#MeToo in the Caribbean

I’ve been thinking on and off about writing about #metoo But what more is there to be said? It’s been a watershed moment (with story after story, and the re-examination of stories previously whispered about)poy-2017-cover_vert-f1543ad0e414ef2a31d9b0e95c3d100a62eeee91-s900-c85, at once triggering and cathartic for many women who for the first time feel like they can speak some uncomfortable truths. Truth is – from street harassment to rape – most if not all women have waded through this in some shape or form at some time or other.  That means my mother, me, my nieces – likely my grandmothers, God rest their soul – have our #metoo stories. And that sucks.

The backlash has begun, inevitably. And it makes me shake my head. Obviously, the reckoning is uncomfortable but charges of witch hunt have been thrown around from the very beginning by men whom I have to assume would rather this conversation just go away. But I’m with actress America Ferrara on this.

“We’ve gone from not listening, hearing, or believing women and how are we going to skip over the whole part where women get to be heard and go straight to the redemption of the perpetrators. Can’t we live in that space where it’s okay for perpetrators to be a little bit uncomfortable with what the consequences will be.” – America in this interview/panel with Oprah

This reckoning is just since late last year, when the articles about Harvey Weinstein, especially Ronan Farrow’s in the New Yorker, had women saying metoometoometoo. Incidentally, one of the first men to express concerns about a witch hunt is Ronan’s father Woody Allen, whose daughter Dylan has long alleged childhood sexual abuse.

Already we’re saying too much? Well, I say too soon. Is there a spectrum of behaviour? Obviously.  Being catcalled in the street, even being touched inappropriately or sexual innuendo on the job is not the same as being sexually coerced or raped. But it’s all part of a culture in which men feel entitled to speak on, touch, even claim a woman’s body, a culture in which women are their bodies before they are human, a culture in which women are routinely silenced and/or shamed by men and women. That way of thinking needs to be unpacked and dismantled. And in the conversations I’ve had with myself and others around the stories coming out of #metoo there have been revelations (I’ve shared a few experiences of, not rape, but sexual inappropriateness, in conversations with my father, for instance, that I never shared before as we’ve tried to get past what has been a sticking point for him, why not say something sooner, when it happens). I think actress Evan Rachel Wood’s discussion (of rape culture, abuses of power, and the patriarchy) here is one of the more illuminating on this latter point: “You’ve kicked a hornet’s nest and you have a target on your back…(and) sometimes the act is so traumatizing or you’re so ashamed of it, or you’re so confused by it, or you’re so afraid of your perpetrators, you’re silenced”.

Within these conversations, there has been confusion and contradictions; we’re all trying to figure out the new rules of engagement, but more immediately, we’re getting it out and trying to figure out how we feel about all of it. But (speaking broadly, because #metoo has male victims as well) it begins with men listening, hearing and acknowledging women’s experiences. Hear that, Matt Damon?

I don’t have answers, but I am glad that these conversations are happening. It’s necessary conversation.

In our Caribbean societies, it’s a harder nut to crack. Some call it culture. Some cite our size and our politics – gender politics but also politics-politics. I don’t know. It is what it is but before #metoo and #timesup there were movements working to interrogate that culture. This in spite of the familiarity and fear that keeps certain predators moving in plain sight, and the ways the system – we the people, the politicians, the courts, the police, the media, the boardrooms, the classrooms etc. treat incidents of harassment, assault, abuse, and rape – our inaction, our tendency to blame/shame the victim, the pushing of poor behavior involving powerful men under the carpet, the silencing, the reality that so much of our outrage aligns along political lines (not that different from America in this moment actually). There has been movement online and on the streets.

Movements like Life in Leggings “The movement first took off when (Life in Leggings founder, Barbadian Ronelle) King took to social media to share her experience of a man trying to force her into his car after she refused his offer for a ride. The police were indifferent, so she told the story on Facebook with the hashtag #lifeinleggings. Soon, women from all over the region, including Jamaica, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago, were sharing their own stories of sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence.” (March, 2017; telesurtv.net) Among the issues that Life in Leggings’ facebook page has drawn attention to are the mental health act in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (an issue which became topical after a former contestant on Caribbean’s Next Top Model was confined to a mental ward on a charge of abusive language), marital rape in the Bahamas, and sexual offences against minors in Guyana after an alleged serial abuser (a teacher) and the inaction of the system was exposed. #lifeinleggings

Movements like the Tambourine Army. “…a 15-year-old girl… had allegedly been raped by the church’s pastor a few weeks earlier. The 14 activists entered the church and sat in silence, but angry words broke out when they were approached by a different pastor; the confrontation culminated with him being struck in the head by a tambourine. The incident marked the beginnings of the Tambourine Army, a new organization to fight gender-based violence in Jamaica.” (March, 2017; guardian.com) ‘“We want to change the culture we have of assigning blame and shame to survivors,” says Latoya Nugent, co-founder of the Tambourine Army. “We want to place it at the feet of perpetrators and change the current narrative.”’ #tambourinearmy

In Antigua, credit has to be given to the advocacy work of several groups over the years. Groups like the Professional Organization for Women in Antigua and Barbuda (I remember their marches against the child sex ring/child sexual abuse), Women Against Rape (who made headlines for its objections to a popular soca song, Kick een she back Doh), the official body responsible for Gender Affairs (for among other activities its Orange days of activism), and Women of Antigua (stagings of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and capturing Antigua and Barbuda stories ranging from sex abuse to sex positivity in When a Woman Moans).

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That’s me in red acting in the first Antigua staging of Vagina Monologues. I call it theatrical activism. Shout out to Women of Antigua for stoking the conversation, beginning 2008.

Just last week, I spoke to an artist touching on this issue in his art, as I have. Examples in my writing include stories like the sexual assault of a reveler in Carnival Hangover, a story called Carnival Blues in the Caribbean Writer and Something Wicked in The Missing Slate that saw a character triggered by that ‘Kick’ song due to a past experience, and the story of a social worker who has her own history of sexual assault (Genevieve found in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings). Even my story of the sex worker who makes a bold move to give her daughter a different life after the men on the corner start taking notice of her in The Other Daughter is a part of this conversation, as is the fact that a character in my book Oh Gad! needs her husband’s permission to have her tubes tied at risk of her life, that a character in Dancing Nude deals with uncomfortable sexual-power dynamics on the job in part because of being an immigrant, and the fact that a main character is sexually assaulted by the husband (a pastor) in the family she lived with in The Boy from Willow Bend.

June sucked her teeth, “He shoulda think about that before he lay hand on me.”

These are all stories ripped, in some way or other, from life.

So, #metoo #timesup by another name has been a part of the conversations in the region, and with #metoo #timesup new conversations are happening, though, perhaps not enough of it, and not enough in public spaces. There needs to be more, uncomfortable as it is, because we can’t act like girls and women – and some boys and men, but especially girls and women because of gender dynamics in the culture at large – in our region don’t have reason upon reason to say #metoo

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Love, 5 Books for the Child in Your Life

I am one of five authors recently invited to submit on the theme of love in the context of the writing of our children’s picture books.

There is US based Puerto Rican author Anika Denise, who in discussing the young diva in her book Starring Carmen!starring carmen, writes, “Carmen may be the star of the book, but it was in writing the character of Eduardo (Carmen’s brother) that I came to the heart of the story. It’s about the unconditional love that exists in families.”

There is US author Matt Taveres,who, in telling the story of baseball player Pedro Martinez in Growing Up Pedro, noted, “I realized that it was impossible to tell Pedro’s story without telling the story of his brother, Ramon. And maybe that is the message of love in Growing Up Pedro: all of our stories are intertwined, and it’s impossible to tell one person’s story without also telling the stories of their loved ones.”

There is Canada based Jamaican author Olive Senior who untangles black girls relationship with their hair in Boo-noo-noo-nous Hair, illustrated by US based artist of Antiguan descent Laura Jameshair-their second project together, I believe, after Anna Carries Water. For anyone who doesn’t understand our complicated journey to love, after the diseases of slavery and colonialism and the still pervasive messages that privilege other standards of beauty, as black people (the relationship with our hair being only one symptom of this), consider Senior’s statement that her book is about “a mother’s love for her child and her gracious way of healing the wounds of inferiority imposed by racial difference or images of ‘beauty’ that don’t reflect who we are.”

There is Puerto Rican Lulu Delacre’s whose book, one of many, is How Far do You Love Me? who through a game she played with her daughters explores the expansiveness of parental love, so expansive not even death could kill it. She writes, ” it wasn’t until my youngest daughter died, that I realized that I love her as much in death as I did in life. For me, this means that she still is.”

And then there is me, and as I write in my piece, I was really trying to write myself back in to a positive space after a negative encounter. “In the end, I believe writing this story helped me shoo some negative energy (creative expression is nothing if not cathartic) and reminded me of the power of love (and the pen) as a curative for (and a shield against) bad mind, bad energy, and bad soil.” My book is With Grace.with-grace

You can read all the authors’ musings in Anansesem (the Caribbean children’s ezine’s) special Love issue here.

 

 

Bocas Seeking Trini Teen Critics

I wanted to share this thing that just popped up in my mailbox – an invitation to secondary school students in Trinidad & Tobago.

“Submit a book review on one of the nine excellent books that have won CODE’s Burt Award for Caribbean Literature for the chance to win fabulous prizes, kick-start your writing career, and get published!”

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In the top right hand corner, of course, is my book – Musical Youth – a Burt award title. They’re all Burt award titles. And the Burt award, you might remember, is the annual award for teen/young adult Caribbean fiction.

“The judges will select the best reviews of each book to publish on the Bocas Lit Fest website, and will also select one junior winner (aged 11 to 15) and one senior winner (aged 16 to 18). The junior and senior winners will receive the following prize package:

•online publication and promotion of your review by the Bocas Lit Fest, the region’s premier literary arts organization

•publication of your review in the Trinidad and Tobago Daily Express newspaper
•career development and hands on experience in arts criticism and review writing as part of our team of Bocas youth bloggers

•A $200 gift certificate from one of the participating booksellers of your choice – Paper Based Bookshop, Metropolitan Book Suppliers Ltd., Nigel R Khan Bookseller, RIK Book Services Ltd.

•a meeting with one of CODE’s Burt Award winning authors (in-person or online)

•VIP access to the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, T&T’s annual literary festival, including free entry to writing workshops, invitations to special events and back stage access to the writers (25 to 29 April 2018)”

So, if you know a teen in Trinidad and Tobago, pass this on. Here’s the link to the details.

 

 

Musical Youth Review Reblogged

Musical Youth is beautifully written. It is a pride to Caribbean young adult fiction. Though it addresses a current and very real social issue, the writer skillfully educates you while she takes you back to the innocence of school days in the Caribbean. You can’t help but remember your first crush, how every little thing they…

via Book Review: Musical Youth by Joanne C. Hillhouse — EmpressExpressions

Grace’s Merrymakers

It’s funny how quickly Carnival goes by. It’s like this two week alternate reality where everything else ceases to exist, and then, in a blink, back to reality. Within those two weeks there is pageantry, soca, calypso, pan, controversy, and, of course, mas including the epic Carnival Tuesday parade (all 10,000 plus steps of it). Carnival is mas, and mas is  an opportunity to showcase our creativity and that, the opportunity it provides to showcase our creativity, is the purpose of this post.

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With Grace – a Caribbean fairytale…and our pattern book.

See, I wrote a children’s picture book called With Grace (released last December), and the world of that story became the pattern that we drew from in crafting our mas – in great part because I wanted to see the tree faerie come to life.

tree faerie

The page I sent my friend before she even had a copy of the book to see if she thought we could do this. She did.

We had more elaborate plans to start but adjusted to our reality and are grateful that with the help of sponsors (shout out to Titi Rent-a-Car, Townhouse Mega Store, and Pink Mongoose), we were able to bring the tree faerie to Carnival City.

 

Graces Merry Makers

Grace’s Merrymakers.

In production

I’m not going to pretend that I had any hand in the actual building – I am rather lucky that my friends (Helena Jeffery Brown and Augusta Scotland Samuel) who do have experience with costume building were interested in taking on this project.

Material was bought 20170623_180341,

Wire was bent 20170610_17453520170610_135409,

Shapes were drawn 20170604_20525720170604_205301,

Fabric was cut 20170604_21191820170701_134735,

& Details were added 20170802_12502820170802_125822 (these are for the headpieces and standards – because we might not have had a mango tree like we’d hoped but the standards made for a good stand-in).

In their skilled hands (plus seamstress, Ms. Blaize, who sewed the tops they then decorated), it all came together20170802_125004.20170802_125037.

We had to do a product description for the stage and here’s some of what we said – “The fairy’s bodice is the colour of tree bark crisscrossed in green. Her skirt consists of green leaves, with stripes of gold, hanging from her body like leaves from a tree. Look closely, you’ll also see mango blossoms – between the fairy’s wings, pinned into her hair, and along the leaves making up her hand pieces. The fairy’s wings spread wide as she wakes, the orange pink hue of a ripening mango, made of bent wire in the tradition of Antiguan mas. Another feature of local mas, the standards – poles wrapped in leaves, in hues of green and gold – are the trees waving in the breeze. It’s mango season, Carnival season, a season of creativity in full bloom.”

On the Road

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After all that, we were only on the road on Carnival Tuesday (shout out to Just Friends, for being so welcoming to us on the road); on Carnival Monday, given our size, we  only crossed the stage. Shout out to our banner holders 20170807_155130…and our back-up banner holders.

With Grace

We were happy to have the opportunity to showcase what mas is about to us – not just fun (though it is always that), but the colour, spirit, and creative energy of our Antiguan and Barbudan people. As a writer, it made me happy to see a character I imagined (a character then illustrated by Cherise Harris and re-imagined by Jeffery) come to life as a part of one of my favourite events, Carnival, mas, Tuesday, the biggest live theatre event (for that’s how I’ve thought of our mas since I first witnessed it as a child). This year I also spied a smurfette and a mermaid (dope); so why not the mango tree faerie, a 100 Wadadli character. Again, thanks to our sponsors (Titi Rent-a-Car, Pink Mongoose, and Townhouse Mega Store) for supporting our vision – remember, support the businesses that support the arts.

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ABOUT THE BOOK: Grace, of Grace’s Peak, loves her hill, and her home above the village, above the whole island. All her trees are lush and full of ripe fruits, except for the one at the far end of her orchard.  She hates that tree.  So when the smiling, barefoot, girl from the village asks Grace if she can pick fruits to sell at the market, it is from that sad, bare tree that Grace “generously” allows her to pick. Little does Grace know that the young girl’s kind, generous heart and her sweet special song will make the impossible happen, and change life at Grace’s Peak forever.  Published by Little Bell Caribbean.

Also, for news on Antigua’s Carnival, go here.

ETA: Video and more pictures here.

 

 

 

 

Fam is Fam

An avid follower of Awesomely Luvvie on facebook, I came across this post on youtube and it had some interesting insights to the disconnect between Africans and African Americans. It interested me because here in the Caribbean, there is a sense of disconnect from Africa as well and from aspects of the African American experience. Some things are different though; so some Caribbean perspective (specifically my African Caribbean perspective; others will disagree) on some of what Luvvie says here.

“I actually hadn’t heard about slavery until I came to the US…so coming to the US is when I actually started understanding race too because …we were the default, everybody’s black…so the concept of being black wasn’t real to me until I came to the US.” – Luvvie

For me (black and barn yah/born here), growing up in the Caribbean was different. I grew up being taught about slavery and understanding that my ancestors had been enslaved. In fact, some (points to self) would argue that that’s all we learned of our ancestors in the formal education system, and often from the perspective of the enslaver (with the notable exception, in my case, of To Shoot Hard Labour, which showed us our post-slavery history through the eyes of a black working class Antiguan man, Papa Sammy Smith). Some (points to self again) would further argue that because all we think and know of our ancestors is that they were “slaves” (as opposed to “enslaved”, never mind that they were people before that), we reject that past (feeling a shame that’s not our own). This is, by extension, a rejection not just of the people who suck sal’ so that we could still be here, but of our ancestral home, Africa (for all sorts of nebulous reasons, beginning with “they sold us in to slavery” and the colonized mind’s perception of it as a dark and backward place…we’ve evolved quite a bit in our understanding of Africa, though, I want to think). And in as much as we continue this self-abnegating behavior, we continue to reject ourselves, all while humming Redemption Song.

Antigua and Barbuda’s enslaved people were ‘freed’ in 1834 and endured slave-like working conditions for generations  beyond that, enforced by law and low wages. Pre the labour union movement (of the very late 1930s and beyond), this abject reality, it could be argued, was one of the things binding them to a life without a come-up. We remained a colony until 1967 when we moved in to Associated Statehood (effectively internal self-government) and finally Independence from Britain in 1981 (where we’re responsible for our own affairs internally and externally, though with the Queen still on our money and the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, still in place as Head of State; and still at 170 square miles and 100,000 – give or take, subject to environmental, political, and economic storms bigger than us).

So I would say that growing up in the Caribbean, you have a sense of your black history (albeit as told to you by another) and your precarious present (and in case we forgot, the big bad recession is still reminding us). There is an awareness of being a small axe but with the bravado or confidence (take your pick) that the small axe had the capacity to now and again chop down the big tree.

As for being the default, we are a black majority country, that is true; but slavery had leeched so much of our appreciation for our African-ness out of us, the reclaiming is still a work in progress. And between Empire (on which the sun never set) and being in America’s armpit (her cultural, financial, and political reach re-shaping our societies in ways we still struggle to come to terms with), and leaning these last many decades on tourism and foreign investment, we still struggle to centre ourselves in the narrative of our lives, to vision ourself for ourself. Plus, economically, the mass of the people, with notable exceptions, don’t have a whole ton of power (the power to amass and transfer wealth down the generations, or the ease of access to influence that some have even without great wealth). There are still, still issues related to classism, colourism (an off-shoot of racism that privileges lightness for its closeness to whiteness…in Antigua, we call them butter skin – see my book Musical Youth for more on that subject), and cronyism to overcome. But through social vehicles like education even the poorest could envision a way up. So, I would say the concept of being black was very real to me growing up in a Caribbean black, working class community; and fed a steady diet of music, literature, and film from outside, usually the US, with Carnival being a once a year cultural/artistic palate cleanser on which we over-indulged. I would say, at least in my lifetime, that we had things all around us, right there in our backyard, to remind us of who we were and what we could be in spite of the obstacles. That our experience of systemic racism wasn’t as raw and grating an experience as for black Americans who are a minority in a majority white country. I would say, though that we had enough awareness to feel some kinship with their experience – we see overlaps in our experiences (slavery, obviously, but also colonialism to Jim Crow-ism), our movements (such as black power, pan-Africanism, and more recently solidarity with #blacklivesmatter), and our arts (soul, calypso, reggae, dance hall, hip hop are all linked up if you trace the roots).

“They do buy in to the whole African Americans are lazy and African Americans are criminals…not thinking about what 400 years of people telling you that you’re not a real human being can do to the psyche; we come here because our whole lives we’ve been told we’re going to be great and that being enforced to you is something that’s really powerful because even in the face of being talked down to and in the face of being told that you’re nothing, you’re like I know I’m something…They don’t get the exposure, they don’t get to understand that people aren’t just lazy, people aren’t just criminals, it’s the whole system, just a web of oppression that’s causing all of this.” – Luvvie

To be honest, some Caribbean people think this way, too (and tell ourselves that our societies have none of the issues the black American communities have); think African Americans are just not trying hard enough to get over it (and that our islands are literal paradise…which, no). But, to me, that’s part of the rejection of ourselves and failure to inform ourselves about the ways our journeys intersect. After all, the Caribbean was one of several slave markets in the West (using enslaved people for its own sugar cane production and feeding enslaved people in to the southern plantations of the North).

And the slave experience in the Caribbean wasn’t any gentler than in the US (you’ve seen or read Alex Haley’s Roots; well, also read slave narratives like The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, Matthew Parker’s historical Sugar Barrons, or Marlon James’ fictional Book of Night Women for some perspective). I suppose we think we’re able to tell ourselves that we’ve evolved from that by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and if we can do it…but it’s an argument that rejects the context. That many African Americans have done just that, in spite of systemic racism; and that we (again, my generation, at least) grew up with black political leaders running things, black teachers in our classrooms, black police men, black lawyers, black doctors etc. That it was normal to see black faces in all places (well, except, when I was coming of age, the upper echelons of hotel management and ownership, and generally the investor class) made all of these things real possibilities in our lives, even if, depending on class and economic barriers, we might have to get more of a running start. We saw our parents through hard work and hustle, throwing box and cutting and contriving, make a way out of no way, and families move in a generation from didn’t get the opportunity to go on to secondary school to graduated university, from my mom was a market vendor to I’m a political mover and shaker, and while we’re still playing catch up on a lot of things, we have a sense that we own our destiny in a way that it’s harder to if you can feel the knee of your oppressor in your back. And yet look what our people here and there have done even with the false start that slavery subjected us to here and there. I’m just saying, instead of judging each other, it would serve our interest and our sense of being part of the same family, which we are, to try to understand each other.

“We (Africans) get marginalized when we come here (to America) because of our accents.” – Luvvie

This, the fact that the assumptions and biases and prejudices also flow in the other direction is part of the problem.

“It’s a two-way street and we need more open forums where we bring both groups together and have these really tough conversations.” – Luvvie

This.

Why With Grace

The Anansi tales which travelled with the Ashanti to the Caribbean remind us that it’s not always about who’s biggest but can be about who’s wiliest. I remember a grandmother chastising me for reading Anansi to kids at the reading club with which I volunteered. He was a bad influence, she said. I’d never thought of it that way. Sure, Anansi, the spider, was a trickster who danced around hard work, played his friends, and always looked out for number one, but what had registered with me since childhood was how creative his thinking was, how he used his wits to best those stronger than him. Besides, his comeuppance every now and again were reminders that while craftiness could be rewarded, badness nuh play. Plus, beyond his indisputable entertainment appeal, I could see why my people with the system – from slavery to colonialism to post colonialism – on their necks responded to the idea that small axe could cut down big tree (or little Anansi could best Snake and Tiger).untitled4

Anansi had become my go-to for presentations to classrooms too young for my other books. Children were always entertained by him and there were always new variations of the old stories. I most recently used him in a workshop with teachers as an example of a way to engage young readers.

Fairytales, among which Anansi can be counted, are how young readers first engage with the world of Imagination. And they come from all over. Disney’s Bambi is based on a German tale by Felix Salten. Other famous German fairytales – Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White – come to us via the Brothers Grimm. Alice went on her Adventures in Wonderland by way of Lewis Carroll and England; Goldilocks and the Three Bears by way of Robert Southy. Frenchman Charles Perrault brought us Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping beauty. From Aesop (Greek), we have the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs and the Boy who Cried Wolf. I remember using Perrault’s Cinderella when conducting a story telling workshop at a local high school and, as I expected, it provided a short hand because it was one of those tales most if not all knew. Fairytales travel – The Little Mermaid swam in to our imaginations by way of Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson who also brought us The Princess and the Pea.

There are a lot of Princesses and Princess-like characters in fairytales aren’t there; fair maidens often in need of saving.


When I wrote my fairytale I was drawn to the universal appeal of this genre – the way fairytales travel not only from one culture to the next but also through time. They are, in their way, timeless. Your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother read or told these tales to her grandchild.

Coming from the Caribbean, Anansi, who remains part of our oral folk tradition, aside, so many of these tales of childhood and magic and the imagination are from other places.

Still.

I’ve long felt that this can be harmful to our self of our own worth in the world. That’s one of the reasons that when I launched Wadadli Pen, a writing programme to encourage would-be-writers in Antigua, I insisted that submissions to our annual Challenge have a Caribbean aesthetic. I wanted to encourage our young writers to centre themselves in their stories, realize that they too are worthy of great literary adventures, know that they matter.

When I wrote With Grace, my very own Caribbean fairytale, I wanted to acknowledge the tropes of the genre but buck some of them at the same time. From the main character, a dark-skinned black girl, joyful in her #blackgirlmagic and natural single plaits, to the plot in which she is effectively her own rescuer by use of her own wits and grace.

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A teacher commented about With Grace on social media, “we neglect to realize that validation and realization are steeped in the subliminal of what we allow our children to read and watch…and I continue to celebrate books and images that look like me and my own.”

Why With Grace? Because for girls and boys of colour everywhere, not just in the Caribbean, the opportunity to see self is still too rare.