Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling to a land of sunshine and sand. Our guide to the literary heart of the Caribbean is Joanne C Hillhouse, a local writer and blogger. You can find Joanne in several places on the Web including http://jhohadli.worpdress.com and http://worldvoices.pen.org/ah-write).
Let’s meet our local expert
A popular local calypso begins “in Antigua, we wake up to the sun…” and we do. We are a land of sunshine and beaches, in the heart of the Caribbean. But we are also a country – Antigua with sister island Barbuda – of varied people with real stories, real journeys, not just the postcard moments. I am a writer from Ottos, Antigua and my people, my country, who we are, who we want to be, have always fired my imagination as a storyteller; and the belief that stories about the human condition resonate with people anywhere provides the motivation for me to share my stories beyond my shores. I write to understand, to engage with, to reflect my world. My name is Joanne C. Hillhouse, and I am a writer. I blog about my writing life – my books, my experiences as a writer, my services as a writer and editor and more, including the littscapes of Antigua and Barbuda at http://jhohadli.worpdress.com (named for a nick/pen name that’s a blend of my name and the popular version of my country’s Amerindian name, Wadadli); and I blog at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com – there’s that Wadadli again – about the literary scene in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean and primarily about the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which is a writing programme I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts among young Antiguans and Barbudans. One of the features of the latter site that I am most proud of is the bibliographies of Caribbean and of Antiguan and Barbudan literature, the research component that’s turned the site into a resource for people interested in that sort of thing. I’m an avid reader and consumer of all things artistic, really, so I blog about books, film, music, TV, whatever catches my interest, really.
Q. When we think about authors from these islands, our minds might go to Jamaica Kincaid. Who else would you recommend – in other words, who are some of the people that we could be missing out on?
Jamaica Kincaid is a favourite writer of mine. In fact, discovering her book Annie John years ago was one of those steps on my journey to accepting that it wasn’t so crazy to want to be a writer. Because when you come from a small place, it seems the most impractical thing. Outside of the calypsos – because I do count the calypso writers of my childhood among the greats of Antiguan and Barbudan literature – she was perhaps the first local writer I discovered. Others like Althea Prince, D. Gisele Isaac, Marie Elena John, Floree Williams, Dorbrene O’Marde, and others have added to the fiction writing literary canon out of Antigua and Barbuda. There are my books as well – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and forthcoming Musical Youth – which was second placed for the 2014 Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction. So I’m excited to be a part of that narrative as well. I also hope BookerTalk readers will check out the bibliographies I’ve put together and posted to the site where you’ll see that though most of the publishing has been necessarily independent, there has been quite a lot more of it than one might expect from a place which, when you combine both major islands (we also have a number of uninhabited offshore islands), is 170 square miles.
Click here for a list of local writers (the list can also be viewed according to genre)
Q. The literature that you focus on in your blog (Antiguan, Barbudan, Caribbean) seems to cover a wide variety of cultures and geographies. How much difference is there between the three island groups in terms of way the writers focus on and show they write?
Well, there’s a common history among the islands and countries of the Caribbean – Africa to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, migration (in and out, and within) and the huge social impacts of moving people and cultures, independence, re-defining self in the post colonial age. There will be common themes but I think people coming to the Caribbean and to Caribbean literature, who really pay attention, will find a lot of variation within these broad strokes. There are regional differences, even within countries, even within communities – differences in terms of language, food, ideologies, dress, values, expression, variations as relates to ethnicities and histories etc. That is before you even get to personal narratives and the imagination, the compulsion to create not just regurgitate. I think the beauty of what art, not just literature, is doing is re-discovering and sort of re-mapping for ourselves a self that’s too often been defined by the Other. I think there’s a new wave of literature as well, a literature born of people who do not have direct experience with colonial rule and what all of that means, but have come of age in a Caribbean feeling the growing pains of self-rule, and influences other than the traditional influences, with all of the hopes and limitations that come with that. Because each island is different, each person is different, the result of that exploration – the art that comes out of that – will be different. One of the things I challenge the participants in my annual Wadadli Pen Challenge to do, because we’ve been so much influenced by things outside of our direct lived experience, is to find the stories within our space. Because we have so many stories, and so many varieties of stories to tell, still…not to mention different (sometimes quite inventive) ways of telling them
Q. How much is the literature from this part of the world influenced by its past history of connections with West Africa and with Britain?
Well, it’s like I just said, the influence is there but part of the interesting thing about the Creole experience is that it is this new thing born of all of these influences of which Britain and Africa is only a part, a significant part, but still just a part of the whole. As far as literature goes, we were certainly in the school system in which I came of age, exposed to what’s called the Classics, Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond; and, frankly, didn’t read enough of our own world, though it did exist. And notwithstanding the efforts of slavery and colonialism to totally erase our African identity, it remains in some of the language influences, some of the food, and expressions, music and philosophies handed down orally, whether in local sayings or Anansi stories. In my own book Oh Gad! – Africa is there in the coal pot making tradition that’s a central motif, it’s there in the local sayings, and in the spoken dialect, but there’s no denying the influence of English, and in fact, America as well in ways I’d be at pains to pick apart. But Caribbean is neither of these things explicitly, it is its own thing, and the art and literature reflect that.
Q. What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading perhaps?
Caribbean books, you mean?… Lord, I don’t wan’ get into trouble…understand that this isn’t definitive okay, not even the tip of the ice berg, just what comes to mind…but if I think of the Caribbean writers that have been personally recommended to me in recent years, Marlon James and Kei Miller come immediately to mind. Ah, other names I think which would be part of discussions on modern Caribbean literature include people like Junot Diaz, Monique Roffey, Roland Watson-Grant, Barbara Jenkins, Oonya Kempadoo,Tiphanie Yanique, Colin Channer, Elizabeth Nunez, and, of course, one I’m always recommending, my literary crush Edwidge Dandicat. There are also Robert Antoni who won the Bocas prize for literature this year, and former winner and a legend of Caribbean literature in his own right Earl Lovelace who is still very current and relevant. Among the poets, Lorna Goodison, while she’s not new relative to some of the other names I’ve called, still gets a lot of love; Derek Walcott, as a Nobel Laureate and someone still producing respected work, is an icon; I have much respect for one of my former mentors now poet laureate of Jamaica (also not new but still relevant) Mervyn Morris, and among the newer poets, again relatively speaking, you’ll likely hear names like Miller, Vladimir Lucein, Christian Campbell, Loretta Collins Klobah, Kendel Hippolyte… But honestly we still don’t read ourselves enough so we, including me, still have a lot to discover among our own writers.
I would like to also direct you to the bibliography put together by John Robert Lee and shared on my blog and to various discussions on my blog on Reading the World, the Caribbean leg and Caribbean favourites . My ‘blogger on books’ series which granted is not Caribbean exclusive does include some Caribbean literature as well.
Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon — the kind that you had to read at school?
More trouble…okay… George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Lovelace, Walcott, V. S. Naipaul are without any subjectivity considered among the Caribbean classics… but among my favourites in school would have been Michael Anthony and Sam Selvon, and from Antigua, in addition to Kincaid whose earliest works can be counted among the newer classics, the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour. I’m assuming you’re referring here to the published Caribbean literary canon and even more specific to books from that canon that would have been read in school, and up to secondary school specifically, because if you broaden it calypso writers like Antigua’s Shelly Tobitt would be part of the conversation for me and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a couple.
Re the Caribbean canon, the Lee biography mentioned earlier would also be instructive.
Q. As an author yourself, what experience have you had trying to get your work published for an international audience?
I wrote about the journey a few years ago in a much-travelled piece entitled ‘Writing Off the Map’ which you can find here among other places. Long story short, it’s been a challenge; a slow climb, one step forward, two steps back, paying your dues, and all such clichés. It hasn’t been easy and I remain a writer on the hustle. But it hasn’t been without its high points – for instance, just this year I would have been invited to participate in a Commonwealth panel at the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow, Bocas as a Burt finalist in Trinidad, the PEN World Voices festival in New York, I would have had a story published to positive reviews in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, among other journals and anthologies, I would have had the opportunity to edit a special on Antiguan and Barbudan literature for online literary platform Tongue of the Ocean I just received another invitation for a festival next year that I would not have been invited to a year ago, quite recently my book Oh Gad! – the mass market edition of which came out this summer – has recently been added to a course on Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and was recently discussed on National Public Radio [NPR] in the US . I’m far from being where I want to be, from having the resources I need to have just to make life, but I’m writing, I’m moving, and, thanks to social media, I continue to push my books and tap into opportunities to keep writing, keep moving.
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