With Grace: the Interview

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I got mine!: A lighter moment from the With Grace launch, held December 21st 2016 at the Best of Books.

My publisher just posted an interview they did with me about the book (i.e. new picture book and fairytale, With Grace).Thought I’d share some highlights.

Like what I had to say about what inspired the book…

“While the circumstances in the story are fictional, With Grace came out of my desire to purge those feelings. I’m really happy that a character so full of grace emerged, like sunshine chasing out the negativity.”

And why a fairytale…

“I enjoy experimentation, and something about taking this negative and working through it in a genre where typically good and bad are clear, and they all lived happily ever after, appealed.”

How I feel about the illustrator’s art work…

“I love how Cherise (Harris) re-imagined the world of the story – I especially love how she captured the main characters and how colourfully she rendered the world.”

To sequel or not to sequel…

“I have a bad habit of being done with stories when I’m done with them.”

One takeaway…

“You can turn a negative in to a positive, in life and on the page.”

A Wadadli Pen plug (come on, you knew it was coming!)…

“And it’s an example, though not planned as such, of one of the core principles of the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (the program I run to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, which in its annual writing Challenge insists that entries have a Caribbean aesthetic) that our culture can feed our creative imagination – that stories, even fairytales, don’t just come from out there, but within our world, within us.”

How feedback from the group of teens and pre-teens participating in my Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project 2013 helped make the story better…

“I snuck it in among the other pieces I was having them critique that summer without telling them who the author was…and then I took notes.”

Read the full interview on the publisher’s website.

Teaching the Teachers

 The one time I wish I had a cell phone…

And not a regular old cell phone either. One with video function. That’s any old cell phone, you say. Okay, then; I guess any old cell phone will do.

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And all I’ve got is this stupid web cam.

What was I itching to capture? A group of teachers doing the cha cha electric slide during one of my sessions at the Ministry of Education’s Summer Institute, acting out part of a chapter from my book Musical Youth. And, as one teacher pointed out, no two group presentations were alike or drawn from the same bit of prose in spite of having the same part of a chapter to interpret. One of the groups had one teacher, playing a girl (Nicola?) in the rehearsal, demonstrating the shoulder shrug-neck snap-chest pump–hip sway-hop to a teacher acting as a rhythm-less Zahara stand-in. It was one of those rare moments where as a writer you get to see something you envisioned come to life and where as a workshop facilitator you get to see participants shake off their inhibitions and embrace an activity. True confessions: I would be an absolute fail at attempting the dance I wrote about in Musical Youth but the Nicola-teacher she made each moment sway in to the other like the child of Africa that she is and by the time she was done with the other teacher she kind of had it too. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and one of many moments of unlocking imagination and making literature come alive during my three days facilitating this workshop for a sometimes revolving door of teachers. I had 25 registered, I believe, but ran out of my 25 handouts more than once. Which is a good problem to have.

Over the three days, we studied the anatomy of story. They wrote and shared their own creations guided by prompts.

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Group story presentation. Photos by (teacher) Tiffany Azille-Henry.

They created pieces in response to their favourite works of art – after insisting that they had no favourite work of art – discovering, in the process, that art (and inspiration) is all around us. Without leaving the room, we moved from Malawi to Jamaica to New York and spent quite a bit of time in Antigua, we visited with Anansi and snake and turtle, we explored how story can be used to open up conversations with young people about the social and cultural issues of our times, about the realities of their lives; about the opportunity to interpret, and the freedom to re-write and to provide alternate endings. We looked for stories in other places – like songs, and we sang. One of my favourite segments came when after listening to, watching videos of, singing along with, dancing to, and discussing songs in which artistes interpreted their world, after they groaned when I asked them to group up and do the same (it was the end of a long day and we were all tired), they came up with some of the BEST writing they’d done so far. That was at the end of day two – they wrote about growing up in Antigua, they had us chorusing their plight in calypso, they gave us humour and nostalgia, they wrote about being teachers (the kind of testimonial that, though quiet in tone, made the church say Amen). We had fun that afternoon, and I’ll never forget that one teacher who, as she finished up the journaling they had to do at the end of each day (and at least twice a day), asked me if I’d ever been a teacher and told me I had very good teaching strategies. This in spite of their jokes about my handwriting (it’s bad), in spite of the fact that sometimes when they got going discussing the topics I laid out, it was all I could do to get a word in edgewise (you’d think teachers would grasp the concept of raise your hand and one person at a time, right?). For so many reasons none of which have any thing to do with the Summer Institute and none of which I will get in to here, little as she knows, this teacher’s acknowledgment and affirmation (and those that would come at the end of my final day with the group, what they said outright and what they wrote in their evaluations) was a validating, heart-filling, joyful moment for me.

It wasn’t all fun and games (though we did play games and we did have fun) – setting up the sessions was a mini-lecture on the necessity of creativity (and the value of creative writing) in the classroom – and the exercises were all meant to spur discussion or model approaches to encouraging creativity in the classroom, stressing the importance of being innovative and looking for opportunities. We watched and discussed a TED Talk which spoke to kids being educated out of their creativity, the way the system is set up – a talk the teachers related to as our post-viewing discussion revealed. They expressed an openness to the idea of finding creative ways to respond to (interpret, express, respond to) the literature they and their children interact with and creative approaches to educating, period. Which is the goal really.

Art used in this workshop included but was not limited to excerpts from my own Musical Youth (as mentioned) and The Boy from Willow Bend, Anansi including but again not limited to Barbara Arrindell’s How Snake Stories were Renamed Anansi Stories as published in Womanspeak: a Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women (with, note to Barbara, one of the teachers asking me about its availability online), a story from the Commonwealth River of Stories, Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird, Wadadli Pen past winning stories – one by a teacher Margaret Irish’s The Skipping Rope, one by a secondary school student Liscia Lawrence’s The Day I saw Evil (I like how impressed they were with the level of the writing, considering the author’s age at the time), and college student (at the time) Gemma George’s Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm (which both amused and spurred spirited discussion which was good because with each of these stories we looked at how story could drive discussion on social issues and give students an opportunity to explore how they feel about them). We also engaged with several songs and short vids which I tried to keep all regional if not local; all culturally relevant and possessing storytelling features and elements that we could use.

I also distributed copies of some of the books I had on hand (as a prize to the winning team after one of our word/story games – they called themselves appropriately and perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Champions). These included the last of my author comp copies of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, The Boy from Willow Bend, and other books like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Of Noble Family, Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, and Colleen Smith-Dennis’ Inner City Girl. There was also a memoir by the actress who plays or played Drucilla on Young  and the Restless. Those all went.

It was heartening that they were particularly keen to have books by local authors – and, when I shared the book lists/bibliographies on the Wadadli Pen website, surprised by the sheer number of local books which they could potentially use in the classroom of which they had not been aware.I gave them a resources list at the end and encouraged them, with all of the hardware and internet access we’re supposed to have now, to utilize online resources as well.

I think you can tell that this was fun, productive and effective. Or so they said in their blind evaluations (excerpted below):

“I gained a wealth of knowledge about different books and ways I go about teaching my class how to write a story.”

“I wanted to learn new tips in assisting my students. I did.”

“I enjoyed writing poems and working actively in groups. Awesome experience.”

“My favourite part was interacting in my group. I have learned a lot.”

“Usually I am a shy person. Through teachers’ interaction I was able to read what I would have written.”

“A wonderfully informative and interactive presentation.”

“It was a learning experience and it was well done.”

“Great delivery overall. Inspired.”

“I recommend that all teachers at the infant level be involved in these activities.”

“Good how she managed to cater to all our needs – the primary school and secondary school.”

“There is a lot to be gained.”

Most important to me was what they gained and how they see themselves applying it in the classroom. The gains, as listed by them, included “Various ways to encourage children to write…A deeper appreciation for literacy…To encourage creativity in our students and examples of the different ways… Many different fun ways to include and foster literacy…Storytelling using music and movies…How to engage my students in creative writing successfully…Different activities that can be used in the classroom… A variety of strategies that can be used to encourage reading and writing… I think most of all it would be the prompts used. I can do this with my Grade 4…To help students to develop creative minds. Don’t shut them down.”

I also asked them to share their favourite bits because what they enjoyed doing can tip me as to what works but can also prompt them as to what might work in their classroom. Their responses: “engaging in activities verbally, role play, interpreting written words…Singing and dancing; full participation….writing poems and working actively in groups…All the practical exercises … Playing games; writing stories, poems….Writing my story/poem and sharing with the group…The excitement generated by the activities; the high level of student participation… Song/life stories etc. Participation/games, reading etc.” And my favourite:  “All activities done were both interesting and exciting. Hard to choose just one.”

Real talk, I was nervous going in to this because while I’ve been doing workshops for a while, I hadn’t had to build a course quite like this, with this purpose, and I’d certainly never tried to teach teachers. There wasn’t a lot of prep time by the time I was approved as a presenter. Plus I’ve learned between my time in the classroom and my time creating and running workshops that I work better in interactive small group settings – 25 plus teachers in a classroom setting was a tad intimidating but I stepped into that classroom and made it in to the space I needed it to be to create that interactive workshop vibe, and was lucky to have a group of teachers who (though they were skeptical of some of what I asked them to do) did it (mostly), and that give and take made for an organic and fulfilling experience for us both. I was tired but smiling at the end of my first day but looking forward to each other day. Making it, hands down, one of my favourite professional experiences to date. One I look forward to doing again with similar groups in Antigua and Barbuda and elsewhere.

I love to write, but I keep re-discovering that I also love to find creative ways to get others if not writing then thinking creatively as well. And when you’re doing what you love, it’s not work.

by Joanne C. Hillhouse, author of several books, including The Boy from Willow Bend which is on the schools’ reading list in Antigua and Barbuda, and Anguilla; and Musical Youth now on a schools’ reading list in Trinidad and Tobago, who will continue to explore opportunities to share her creative energy and love of literary expression through workshops and engagement with groups, like teachers, who can bring that energy to the classroom.

The Antigua Conference: if you’re reading this at this posting, you can still catch some of it

This one’s going to be quick (so credit all errors or other failure to edit to that) because I’m juggling balls like a circus …juggler… but I wanted to remind you, if you’re in Antigua, that today is the last day of the 2015 edition of the annual Antigua and Barbuda Conference.

Conference organizer, Brown University Professor, Paget Henry of Antigua.

Conference organizer, Brown University Professor, Paget Henry of Antigua. (Photo by Natalie Clarke)

If absent, you’re missing some great panels. But you still have time to catch Jamaica Kincaid’s keynote address tonight (i.e Friday night)… there’s time before you head to Flames or your beach lime or other Carnival afterparty.

The panel I caught today

Me (in purple) and Jennifer Hector, widow of the late Leonard Tim Hector. In the background, media covering the event.

Me (in purple) and Jennifer Hector, widow of the late Leonard Tim Hector. In the background, media covering the event.

was chaired by Valerie Knowles Combie. Lead panelist was Althea Romeo Mark. Althea lives in Switzerland and this was her first trip home to Antigua since about 1971. Welcome home, Althea. Althea who has lived in the Caribbean, America, Africa, and Europe, spoke about ‘The Immigrant Story, the Arts and Self-Knowledge’. Quite an interesting presentation. High points her opening poem, Vessel, in fact her punctuation of the entire presentation with poetry to illuminate her family’s journey from Antigua, to the Dominican Republic initially and ultimately the world. The presentation was an honouring of that journey, the good and bad of it, in the bad column are things like slavery (how Africans came to settle in this part of the world) and xenophobia.

Her most powerful illustration of the latter was being a child recently relocated to the US Virgin Islands and being teased for the way she said “cat”: “It’s not cyat, it’s cat,” she said. “Coming from Antigua we were called garrats. I did not want to be a garret, so I learned to say cat very quickly”.

Language as a tool of belonging calls to mind the histories long tension between the Haitians and the Dominicans, and more recently, and not for the first time, the enforced expulsion of Haitians from the DR which Romeo Mark called out as racism.

The sense of dislocation that comes of being in a where where there’s “no monuments to my history” was referenced by her in another of her poems, all part of a very moving presentation – though I have to admit I’m still processing her generous (my words, not hers) characterization of curious Columbus (ground zero of the colonization of these islands and of the people who lived here and the ones who came) in one of her poems.

If Romeo Mark’s presentation was moving, Edgar Lake, who followed, was as always thought provoking. You absorb a lot of ‘new’ information during one of his presentation because he digs through the existing archives (the globally available archives not just what’s limited to the building here in Antigua) and offers up to us a buffet of our own history. There’s a lot to sift through, to be honest, too much for this quick post (the Mongrel Woman, Grace, a ground breaking case of 1827 among them). But I will say that the overarching point is we must re-think our relationship to our history and to the archiving of our history. His starting point, the collapse of the roof of the National Archives; his reminder at key junctures how much of our history has already been auctioned away (for example by clergy working among the then colonized people while pilfering their art and selling it away to England); his challenge in the end to understand that we can become a part of the process of archiving by digging in to our own family albums etc.

This point made me think of the Friends of Antigua Public Library’s Collecting Memories project, where oral histories including my own discourse on how to make cassava bread, are (or were) being collected and archived online; of my own efforts to collect and archive online the literary history of Antigua and Barbuda; and other scattered efforts to make our history accessible online (and the gaps – online Carnival Hall of Fame anyone?… anyone?), and so on, including how much more could be done as far as connecting programmes like the laptop and tablet giveaway to students and the need for active archivists.

“The archive is not the building…not the three or four government workers…it’s all of us beginning to build not only the images but the deep interpretation of our own narrative,” Lake said.

Rounding out the panel was Bernadette Farquhar, the presentation I had the least interest in going in to be honest but that does not mean that it was uninteresting, far from it. She gave a careful history of the bamboula (the food, not the dance ), though the latter was referenced by both Lake and Farquhar how it links us to Africa (the food, not the dance…though really both, I suppose), how it illustrates our innovation, and sometimes, frankly, our lack of vision. On the last point, she made the point about the opportunities missed to sustain the local palate’s interest in this ancient food and create a taste for it among the visitors to our tourism-focused islands. It would, she said, create a linkage between Agriculture and Tourism, reducing the import bill in the process. But that’s a song that’s been sung and sung, right?

So is this… why don’t more of us turn out to these things?

Actually, I know part of it, as in my case, is time. There are sessions – like yesterday’s Arts and the Growth of Self Knowledge with presentations by Adlai Murdoch and Hazra Medica that I really wanted to catch but couldn’t to today’s Issues in Contemporary Politics with presentations on Reparations by Dorbrene O’Marde, Gender by Ermina Osoba, and Entrepreneurship by Harland Henry that more of us need to catch. Will they be broadcast? posted online? or is it a case of if you missed it, you missed it… and many of us missed it. In some cases, it’s a case of when you na know you just na know. But some of it is our distraction by shiny things at the cost of opportunities for discourse on our situation, or maybe the discussion needs to be held somewhere else – online spaces perhaps? The venue this year was the University Centre and the Youth Enlightenment Academy. And depending on your definition of youth, not many or any to be found.

Kudos though to the organizers for sustaining this annual conference for 10 years.

Here’s the full conference schedule. It wraps with tonight’s keynote which begins at 7 p.m.

Be Innovative, Be Deliberate, Be Happy (my TEDx Antigua Barbuda blog) – Part 1

Broken into a few parts due to length

The Speakers. Image courtesy TEDx Antigua.

The Speakers. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

The first ever TEDx Antigua Barbuda, reportedly first for the OECS as well, has wrapped and I am one of the lucky ones to have nabbed a ticket. From the time I walked in to the sight of the X crafted from fish pot material (courtesy of Cedars Pottery) on the stage

See me nar lie? Fish pot X in progress. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

See me nar lie? Fish pot X in progress. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

– on one side of the much more familiar version of the TEDx sign

TEDx Antigua sign under construction. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

TEDx Antigua sign under construction. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

Showtime! Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

Showtime! Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

with a coal pot and yabba on the other side, I knew I was at an event poised, as one of the organizers would later put it, to not only bring a quality TEDx event to Antigua but bring Antiguan energy to the world. Organizers, take a bow.

...or, you know, just do what you do. From left: Colin J. Jenkins, Yvelle Charles-Jenkins, Zahra Airall, co-chair Amaya Athill, and behind her giving the thumbs up Jon Whyte, founder and co-chair Julianne Jarvis, Linisa George, and Kyle Christian.

…or, you know, just do what you do. From left: Colin J. Jenkins, Yvelle Charles-Jenkins, Zahra Airall, co-chair Amaya Athill, and behind her giving the thumbs up Jon Whyte, founder and co-chair Julianne Jarvis, Linisa George, and Kyle Christian. Images courtesy TEDx Antigua.

And if anyone has anything ever again to say about Antiguan and Barbudan mediocrity being inevitable, take all the seats in the Sir Vivian Richards stadium and don’t get up ‘til we sen’ call you. Because this group – participants of which have been involved in several quality events from local stagings of the Vagina Monologues to our first ever national televised political debates – prove routinely that mediocrity is not in our DNA. To reference one of the TEDx speakers, Kai Davis, who likened the imperative to a heartbeat, we can “do good, do good” do better, do better. It takes will, it takes vision, it takes cooperation, it takes creativity and discipline (yes, those concepts can co-exist), and watching the pictures from the TEDx Antigua behind the scenes, there is no doubting that it takes a whole lot of energy as well.

hard work

On to the next part…

Last Stop – Youths Get Musical at Antigua Girls High School

UPDATED TO ADD: I don’t have any more stops scheduled at this writing but never say never – as approached this time around it was manageable and even fun. And if there was patronage to cover in-school writing workshops and/or support book giveaways to the students, even better. Hit me up if you’re either a potential school or potential patron, and I’ll keep you in the loop re future plans as and if they develop.

Pulled in to my last tour stop on my February schools tour, Antigua Girls High School, today. And after a very fun session, I’m having thoughts and feelings…hope you’ll indulge me…I’ll even give you some pictures to look at as you do so…

...to say the auditorium at the Antigua Girls High School [AGHS] was packed during my visit would be an understatement.

…to say the auditorium at the Antigua Girls High School [AGHS] was packed during my visit would be an understatement.

in the 'wings'

in the ‘wings’

…and yes, I still get nerves, no shame in that… the challenge is to rise to the occasion…and usually once I get in to the reading, I do that. Usually. To that end, the impromptu dance competition as three of the girls and their always game teacher Ms. Airall attempted one of the dance moves from the book Musical Youth, from which I read.

"shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop"

“shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop”

"shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop"

“shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop”

"shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop"  ... think you can do it? Ms. Airall can!

“shoulder-shrug, chest-pump, hip-sway, hop”
… think you can do it? Ms. Airall can!

I normally sign books for young readers with something like “dream”, “keep striving”, “Aspire!” while adult readers tend to get an “Enjoy” and a “Thanks for the support”. Talking to someone today about the power of high expectations in the lives of young people (in our own lives where our parents expected us to push beyond mediocrity to our personal best), I got a sense of where this impulse is coming from. We need to let our youths know that we believe in them, encourage them to believe in themselves, challenge them to resist settling…knowing that we’ll have their backs either way but we love to see them replace can’t with try …(*awkward segue ahead*) as the ones who stood before the entire auditorium to give Zahara and Shaka’s dance in Musical Youth did; try, that is…yes, they tried it…and for daring, they got copies of Burt Award winning titles All Over Again by A-dZiko Gegele, Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis, and (not a Burt title) my own Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, contributed, respectively by Burt Award sponsors CODE and my schools tour partner the Best of Books bookstore.

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I was thinking afterwards as well about my answer to the question about planning/outlining (my stories, pre-emptive to writing them) which I admitted I don’t do a lot of – not in a methodical way – when it comes to writing; explaining that I like to discover the story as I write it; that’s what keeps pulling me back to the page. I should have explained though about the multiple rounds of redrafts and edits that that first draft goes through…it’s not all write blind, then publish; there is craft and purpose involved in this crafting. Hopefully, they read between the lines.

I tell the truth because, in addition to the moral issues, like Zahara in Musical Youth , I don’t have the energy to remember lies and I’m not good at it anyway, but these kids challenged my best intentions with some of their questions… do you make money as a writer? Not nearly as much as I’d like to but God usually opens up a way for me to make what I need (*fingers crossed for a best seller or Oprah book club selection some day*)… have you ever thought about giving up writing? I would except I don’t have writing, it has me… I just can’t quit it #BrokebackMountainreference … what inspires you? … what doesn’t? … Who inspired the character of Vere in The Boy from Willow Bend?… Vere was his own unique, patch-worked creation who stepped in to what was to me a familiar world, as my world of first memory, a dead end willow tree lined alley… Was the character of the grandfather based on anyone? … sigh, now why’d they have to go and ask that…

I want to shout out the girls of Antigua Girls High School who, under the guidance of drama coach and their teacher, Zahra Airall, won the local secondary schools drama festival; happy to give them copies of Musical Youth as congratulations and encouragement…

Winners ...and #MusicalYouths in their own right ... members of the AGHS winning cast from the secondary schools drama festival collecting copies of Musical Youth.

Winners …and #MusicalYouths in their own right … members of the AGHS winning cast from the secondary schools drama festival collecting copies of Musical Youth.

look forward to them bringing home the prize from the Caribbean leg of the competition… and even if they don’t proud of them for doing what the kids in Musical Youth do: do something they love, meet the challenges that come with that, dare, and surprise themselves.

Thanks, Ms. Airall and AGHS for hosting us (me and the Best of Books) – it was a blast!

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Previous stops on my February Schools Tour with the Best of Books: Clare Hall Secondary School & St. Mary’s Secondary. Also this month, an interview on Good Morning Antigua Barbuda Teen Edition on ABS:

with interviewer, Cuthbert.

with interviewer, Cuthbert.