the inside.
Coolness passes over my heart
& wraps around it in a perplexing fashion.
I know this feeling for what it was—
my cushion of control is eroding,
& I am scared sleepless of what
will be revealed in its absence.
The moon is throwing knives
through the trees, I think,
looking up at the sky. & I know
it’s time to hide from the world
& unfold inward—shape images
& emotions into structured plots.
I’m no longer a daughter, nor
a sister, nor a wife, nor a friend. I
no longer keep a part of myself
hidden away. I’m no longer a secret
waiting to reveal itself. I’m instead
a true tale unwinding
& I will love that.

JCH: I love that. Thanks for sharing, M.J.

 

Interview (2014)

In advance of the Commonwealth Writers event The Untold Story: By Our Own Tongues on Friday 11 April, Joanne C Hillhouse talks to the British Council Literature Team about Antigua, inspirations and languages.

(This interview seems to have been removed from the British Council website but is uploaded here FYI; and FYI the image below is from 2014, the Untold Story event at the Aye Write! festival in Scotland, referenced in the intro)

Aye Write Festival April 2014

Why did you become a writer, and what inspires you?

It’s not so much a why did I become as a how could I not… I’ve always been the girl with her head in a book and, when not in a book, whose vision turned inward to the stories in her head…soaking up the world around her, processing everything that happens to her through the ‘pen’…I don’t feel like I had a choice about being a writer and I don’t feel like I’d want to be anything else …not when I have this freedom on the page to interpret and imagine my world.

When I think about when I started writing in earnest, in my teens, I realize that what inspired me then was trying to make sense of my world, trying to cope with the confusion of becoming…what’s inspired me since is everything …everything I can’t shake …an emotion or a question or a notion…and I write through it…I often describe writing as journeying, discovering…because for me it is a sort of adventure, every time, into territory at once familiar and unknown…like driving down a path…it’s bumpy and narrow and there are trees and grass, things familiar like that…but there’s a bend at the end of the path and you don’t know what’s around the bend, and you’re curious… and you’re both scared and excited…do you turn back or do you keep going…if I keep going I get a story out of it…but that uncertainty is the driver.

Everything I write is rooted in being a child of Ottos, Antigua…yet so much of what I write these days, and I just picked up on this, is about how much it’s all changing, and trying to figure out what those changes mean. So, there’s that uncertainty again.

Your story Amelia at Devil’s Bridge was featured in the new anthology Pepperpot: Best New Stories From the Caribbean. You write in your blog that you hope that the modern Caribbean reader will have access to this anthology. How important is it to you that your writing reaches a global audience?

Okay, here’s the thing, I never approach any story or poem thinking about the audience, local or global; during the writing process, I just want to honour the characters and their story – I want to hear their voices without interference from the outside.

But, of course, I’m also a working writer and on the back end of the process I hope what I write finds an audience.

Growing up in Antigua, so much of what I had access to as a kid from Ottos came from other places; and as a reader and writer, I feel there’s a lot happening in contemporary Caribbean fiction that your average Caribbean person, before we even get to the world reader, is not aware of. Books from other places are the popular fiction even in our spaces. The writing in Pepperpot is really good, and it’s really modern, fresh and sometimes startling; it would be a shame if readers didn’t know it existed or had difficulty sourcing it as they so often do with Caribbean books. So that’s what I meant by that, I think.

As for the global audience, what writer doesn’t want that? But to return to the original part of my answer, it’s not what’s on my mind when I’m writing, but I grew up reading enough fiction from other places to know that if the story is true, if the characters are real, and the plot moves in interesting ways, the unfamiliarity of the world is incidental; I believe in writing my world, authentically, and hope that people from other places will come into that world and visit – on the page.

You write in English but dialogues are often written in Caribbean creole. How important is this for your work?

I write it as I hear it. In fact, one of the pieces I’ve been working on on and off has a very non-standard narrative voice. That will probably make it unpublishable …but like I said I don’t think about that too much when I’m writing as I don’t want to be restricted.

Thankfully, so far I haven’t been.

I think the dialogue in most of my work as written is important if I want the reader to hear it, to truly hear the character’s voice. The acceptance and the use of our mother tongue is still a struggle in the Caribbean where we’ve been colonized into this idea where it’s nothing more than bad English. Thankfully that way of thinking is changing, albeit slowly…but for me it’s never been a case of bad English, not when you’re talking about a language with a vocabulary and rules and history all its own, born out of a fusion of cultures, like so much else that makes us Caribbean.

I love when a non Caribbean reader hears it so well they forget they don’t know it and when a Caribbean reader hears it and it feels like home to them. Two reader reviews come to mind – this from a non Caribbean reader: “Even though the dialect wasn’t something I was used to at the end of the book I felt that I could go to Antigua and carry on a conversation with the best of them.” – and this from a Caribbean reader: “This book took me back home to Antigua and was very real to me. I enjoyed the use of language as the author placed her characters. In many ways the choice to use the island’s language is a statement about claiming one’s own identity.”

More than that though, it matters to me to get the characters’ voices right, since so much of what I write is from character.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that writers face today?

The challenges are as they’ve always been: time, money, space, more time, access, opportunity; though perhaps a little more so if you’re a black woman writer from a small island in the Caribbean sea…the biggest challenge then, in the face of insurmountable odds – including a rapidly transforming publishing landscape – is not losing hope, holding on to that thing some might call persistence and others might call obstinacy.