A Book Back

books 2018My novel Oh Gad! will be six years published this year. If a book was a child, she’d be a first grader. Damn. I had high hopes when it came out too. It was my second act and my first full length novel after two earlier releases. My first to crack the US market. Hell, yeah I had high hopes. You would think I’ve since learned to manage my expectations, right? Nah, son, I still have high hopes. Against the odds. I’m hard-headed like that. #TheWritingLife ETA: Shortly after I wrote this, this happened (the author specifically referencing Oh Gad!) – 10 Female Caribbean Authors You Should Know And Add To Your American Lit Syllabus – life (and publishing) is full of suprrises.

Here’s an excerpt:

Before Nikki was a motley crew – curious expats mixed in with home-grown Rastafarians, academics mixed in with area farmers, grey heads and chinee bumps, and the odd politician. It was not only a larger, but a more diverse crowd than she had anticipated.

A part of her dared hope, as she glimpsed some of the Blackman’s Ridge project’s staunchest opponents in the crowd, that this could be the bridge between the warring factions. That was the goal, anyway. She’d tried to get Cam to come, but he’d scoffed at the very idea. “Make mosquito nyam me up all night,” he’d laughed. “For what? I don’t hold to all that ancestors crap.  Black people hang on to slavery too much, if you ask me. Is that keeping them down. I’m a practical man. I live in today. Anybody who know me, know that. For me to go up there would be a bold faced lie; and I never lie.”

The night’s programme consisted of a drum call and dub poetry. At midnight, the dawning of Emancipation Day, August Monday, when Antigua’s enslaved Africans got their first taste of freedom back in 1834, plastic cups were passed around, and libations sipped and poured out ritualistically in honour of these survivors and the many more non-survivors. Tanty had insisted on that and mixed up the “bebbridge” herself.

Everyone got a chance to enter the dungeon, in pairs and threes; some emerged quickly and unscathed, others were visibly moved by the experience of being stooped and confined in the small space.

As Sadie began her oral history of the dungeon, of slaves imprisoned for infractions, imagined or real, a reporter from one of the local stations, ignoring the mean look she shot him, stuck a recorder in her face.

“…many died here sick with their own fear as it come through their skin and full up the air ‘round them ‘til they were breathing their own stink,” Sadie said. “Not a lot of new air could get in ‘round the heavy door they had barring the entrance. Only tiny cracks leave back for insects to crawl through and torment them to the last. As for them that survive, there was madness or relief, relief that sucked at their fight and spirit…”

Nikki found herself seduced by Sadie’s words and her voice, as she spoke with previously unheard serenity and authority.

A noise cut through the night: A bone deep, belly full moan. It was Tanty, swaying, eyes tightly shut. Nikki reached an arm toward her, then hesitated.

Tanty’s moan cut through her. Not like a knife. Like waves, curling beautifully in and into her, relentlessly. Nikki sighed and even cried a little; the moment, the long moments, overwhelming her, filling her with both sadness and joy. She felt like she was being filled and emptied at the same time, like she’d eaten too much and yet not enough.

The scent of roasting cashews, which Tanty had insisted on, perfumed the night air.

Nikki had been concerned about fire spreading but then Audrey had, unexpectedly, donated a couple of coal pots which allowed them to contain the fire. And as the scent now wafted out, the moaning swelled, continuing to fill the gaps; a chorus for Sadie’s chronicle which ended with a roll call of Antiguan martyrs and heroes from King Court to V.C. Bird. Here and there, there were tears. As Sadie’s voice, hoarse now, faded, the drums once again took over, taking on the timbre of Tanty’s unabashed moaning.  The drum talk took them into fore day morning, as the Antiguans called those hours just before day break. It was then, in that in-between time, that Nikki came back to herself as if from a blissful dream. She caught snatches of it, of being inside the dungeon, of not being afraid, though shadows and light, ancestral spirits, danced across the jewel-like stones along the cave wall, Tanty’s voice reminding her that she was from their blood and they wouldn’t do her no harm. As even memory faded, Nikki opened her eyes to the sight of pale light now spreading across the sky, and discovered that she was leaning against Belle’s shoulder as her sister sat still as a rock.


Related Oh Gad! posts

Launch gallery
First pages
What the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books had to say about Oh Gad!
Oh Gad! Presents a Compelling Slice of Island Life (NPR)
Antigua and Barbuda historical spaces in Oh Gad!
(Another) Oh Gad! excerpt
All Joanne C. Hillhouse Books


Site Updates

The only reading I’m getting done right now is this book I’m editing for a client, so bear with me on reviews of books in progress. But I have updated Blogger on Books. I have archived the review of the last book read, See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid, and moved in to the main Blogger on Books page a throwback review (meaning a review I did years ago on a different platform), Like the Singing Coming off the Drums by Sonia Sanchez .


While I’m here, I can report that things are progressing toward the publication of my next children’s picture book (this past week I’ve been looking at the proofs with text and art work, and compiling lists for review copies – btw, if you review children’s lit Contact me and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher). That’s a genre I’ll admit I never saw myself working in though having The Boy from Willow Bend , a coming of age story, as my first published book had many branding me as a children’s book writer. I’m not. I am a writer who experiments in different genres and up until my first picture book (four books in) none of them had been specifically the children’s genre – and I only wrote that, initially, so I’d have something to read when I was invited to read to little kids; before that I leaned heavily on Anansi, because I had nothing but I didn’t want to blow people off. I’ve learned a lot since those days – about branding (define yourself for yourself or be painted in to a corner by others’ labelling of you…or, if you hate labels, as I do, just keep writing different kinds of things until the label refuses to stick), school visits (I had to take a step back to figure out how to better manage this but I think I have a workable model now, so Contact me if you want me to visit your school), and writing children’s stories (it’s not as easy as you think…way harder…and more of a collaborative process).

I also want to thank Dr. Valerie Combie, of the University of the Virgin Islands, who presented the first, to my knowledge, academic paper on my works during the annual Antigua Conference this August. The paper was entitled ‘Joanne Hillhouse’s Iconic Stance on Culture and Youth in Her Works’. I didn’t get to hear it (as I missed the conference this year) but I did get to read it (thanks to her for sharing it with me and for sharing her plans to publish an extended version of it). It’s easy enough to feel like you’re stagnating sometimes on your professional journey (I had a dream just last night in which I was engaged with a writer of note, one I actually met once in real life, but who actually gave me the time of day in this dream, and we talked about, among other things, this feeling of wading through water …and possibilities) – but just this simple act of my work being discussed at a literary conference is a far cry from the girl in Ottos, counting the stars and dreaming.

I can’t publish it (yet) but here’s a small excerpt from the publicly presented paper:

“As in her poetry and her prose, she uses realism to portray her characters.  In so doing, she creates credible characters who eat, dress, and speak Antiguan.  Characters with whom we can identify.”

I also wish I had been there to hear her read my poem Tongue Twista (published in 2010 in Volume 24 of the Caribbean Writer), with which she closed her presentation. Never heard one of my poems read by someone else before*…and that one is a tongue twister.

So, yes, I weather the storms and the droughts; I pray for more opportunities to grow as a writer and to sustain myself as a writer working; I hope for clear eyes and a spirit that ever craves travel and adventure (and, of course, feeds that craving as she can)… and to finish these books.

*Not true! Thanks, memory banks. I have had poems included in stagings of When a Woman Moans but obviously those weren’t about the centering of my writing, which perhaps accounts for the memory slip. I am grateful though to have been included in those presentations.

The Rejection Files

Stephen King, if I’m remembering correctly, kept his rejection letters on a nail/hook hanging from his wall and noted that eventually the rejections became too many for the nail/hook to stay up. Stephen-King-Quotes-Rejection (not sure how this holds up now that I’m reminded he was only 14 then but…) Of course, Stephen King eventually had his massive breakthrough (if memory serves, with Carrie,  his first published novel which his wife had to pluck out of the garbage when it was still in unfinished short story form) and never looked back.

While I’ve been published – six books deep

Books 2017

Yes, I can count! One is currently out of print and the other is working its way back in to print as I write this.

– I’m still a journeying writer out here – still trying to tell my stories while using my pen to hustle a living, and rejections still cut deep. The fact that I’m still out here still doing means that I’m not defeated, not by far, but I sure feel defeated sometimes. The Writing Life is hard on a writer’s spirit and sense of worth.

And writers are nothing if not masochists who hoard those rejections – even if we’ve burnt the letter or deleted the email, we still have it, stored somewhere to remind us that we ain’t sh*t. On the one hand, it feeds the hunger, on the other hand who needs that kind of negativity in their life.

Most rejections are robotic, form rejections. And we always say we want more (something to encourage us on this journey – I certainly felt that way when I learned that though it didn’t win the Commonwealth Short Story prize to which it had been submitted, Amelia at Devil’s Bridge had been plucked from the also-rans for publication in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean Pepperpot1-524x800and when I saw that the story that became With Grace may not have won the prize for which it was submitted but it grabbed the judges attention enough for them to give it a detailed honourable mention…both stories went on to do quite well for mewith-grace). But sometimes I think the worst kind of rejection is the one that hints, hey you almost had it kid. I mean, sure, yay encouragement, but what do you do with that (especially if it’s something you don’t quite know how to work on). A recent residency rejection of mine read in part, ‘Your application has been carefully considered and received very positive reviews: “an excellent project from a vibrant writer”. The work samples were deeply appreciated. However, there were other outstanding applications in the pool with more convincing reasons to be at (name of residency redacted).’

Guess which part my writer’s brain fixates on (up to today, hence this post). The good showing, good going, Joanne can write part (appreciating that they took the time to provide such a detailed and kind rejection) or the damn, well, how do I overcome those odds part? I mean what could I have done to be more “convincing”? Because I can pull stuff up, just tell me what!

I kid but only partly. I’ve been at this since at least my teens (the writing part and the submission-acceptance undulating with the submission-rejection part) long enough to know that such is the cycle when you’re a writer out here trying. And I am a writer out here trying. This is why when a journal which published one of my stories in the past year referred to me as a veteran writer, I had to look over my shoulder to see who they were talking about – my spirit rejected it. Because (among other reasons) veteran writers don’t get thanks but no thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you emails. They get please come and here’s your bag of money emails. I kid, but again only partly. I am not a veteran in my mind but it’s hardly the beginning is it (in age or experience). I don’t take any of my hard earned lessons or accomplishments for granted, I’m still out here not  only trying to crest the next mountain but looking for a little steadying of the earth beneath my feet.

But I don’t want to be ungrateful. I think of the parable of the talents, and this is what I was given, and as fortune would have it, it’s also what I love, so I’m doomed or blessed (depending on the day) to get up and write, pitch, submit, work-the-hustle, work-to-get-better, celebrate the breakthroughs, dust my self off from the rejections, only to do it all again.


Like this…but with different hands… and fewer glasses.

Every now and again though…


Stimulating New Writing

Since completing the University of Iowa Massive Online Open Course in November 2016 I’ve been going over the course material, bird by bird so to speak: the transcripts and the readings (including the non-mandatory extra readings). I know, nerd. But just as the course itself, while it was live, was one of my favourite parts of the day, pouring over the course material is helping to keep me stimulated. No, I’m not writing as I was during the course, under the pressure of weekly assignments, but I’m still engaged – so I’m still counting this toward writing time. I’m still learning, still loving it. Hopefully, becoming a better writer in the process. Plus, I plan to do more work on the stories that came out of the course assignments too, maybe turn them in to something submittable.

Final Workshop RI 2012

No pictures of the online workshop, obviously, but …This is from another workshop, a physical one this time, the Callaloo Writers Workshop at Brown University in 2012. Another stimulating workshop experience.

So, was this course good for me? As with most things of this nature, you get out what you put in. And getting the opportunity to learn from the likes of Margot Livesy (she was the staple) and a rotating line up of esteemed writer/instructors through the renowned Iowa writing programme, being pushed to write every week, steeling myself to receive feedback on that writing every week, interacting with writers around the world on things writing related had me putting in energy that was about more than chasing those points needed to collect the course completion certificate I didn’t even send for.

Writing courses and workshops (I offer some of those, too) are learning opportunities obviously but they are also ways of pushing yourself to write instead of just thinking about writing. And they provide an environment where you and others in the workshop/courses can engage critically with what you produce (I’ve told the story before of how I slipped an early draft of With Grace, which is now my latest picture book, in among the works being reviewed by participants in my 2013 Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project for some honest feedback and how the work was better for it).


How are you feeding your writing?



I may have lost the zest for this story-maybe-book. I open the document and, a mere 96 pages in, I feel unmotivated…and I wonder…am I done?

The urgency, or something, I felt when I started this has dissipated. And I find myself questioning, why waste words and time on something I don’t feel the urgency to tell? And since I know it was once there, where did it go? Can I blame it simply on writing being crowded out?

No, because I have written five short stories in the past four weeks, four of which were submissions for this online writing course I’m taking; another piece, more flash than story, in the past week or so, was a response to a writing prompt. In the introduction to that response I spoke about writing something else when you’re stuck on the thing you’re writing.

This time though, the other writing is not flowing over in to any of my works in progress – including the one that’s the subject of this post. They all called to me at the time I started them and at times since (one I workshopped pretty enthusiastically when I was at the Callaloo writers workshop in Rhode Island but that’s been a few years now). I know well, from experience, that you don’t write only when things call to you; you sit down and do the work, period. And that’s why I make myself open at least one of these WIPs every day and sit with it even though sometimes all I’m doing is shifting stuff around. I must say lately I’m not taking them around with me – when I’m driving or riding the bus or walking – like I do when the characters are still alive in there. I hope they’re not dead.

I have a feeling a change of scenery would do the writing good. In a sense, that’s what the course – an online writing course with participants from all over the world, sitting through lectures, doing readings, participating in discussions, writing, reading and critiquing each others work – is; a virtual change of scenery. I check in every day, I do the work, and it’s one of my favorite parts of each day. It ends soon.


I tell myself I wish I had the luxury of time and money to get away for a while, with nothing but any of these WIPs to draw my attention. I fear I am just making excuses, though. None of the books I’ve written were written in such spaces – except maybe The Boy from Willow Bend which I started while at the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at University of Miami;, and, well, I remember returning invigorated from Breadloaf in Vermont and picking up Oh Gad! for what would be its final redrafting before re-submitting to one of the two agents who’d expressed interest in reading it; plus, I wrote With Grace the summer I facilitated the first Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing project and I snuck it in among the other pieces they were reading (keeping the author anonymous) just to get some honest feedback from young people – I didn’t even know it would be a book then. But really, every book – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and With Grace, which is forthcoming – was written sometime between work and sleep, and having a life. cropped-books.jpg

So, I know I can write in noise and chaos and with the absence of time.

In each of those instances, meeting the page was a joy. No that’s not true, I’m doing that thing that mothers do post labor where they block out the excruciatingly painful parts of the birthing experience, because for all the times that the writing flew, there was a time with each of those manuscripts, except maybe Musical Youth, when I hit a hump, sometimes a few of them, that I had to climb over. There are unfinished stories aplenty which remind me that I don’t always get over that hump. Is this one of those times?

Too early to call.  (too soon?)

Honestly, though, I’m writing through it, but since I’m all about sharing the ups and downs of the writing life here, it’s worth sharing that sometimes the writing isn’t so much blocked as sluggish. As for how this turns out, the rest is still unwritten.

How’s your writing going?

Look what came in the mail todaaay!

magazines in

“It’s been a pleasure working with you—I look forward to having your voice in Writer’s Digest.” – Writer’s Digest editor. Look for my article on Caribbean literary festivals in the January 2016 issue.

“Thank you so much for sharing your story in the pages of Essence. You are a pleasure to work with and I hope to collaborate again soon.” – Essence features editor. Look for my article on identity, self-acceptance, colourism, and a childhood doll in their February 2016 issue. Especially thrilled to be featured in an issue that’s all about #blackgirlmagic

Thankful for both these opportunities both as a freelance writer #onthehustle and an author picking my way through #TheWritingLife Thankful to the Anguilla Lit Fest where I made these connections. Plan to keep pushing through creatively and as far as freelancing is concerned. Big up to everyone who’s stopped by my facebook to post and share their best wishes. Feeling the love, loving the feel.




Some days…

The cursor pulses like. your heart. beating. in your head. Sit. Be disciplined. Write. Rest. less. Dis. com. Bob. you. Late. D. Defeating. Dis. APP. Ointment. Society’s. Scale. Dings. Downward. Use a different. Measure. But. Doors Slam. Mouths open. Wonder. Is it worth it. This fling. This thing. What if..llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll