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: 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?
Joanne 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
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.