Cover Shoot

ETA! Be sure to check out the updates to the Appearances page for upcoming bookings.

The Boy from Willow Bend was my first book. Real talk, one of my lowest moments early in this writing and publishing journey was when The Boy from Willow Bend was pulped by its first publisher. But in time, it found another publisher, found a place on schools readings lists in Antigua and Anguilla, and continues to find new readers and (I’m grateful to read) fans. These images (I haven’t been as active on Instagram as other platforms so I’m only just finding these but) are from bookstagrammer booklempt.gyal.

And a review, describing it as “an enchanting and relatable read”, shared by booklempt.gyal has been added to The Boy from Willow Bend’s Review page – which as you know includes both critical reviews and reader reviews pulled from different public platforms. Read the full review and other reviews here.

Finally, if you zoom in on the artfully presented images by booklempt.gyal, in addition to the bottle of Cavalier and our lovely beaches, you’ll peep some amazing reads in the stacks. Some – like Kei Miller’s Fear of Stones, Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, and Pink Teacups and Blue Dresses by Floree Williams – I’ve reviewed in my Blogger on Books series, others I’ve read – like V. S. Naipaul’s House for Mr. Biswas, Earl Lovelace’s Wine of Astonishment, Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, Lucy, and A Small Place, and some are on my wish list – like Kei Miller’s Augustown. Plus a couple of my other books – Musical Youth and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (the original edition) – got some camera time as well. Feels good to be in good company.

If you’re here for the first time, my name is Joanne C. Hillhouse. I’ve authored some books – I hope you’ll check them out (and if you already have, I encourage you to post a reader review to Amazon or Goodreads, or even here); and I offer freelance services – look me up if you need any of the listed services. Thanks!

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The Boy from Willow Bend Study Guide (Author Edition)

Pictured: draft The Boy from Willlow Bend covers by Antiguan and Barbudan artist Heather Doram. The one in the middle was selected for the second edition of my first book The Boy from Willow Bend.
The Boy from Willow Bend - COVER.p65

I had an exchange with a teacher recently. She told me how much her students loved The Boy from Willow Bend and said they wanted a sequel. I suggested she have them write what they think or would like to see happen next. She said she had but they still want the official sequel. And we laughed. That conversation came back to me not long after as I looked through the site stats and realized how many Willow Bend related searches there are. So as my thanks to that teacher and her students for the love, while I can’t promise that I’ll ever finish that sequel, and while I haven’t read The Boy from Willow Bend since I wrote it, I’m doing this post in which I answer the main search questions landing people here. Consider it a long overdue but also spoiler-y (so read at your own risk) The Boy from Willow Bend Study Guide (Author Edition) – if you’re a student using this Guide, remember, don’t just copy-paste; form your own ideas, and always credit the ideas you borrow. May you find this useful; may I feel inspired.

“About characters in the Boy from Willow Bend”/ “The main characters in the Boy from Willow Bend”/ “Three main characters in The Boy from Willow Bend”

The main character is Vere – a boy who lives in a dead end alley on Antigua  with his maternal grandparents. His mother’s moved ‘up North’. He’s never known his father. He’s smart and imaginative, qualities we see challenged but not extinguished as he grows and experiences all the big l’s – love, loss, lack, loneliness.

Supporting or secondary characters include his mother – who is the love of his life but who soon leaves (in fact, in the timeline of the story, she’s already left the first time we see Vere run barefoot in the dark between the hulking willow trees toward his home); his Tanty – who is his foundation – until she too leaves in a way leaving him adrift; his grandfather who is defined by his abusive behaviour but who, in time, when it’s just them, Vere has to learn to understand; June – a previously unknown family member who comes to live with him and his grandparents after his mother leaves and who is technically his aunt but becomes like a big sister to him after a rough start; his playmates – Kim and Kendall who are the somewhat stuck-up kids you might meet in a mixed class community, you know the ones, you’re all around the same age and you play together anyway even if they might not let you in their house – until they too go away; his first love, who was someone else’s love, Makeba (I remember she was one of my favourite characters to write, and, though the older girl to Vere, too young for the man she was with); and I’m going to add his teenage love Elizabeth, though, as with most teenage love affairs, their love was as fleeting as she was flighty. There are other characters – notable for me, Mrs. Quashie with whom June lives for a while, she’s a preacher’s wife and her home should have been a safe haven for June but it wasn’t; teachers like Mr. Goode, who showed genuine interest in Vere, though he may not have appreciated it – you know that teacher who is just a little bit too involved and annoying because of it but when you’re grown and look back really made a difference in your life, that’s Mr. Goode; other alley dwellers like Kim and Kendall’s grandparents, the Buckleys, his grandfather’s temporary live-in girlfriend Drunkin Angela, the old white man on the corner, and the Rasta, Djimon, Makeba’s lover, who showed him a different way of seeing; other agents of societal authority and sometimes indifference like the nun, the police… etc.

“Give two reasons for Vere’s anger against God in the Boy from Willow Bend”

Tanty was everything to Vere; she made his world solid. And she was objectively good and self-sacrificing, not to mention a true believer. She didn’t just die prematurely, she suffered. Vere can’t reconcile in his mind why she had to suffer so, like punishment, before her death. He can’t really articulate that but he knows that her dying scared him and broke his heart, and given all her goodness, from his perspective, it wasn’t fair. More importantly though Vere is angry at God for taking Tanty away from him. There are other things to extrapolate from Vere’s anger and confusion re God – the fact that God is a bearded white man in the sky, seeing all, knowing all, and doing nothing to help those who need it most, also more an overseer than someone to whom he can legitimately relate and whose love he can feel as he felt Tanty’s love.

“Describe Vere’s character in the Boy from Willow Bend”/ “The character Vere from Willow Bend what is his personality”

I think I mostly did this above. I’ll add only that he has a sensitive soul though his spirit is hardened by time, and that resilience kids – especially kids in hard luck situations – learn as a matter of survival. He’s also musically talented.

“Where in Antigua is dead end alley”

Dead End Alley was actually inspired by a couple of locations from my early childhood kind of blended in to each other as we do in the dreamscape that is fiction – in actuality the willow trees and the hedges with the butterflies don’t exist in the same place, and the pond was somewhere else altogether. So, I suppose, Dead End Alley doesn’t exist in any particular place in Antigua, though the Antigua that inspired it was the Ottos of my earliest childhood, re-imagined.

“Summary The Boy from Willow Bend”

It’s the story of Vere, coming of age in a dead end alley on Antigua in the Caribbean, abandoned in many ways throughout the course of the story by people leaving or dying, but emerging in to young adulthood still standing, though dinged and bruised by the experiences that have made him.

“Summary on chapter 5 of the boy from willow bend”/ “Summary on each chapter of the Boy from Willow Bend”

I’m going to take a pass on the chapter by chapter breakdown. The chapters are very short and for the most part self-contained. I wrote them as little postcards of these significant moments in Vere’s life as he comes of age.

“Who is Appie from The Boy from Willow Bend”

Appie, in the book, is one of those healers who knows which bush to use for what, and who recommended a bush bath for Vere when Tanty was worried about him. In my own family/lore, Appie was my mother’s grandmother (like Tanty was mine). I never knew her but grew up hearing about her, and, as far as I’m aware, she had nothing to do with bush medicine. I suspect I chose the name because I associate that traditional knowledge with age. And, yes, the bush bath scene is ripped from real life; and that’s all I’m saying on that.

“What is the theme of The Boy from Willow Bend”/ “What is the book The Boy from Willow Bend about”

What is this book about? I was just telling the story of a precocious boy growing up in a dead end alley, who had boyish adventures and experienced world altering loss, who was in some ways an obstinate little boy but also felt things deeply, who was shaped by his environment (and by environment I don’t just mean the alley – but all the people who helped him become who he is, the community of people who help make us who we are), who grew up not the boy he was at the beginning but still with something of the boy still in him, if a little more broken, a little less trusting and hopeful, a little harder and more shut-down. Within it there is some indirect and some pointed commentary re class, gender, family, Caribbean society (great affection re Caribbean society but criticism as well), and the critics have had their say on the various themes and sub-themes (so you can read those here and here’s a Boy from Willow Bend themed research paper). I will say this though that the epigraph “a child left in the wilderness will learn to catch ghost”, borrowed from CnD, my writer-colleague and flat mate the summer I started writing this story, was like a beacon to me as this story emerged; it helped orient me to what this story was about – a boy trying to find his way as the people that could/would guide him in some way or other slipped one by one from the scene, leaving him to sort of feel around in the dark, and how and who he emerges as on the other side of that.

“Explanation of The Boy from Willow Bend chapter 25”

Is there a Chapter 25. I don’t remember. But if there is this is one of those questions I think is asking for student insight, not mine.

atboyfromwillowbendlaunch
Pictured: Me, in 2003 at the book signing launch of The Boy from Willow Bend. It was initially published as part of the Macmillan Caribbean Writers series. That’s the first cover on my t-shirt.

“The Boy from Willow Bend literary device(s)”

This would require more of a fine tooth comb than I have right now – it’s been a while since I wrote The Boy from Willow Bend. One thing I will say though is that the natural and the supernatural co-existing was not unheard of as an idea, or a belief system, when I was coming of age in Ottos, Antigua, and so in the novella, I accept that reality and explored how the natural and supernatural interacted/intersected from the boy’s perspective. So, it could be argued, if one was inclined to argue, that though very realistic fiction – including natural Caribbean inflected dialogue, imagery rooted in Caribbean reality, unromantic handling of tough issues like illness, death, and abuse – it has elements of magical realism.

“Poems on The Boy from Willow Bend”

Are there poems on The Boy from Willow Bend? Now I’m curious to see them.
pop up book the boy from wb2

Pictured: I have received images of student art over the years though. 
The Boy from Willow Bend1

“Summary of the girl June in the book The Boy from Willow Bend”

This is a tough one. The easiest way I could do this is to say that she was in sharp contrast to main character Vere who is still open-eyed and open-hearted when the novella begins. We get the sense that June is all sharp edges and tough skin, and that she’s been through some stuff and has bounced around a bit by the time she comes to live in the house at Dead End Alley. And though Vere’s grandfather is technically her father, we see no love between them (which is an understatement considering that one of the more violent acts in the book was perpetrated  by him against her); in fact, it is Tanty she comes to love and care for – showing that despite everything, she is capable of loving and caring if she receives it. We see it also in her relationship with Vere – to whom she sort of becomes like sister-mother. Her exchange with Ms. Quashie is a reminder as she grows that she still punches hard – whether with her tongue or fists – when hurt or afraid. She is tough but she is also a girl who has had to grow up too fast and too rough, for whom relationships almost always come at a price, but who eventually gets her chance at a better life, and to be reunited with her mother, even though it means leaving Vere behind.

“Story on The Boy from Willow Bend and the main events that occur in the story”

I think I’ve touched on some of the story and main events, but the best way to know the story is to read it.

“Analysis of The Boy from Willow Bend”

This is definitely not the writer’s job. See the critics’ links earlier in this post and also explore how you think the writer did her job, and how successfully.

“What are the problems that many face in The Boy from Willow Bend”

Many? Meaning… okay, well, poverty is one – as evidenced by how dependent they are on the funds from family that’s migrated to the U.S., like Vere’s mother; so, poverty and all the challenges that come with that. Plus, abuse – physical, verbal, sexual – these all happen to characters in the book. Loss and/or abandonment – through people leaving or dying, and the vulnerability it creates for those left behind, especially children like Vere and June. Those are some off the top of my head – those and for Vere finding his way without anyone to anchor him after Tanty dies and June leaves.

“How did June from the boy from willow bend story dress”

I don’t remember. Did I say how she dressed? If not, imagine it.

The Boy inspires Art…and Conversation

The coolest thing happened this week. A teacher sent me some pictures  made by students in her class; the pictures, their interpretation of scenes from my first book The Boy from Willow Bend.
The Boy from Willow Bend1
I’ve received a few Willow Bend related emails over the years. The first one that stands out is from a university student in Italy. It blew my mind then that Vere had travelled as far as Italy and that she had selected him for her class project in her course on post colonial literature. “I really liked because of the kindness of the protagonist and the idea of Caribbean life and atmosphere it gave to me,” she wrote, adding. “I chose your book from the many my teacher proposed to me.”

Mind blown.

To more established writers, maybe a small thing – I don’t know; but for a newly minted writer from a small place a world away, that was kind of a big deal. The Boy from Willow Bend was re-issued in 2009 and has been on the schools reading lists for Antigua and Anguilla for a few years now. A student at the University of Puerto Rico even did a paper on it that she sent to me and gave me permission to post just a couple years ago. I know Vere lives, though he would be a young man by now, but it’s always still kinda wild whenever I am reminded that he lives anew as that little boy trying to survive Dead End Alley for new readers continuing to discover him. I had such a reminder last year when school children who’d come to the Anguilla lit fest wanted photos and autographs. Wild.

That teachers are encouraging students to engage with Vere in ways that bring out their inner artist. Well, let’s just say when the images showed up in my inbox, I became unexpectedly emotional because Vere, we could never have imagined this.

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That’s about half of the images sent. And like I said my response to this was indescribable.

As the initial elation settled, I did notice (yes, I am aware of the elephant in the room) that Vere and June and the whole Dead End crew (most of them) are looking a little …white. Prompting a discussion between the teacher and me about the challenge of getting black (and in this case, Caribbean, more specifically, Antiguan) children to centre themselves in their own imaginations enough to instinctively draw reflections of themselves. She had had a conversation with them about that, she said. Meanwhile, I shared with her a story I’d recently read (in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015) from the writings of the late Tim Hector in which he recounts a time when, as student of notable Antiguan and Barbudan (for many reasons) Reginald Samuel, he and his classmates were instructed to draw a man. Hector took great care with his drawing but when he proudly presented his work to his teacher it became what we now call a teachable moment. Like these students Hector was a black boy in a predominantly black country albeit one that was still then a colony. Hector writes: “(Mr. Sam – as they called him) rose from his chair. Sat on the desk in a very kindly manner…And then he said, ‘the negro is the only man in the world, who when he is asked to draw a man draws a white man. Everytime! Colonialism has done that to us. From now on when you draw you must try and draw people like yourselves.’ After that he always made one of our classmates model for art class.”

I told the teacher who’d sent me the pictures that one of the reasons I insist that submissions to the Wadadli Pen Challenge be Caribbean in spirit if not in setting is that this instinct to centre other over self reveals itself in the writing as well.

The teacher, though she already had an awareness of the challenges, said of the Hector story “I’m not going to forget that” – and I have no doubt that she is going to continue to use the openings and opportunities to have conversations with her students about not just making the characters look like themselves and the world they inhabit, that’s not the point; but instinctively identifying themselves as people of value who deserve to be centered, especially in their own imaginations. Self-awareness, self-love, self-affirmation. That’s what it’s about, right?

And so, I write this both in a state of joy at the way something I wrote continues to connect with and inspire new readers, with feelings of appreciation to both teacher and students, and with an awareness that the work continues.

Connections

…the neck bone’s connected to the back bone and the back bone’s connected to the …

with students at the Anguilla Lit Fest (photo by Barbara Arrindell)

with students at the Anguilla Lit Fest (photo by Barbara Arrindell)

Figuring out how this moment connects to that is not always that easy though in the world of writing and publishing. As I prepare for my fourth day here in Anguilla – as a guest of the Anguilla Lit Fest – some connections are clear. I know the invitation to be here came through the publicist at Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, publishers of my book Oh Gad! and that thanks to that I was billed here as a first time novelist – a quirk of publishing I had to explain to the audience of my first panel who were like wait our kids have been reading your earlier book The Boy from Willow Bend for a while. And it’s Willow Bend, marketed when first published just over 10 years ago as a teen/young adult novella, not the full length adult novel that is Oh Gad! making the latter my debut in that category, that has me thinking this early morning about connections. The chair of my panel recollected reading about Willow Bend on the LIAT inflight magazine and how from that awareness sprung interest in bringing the book into schools in Anguilla and how from that interest the book is now part of the secondary schools’ syllabus, required reading for first formers, and how from that requirement came a genuine response to the book by students and, according to one teacher,

with a teacher and library staffer at the Anguilla lit fest. (photo courtesy Barbara Arrindell)

with a teacher and library staffer at the Anguilla lit fest. (photo courtesy Barbara Arrindell)

boy students in particular, boys who had to have their arms twisted to read in the past who were now finishing the book before the start of the school year, and evidence of that genuine response in the young people gathered for my panel, asking me questions about the novel – e.g. how do you explain the bond between characters June and Vere for instance after the boy realized she was his aunt? – and from that genuine response an autograph (and selfie) line where in lieu of their books they asked me to sign slips of paper that they could stick in the books because… I can hardly process it all, all these connections. Meeting these young ones (first during a presentation earlier at the public library and earlier today (yesterday?) during my first of two panels here) has been a highlight of my participation in the Anguilla Lit Fest, which this year has also attracted the participation of the likes of Zane, Elizabeth Nunez, Benilde Little and a number of others including…me, because, connections.

budding novelists?

budding novelists?

The night of my panel, there was a reception and soca music dance party during which I was approached by a mother, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend who, the previous night, had won the island’s spelling bee, I was informed. Both girls informed me that they were not only avid readers – one read about a book a day, the other had read both The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth and wasn’t shy about sharing her favourite and why – but also novelists…not budding novelists, novelists. They’d both written books…and someday, if they keep on that track, we may be seeing those books in print someday and maybe more books from them. Go, girls! Did I mention one of the boys in the audience of the earlier panel mentioned that he was seven chapters into writing and sharing his own book on WattPad? As getting young people to read and write is a big part of what I try to encourage at home in Antigua and Barbuda, especially through my involvement in the Cushion Club reading club for kids and the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize and its annual writing challenge, and professionally through the workshops I offer and other programmes like the Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project, this filled my heart.

When asked during a TV interview that night about how the government can support a literary culture, part of what I said was about continuing on that track – exposing young people to books that make them want to read, encouraging them to write, giving writers a platform to share their work and learn from each other, giving these young people opportunities to move among living, breathing authors from their world and beyond, and tangibly supporting the arts so that artistes can thrive.
The light in these young people’s eyes, their articulate presentation of their ideas, the fact that they have a perspective, are a reminder to me why it matters to back up our support for the literary arts in these and other ways.

…because the neck bone’s connected to the back bone, and the back bone’s connected to the…

So, remember that beating…

I remember once I was waiting, in the hallway at a school, to read. The kids were being called to assemble. Yes, I would be reading to the whole school – read: shouting words to an entire school full of shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun kids. I would have to read something performance-worthy, only I’m not a performer. Anyway, while distracted by that, I heard a steady beat….and it took my brain a minute to process that it was a beating, or beatings, taking place behind the closed door of the principal’s office. At least that’s what my brain figured it was; instinct and memory, and no concrete evidence to dispute it. I felt sick. A combination of nerves and just being around something that though part of the routine of school life in Antigua, a routine I had become familiar with as a student years before, left me feeling queasy. I left the hallway, intent on leaving the school altogether, I think.

I’ve been squeamish around beatings since I was a child, and, as for my own beatings, I don’t have fond stories to tell the way some of my peers do. Oddly I’m not completely opposed to corporal punishment, I just grew up in a world where it seems it was dispensed so indiscriminately and so often, I don’t have the stomach for it. Quite recently, I heard children screaming and froze for a half-a-how-long before my brain processed that the screaming was laughter…breathe, no one was getting a beating.

If you’re Caribbean and you’re reading this, you’re probably shaking your head and choopsing by this point at my weak heart.

I suppose sensitivity to such things is part of the writer’s curse. It imprints.

There are brutal moments in The Boy from Willow Bend but it’s the epic school beating remembered in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight that seems most relevant here. It’s one I bore witness to as a primary school student that I’ve never been able to shake, that one administered by the mother who came to the school with the black leather belt in a brown paper bag. A part of me half-suspects that beating traumatized me more than it did the actual recipient (huh, recipient, like it’s a gift)…after all, I’m the one who had total recall of it enough to write it, needing to write it, without romanticizing it, as we do childhood things, in order to exorcize it. *SPOILER ALERT* There is a bit, though only a wee bit, of ‘old school Caribbean style discipline’, mostly off the page, in Musical Youth, written in a way that felt organic and authentic and yet tamer than that scene in Dancing and other scenes I’ve written and published. Yet one editorial note described these moments as “quite cruel” in a way that caused me to pause and re-think what was normal to me and how I might need to leap a little bit further to help the reader appreciate the context. Though I didn’t agree it was “quite cruel”. I’ve seen quite cruel acts; if not in my home exactly then certainly in the communities I was a part of growing up. Musical Youth may as well be the Sound of Music by comparison.

All of that said, a recent case here which has resulted in the death of a girl and the incarceration of her grandmother should prompt some soul searching on our parts re our approach to discipline. The one-size-fits-all spare the rod mantra has become worn and one dimensional. And in fact one of the things I like about Musical Youth, an essentially happy book, is the intergenerational relationships – Shaka’s interactions with the adults in his life especially, a sharp contrast to Zahara’s experiences. Though I hope readers don’t come away seeing Zahara’s Granny Linda as a villain. She isn’t. Just another mother/mother-figure trying to do her best. Oddly, I also understand her type – like Tanty in Oh Gad! when she thought her charge was stealing. When some, granted not all, Caribbean mothers intone “spare the rod spoil the child” there is no joy or glee in it, but there is a keen sense of the responsibility to raise this child into someone who will not steal, will not kill, will do right. It’s like that scene in Survivor’s Remorse where the mother asks her son, an NBA star trying to salvage his wholesome reputation, how he expects her to apologize for “whooping” him (which she had boasted of publicly, hence the need to salvage his reputation) when they both agree that he turned out to be the person he is, a person they agree is not only a successful person but also a good person, because of how she raised him. Mothers like this are willing to be the bad guy to make what they hope will become a good person. For many of them, this is the only way. I don’t agree that this is the only way. It’s a complicated issue; I believe discipline is needed (that sometimes you have to be okay with your kid hating you – and no, that doesn’t have to mean hitting them; some days they’ll hate you just for breathing but you’re not here to be their friend) and, at the same time, I guess I’m one of those who thinks tough love must be balanced with compassion and communication and creative approaches. But what do I know? Seriously, what do I know? If I had all this stuff figured out, I’d have absolutely nothing to write about.

I will say I think it’s a good thing that with programmes like the friendly schools initiative, we are re-thinking our approaches to discipline here in the Caribbean. As for that other matter, death under these circumstances is the kind of thing, no matter what I witnessed and experienced growing up, that I never thought would happen here, and I hope it draws a line in the sand for us, one never to be crossed again.

I’ll end with this apology; I’m sorry, I really didn’t expect this post to get so heavy…it just kind of went there. It really was just supposed to be a re-telling of the time I almost ran away from a beating that wasn’t even mine. The anti-climax of that story is that the teacher caught up with me, brought me back, I did the reading, and the shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun students were predictably unimpressed. Some days it’s like that.

A Walk Down Memory Lane – The Willow Bend Edition

Yesterday, I made a post on facebook which included the throwaway line that The Boy from Willow Bend came out 10 years ago. TheBoyfromWillowBendbookcover No sooner had I posted those words then it hit me, wow 10 years ago. Wow. This means I was still in my 20s when I landed the deal (for what would be the first publication of this book…it would later be re-issued by Hansib) and had just turned 30 when it hit bookshelves. It feels strangely like just yesterday and at the same time a life time ago. I had to hit the scrapbooks to remind myself and reminisce.

The first thing I saw (in the dusty scrapbook) was a letter from the Rick James Theatre Ensemble informing me to collect a $150 cheque (my first creative writing cheque) for Barman’s Blues which had won a joint second prize in the Ensemble’s One Act Play competition in 1992, incidentally also the year I started University of the West Indies. I say first creative writing cheque because I’d started part-timing as a reporter since my Antigua State College Days and between ’91 and ’92 would’ve been full-timing-it. Anyway, the memory of that RJTE contest is vague but I’m sure the play is somewhere gathering dust. Gotta wonder though what I knew about a barman’s blues’ at 18 going on 19.

I, also, found a card signed by all my classmates in the Mervyn Morris led Fiction Writing course I took at UWI, all wishing me congratulations. I think it was on being accepted to the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami. That would put it at 1995.   Wow. CFWSI (with workshop leader Olive Senior) was my first experience of that type and will always be remembered as the summer of a thousand adventures including, to stay on topic, the summer I shelved Those They Left Behind after it was thoroughly torn apart, and started working on Closed for Repairs and The Boy from Willow Bend. The tearing down was traumatic but finding the will to rebuild something new well that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. I have to credit my flat mate CinD for being my sounding board and cheerleader as new writing emerged; her poetry collection July and Joanne is a favourite memento of that summer. Of course, of the three titles I wrote over that summer, only one has since seen the light of day.

At CFWSI, I also did my first ever public reading of my work - poetry and fiction.

At CFWSI, I also did my first ever public reading of my work – poetry and fiction.

I also found the brochure with my first international publishing credit… in the 2000 edition of Ma Comère alongside much more established Caribbean writers like Velma Pollard, Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming, Donna Weir-Soley, and others some of whom I’ve now had the opportunity to meet either in person or virtually. I remember feeling relief when that poem, part of the Philly Ramblings series of poems I’d written while visiting a friend in the City of Brotherly Love, was accepted. I was doing the 9 to 5 and wondering if the dream of being a writer was pie in the sky; this was a good sign that maybe it wasn’t.

Then I found it, ah, the first Boy from Willow Bend’s publication notice (and another some time on) – in  the LIAT Islander; I remember flipping through the publication and sighting it while on the bus either going and coming from a shoot for No Seed on which I was then moonlighting as production manager. That first notice had no picture but a later notice would of me and the book, that I put at around 2001-2002 (because the picture is from a No Seed publicity shoot  – in that picture I had dreads not braids or man head or straightened hair or simple twists or any of the other styles on my hair journey … so that narrows the timeline). joanne2I would soon cut those locks, just one in a series of many Big Chops.

From the first notice, the book had a while to its actual release.  I remember seeing the listing on the Macmillan Caribbean website (yes, I dogged the website) and in their catalogue. I remember receiving a copy of the cover at a meeting with the sales rep at a restaurant at Dickenson Bay, grinning and zoning on the impossibility of that moment, on all the possibilities that lay ahead, and, at the same time, just not knowing how to feel or what to do. Excited and scared, hopeful and hesitant all wrapped up in a ball and deposited in my stomach. I found some of the mostly local press clippings (Antigua Sun, Young Explorer, Daily Observer, Business Focus) accompanying the book’s release; flipping through those as well.

The way Mickel Brann begins her February 14th 2013 article (the first article-article on the Boy from Willow Bend) makes me chuckle:

“The conversation surrounds the public consultation being held at the Multipurpose Centre. She prefaces the shift with an ‘oh, by the way…’ and then says ‘my book is in print’. She could have easily said saltfish, boiled eggs and antroba for breakfast this Sunday, the way she’s contained the emotions sure to be swelling inside. That’s just who she is confident and unassuming.”

Of course the last thing I was feeling was confident; I was nervous as hell, nervous and excited (my “pins and needles” acknowledged later in the article)…but yeah it was all pretty tamped down. She included in the article, this review of the book

“The coming of age story is well crafted, lively and absolutely believable.”

The book’s first review and it was a positive one; joy, relief. And a bit of that external validation we tell ourselves we don’t need – validation not just of the book or whatever talent or skill went into writing it, though of that too, but, also, of the world of the story, a world I knew so intimately because, though fictionalized, it drew on the Willow tree lined, dead end, dirt road of my earliest memories; and at the same time was a world others recognized because it was their world too, either the physical or the emotional landscape. It was one of those I am a writer moments (a dream barely whispered in my heart of hearts now being proclaimed out loud…and with evidence to back it up).

I said in that interview, or was quoted as saying, that when I learned the book had been accepted for publication,

“The excitement could not be contained because it had really been a long, long journey and I was happy, excited and filled with emotion. (It was) something I’d been working for all my life (and), finally, here was the baby to show for it. It was a defining, powerful moment in my life and each step of the way it becomes more real.”

I sound so young, don’t I?

I’m relieved actually that the interview doesn’t make me cringe 10 years later. I credit that to friend and fellow writer, Gisele, who said before my first radio interview about my book,

just tell the truth and you won’t have to worry about remembering what you said…

It’s true, even if I say something stupid in an interview at least (provided I’m quoted accurately which hasn’t always been the case) I can own what I’ve said because I know I’m just being me. Pretending can get tiring so I’m just me, still.

That's me, to the right, in a Boy from Willow Bend t-shirt I had made for the signing.

That’s me, to the right, in a Boy from Willow Bend t-shirt I had made for the signing.

There’s a picture of my first book signing, just outside of the Best of Books at its British American location. It was just a signing – no reading, my heart might have exploded…my launches have gotten better. A book store rep was quoted in the article as saying

“the word is out that the book is very good. People are enjoying it. It’s very insightful.”

Best of Books; can’t say enough about how supportive they’ve been of my writing career, 10 years and counting. 10 years…a lot of ups and downs in those years…it’s been bumpy like you wouldn’t believe (seriously) and I haven’t exactly hit literary superstardom (or stardom for that matter)…but you know what, 10 years later I’m still a working writer with a bibliography that also includes Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad! and Fish Outta Water (and writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do..so on my worst days I’m still doing what I love) and I’ve had some memorable adventures along the way. No, I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.

2012 - a toast with friend, writer and interviewer for the evening Brenda Lee Browne, at the televised book club discussion of my first full length novel Oh Gad! Also on the table are The Boy from Willow Bend and my second novella which came out just a year after its release Dancing Nude in the Moonlight.

2012 – a toast with friend, writer and interviewer for the evening Brenda Lee Browne, at the televised book club discussion of my first full length novel Oh Gad! Also on the table are The Boy from Willow Bend and my second novella which came out just a year after its release Dancing Nude in the Moonlight.

Happy 10th anniversary to The Boy from Willow Bend – a book it thrills me to know is still being read and discovered by young readers in the Caribbean (circling back to the inquiry from a student in Anguilla that prompted my walk down memory lane); and a book still being read by adults as well as this very recent facebook discussion reveals:

[Facebook poster]

I just (finally) finished reading the Boy from Willow Bend and I feel curiously empty. Like I’m not sure if I feel happy, or sad, hopeful or resentful, so instead I feel empty. This is gonna be one of those books that I’m still wrapped up in days after I finished reading it.

[Me]

This is the only book I’ve done that I started to write a sequel to. Still unfinished, long abandoned, maybe to return to again…I don’t know …but I just felt so driven at the time to find out how he turned out or maybe to make sure he was okay. So I’m finding your reaction interesting and wondering if it’s for similar reasons or other. Just curious.

[Facebook poster]

I wanted to tag u but I’m on mobile. You hit the nail on the head exactly. I feel as if I am one of the spirits that Vere may or may not be able to see who was watching over him over the years and then suddenly he was gone. I feel somehow invested in the outcome of his life. The way the book ended left me with a sense of uncertainty, so unless you dig up the sequel and polish it off I suppose I’ll always wonder.

Certain elements of the book also make me feel as if however his story ends it’s positive. Particularly the moment where Dead End Alley was dubbed Willow Bend. It felt like a positive omen.

[Me]

I appreciate those insights. It was intended as a positive omen…though tomorrow is never certain. I may yet dust it off and find out how things turned out.

Will I? Time will tell. But this walk down memory lane ends with this reminder from my younger self to my older self, or my older self to my younger self, or today’s me to tomorrow’s me…remember to soak up the moments. A scrap book is nice but nothing beats actually being there.

The Boy from Willow Bend today as a 2009 Hansib publication with a new cover by Antiguan and Barbudan artist Heather Doram

The Boy from Willow Bend today as a 2009 Hansib publication with a new cover by Antiguan and Barbudan artist Heather Doram

 

Education as a factor in social mobility in The Boy from Willow Bend

If academic papers are being written about my books, I don’t come across them a lot…or ever. There are the reviews, of course, but an academic paper exploring specific issues and linking them to larger social realities is a different animal altogether. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn of such a paper when contacted for an interview by Vigimaris Nadal-Ramos, owner of Editorial Narra, Inc. in Puerto Rico. She was preparing a presentation using my book, The Boy from Willow Bend, for her Caribbean Children’s Literature course at the University of Puerto Rico, where she is a student. Nadal-Ramos, who also teaches at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, has given permission for me to share her paper – on education as a factor in social mobility in The Boy from Willow Bend – with you. I appreciate her for sharing and for this: “I truly enjoyed reading, and later, studying your book.”

The Boy from Willow Bend - COVER.p65

Here’s the paper Article.The Boy from Willow Bend.Vigimaris