“She remembered sitting on the floor near where her mother sat sewing a random piece of cloth into something beautiful. She remembered the way the machine hummed, its motor shaking the floor under her. And in the corner was the Stella Harmony.
The guitar was her father’s.”
Human connection is one of the things we crave, from the womb. Our mother, father, our first community are vital to how we imprint and identify. Not everyone gets that. Zahara, the main character in Musical Youth, never knew her father and barely knew her mother. What we see here are snippets – the flashes that we grab as memory starts to form; and from those snippets we learn that her mother was not without resources (she sewed) and that she was a self-styled fashionista (she made beautiful things). Zahara’s connection to music (and her father) comes through the guitar, which is not only symbolic of that connection but becomes a tool through which she begins to shape herself.
‘“I liked the mix,” she said.
The smile he gave in response was shy.’
Mix tapes (as in cassette tapes) were a thing in the ’80s when I was in my teens (like the characters in this book). That’s how we passed music around back in the day. What we have here is Shaka, the main male character, giving Zahara a mix of songs he likes – one of the stages of wooing. Yes, it’s on CD but that’s not too anachronistic given that Shaka grew up listening to music on his grandfather (Pappy’s) record player – he’s used to older-old school tech. Anyway, this moment is about Zahara engaging, giving her opinion (which is a sign of her opening up). It is, also, a big Shaka character moment: having shared his music, yes, to woo her, he’s also beginning to invite her into his creative side. The shyness is out of character for him and shows that her opinion matters.
‘Whenever she was tense like she was now, music helped. So she put in her Claudette ‘CP’ Peters CD, turned off the lights, and danced, brukking out to “I’m in Control” wishing she felt half as confident as the soca diva sounded.’
I was really keen to include a local musical icon relatable to teens and, given how obsessed my own teen was with CP not all that long ago, and given that I am myself a fan, she was an obvious pick for me. It was about adding a bit of local colour (along with the dialect drop in the narrative as well) given that she is an International Soca Award Winning Diva but also a very specifically Antiguan-Barbudan artist. It’s about giving us our own heroes; we spend so much time looking out. It’s a character note for Zahara as well, for whom CP’s confident onstage persona is, to her mind, a stark contrast to hers, and, as such, aspirational. I hand-delivered two copies of the book to CP when it came out – have no clue what she thought of being a character or if she even read it but I wanted her to have it.
“Zahara used to watch from the window as her grandmother slashed at the ground, pulling up weeds, digging for potatoes, cutting and trimming bushes until she’d either tired herself out or the day’s tension had eased out of her. She’d be talking to the plants by the time she was done, and if one of them gave up some thing good that day―big red tomatoes for their dinner plate maybe―she’d even be smiling.”
Zahara’s Granny Linda is all silence (things not spoken about) and reprove – and, in my experience, not atypical (though there is obviously a distinction to be made between formidable Caribbean mother and abuse). Zahara has had to learn to read her moods. This is an example of that. Gardening makes Granny Linda happy and Granny Linda happy means Zahara can breathe easier. Here, she was mentally comparing her granny to the granny in the play they were doing (based on Ashley Bryan’s book The Dancing Granny) and finding them to be similar in some ways. Some foreshadowing here as later we do see Granny Linda dance.
“ZGuitarGirl: I guess…
Dubliner58: Hey, hey, hey, no second guessing!
I didn’t want to overdo it (gimmicky) but as communication tech is a plot device in the story I wanted to play just a little bit with some of the informal ways we (young people in particular) communicate. The “k” I stole from my niece who would just “k” me and leave me to decipher. It makes sense for this relationship with Zahara’s first guitar teacher and mentor – who happens to live islands away.
‘He remembered as a boy, singing the word ‘ass’ when “Dan the Man” would play. That was his favourite part, and even though it was only talking about donkeys, it used to fill him with a strange sort of delight to say the forbidden word. It was the same way kids had enjoyed singing “For Cup” last Carnival knowing full well that adults wouldn’t box them for being rude because it was just a song and songs were harmless, especially at Carnival time when normal rules didn’t apply.’
Some insight to Shaka and his relationship to music – he’s not stuck in the music of his generation; thanks to Pappy, he grew up listening to a lot of older jazz, soul, blues, and calypso before going out and discovering contemporary or other non-contemporary genres on his own. And, yes, Carnival is that alternative reality where the rules of regular society don’t apply. The thing about calypso, the best calypso, is that there are layers of meaning, some you don’t pick up until you’re grown (double meaning is a hallmark of calypso – so that even with the more salacious ones – e.g. Short Shirt’s Push, Mayfield’s Yah-So-So – children can sing them and understand one thing and grown folks can sing them and hear something much more salacious). The layer between the two levels of understanding is thinner than it used to be but layers of meaning is a note I take from calypso which is one of my inspirations as a writer. This moment acknowledges that.
“And as he rhymed and she hummed, she couldn’t help thinking that like her melody and his rhythm, they complemented each other. He was so laid back and cool and she was so reserved and tense. She got him caring about the things she cared about; he got her to ‘ease up, jack.’”
Just what it says, them beginning to click musically and music analogous to the bonding they’re doing in terms of their personalities. The use of “jack” here is another cultural note as I haven’t really come across another Caribbean culture that uses it, certainly not as abundantly as we do (so, a dash of Antiguan-Barbudan vernacular for a bit of local colour).
“Pappy’s TV, the news on low volume so he could say he watched it even if he wasn’t really paying attention; footsteps in the front bedroom, his mother shedding her work clothes before finishing up the dinner chores he’d started earlier was a part of that feeling. He didn’t examine it too closely but the rhythm of their evenings, all of them present and accounted for, made him feel comforted, safe.”
This chapter is one of my favourites and it wasn’t in the original draft – it was one of the additions on revision (after the book had placed second for the inaugural Burt award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature) when I realized that Shaka needed some colouring in. I decided to give him some quiet time and in that quiet time feel the world around him – the world that as it drapes itself around him, makes him feel “comforted, safe”. The sense of setting, atmosphere, and mood I try to conjure here is in the small moments, the familiar moments, the moments of a house settling in to its evening ritual.
“Anansi’s mother-in-law would be wearing a housecoat made of fabric from the same colour palette. The most outstanding ladies’ costume, though, was worn by Anansi’s wife; a black evening gown made of yards of netting giving the illusion of a spider’s web. For most of the play Anansi’s wife would sit perched in her chair, a special prop designed to look like a spider-web and built by Wanga, the celebrated Carnival costume designer. It reminded Zahara a little of Pappy’s chair, in that, she suspected no one but Mrs. Anansi would be allowed to sit in the ‘web’.”
Dressing the characters for their stage production was fun. I just went wild as if budget was no obstacle – and then found a way to make it not be an obstacle. They have what so many creative projects in Antigua and Barbuda don’t have, financial relief. I have since discovered a staging of The Dancing Granny that was put on in the US a while after my book came out and, though one has nothing to do with the other, it makes me happy. From a great children’s book (by an American writer of Antiguan descent) to a play in a book (by an Antiguan writer) to a play in the real world (or in America, anyway) – come on!
This stage production and my book Musical Youth have no connection apart from the fact that they both found inspiration in Ashley Bryan’s Dancing Granny.
(while you’re on youtube be sure to check out Shaka’s Playlist and Zahara’s Playlist)
‘“Now, story done, so we celebrating. Remember to smile and make that smile come all through your big toe.” He demonstrated the fast-shrug, chest-flex, hip sway action. “This is Ethiopian, East Africa, lots of shoulder and neck action, you see? Like that.” “Isn’t Anansi from West Africa?” Zahara snarked.’
I think the dance sequence is probably the most heavily researched aspect of the book. Believe it or not, I danced in school productions as a child and a teen (just like I sang and played guitar on the church choir as a teen) – I don’t claim to have done any of it masterfully but the research was already happening back then, though I didn’t know. While writing this scene though I watched a lot of youtube clips and I reached out to someone au fait with African dance styles and where they are located geographically on the continent. Then I was challenged to try to capture the dance in words (years of writing about dance as a journalist – especially time spent covering the Afro-Caribbean dance group the Antigua Dance Academy – helped). I’ve since had the opportunity to see young people attempt to recreate the dance I describe. So this was as close as I got to writing an action scene or sequence in this book. Also a character note re Zahara’s snark. It’s impertinent to be sure, and she does need to check her tone, but it’s not out of character so much as (oddly enough) a sign of character growth (I mean can you imagine the girl we met at the start of the book speaking up in any way?).
w/Tayari Jones (2015)
Brooklyn Book Fair.
So that’s some insight about the writing of Musical Youth. It’s intended as a (decidedly unconventional study guide – the format was inspired by this Tayari Jones’ Notes on “Quotes” from An American Marriage, at the African American Literary Book Club). I did a study guide previously for my first book The Boy from Willow Bend because it is on the schools’ reading list in a couple of Caribbean countries. The approach I took with that one was to answer questions frequently asked by students. I didn’t have student FAQs about Musical Youth but I thought the chosen format might be fun. And it was. Quotes were chosen at random (discarded only if they were too spoiler-y). I hope that for students reading Musical Youth, now that it is also on reading lists in a couple of Caribbean countries (and has even found its way into the NYC school system), it will help sharpen the focus re some of the books’ themes, characterizations, and narrative choices. And, of course, if you’re interested in reading more of my books, here you go.
Other Musical Youth links of possible interest (in no particular order):
Writer’s Gallery Launch Event – Musical Youth (2014)
Musical Youth – an extract
Reviews – Musical Youth
Throwback Q & A: Musical Youth
Jamaica Observer Bookends Children of the Spider, Musical Youth
ABS TV interview re Musical Youth etc.
First Pages – Musical Youth
Frequently Asked Questions: Musical Youth
Musical Youth Out in the World
Antiguan Author Releases Award-Winning Novel, Musical Youth
Talking Musical Youth, Burt, Reading and Writing in Bookends
Musical Youth (Excerpt)
Schools Tour Stop
Also see Media Page