Carnival Hangover

Note, Trigger Warning, & Disclaimer: This is a re-post of a fictional piece that ran on a website called The Crier (under a different title) – the problem with online pubs is sometimes they up and disappear and so does that publication credit. This one I didn’t write for the credit (well, I don’t write anything for the credit) but because I wanted to speak to an issue that casts a shadow over one of my favourite events, Carnival –  that blurry line between over consumption and consent, rape and silencing, self-blaming and victim blaming (for the record, no amount of perceived “vulgarity or lewdness” is an invitation to rape). As with so much else, I’m writing to explore the things I’m trying to understand, and to talk back to our society. It is a work of fiction, but it does reflect a reality it would do us well to confront. Any resemblance to actual events, people, or locales is coincidental. 

Burgundy beads on Bourbon Street

When she wakes up, she is alone, on the back of a float, pieces of her costume missing and other pieces askew, and the mas yard is all but abandoned. She can hear voices but it’s dark and she can’t see anyone. It gives her a disconnected feeling, like she’s not quite in her body.

Last she remembers, she had a glass in her hand and music in her bones.

They were jigging up High street, wet and high, dancing the way toddlers do, no sense of their own body, just happy to be moving. And she remembers feeling in that moment like she could do this forever and be happy.

When a body eased up behind her, she leaned back in to it after a head tilt to see, as much as one could see in the waning light, if he was wearing the same mas colours as her – to make sure he wasn’t some random guy tiefing a wine.

It have people who, when they play mas does get tired, does need to pee, does complain they foot burning them. Not her. And though she was the kind of can’t mash ants girl who never let no man pass his place with her – the very cliché of a stoosh bank employee, Carnival was different. Is like Shorty sang back in her mammy time, the time of the leggo tourist, Lucinda, and all dem so, Carnival is fantasy.

A fantasy of body suits and shiny things, music and rum – the very act of Carnival itself a masque or an unmasking, she supposed, depending on how you chose to look at it.

Time jumped because next she know herself she was at the top of High street, sun had long set, and they were turning toward the mas camp. Still a good hour of jumping and wining to be had.

She looked around for her friends, impossible to find anybody in the dark. She felt for her cell, but what was the point in all this noise. She briefly considered sending a text but couldn’t hold on to the thought long enough to follow through. She went instead to the moving bar to top up her vodka and cranberry. Then she kept on dancing, like the thousands of bodies around her, going where the music and good feeling took her.

Last thing she remember was a hand snaking familiarly ‘round her waist.

She aches and not just in her legs and feet, in places not touched by the music.

She can’t find her phone and walks instead toward the voices.

“Girl, ah looking all over for you!” One of her friends recognizes her before her eyes adjust enough for her to make out any details in the dark. Her friend stops an inch shy of hugging her, studying her. “Mmmm like somebody get some!” She opens her mouth to ask who before she realizes she is somebody. And she wants to ask then what her friend sees when she looks at her. What’s so blatant to her even in the patchy half-lit mas camp. What does it mean that she can’t remember any of it?

She showers so long when she gets home her mother has to come and tell her to stop wasting the little Government water allowed them.

And when she lies down, she can’t sleep. Her skin feels like it is being zapped with electricity. She can’t remember a face. She can’t shake the feeling that she has been violated. She can’t put voice to what she is feeling.

A man on the radio calls them jezebels, these girls with everything hanging out at Carnival time, delilahs, luring men with flesh and the promise of flesh. She turns off the radio. It is the usual post Carnival nonsense, as if the society feels it has to do penance for blowing off some steam, even though life is a constant pressure cooker. She doesn’t usually have time for the hypocrisy of it, as if woman is sin-self, as if man don’t have no mind of his own, as if wining and jumping have to be about anything but you and the music, as if a woman, any woman who dare to have some fun, just asking for it.

Her body breaks out in goosebumps and the staticky feeling catches her again right there on the highway on the way to work and she has to pull off lest she ‘cause an accident because she feels in that moment like she is going to come apart.

She still hasn’t found her phone. Even so, the bank doesn’t take kindly to workers calling in sick the day after Carnival – two days holiday is plenty, the way they see it, never mind that revelers spend every waking moment of those two days on the road, taxing every inch of their bodies before returning to being bone-tired, hung over citizens.

“You okay, miss,” somebody pauses his car alongside hers to ask.

He waits through the inevitable eruption of horns behind him.

And she considers telling him, this stranger, the truth, that no she isn’t okay, that she thinks maybe she was raped, but – between flashes of unsympathetic police, accusatory headlines, online chatter, and streetside side eyes, and her own uncertainty about what was and was not – she just nods and he nods back and moves on.

-by Joanne C. Hillhouse. Neither image nor text is to be reposted or used in any way without permission. Feel free to share the link, of course.

 

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Adda Mi Seh: Journey to Publication (The Other Daughter)

Re new fictional publication, The Other Daughter in Adda, an online publication of the Commonwealth Writers organization in the UK. Thought I’d blog the journey to publication of this particular piece as part of my blog’s mission to share the ins and outs of #TheWritingLife

***

I’m always writing. The Other Daughter is one of those stories I’ve been working on and tweaking, and submitting (rejected at least twice before Commonwealth Writers expressed interest in publishing it), and tweaking again for a while (since maybe about 2015). So I can’t say specifically where the idea came from (though people will come up with their theories – I’ve had at least one of these floated to me since its publication…#itsjustfictionfolks).

What I will say is that it’s about a mother and daughter which if you’re familiar with my work, mothers and/or mother-type figures are a feature – and, contrary to my own life, fathers tend to be absent or might as well be (I’ll do better, dad).  That I come from  the kind of nuclear family the main character in Daughter has never known isn’t even the most I stretch out of my comfort zone with this story. A father who’s a prime minister, a mother who’s a whore? But that’s one of the things I like about fiction: the opportunity to explore and report on other lives. Different as it is though, it comes back to mothers and daughters and that’s something I continue to explore. In Daughter, we have a complex relationship between a hard of necessity, will sacrifice to a crime mother and a daughter still trying to make sense of her world and the mother she is both bound to and pulling away from.

One of the things I was interested in while writing this was point of view. There are time and reality shifts in The Other Daughter but it’s all firmly rooted in the daughter’s point of view. I started with her as a child and the things she notices – like the gargoyles (in fact, as I write this I’m 70 percent sure this started with her noticing the gargoyles and me trying to capture that detail) – and the things she doesn’t yet know, like the ways her life is about to change. She is one of the first writers I’ve written (she may be the only) so it’s insight to how writers bend reality until what’s real becomes subjective.

A chill ran through me at the sight of those two gargoyles, with their bat wings spread out behind them and their faces frozen in a snarl that I could almost hear. Up close, their gray skin seemed to ripple in anticipation of taking flight. I almost peed myself when I passed between them.

It’s also a commentary on society’s hypocrisy (especially at the intersection of gender and politics).

My mother didn’t take notice of any of it, she never did in daylight. But then one of them got bold, called across, “your girl getting big”. My mother’s hand tightened around mine, painfully, when he added, “she soon ready”. She didn’t speed up, just kept moving. Hitching my knapsack higher, I kept pace with her, as their laughter followed us.’

A note on editing: the excerpt above didn’t exist in the original draft, but there was an editorial note that prompted me to think about what set the events of the story in motion – and I found that I always knew (because sex as commodity and predatory behavior were already stamped in to the DNA of the story), I just had to write it. Editing was a bit frustrating as it often is but a good editor challenges you and you just have to decide what’s absolute (what’s worth fighting to keep, what needs to be stripped away, what needs to be varnished, what needs to be added) – painful as it can be, you have to be open to the process. So, I won’t say it’s not rough – we writers are nothing if not precious about our words. But as I met the page and its red notes, I had to laugh at the irony as I was just then coming off an editing project where I’d had to navigate the frustration of some writers resisting even the slightest change to their words. God has a sense of humour…and life sends you the reminders you need. And after the red marks and back and forth, my story was better for it; which is the goal, isn’t it?

“The hill we climbed was at the outer edge of the city and seemed a million miles from our world. We lived at the bottom of the city – close enough to the harbour to have gotten used to the assorted smells of the run-off from human activity on the island, and from the big ships that docked there. We had never had reason to go uphill – a cascade of plain buildings where the starched people did office work. We had no business there as far as I could see. The building at the very top of the hill, washed in white and trimmed in gold, was as impressive as a palace.”

Now about how it got published. I learned about Adda at an editing workshop co-sponsored by Commonwealth Writers which runs the site. I inquired about and was inboxed the submission criteria. Nothing secretive about it (and this and other markets can be found on my other blog); Commonwealth Writers also then and certainly in future circulate submission calls via their email and social media. I submitted and received an offer of publication (and yes, this is a paying market), and then over several weeks engaged in the rigors of editing. My own strategy is to take edit notes a bit at a time, like hot tea, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to read it all at once – that’s how you get burned. In this way, you get to the end, carefully considering each recommendation. It’s about what’s best for the story, not about your ego. Something I’ll have to remind myself about next editing go-around.

That’s pretty much it. When they asked about art, I suggested, as I always do, Antiguan and Barbudan artists whose works I felt were a good match for the story. They liked Heather Doram’s work and negotiated with her for the use of said work. Interestingly enough, the piece we reached out to her about is not the piece that was posted with the story…it was one of several pieces that Heather sent during the back and forth. When both I and the Commonwealth Writers rep saw it, we knew it was the perfect match for the story. I am thankful to Heather D., an icon in the Caribbean art world, for agreeing to the use of Fusion and for going the extra mile to make it post-ready. And I am thankful for placing my fiction in yet another place that will hopefully continue to bring not just my writing, but writing from Antigua and Barbuda, to new and far-flung readers.

My other published works of short fiction are listed here and my books are listed here.

Colin and The World Beyond

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Random_Michelle’s latest picture prompt (see above) and viewing the Goosebumps movie last night has me tapping in to my inner R L Stine. How’d I do?

When Colin returned he was a nine year old boy. Nothing unusual about that; the world is full of nine year old boys. But Colin was no ordinary nine year old. There were 50 year olds in the village who had gone to school with him.

His mother had been old, dementia riding her like a favourite horse, since her boy fell in to the well. When the historical society unsealed the well, meaning to add it to the village tour, and the nine year old boy climbed out, only his mother rejoiced, her eyes clearing, seeing finally what they’d been searching for.

“But where were you?” the bolder of the village children asked.

“Oh it was the best place,” Colin said.

The way he described it, it certainly seemed so: water that tastes as sweet as milk sap, cascading down a fall that disappeared in to the forever and ever forest and spilled out in to a sea so clear you could see turtle and fish just beneath, but so bottomless it disappeared to beyond beyond.

The villagers knew they had a problem when children started disappearing.

When they came, his mother positioned herself between Colin and the wound-up villagers. They attempted to wait her out. She was an old woman after all. But she was also a mother and she had lost her son once before, and so she stood there.

Eventually, someone simply went around her.

“He’s not here!”

Neither Colin nor the other children have been seen again and, though the well was re-sealed, some of the villagers, spooked by the idea of a whole other world beneath their world, left.

Colin’s mother is still there though, her spirit outlasting her body, standing there in the path between her son and danger, waiting for his return.

Reflections, On Publishing and Persevering

Was doing some house cleaning over on my fiction page just now and found myself musing on the publishing credits that were the biggest gets for me at the time that I got them and why.

Like, there’s BIM in which I published What’s in a Name in 2015. BIMThis was a story inspired initially by a boy I observed while my brain idled pre-church at the christening of my last godchild. It really became, I think, a story about the way young people in a society both conscious of class and sometimes presumptive and precise in its assumptions can be pigeon-holed by the things they can’t control and how they can emerge into who they are in spite of …because I see good things in Big Head’s future. It’s also meant to be my humorous take on the labels people –and especially boys – in our society carry from the playground right in to adulthood. I heard someone answer to “Crablouse” once and that stuck with me…once I stopped laughing. Big Head is a reflection of that rough grinding that is a rite of passage coming of age in the Caribbean, how it can make or break, but doesn’t have to define you. That it was published by BIM was a gleeful moment for me in spite of BIM being a non-paying market because it felt like a measure of acceptance in to the Caribbean canon – more than a decade after the publication of my first book. I’d been rejected by BIM several times, nothing new there, though being rejected by a publication you subscribed to, a publication that hosted a panel you were once a part of

BIM 2008

Panelists at the BIM Symposium (2008) Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers.

– admittedly after inquiring how you could become a part of said panel, not as a result of them being blown away by your writing – was a particularly sharp brand of humbling. Something Big Head could no doubt relate to after the way his first crush do him. BIM was, for Caribbean writers, more than a first crush, as the literary elder that had discovered some of the region’s brightest literary lights including none less than Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. BIM is such a big deal that the house of founder/editor the late Frank Collymore was an essential stop of the bus tour held during the BIM lit fest which I was invited to in 2016.

Bernice McFadden

With American author Bernice McFadden and Jamaican author A-dZiko Gegele at the BIM lit fest and book fair…not at Frank Collymore house though…that’s the Barbados PM’s official residence Ilaro Court.

So, yeah, it felt special to finally see myself on its pages, after I’d had to practice some self-care by withdrawing from submitting and being rejected for a little while to catch my breath. I never stopped reading though; it is a damn good publication.

I’m also always a little bit extra thrilled when something completely out of my wheelhouse gets picked. With Grace getting honourable mention in the Desi Lounge contest and, in part because of that, attracting the attention of a publisher and now en route to publication as a children’s picture book is an example of this – I had never written a fairytale (or as I call it a faerie’s tale) before. I had also never attempted noir before deciding to submit one, the Cat has Claws, to Akashic’s Monday’s are Murder series. I remember I was on a bus and that this story was inspired by the heat, and that beyond that I wanted to craft a story that acknowledged the tropes of noir – the sense of mystery, the murder, the cynicism, the femme fatale etc. – without necessarily being bound by them and which was, at the same time, distinctively Caribbean and specifically Antiguan. I used a house I remembered, a face I knew, a personality type that was as familiar to me as the streets of Ottos, and I used the heat that was killing me that day. Having that accepted felt like I’d experimented,  stretched my wings, and pulled it off. Plus, I could now claim a publishing credit with one of the best indie presses in the business.

Of course, every short story, or story, is a bit of experiment for me – grappling with not only story (i.e. what is this about) but form (i.e. technique): the way I attempted fiction as a narrative poem with At Sea, or played around with point of view and unreliable narrators and structure in Amelia and Teacher May, or did the timeline dance while digging in to uncomfortable territory in Genevieve. If the world is my MFA programme then every acceptance is a “well done, Joanne”, and every non-acceptance a “do better”.

For that reason, I’ll end with mention of my first two off island fiction publishing credits. See, I write from and of Antigua, and getting my work out there was/is no easy task. One of my early targets, since about 1998 was The Caribbean Writer. As with BIM, it felt significant getting in to this one, which, while it didn’t have the long literary pedigree of BIM, was an established, peer-reviewed, international, literary journal, and, at the time the only one my research had turned up. I didn’t make the cut until 2004, with both a poem (Ah Write!) and the story Rhythms. Rhythms came to me one night during a pan bomb competition on the streets of St. John’s City – the bomb competitions were contests held during a panorama lull when pan was on the tail end of a downswing or the very early days of an upswing thanks to the pan yards opening schools of pan programmes to train and excite the next generation. I remember watching a boy play and how he gave his whole body over to it while the older dudes just kind of played in a serviceable, decidedly less animated way. Something about that contrast appealed to me…and then as well the dynamics and tensions within a family. I was happy that I was able to convincingly write the world of pan.

But my very first outside credit was in the Jamaica Observer lit arts section. That same year, 2004, which coupled with the publication of my first two books The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, left me feeling like I was getting some traction, that hell yeah (!) I was a writer. And that was a paying market (though not big money). It was about love and loss in a hurricane, and it was inspired by so many things from hurricanes I’d been through to a story one interview subject (wearing my journalism hat) had told me about his experience of the 1974 earthquake, which was significant in Antigua (though I don’t remember it, I would have been barely a year then, I grew up hearing about it). Anyway, that publishing credit was both bitter and sweet: this writing life lifts you up only to knock you down and test your mettle and commitment to the journey. The editor, now deceased, and considered quite venerable in Caribbean literary circles, had expressed interest in both the Martin, Dorie, and Luis story and a poem, but when, after sometime, I asked if they still had plans to publish the poem, he snapped back “your poetry is not up to the standard of your fiction”. I mean, that’s probably true, fiction is my first love (it’s what I’ve read the most, studied, worked hardest at, truly enjoy and feel passionate about) but I continue to work to make both better, and I learned that I was well and truly all in as a writer because not even the harshest rejection has deterred me from submitting and submitting again (including poetry). Knock on wood, through many more rejections, through books going out of print, through some people in the industry being sometimes shady, and other disappointments, that’s still true.

So, check out my non-book fiction here and share…which of your publishing credits, if you’re a writer, mean what to you and why?

About She Sex…

Just finished reading She Sex Prose & Poetry, Sex & the Caribbean Woman (edited by Paula Obe and Carol N. Hosein), a collection of writing by Caribbean women. she sexThe fact that I took this long to read this is not an indication of its quality, as I actually recommend it as a read and not just because I’ve got pieces in it. In fact, true confession, I’m not terribly confident about the two pieces selected for the collection. Another true confession, I write more poetry than fiction probably but I feel more sure-footed in the world of fiction. Of my pieces in the collection, One is probably my favourite; it grew out of a visual prompt, a painting by Antiguan artist Glenroy Aaron. I remember the thing that struck me about the image was how intertwined the man and woman were, almost like they were extensions of the same body; hence the poem title ‘One’ – “I want to be so deep inside you/it be like/I’m wearing your skin/when I touch your nipple/it be my lips tingling.” Though it’s blatantly physical, I wanted to suggest emotional intimacy equal to or beyond the physical, and I wanted it to feel like a seduction not at the beginning of a relationship when they barely know each other, but when they’re already in – deep. My other piece – “A Religious Experience” is borderline sacrilegious since it’s using sacred terminology for something considerably less sacred. But the choice of terminology is meant to suggest the reverence with which they’ve embraced this connection they have – “and so we prayed/then the breeze sang a Holy song.”  I’m hoping their selection suggests that I communicated something of what I was trying to communicate. But you, readers, will be the judge. As reader, my favourites included:

The Sum of All Our Parts – I once shopped an article called ‘the Sum of Her Parts’ to publications far and wide – it was about my relationship (and by extension women’s relationship) with the body. It’s a complicated relationship, at times a love-hate relationship. Trinidadian Marsha Gomes-McKie’s piece acknowledges this in a very relatable and affirming way. Is any woman ever happy with her breasts – when they’re big we wish they were smaller, when they’re small we wish they were bigger, and with the threat of breast cancer they can feel like a ticking time bomb. McKie-Gomes’ piece acknowledges this. It puts two women in the all too familiar space of a doctor’s waiting room and forces a conversation between them, a conversation that compels introspection on the part of one of the women and that’s when the piece soars, pushing forcefully into its message of self-love…and satisfaction.

When I read fellow Antiguan Zahra Airall’s Over the Hills and Through the Woods, I don’t hear my own voice or some faceless narrator’s, I hear Heather Doram’s voice. See Heather, an accomplished Antiguan artist, performed this piece in the staging of Airall and company’s When a Woman Moans. It is a celebration of a woman’s awakening to herself, finally coming into her own post middle age, and it brought the house down when Doram did it; I’m happy to see it in print.

We Always Smile for Photos by Bajan Shakirah Bourne is perhaps the best story in the collection. That’s subjective, of course, but though a sad situation all around, the prose is lively and rich with irony.  It’s theme of abuse is unfortunately ever-topical, and the self-delusion/denial all too real. “Maybe you should go to counseling…” one character said; the other replies “we’re not so bad that we need counseling!” Of course, they’re both fooling themselves about the strengths of their relationships, but they’re not ready to see it yet. Bourne is an impressive artistic force out of Barbados – on to her second film in as many years, oh, and releasing her first book of fiction in that time too.

Paula Obe’s vividly visual – and strangely abstract – Night Shadows was an intriguing tease of her novel Rose.

Participating authors.

Participating authors.

No Lipstick for me by Kavita Vidya Ganness draws you in from the first line “panties being ripped have a certain sound that you can’t forget” and it keeps you right there in the midst of this battle, uncomfortably close, and as close as you are, you’re still not quite sure at the end what you bore witness to. Interesting.

Also playing with perception – and giving new meaning to the term dangerous love is Delesse Francis’ How Much He Loves Me.

Nicole George’s Quiet Afternoon in November feels like a perfect interlude; I like how it feels. Meanwhile Jamaican Davia Andrews pushes boundaries in the Many Faces of Sex with a sexually fluid character shifting from this partner to the next, gender irrelevant, until she (or is it he) finds the one that connects to her soul. Sunsets, another favourite, feels like a sequel to this, two lovers, deepening affection, the beauty of their love and the backdrop against which it blooms, the suggestion that that love is taboo. “If your mother found out…”

The couple in Sandra Sealey’s Cyan Keep He Way from She have a love that’s much more worn in – a certain matter of factness, rough affection and … longing, and rendered in a voice that’s pure Bajan and marked by wry humour. You might be surprised by who the mistress is at the end…but the clues are there, throughout, so maybe not.

Defiant – that’s another of the book’s moods – it’s not all hearts and flowers – Carlyon Blackman’s The Art of War: Food Stories IV and Filing for Divorce – brief and bitter verses – is evidence of that.

Kavita, I liked another of hers, She’s a River; it’s the kind of poem that when you read it, you want to hear performed out loud, because it has a certain flow that lends itself to that. But also I like how she plays with words and in particular the sounds of words in a way that’s not just frivolous but full of meaning – “she’s a river, don’t damn her, don’t dam her”. Get it?

You can read my thoughts on that other all female collection I was recently a part of, as well as other recent reads, here.

Excerpt from There is no Spoon: the Thin Line between Memory and Invention

Copied below is the text of my presentation at the 3rd Congress of Caribbean Writers, April 10th to 13th 2013 in Guadeloupe. It is part of a longer paper earmarked for publication in the Congress journal, but which you can read in full here: JCH Guadeloupe Conference Paper

As both reader and writer, I’ve found writing (and in particular, fiction) has the power to transport me to places I’ve never been, into the lives of people I’ll never meet. I’ve found it’s quite an effective way of absorbing new information without realizing you’re absorbing it, and for me there’s often greater concern – as both reader and writer – with the emotional truth over the factual truth. … for me, I suppose, there are deeper truths than just what happened. The bare bones recording of what happened I’ll leave to historians, I guess. I like history but I’m a writer and a reader and I suppose a part of me just wants a good story.

That said, I don’t take the role of storyteller lightly. I believe it has force.

…remembering is not a passive thing, not when it can give meaning to now and remind us of who we are.

I first found out about the slave dungeon at Orange Valley in Antigua during my earliest days in media –it was one of the first features that I did. And subsequently, and briefly, I became part of a committee interested in creating awareness of and preserving the dungeon.

SlaveDungeonOrangeVal2

The dungeon is fashioned from a small cave in a rock, it has a single opening, the remains suggesting it was bolted by a heavy door. When we visited for the report and put a barrier across that opening, we found that inside is complete darkness and hard stone, and could imagine the little critters creeping through the crevices. I was able to use that experience and the oral history from the interview – when tanty tells Nikki that they were told as children not to play there and why, for instance.

Legend goes that a pregnant slave was once locked there and on giving birth suffered the trauma of her baby being eaten by rats.

There are records of two other known slave dungeons, the Torturer and the Bump Off at Parson Maule’s – I’ve never seen these – but Papa Sammy, an Antiguan working man who told his story to his grandchildren Keithlyn and Fernando Smith so that they would chronicle it, in the spirit of the slave narratives speaks of the Torturer in the non-fiction, post-slavery narrative, a personal and social history To Shoot Hard Labour: “it still stands and is shaped like an old fashioned pill box with a rounded roof… (it) was so called being very small and dark, with only a small air hole. Massa was able to control the amount of air the slave could breathe according to the gravity of his ‘crime’” he said of the Torturer. Of the other, he said, it no longer exists. Fact is, compared to Nelson’s Dockyard and the various forts, places like the dungeon form part of our selective amnesia when it comes to our enslavement and its lingering impact. You won’t find it in the tourist brochures as you’ll find those places.

In my novel Oh Gad! I would write the dungeon at Orange Valley back into the narrative, and yet, I’m not a historian, I didn’t set out to write it back into the narrative, simply to tell the story of a girl planting roots; that the dungeon in the fictional Blackman’s Valley as a major part of the sub-plot served the story is really the only reason it’s in the tale, because for me, it all comes back to the story.

“The dungeon was hidden behind more bushes, built of stone and brick and tucked against the hillside. Had she not had a guide, Nikki knew she would never have found it; it being a small dark cave, with two or three steps leading up to the opening. She got a chill when she stepped in – stooped over, as she was not able to stand all the way – and saw the dots of light dancing across the stone face. The place felt alive.

“What happened here?” Nikki asked in a hushed voice. (Page 154, Oh Gad!)

“Bakkra would stick them in there as punishment,” Tanty said. “I imagine it feel like being buried alive: all manner of insect, hardly any air, and just the darkness. When I was little, I was afraid to go there; thought ghost was in there. My Tanty, she said the spirit of them that dead there might still be lingering, but I was from their blood and they wouldn’t do me no harm. She said we mus’ respect it and remember. We mustn’ play there. That wasn’t no place for play. It was to stay so, so we could remember how neaga suffer in dis country.” (Page 155, Oh Gad!)

Once I realized that the dungeon was a part of this story, I embraced it; and post-publishing, I’m thrilled that I was able to ink it into memory. Because I don’t believe that forgetting serves us. I believe that the memory of all that our ancestors survived should embolden us to be our best selves, to honour their legacy by fighting to retain the freedom they bled for.  And I think it’s somewhat ironic that though we hold the reins of institutions of politics and education, we still don’t control the central narrative.

Much of the history we would have studied in school, my generation, is of our enslavement from the perspective of the other, in no small part because their records are what survive; we also studied that history as though there was no prologue as though we began on the plantation.

Books like Keithlyn Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour which I would have been introduced to in secondary school would have begun for me the process of shifting the perspective because it covered the post slavery period – another period little explored –from the perspective of Papa Sammy, an Antiguan working man. It was not the usual story and was groundbreaking in that regard, as much as for the insights it provided to folk history.

While non fiction, that’s the kind of book that inspires this desire to thread the history of the folk through the fiction that is Oh Gad!

“Tanty had this notion that the pilgrimage would help to heal the wounds caused by all the recent fighting. She believed, too, that it would help those who couldn’t see or understand what all the fuss was about; it would help them understand the sacredness of the place.  The way Tanty saw it, the land at Blackman’s Valley and up to the Ridge was washed in the blood of her ancestors, people who had survived the worst one person could inflict on another, and deserved their temples like the great gods and ancient pharaohs.  She believed that the pilgrimage would help ease the tension, settle the spirits, bring the warring factions to common understanding. Besides, she was getting old and hadn’t been up there in a while. She longed to reconnect with her ancestors. Her tanty had given her permission and that was good enough for her. She held Nikki’s hands and looked into her eyes, and said with more intensity than Nikki had ever seen from her, “People must know who dem be, must remember what important.” (Page 240, Oh Gad!)

 Writing about this dungeon, writing part of the reality of my ancestral folk into the fiction I was creating is, to me, part of the power of story; this writing of yourself into existence, in story after story after story, telling the many different stories that make up the many million lives until they are more than the label, more than the event, but human beings of value and worth, who in turn value their journey and appreciate, as Tanty did in the novel, that certain things are not for sale, at any cost, not when you know who you are.

Re-memory is about seeking ownership and self-definition in this instance. Certainly, as far as our enslavement in these lands is concerned, for me it’s about, as well, breaking the silence, enshrining those places of pain and triumph into our collective memory.

I wrote a ghost story recently; it takes place at Devil’s Bridge and in it there’s a little girl whose body is discovered by a group of kite hobbyists. She spends the entire story trying to get them to see her, desperate for them to see her, not really understanding that she is dead. And I had to wonder why so much tragedy is set at Devil’s Bridge, it seems every time I go there in fiction, it’s not about romantic trysts as in the Antiguan movie The Sweetest Mango, but suicide, broken marriages, death. Why is that? Is it because I associate Devil’s Bridge, notwithstanding its awesome beauty with the mythology that this was where the ancestors went to plunge themselves against the rocks and into freedom. Papa Sammy wrote as much in To Shoot Hard Labour.

“On the east coast of island is the famous Devil’s Bridge. Devil’s Bridge was called so because a lot of slaves from the neighboring estates used to go there and throw themselves overboard. That was an area of mass suicide, so people use to say the Devil have to be there. The waters around Devil’s Bridge is always rough and anyone fall over the bridge never come out alive.” – Papa Sammy Smith in To Shoot Hard Labour, P. 109

The actual Devil’s Bridge is a natural bridge carved of soft and hard limestone on the north east edge of the island, with nothing between it and Africa 3000 miles to the east except stormy seas that beat against the rock as though seeking revenge for something. These ocean swells are responsible for the erosion that’s resulted in the natural bridge formation and the spectacular sprays of water and foam that make this a popular tourist spot. I never feel pained when I’m there, often for the kite festival or some other fun diversion, but in my imaginings, this outcropping of rock becomes a place of last resort as if history has imprinted an emotional note that emerges during the trancelike process of scratching a characters’ life across the page.

(EXCERPT FROM AMELIA)

But she didn’t plan on ending up here at Devil’s Bridge which she only recognized because of a long ago school field trip. How would she have even remembered the route or hitched a ride, and why. She can’t cut through the fog in her mind to get to the answers, and the cars are closer now, causing her to draw in even tighter behind the spindly cover of the acacia, thankful for the grey of ‘foreday morning.

They pass. Bringing up the rear is a Nissan pick-up loaded with things, manned by three boys, boys maybe a little older than her, sitting on the very edge of the pick-up as it bounces up the path.

She tracks them, all the way up to where the path ends and the land flattens out into giant slabs of bleached and jagged rock, and patches of thin grass. She watches as they unpack kites, of all things, and a cooler, from the pick-up, and turn up the stereo – reggae blasts to wake up the morning. She stands near the back of the pick-up, so close she can see where it’s starting to rust, her nakedness forgotten as she eyes the drinks in the open cooler. She’s suddenly so thirsty. And thinks about asking for a drink, or maybe stealing one, it’s not like they’re paying attention. Thirteen or so of them, mostly men, all ages, and they’re busy getting the kites in the air. The wind is picking up and the sun is coming up and the water roars as it bashes itself against the Atlantic-facing rock. No one will notice if she slips a Coke into her pocket.

That’s when she remembers she doesn’t have a pocket, that she’s naked. And shouldn’t the water on her skin have dried already? She’s shivering against the wind as it hits the droplets still running down her skin as though she’s only just stepped from the water.

My book is named Oh Gad! – a colloquialism of the folk pottery, the coal pot and coal pot making. My father’s family still practices this tradition in the Sea View Farm community in Antigua. It is tradition in that it’s passed down generation to generation from grandmother to mother to now my father’s sister. The coal pot they crafted from clay was at the turn of the century, even up to the 1940s, according to published reports, was an upgrade from cooking by the fireside. In addition to the coal pots, there were yabbas – used for roasting cassava bread or bambula – vases, flower pots and more. These days there are ash trays, candleholders and other decorative items – the folk pottery, made from the soil near Sea View Farm, crafted by hand without use of a potter’s wheel, fired right there in the back yards, having become popular tourist keepsakes and cultural products.

I wasn’t raised in the family business and have had only a handful of opportunities to see the pottery made, there in the shed, right there on the compound where my father grew up, where my aunt still plies her trade. And yet this world came alive for me when crafting Oh Gad! – what I’d observed and researched about the process coming to the fore, so too vague memories like that of my grandmother, Mama, under the big date palm in the yard. There was not enough memory there to use, but there was enough to inspire. I was inspired by these women who built their life from the soil and by this thing they created that was far from perfect, but each one unique, exquisitely beautiful and fragile. It’s what I tried to capture moreso than factual details, the aura, the essence, the atmosphere of that world.

…Memory fades, what is not recorded or actively engaged is forgotten…While I am neither a historian nor an academic, I consciously and sub consciously ground my fiction and my poetry in our unique Antiguan and Barbudan history and story. It is a way of preserving it, of reminding us of who we are, what we’ve been through, and perhaps what we value.

“The stories my mother and other elders told during my formative years – the folk tales, proverbs, superstitions, and jumbie stories they themselves internalized from their elders – inform how I live my life to a degree and provide fodder for the storyteller I’ve become. These stories were handed down like the knowledge – of how to turn fungi (pronounced foonjee) so it doesn’t come out lumpy, how to cut the salt in pickled meat when making pepperpot, how to ensure that custard has the right consistency and doesn’t burn – is passed from mother to child. I’m not much for cooking, but my mother’s pepperpot recipe also ended up in the book mentioned earlier, my fiction again being drawn into the re-memory process. I guess that’s how I make Cassava bread.” – from How to make Cassava Bread and other Musings on Culture  http://antiguastories.wordpress.com/food-2/food

… I want our culture and history to be a living, breathing thing; there in the way we talk, what we eat, the places we occupy and how we engage with each other.

Mostly I just want to tell engaging stories but my stories are not anywhere stories, they are Antiguan stories, in all the ways described because the fragments of memory, individual and collective, are knitted into the fictions.