The Question Was…

A new interview has been added to the media page. It’s an audio of a radio interview.

Here’s an excerpt:

“My writing is influenced by life…I think what I write is very much from the core of who I am, what my experiences have been, not in a literal way, not in a biographical way, but in terms of the energy and the culture of Antigua and Barbuda, of Ottos, Antigua, where I’m from, and just as we transition in the world, as Antigua becomes more of itself, reflecting that, capturing that; so my writing is influenced by life.

My latest book is a children’s picture book; it has fantasy elements. It’s called Lost! A Caribbean Sea AdventureNov 2 2017 and it’s about an arctic seal and a jellyfish and there are other underwater creatures in it; but at the same time it’s influenced by that story that happened some years ago when Wadadli, the arctic seal, found himself stranded in the Caribbean Sea and we had to figure out how we’re going to get him back to his natural habitat, even things like that can influence a story. Because a lot of it comes from the what if, what if this happened, then what, then what, then what; and for me writing a lot of the times is trying to make sense of life, trying to figure out how I feel about things, trying to understand what’s happening. And I think for a lot of writers it’s probably the same thing, it’s that whole thing of sort of wrestling with life.”

And the question was, “what or who has influenced your writing over all these years” with, as a follow up, if I think that’s true of most writers. Listen to the whole conversation in the Interview Section of the Media room.

Remember, November 30th 2017 is Publication Day for Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure – a picture book described as “appealing book, all the more so for being based on real life” by Kirkus Reviews. It is already available for pre-order. Please help me spread the news and consider purchasing for the young readers in your life. If you’re in Antigua, copies are already available at the Best of Books.

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IC Excerpts

In December 2016, Interviewing the Caribbean, a Caribbean arts journal edited by Opal Palmer Adisa, ran two of my poems, a short story, and an interview. Half a year on from the publication of those pieces, I’ve decided to share the interview with you, though I invite you to check out the entire issue and all other issues of IC, after reading my review of  IC 2016 Part 1, of course.

IC
IC: Both poems reference the violence of poverty, where hope collapses in lieu of things, basic needs. You are known primarily as a prose writer, where does poetry fit into your portfolio?

Interviewing the CaribbeanJoanne C. Hillhouse: I write probably just as much poetry as fiction, and have published some in journals, but fiction is my one true love and poetry …well, maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never studied poetry writing, not the way I’ve studied fiction, or maybe it’s the editor whose rejection included the shade that my poetry is not up to the standard of my fiction but, to my mind, my poetry hand is not as strong as my fiction hand. But I work at it, I keep coming back to it, I enjoy reading and writing it, and I don’t like to paint myself into corners when it comes to writing. I experiment across genres and sub-genres, so for me poetry is another area of expression and experimentation.

IC: Are there specific issues/subjects that demand poetry, while others demand prose?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: Good question. I’ve never really thought about that. I think my
poetry tends to deal with more personal themes but then my better poetry, like the ones you’ve chosen, are not really personal at all. So, I don’t know. I think fiction tends to come to me through characters and trying to map their journey, while my poetry tends to be more responsive to instinct and feeling. But I’ve dealt with the same themes in both, in some way.

IC: The man or persona in “The Bamboo Raft” seems like a good candidate for the “Election Season” politicians as his dire poverty is for sale, with just a little hope. Can you speak to the violence of poverty in the Caribbean and its impact on people’s lives.

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I don’t know if I can speak broadly to the violence of poverty. I
also don’t believe that poor people are more inclined toward violence, criminality, or corruption. What I will say is that, as evidenced by Election Season, I get frustrated that the people continue to be sold a six for a nine and continue to allow themselves to be sold a six for a nine, in this five year political carnival that leaves the most economically vulnerable just as vulnerable as they were. But when you’re trying to make life sometimes you don’t have the luxury of looking at the big picture, even though you’re the person who most needs to. I think the status quo works for who it works for, and it’s not the most economically deprived. It can be a self-defeating cycle. That said, I grew up in the working class community of Ottos, Antigua, and what we lacked was a “reality”—what I mean is the material things, and whatever status they conferred, we lacked, but the absence of those things didn’t define us, not in our own minds, and with our parents emphasizing education and hard work and resourcefulness, we knew it didn’t have to limit us. And I don’t think we were unusual in that.

IC: As a writer who loves and cares about her island, where do you see hope? Do you see an end to the senseless violence.

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I see hope in the children always. I am very engaged with my nieces and nephews. I volunteered with the Cushion Club reading club for kids over the years and have seen people come through that programme who had chips on their shoulder because of where they come from in society and how they might have been perceived because of it, come through and surprise themselves with how great and full of potential they are. I’ve done youth writing and youth media training workshops where you see the growth even over the course of a two week programme that you wish the funding was there to allow to continue year round—especially when they meet you in the street and ask, when we doing it again? And you can’t believe it’s the same person who didn’t seem to be that into it to begin with. I’ve seen some slip through the cracks as well, don’t get me wrong, and I know what it is to stand in front of a classroom and feel the undiluted impact of teen apathy and entitlement. But the ones that grow into themselves give me hope. And also, I run the Wadadli Pen youth writing programme; I’ve seen people write themselves free of their insecurities (as one testified years later in an open letter) through using their voice—which is why I’m a big proponent of the arts in the becoming of young people— and feel that we are not doing enough to create programmes and programme continuity when it comes to youth development. Not just the literary arts or just the arts. It can be sports, as in the case of one of my nieces, or whatever stimulates them, but something they can focus on that can be an outlet for their confusion and imagination, something that can begin to suggest to them their value, or can give them a space to work through their anger as they begin to come to terms with how unfair the world can be. Also, hopefully, they can see how beautiful it can be; because creativity is the very definition of beauty in the world. So, yeah, cliché as it is, the youth, that’s where hope lies. And it’s crazy disorienting (pleasantly so) to then have a conversation with them as a young adult after everything—you just want to squeeze their cheeks and squee look at you all grown and bout your business…but you restrain yourself, of course.

IC: “Zombie Island,” despite its nihilistic title and the trajectory of the story that descends into total chaos, ends on a romantic and positive note—not everyone is jaded and even in the worst of situations, people can care for and protect one another. That’s a very hopeful and affirming ending. Do you believe that good overcomes evil?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I’m not Pollyanna and I have my dark and despairing periods when it comes to all the evil and suffering and badmindedness in the world, but I suppose I do lean toward hope or some days, if I’m being real, the hope of hope…how else are you supposed to get out of bed in the morning?

IC: What would you say is the antidote for this violence in the Caribbean? It seems to me that some of us have always been able to keep the violence at bay, to continue to live in harmony, to reach deep down and come up with a smile as Sammy and the protagonist of the story manage. Do elaborate.

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I don’t know that there’s a single antidote. We have the pain of
our history, the baggage we still carry, poverty, violence, disconnection from ourselves. I suppose my actions speak to some of the things that can be done, what worked for me—giving our young people an opportunity to tap in to their creativity, a forum to express themselves, to connect with what they’re really feeling, and to know that that’s okay, to listen and to hear each other, all of that. I don’t have faith that the politicians will do it and so we do what we can in our homes and in our communities, however big or small or personal our community is. As for Sammy’s smile, never underestimate the power of laughter.

IC: I have heard it said that the violence in the Caribbean is a failure of independence, that the Caribbean was better under colonial rule. What are your thoughts on this perspective?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I don’t believe being subject to the vision and will of another is
ever better; however, more…orderly…it might have been. The worst and most sustained violence we experienced as a people was under colonialism, pre and post emancipation, beginning with the violence of being torn from our homes. We’re still unhealed in a lot of ways. So, I am not a colonialist, nor am I pro-capitalists who act like colonialists, sometimes with our permission; I am pro-Independence all the way—political independence, economic independence, independence of the mind. But when the foolishness get me vex, the pettiness and the politricks, I sometimes have to remind myself that we are young in our Independence and are going to eff up, but sometimes I wish our learning curve could be sharper and that we could shake the tribalism of partisan politics which is stunting us. One of my favourite songs is King Obstinate’s Believe; we sing it and its vision of who and how we could be, if we harnessed our collective will to the purpose of nation building, but sometimes I don’t know if we hear it and its call to, “believe in yourself, most of all as one people.”

IC: As a Caribbean writer, what are your hopes for the Caribbean/for
Antigua?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: That’s a big question. I hope we get better, do better. And if I can hit an environmental note for a moment, I hope we realize how blessed we are to live in one of the most beautiful and biodiverse places in the world, respect the balance, and resist the impulse to destroy it in the name of the almighty dollar. I hope we truly start acting like we really believe our people and especially our youth are our most valuable resource by investing in programmes and the sustainability of programmes meant to nurture their potential—including creative/arts programmes. Beyond that I guess I hope we center ourselves in our own story.

IC: What keeps you writing and where do you envision your writing in the next five to ten years?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: Honestly, I wish I was doing more writing. My spirit is never so full, my mind never so focused as when I’m writing. My writing, I mean. Writing gives me life and there are times, I’m convinced,  that it saved my life. The pull of the characters, the many things I don’t know, the sunset I saw this evening …all these things keep me writing. And yet I have so many unfinished things. I make my living as a freelancer (writer, editor, writing coach, course/workshop facilitator, etc.), so the hustle is real, but I also feel blessed that I’m able to make my living doing what I love. I hope my writing hand will continue to grow stronger. I hope to still be a freelancer, emphasis on free, but I hope for a better balance of the writing I do and the writing I have to do…good health and more travels. So, if you know of any programmes looking to sponsor a writer…

IC: What is your writing process?

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I write. Wherever, whenever I can. I write.

IC: Your story, “Zombie Island,” seems to straddle genres, but more importantly tries to find a “logical” reason to explain the surge of violence in the Caribbean. Speak about the impetus for this story.

Joanne C. Hillhouse: I love zombie movies and TV shows. I wanted to write one. I like to try my hand at things I’ve never written before. That’s how I ended up trying my hand at noir, and the teen/young adult genre that resulted in my book, Musical Youth, a Burt Award finalist, or the fairy tale, With Grace, that’s shortly due out as a children’s picture book. So, it was that impulse to try something I hadn’t done, to experiment. It was also the reality of violence—everything that happened in that story including a raging man banging down my door happened in life, though none of it, as is always the case with fiction, happened as it happens in life. My irritation with the politics is there as well, so it must have been political season when I wrote it. But mostly it was me wanting to see if I could tell a zombie tale at all, and then more specifically a zombie tale in a Caribbean space, not the snarling horror of it, but the creeping awareness of it…and then, of course, the snarling horror of it.

“It’s giving them a little bit of Antigua”

Earlier this year, I did an interview with a Swedish producer. It was a TV interview which I understood was going to air on Swedish public television, so I was a bit surprised to find this audio version online but the producer informs me that this is just a little something extra…the TV interview debuts in November. It doesn’t always go well…these interviews…but I remember I enjoyed chatting with her so I’m glad she found enough to use for the main programme and…apparently…and then some. Click and have a listen.

jigsaw

Reflecting on Rachel Renee Russell’s Writers Digest Interview

The Rachel Renee Russell Writers Digest (January 2015) interview that prompted this post is actually not available online; though you can find outtakes and insights from that interview on the WD website. I wanted to speak a little bit on a couple of things that jumped out at me just now from reading the interview.

Like this exchange about the publishing industry and writers of colour.

Q. Do you feel that minorities as a whole are underserved by the publishing industry?
A. Oh, most definitely! There’s always the fear that [a book with] an African American character is not going to sell as well, or is not going to be well-received by readers or the book-buying population. I can understand that, but I think some of it is created by the publishing industry.

There was a bookstore – I think it was Borders – that would file all of the African American books together in one section. If the books were non-fiction, I could see where it would make sense, because you do have African American history. But [they] put all of the African American books in the same section for fiction – which would not be such a problem for an adult author. But if you’re a children’s author, more than likely the children are going to be hanging out in the children’s section [where your books aren’t shelved]…

Then you have to worry about publishers thinking that your book is not going to sell to anyone but black people – and of course you want to sell to everybody. You want your book to be embraced by everybody in the world. As an African American author, there are challenges.”

As an African Caribbean author there are similar challenges so this jumped out at me. Of course, I’ve written across the spectrum – children’s, teen/young adult, adult – I don’t think black adult writers have it easier than children’s writers, and I guess I don’t quite understand why books can’t be filed according to demographics and according to genre – like, why is it either/or. But maybe there are just too many books in the world and though Oh Gad! for instance Launch photo Eustace Samuelmay appeal to readers who favour women’s fiction, or readers who favour adult dramatic fiction, or readers looking for black fiction, or readers interested in Caribbean or world fiction, it can only sit in one category never to be found by those strolling the other aisles. Assuming it makes it into the bookshop at all. Like I said there are a lot of books. I have to admit though I think a Musical Youth for instance Musical Youth could move more units if filed in the teen/young adult section, not only the black book or Caribbean books section. There’s a teen of whatever race who won’t wander over the black books section who might be able to relate to it, and it frustrates me a teensie bit that they might never find it. So anyway I get what she’s saying.

She also had an interesting comment about writing a character of another race as she does in her Dork series – “when Nikki popped into my head, she was a white girl. I don’t know why, but she just was…” This, I have to admit this is something I’ve struggled with. Not with Aeden in Oh Gad! though he is neither black nor is he from the same Antigua I’m from if we take certain class distinctions into account. But I never felt like I didn’t know him – even with him being a him (at least not once he corrected me about his name). But there’s a long-in-gestation work-in-progress with a caucasion character with whom the struggle is very real; I don’t want to hover on the surface of her so I’m working to get into her skin, to understand her though we are of different races, nationalities, ages, cultures…so many miles between us and yet she is insistent that she is a part of this story that I’m struggling to tell for reasons that have only partially to do with her, and of which she is only one part, but a significant one. I’m not resisting her, I like the challenge, and I also like that parts of her feel familiar. Then there’s the story I recently submitted somewhere where the man’s voice, though he’s black, is so different from the familiar Caribbean cadence all around me, to the point that before hitting send I worried that I would be perceived as both imposer and imposter, but after several go-arounds with him, I had to acknowledge that it was as surely his voice as if he was standing in front of me speaking to me. Point is when characters come, as much as I embrace writing my world, and through programmes like Wadadli Pen, encourage young Antiguan and Barbudan writers to do the same rather than defaulting to stories about the people and things we’ve been conditioned to believe stories are about, when characters seemingly out of step with the world we know or the world as we think we know it show up, as long as they’re true and themselves, a writer can’t help but listen to and try to understand them.

Finally, an interesting insight about her process; when writing, she can’t get more than a chapter ahead of the illustrations – as in she can’t write the whole thing and then say to the illustrator, okay, now, draw. The images help to inspire the telling. That was interesting to me and a reminder that every writer has her/his process and you have to do what works for you.

The Whimsical Project: the Interview

So, Joanne, Musical Youth…What is your book about?

Okay, the book is about a girl who is a loner, a girl who plays guitar, a girl who doesn’t believe in herself, who kind of wants to disappear, it’s about how she flowers during a summer of musical theatre. The book is also about a boy who knows his ability and unlike the girl feels part of a family, traditional and non-traditional, a boy who also has his own journey of discovery during that summer. It’s about this boy and girl bonding over a shared love of music, and it’s about the ways they are connected that they don’t even know. It’s about these kids, the boy and the girl, and others who learn what they can do.

What was your inspiration for it?

I run a writing programme in Antigua and Barbuda, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, designed to nurture the literary and visual arts, these kids in Musical Youth are involved in the performing arts, and since they write, some of them, also the literary arts, but there’s a similar belief in the power of the arts to help young people find their voice, that runs through both that programme and this novel. As for the specific inspiration, I don’t know. These kids just started telling me their story one foreday morning; they were insistent about it, and I did what I always try to do when characters show up, I listen, I write, and when the tale is told, the haunting is over, and they leave.

Read the full interview at M. J. Fievre’s blog The Whimsical ProjectReading

Grab the Life by the Lapels – the Interview

I’ve been blessed in this sense. I don’t have a fansyschmansy book tour but thanks to networking I’ve been able to tour virtually since the release of Oh Gad! … and it don’t stop. LOL. This week I’m at Grab the Lapels. Interesting name right? It’s inspired by this quote by one of my favourite writers and inspirations, the late Maya Angelou, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”

So this site, like the facebook group in which I met the site’s host, is all about literary ladies. I’m happy now to be counted among them. So thanks, Melanie.

Here’re a couple of excerpts:

“At some point, you have to let it go, happy or not; at some point, you’ve done all you can with it. Sometimes that means filing it, never to be seen by the public; and sometimes that means putting it out there and letting it continue on its journey without you. The thing is, though, the act of writing is what makes me happy; I feel so blessed (okay, sometimes cursed, but mostly blessed) that I have this talent and I want to keep growing it.”

“I’m very driven…and it’s not about what tier I’m on because I’m still very much a writer on the hustle… it’s about feeling like I heard the character right and told her or his story right; that’s what matters to me, and I’ll fight for that. That someone read something I wrote and was moved by it is what matters to me, and I’ll treasure that…but I’m always about, ‘What more could I have done?’ I’m far from feeling comfortable.”

Read the full interview.

5 Questions with…

This is the text of an interview I did last year right around the time Oh Gad! was getting ready to hit the market. The interview never ran…these things happen…but I thought I’d share it with you, since I took the time to prepare the responses ‘n all.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.comwhich 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.

Re inspiration, I should have also mentioned calypso and calypso writers like Shelly Tobitt and Marcus Christopher, the latter pictured with me at my launch in 2012. I've appreciated his feedback on the book and sometimes have to pinch myself that one of the writers whose calypsos I grew up listening to has read a book I've written. (Photo by Eustace Samuel).

Re inspiration, I should have also mentioned calypso and calypso writers like Shelly Tobitt and Marcus Christopher, the latter pictured with me at my launch in 2012. I’ve appreciated his feedback on the book and sometimes have to pinch myself that one of the writers whose calypsos I grew up listening to has read a book I’ve written. (Photo by Eustace Samuel).

4. 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/JoanneCHillhouseor 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.

5. 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.

 

There’ve been strides and detours and set backs…but it’s all still pretty much true.