Harlem Renaissance Find

Did you know there was a woman writer during the Harlem Renaissance named Nora? Yup. One of the things I wanted to do with The Nora White Story project is to make everything make as much sense as possible. I know how important it is that everything fits the era to include names. Thus, I […]

via Black History Fun Fact Friday – Nora Holt — Pearls Before Swine

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Venus and Serena: a Tribute

I felt like re-sharing this (poem) in light of Serena Williams’ 7th Wimbledon win this July (2016). Serena WilliamsSerena and Venus continue to inspire, the sisters teaming up, the first time in four years to claim the Wimbledon doubles title as well. This poem was written in 2005 on the occasion of a Venus win, her first win as I recall in some time. I am always rooting for Venus, though I love and share this in celebration of them both. It was originally published in 2009 in Mythium: the Journal of Contemporary Literature, a southern African American literary journal edited by Crystal Wilkinson (I remember I discovered her on MySpace where I used to do her online workshops and then when she announced a journal, though I wasn’t a southern African American woman, I submitted). The poem is also now among the previously published poems and stories which can be found in my book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings. It’s an opportunity to discover or re-discover, as the case may be, the original novella (Dancing Nude in the Moonlight) and writings of mine published in various regional and international literary journals and anthologies.

Like this one:

Venus Ascending
(On seeing Venus Williams’ 2005 victory at Wimbledon)

by jhohadli

I will borrow the Phoenix’s lore,
as, from burnt out dreams,
Venus ascends once more.
In sedate English climes,
the rose that sprouted through cracked Compton courts
bloomed anew,
defying premature eulogies masked as reports –
which once credited
her “Raw” talent, her power, her newness;
were less enthralled by
her flash, her verve, her defiant otherness:
Playing her game.
Snubbing ‘The Game’.
Rewriting the headlines.
Vanquishing foes to the sidelines.

Game. Set. Match.

The second chapter belonged to the sister act.
Like Pitons besting millennia of hurricanes,
they honoured the family pact.
Glamm’d and beaded, they bedazzled;
Re-made the game,
inspired ‘Venus Envy’, coined “Serena slams”.
Centre court would never be the same.
Starlets blinked quietly
into obscurity,
and yet the sky was lit like a Caribbean night;
It’s beauty legendary.
Zena Ashe Gibson
had passed the baton.
A new morning beckoned;
one sister leading, the other second.

But heroines are tested
by life’s unrelenting tempests.
In hovels and mansions,
this is true, wherever one rests.
And stepping unto the green,
one icon stumbled and fell.
The other defied baffled pundits,
drawing deep from the well
they thought long dry.
It was epic really –
not the breezy wins,
but the one eked from adversity.
For it is in this time
that the cliché’d champion-heart proved sublime.
And danced, at battle’s end,
giddily;
The Venus’ ascent
a daunting portent.

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Alis

I went to a thing tonight and I want to blog about it before the feeling leaves me. Because there was a sense of being in a bubble of meaningful reasoning…and then you leave the Antigua and Barbuda Youth Enlightenment Academy and step back in to the real world.

Enlightenment Academy

The Antigua and Barbuda Enlightenment Academy has been the site of some of my writing workshops and continues to be a space that welcomes cultural and artistic activities, while remembering committed to shaping the future by working with the youth. It is located in Gunthorpes.

So, let me begin by saying kudos to Lawrence Jardine and Mali Adelaja Olatunji of the Antigua and Barbuda Youth Enlightenment Academy which, moved by the life and recent death of Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, organized a panel discussion. Going, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I think the 30 high people in the room would agree that it was an evening well spent.
Boxers like Coach Anthony Severin of Uprising Boxing Gym, Larry Charles (you might know him as the proprietor of Big Deli known for its delicious sandwiches and its boxing memorabilia), and fellow boxer Archibald Richards discussed what boxing and Ali have meant to them. It was a night for reflecting on their encounters in the ring and encounters with Ali and his message. Also on the panel were cricketer and coach Hugh Gore, former national basketball player and Muslim Khalid Shabazz, photographer Colin Cumberbatch, and National Hero Sir Vivian Richards – a mix which moved the discourse beyond the ring.

Ali

This has been floating around my social media and though there are some notable absences (Is Malcom X there? Can someone point him out for me if he is?) it is a beautiful sentiment and a celebration of the icons lost to the afterlife. If anyone knows the artist let me know so that I can properly credit it.

Some highlights…

Coach Anthony sharing that, as a product of a single parent household in Villa, boxing provided motivation for him, forcing him to be disciplined and resilient. This is what he’s trying to pass on to the young people he works with at Uprising Boxing Gym which is located in the facilities that once hosted the boys’ school in Ottos. His efforts, he said, is helping to keep them off the street. And having seen the level of engagement and deportment among the teenage boys he brought with him – and the level of articulation when they spoke as one did during the free flowing discussion – he’s doing more than that; he’s shaping them in to thoughtful young adults. And isn’t that what we want?  So why are we learning, as we did during the session, that Uprising is in danger of losing its home, a revelation that prompted Sir Viv to pledge to do what he could to help. Because when someone is doing positive work in the area of youth development, the last thing you want to hear, really, is that the Minister of Sports (who also heads the National Olympic Committee) has told them that their days in the space the club calls home are numbered. Talking to Coach Anthony after the session, the way it was done also leaves much to be desired. Disappointing. As this is a new development, he didn’t have a specific plan on the way forward for Uprising but I think everyone there would agree that they would like to see its work continue.

Sir Viv who spoke of his encounters with Ali in Pakistan and Manhattan – icon to icon – made perhaps his most meaningful contribution when he spoke directly to these young men from Uprising, telling them “even though you may have the skill, always remember that the will must be greater than the skill.” He made it a point to speak to them a time or two more. On the point of the badmindedness our people are sometimes prone to give out instead of encouragement (something he, Gore, and some others spoke to), Sir Viv charged them to use it as reinforcement. “Sometimes you have to thank them for being so critical,” he said, using it as motivation to “make them eat their words.” And he pushed further “choose your companions (well); there are some guys who may not be as good as you are who don’t want to see you succeed.” Sir Viv wasn’t just in and out, by the way, he lingered for the mingle and the picture taking, evincing a very generous spirit. That merits respect for the man described during the reasoning as Antigua and Barbuda’s Ali, not just because he was a great sportsman but also because, while I’m not suggesting that either man is or was perfect (I must say we got the de-sanitized version of some of Ali’s interactions – with the women in his life, for instance), like Ali he was a great man who stood for something when it counted and at great personal cost. As one person referenced, Viv, easily one of the top batsmen ever, is also counted as one who stood up against Apartheid in South Africa, resisting a huge payday to play there, while racial justice remained a dream in SA, much like Ali did resisting going to fight in Vietnam at a time when racial justice was just a dream in America. The fact that this discussion and in fact these men engage me in spite of my lack of real interest, if I’m being honest in the sports of boxing and cricket, speaks to the ways they’ve eclipsed the sports that made them famous in ways that, to reference Ali, “shook up the world”.

A few of the panelists spoke to the role our sportsmen play in our lives and the lack of respect and support they receive here at home. I observed, for instance, how quietly animated the young people were when Archibald ‘Fighting Jim’ Richards (who reported he’d had 28 wins, 10 losses, and five draws in 43 professional bouts) and Larry Charles re-lived their fights in and out of the ring, watching them emulate the jabs the men were describing as though seeing the fight play out in front of them.  And yet, as Khalid Shabazz said, it is not unusual for athletes who have, like these men, flown the flag abroad or mentored others in so doing, to return home unheralded. Too many, he said, “don’t have a job, are living in squalor or walking the street and don’t know where they can buy a tin of milk.”

Charles, an entertaining storyteller whose every word drips not only with his affection for Ali but his passion for boxing (“boxing is not about brawn, you have to know the discipline of boxing…you have to love boxing like you love drinking water”), dropped truths about his tough coaching style balanced by the investment he made in developing the sport here on his return from the US – and the lack of support of such efforts.

“We’re not going anywhere until we change the whole system in our country, otherwise we’re going to be second best all the time”.

Okay, okay, I know it’s starting to sound a bit like a gripe-fest but it really wasn’t. It was a reflection on Ali’s life and, inevitably, on the life of our own Ali, but also an opportunity to discuss our own (sometimes stagnated) potential. Although as men like Sir Viv prove we’re only stagnated by the limitations of our reality if we allow it. And so one of the more important points made, and I can’t remember exactly who made it, was that even with the lack of support and with being dismissed as small island when we go out there, we must use the criticism and adversity to make us stronger.

I am a writer, I love some sports, but I’ve never been particularly athletic, but this spoke to me and I’m hoping it resonated with the young men, especially, in the room as well – and it made me regret not bringing my nephew along as I had planned to. Because in the end, the session was very affirming in my view; realistic but affirming.

‘Nuff respect to Mali and Lawrence for putting it together and for the work they’re trying to do with the Academy (as Lawrence said with “the future, the young people”.

Finally, I’m amused at the way people say “you’re shy” like it’s something I need to apologize for. It’s true I’m not very social around people I don’t know very well or feel comfortable with. It’s not criminal. I’ll tell you what is criminal (not literally, of course) is the lack of media engagement with activities like this as this kind of conversation is both necessary and good.

Processing/Life

What inspires your writing… it’s a question I get a lot…and it’s a question that still often stumps me…the answer too abstract and paradoxically too specific to pin down…is “everything…life” abstract enough for you?…is “the unexpected vitriolic verbal attack thrown at me earlier tonight by the man who aggressively banged down my door like I owed him money” (I didn’t) specific enough for you?…because I have no doubt that it will turn up somewhere…if not as a specific incident then the rage I felt, the go eff yourselfness that I felt in the moment will feed some other moment on the page …I don’t know this for a fact, of course, but I can take an experiential guess…because that’s what I do, I process things through my writing…I try to understand things through my writing…

(Like how, in the case of Musical Youth , shadeism/colourism can lie dormant within us even when we think we’re socially aware and self-accepting due to patterns of self-abnegation that took root on the plantation; like whether sisters as different as Selena and Celia in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, or Nikki and Audrey in Oh Gad! can overcome their differences and the ways they hurt each other; like how to process anger at God in the face of enormous grief when you’ve been taught that that such anger is blasphemy – Vere has such a moment in The Boy from Willow Bend)

…and I try to let go of things, too…and chances are if I didn’t have my writing there might be a lot more go eff yourselfs floating around.

Poetic License

Our hearts actually weren’t heavy on this night, we were enjoying each other’s company and the cane juice too much… but it was a night of transition and I took some poetic license for rhythm and rhyme and meaning… I hope they don’t mind… to my girls, M, B, B, Z… just a memento:

 

Photo by Brenda Lee Browne/Words by Joanne C. Hillhouse

Photo by Brenda Lee Browne/Words by Joanne C. Hillhouse

Oh Gad! – Movements

Received word from Simon & Schuster that my novel will be going on sale in a matter of weeks…which on further inquiry I’ve learned refers to the pending availability of mass market copies of the book. If you’re wondering what’s the difference between trade paperback, its previous format, and mass market paperback, here’re my cliff-style notes:

All paperbacks are soft cover books. Size-wise, trade paperbacks are comparable to hard covers. Mass Market paperbacks are smaller, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. These are the ones, perhaps because of their more user friendly size, you tend to find not just on your book store shelves but at checkout at convenience stores and in airports. So, fingers crossed, more sales.

Here’s a heads up on the publisher site about the mass market availability of Oh Gad!

Book still available, by the way, in trade paperback and ebook formats.

 

In more oh my Oh Gad! news, I just came across a post on Althea Romeo Mark’s blog which begins “Joanne Hillhouse’s novel ‘Oh Gad’ inspired me to write the following poems…”

You’ve got to understand how mind blowing it is, the idea that anything you wrote inspired anything much less poetry that reads (in part) “the sunshine in our Lilliput were/the ‘aunties’ who wrapped us/in reassuring words as they listened/to our hearts beating to suspicions/of desertion” (from Dreamers by Althea Romeo Mark) and “our ‘aunties’ had hearts bigger/than their religion allowed,/and forgave those deemed unforgiveable/opened doors to prodigal sons and fallen daughters” (from Sinners and Saints by Althea Romeo Mark). Romeo Mark reports in that post that she has a review of Oh Gad! forthcoming in the summer 2014 edition of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books. looking forward to reading that. She hinted to her readers that the book “touches on the themes of migration and abandonment”.

And then there’s this…

 

Never Too Late

IMG_4996This is an interview I did about a year ago as part of my blog stops when Oh Gad! came out. It never ran, I don’t think. But, a year on, I’m pretty sure the answers are still true. Thought I’d share.

Oh Gad cover1. At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I would say in my teens I knew. I’d always been a dreamer, a reader, and a writer, but I think it was in my teens that I realized I wanted to do this and a little later still before I could give voice to it.

Oh Gad cover2. What three important facts do you want readers to know about your books?

That I write my characters’ truth irrespective of any internal or societal censor; I try to be true to them and their story.

That I am a Caribbean writer through and through; my writing is informed by the world from which I come – a world more rich, complex, interesting and diverse than suggested by the tourist brochures.

That I believe that human emotion is universal; that readers anywhere can make a connection with a character written by a Caribbean writer in the same way that I, as a Caribbean reader coming of age, read and related to Jane Eyre or Little Women or Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret or the Last of Eden or To Kill a Mockingbird. Experience and context may vary but the thread of human connection knows no such barriers.

I’m kind of counting on that.

Oh Gad cover3. Who are some of your favorite authors? Who inspires you?

I love too many books and authors to ever pick favourites. In fact, I blog on books at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com which was actually set up to promote the youth writing programme I coordinate but has become sort of a window to the literary arts in general and the Caribbean – and specifically Antiguan and Barbudan arts scene – in particular. I can’t pick just one. But on any list, you’d have names like Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, Edwidge Dandicat, Maeve Binchy, Langston Hughes, Anne Rice, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid…Alice Walker … I always leave her work feeling the urge to write, she gets my synapses firing…but really too many to mention. As for inspiration, it comes not from a ‘who’ but from everything that is; life, experience, people, mood, circumstance… and sunsets.

Oh Gad cover4. What do you have coming up in the future?

Well, Oh Gad! debuted this week actually – April 17th – so I’m still busy trying to get the word out about that. I have individual pieces coming up in a few journals and anthologies, plus readings… but the best way to keep up with all that is via either http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse or http://www.jhohadli.com

I’m looking forward to a writing workshop that I’ll be taking in early June, simply because I’m looking forward to just writing for a while. Mostly right now though I want to encourage people to go out and buy the book; read, share, blog. My goal is to expand my readership. These characters deserve it.

Oh Gad cover5. What advice would you have for anyone wanting to break into writing today?

For me it began with reading and the imagination…and that’s still the core of the process today. I love to read; I don’t understand writers who say they don’t read. Beyond that, I’m going to quote a colleague of mine; just write. Focus less on I want to write a book, or I want to be published; focus on writing, developing as a writer, accessing the story; focus on the art and craft and not just the business… because at the end of the day the story has to be there and the writer has to develop the skills to render it. Oh, and rejection may break your stride – it’s part of the cycle that is a writer’s life – stumble, but to reference an old Antiguan calypso, Press On. Keep growing, and keep journeying. That’s what I aim to do.

The image at the top is from the launch of Oh Gad! courtesy Eustace Samuel.