Hey everyone! At the end of my review for salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, I listed a bunch of contemporary poets and expressed my keen interest in reading their work in the future. Alexandra Elle’s name was on that list and Clint Smith is a poet I truly admire, especially from his TED talk – How To Raise A Black Son in America.
Below are mini reviews of their respective poetry collections.
Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle
Date Read: May 13th 2017
Published: March 2017
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
In short, powerful verses, Alexandra Elle shares a hard-won message of hope.
Alexandra Elle writes frankly about her experience as a young, single mother while she celebrates her triumph over adversity and promotes resilience and self-care in her readers. This book of all-new poems from the beloved author of Words From A Wanderer and Love In My Language is a quotable companion on the road to healing.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
It’s inspiring to see Alex Elle’s growth in Neon Soul. From this collection, it’s clear she’s content and comfortable in her skin. These poems center around the joys of being whole and comfortable with oneself. The poems are laden with gentle, uplifting affirmations and tools for living intentionally and forgiving oneself, as well as understanding and nurturing all aspects of yourself. There are also a few glimpses of her immense love for her daughter and husband in the collection, which was very cute! One of the poems speaks on the unfortunate miscarriage she had a while back – the simplicity of that poem speaks volumes on the polarizing feelings we women of color sometimes have about our bodies.
will you ever forgive yourself for what you didn’t do? who you didn’t love or let love you? will you ever be soft enough on yourself to be free?
it feels good to feel whole. to not live in pieces or in fear. it feels nice to belong to myself. to be enthralled with the endless possibilities to find who i am. we are often too confused about what parts of us deserve to stay in our loud and vibrant lives, but why is that? when all of the mess can make a magnificent masterpiece.
Overall, I love this collection because Alex Elle seems to be writing from a place of fulfillment, which is refreshing from the myriad of poetry collections out there that seem to be from a place of grief and hurt. Deun Ivory’s illustrations on select pages of this collection were the icing on the cake!
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase Neon Soul: A Collection of Poetry & Prose on Amazon
Counting Descent by Clint Smith
Date Read: August 6th 2017
Published: February 2017
Publisher:Write Bloody Publishing
Clint Smith’s debut poetry collection, Counting Descent, is a coming of age story that seeks to complicate our conception of lineage and tradition. Smith explores the cognitive dissonance that results from belonging to a community that unapologetically celebrates black humanity while living in a world that often renders blackness a caricature of fear. His poems move fluidly across personal and political histories, all the while reflecting on the social construction of our lived experiences. Smith brings the reader on a powerful journey forcing us to reflect on all that we learn growing up, and all that we seek to unlearn moving forward.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
In 56 poems, the realities of being a black boy in America are beautifully portrayed in this collection. Not only are the plights and queries of black boyhood portrayed, but black boy joy is an important component of these poems as well- so its pretty balanced, which I loved.
This collection is personal and honest. Smith shares his loving family with us and sheds light on how he was raised, with poems mostly set in New Orleans. The titular poem – ‘Counting Descent’ is my absolute favorite. I read it 3 times before I proceeded to finish the book. Smith’s metaphorical writing style will make you freeze momentarily as you clearly picture all the nuances and truths he paints with his words. I enjoyed how he personified New Orleans through its unique foods, as a tourist attraction, as a high-risk flood zone and ultimately as his home. Smith’s poems are tangible – while reading, you will feel the pain, you will feel the joy and you will feel less alone.
Today I Bought a Book for You
it wasn’t one I had ever heard of
but the first page had your favorite word
and that was enough for me
to unfold the dollar bills from my pockets.
I remember the first time
you told me what it meant.
I wrote it down in my notebook
with the hopes of using it later
to impress you.
I have a notebook full of these.
It should come as no surprise.
I have always used words
to try and convince the world
that I am worth something.
Other poems I loved include: ‘The Protest Novel Responds to James Baldwin’ (this poem gave me chills); ‘Passed Down’ (this poem surprised me… I never knew some light-skinned folk actually (and honestly) felt ashamed of their skin color. From all the books I’ve read/friends I know who are of a lighter hue, they consider it a ‘privilege’); ‘Each Morning is a Ritual Made Just For Us’ (I loooved this! I think the poem is dedicated to his wife); ‘When Mom Braids My Sister’s Hair’ and ‘For the Hardest Days’.
I’ll definitely revisit this collection again. I’ve been following Clint Smith on Twitter, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work!
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
Review – ★★★ (3 stars)
Before Behold the Dreamers was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the book last year, declaring it ‘book of the year’. I tried to keep an open mind while reading, but half-way through, I started to get agitated. If I hadn’t buddy-read this book with one of my favorite book lovers – Ifeyinwa, I would have put it down without finishing. Upon finishing the book, I felt Behold the Dreamers was a 2 stars novel, but Mbue’s succinct writing style made my reading experience quite fast and easy – which I appreciated, hence a rating of 3 stars. While this novel was frustrating for me to read, I must admit Mbue did a great job of making Behold the Dreamers a layered tale on identity, social class, marriage, immigration, patriarchy, mental illness and xenocentrism.
I didn’t expect the beginning ofBehold the Dreamers to be focused on the Edwards family instead of the Jonga family. As I turned the pages waiting to experience more Jende and Neni, I realized I didn’t care about Cindy and Clark Edwards’s failing marriage and the ‘rich people problems’ they endured. In fact, reading about their stresses vicariously stressed ME out! The plot, which heavily involved the Edwards’ marital and monetary issues dragged on for too long. Since several pages were dedicated to the Edwards’ family drama, I could clearly picture what Clark, Cindy, Vincent and Mighty Edwards looked like and all their mannerisms. This may seem trivial, but I wish Mbue spent more time describing Jende, Neni and their son – Liomi’s physical features so I could at least picture them in my mind.
This novel could have been a solid 150 pages, sans the drama of the Edwards family. A part of me feels like the publishers heavily promoted this book because Jende and Neni put America on a pedestal. To me, Jende and Neni were almost portrayed as African caricatures who viewed the white man as superior, their master. This novel was initially supposed to be called ‘The Longings of Jende Jonga’ so why the change of title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’? I’m guessing the former title wouldn’t appeal to white readers. Perhaps the change in title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’ also meant more involvement of the Edwards family into the storyline, to appeal to white readers. But I must say, the title ‘Behold the Dreamers’ is quite fitting – because the Jongas were portrayed as dreamers indeed. Through the lens of Jende and especially Neni, EVERYTHING about America was good and they would do anything to become Americans,
In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers… because while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York could offer a child.(pg. 362).
I became aggravated with how Jende and Neni often looked down on their country of origin/culture and revered America to the point where they didn’t see how desperate they were – especially Neni! Throughout most of this novel, Jende was more or less an ‘Uncle Tom’ in my eyes with how willingly subservient he acted towards the Edwards family,
‘So you think America is better than Cameroon?’ Clark asked, still looking at his laptop.
‘One million times, sir,’ Jende said. ‘One million times. Look at me today, Mr. Edwards. Driving you in this nice car. You are talking to me as if I am somebody, and I am sitting in this seat, feeling as if I am somebody.’(pg. 44)
Neni (she got on my nerves, gosh! But my feelings softened towards her as she bears the brunt her family’s fate) would do anything just to remain in America and even started using her kids as a desperate justification to stay,
And Liomi was going to become a real American one day, she whispered in the darkness. He had taken so well to America, hardly missing anyone or anything in Limbe. He was happy to be in New York, excited to walk on overcrowded streets and be bombarded by endless noise. He spoke like an American and was so knowledgable in baseball and all the state capitals that no one who came across him would believe he was not an American but a barely legal immigrant child… They could never take him back to Limbe… He might become angry, disappointed and hostile, forever resentful towards his parents.(pg. 227)
While Behold the Dreamers was frustrating to read, I resonated and empathized with certain happenings, once the story shifted away from the Edwards family and focused more on the Jongas. Neni lecturing her son on the importance of education for us Africans/Black people struck a cord with me as it still holds true,
I’ve told you this, and I’ll keep on telling you: School is everything for people like us. We don’t do well in school, we don’t have any chance in this world. You know that, right?(pg. 68)
Jende’s lawyer warning him to steer clear of the police felt timely, especially with police brutality being a rampant occurrence nowadays. This novel was set between years 2008 – 2010 and its disheartening how 7 years later, we black folk – whether originally from Africa or Latin America, are constantly reminded of how the justice system doesn’t particularly value Black bodies,
The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh?(pg. 74)
Another aspect of the book that resonated with me was how some folks of the Diaspora (1st and 2nd generation Americans) identified. I remember having a chat with one of my cousins this summer in the States, and she confided in me about how she went through a phase where she actively distanced herself from her Ghanaian culture when she was younger. During this phase, she hated identifying with anything that had to do with Ghana or Africa. Shame plays a huge role in this novel. Mbue shows how some children of immigrants from Africa, who have no connection to their parents’ homeland (for various reasons – maybe the parents don’t have pride in their homelands themselves, like Neni and Jende) feel embarrassed and humiliated by their African roots,
When people asked where they were from, they often said, oh, we’re from right here, New York, America. They said it with pride, believing it. Only when prodded did they reluctantly admit that well, actually, our parents are Africans. But we’re Americans, they always added. Which hurt Fatou and made her wonder, was it possible her children though they were better than her because they were Americans and she was African?(pg. 358)
I read Behold the Dreamers back in June and its really been on my mind ever since. I’ve even been apprehensive about posting this book review because I feel my interpretation of this novel is quite judgmental as I’m interpreting the book’s happenings through my 1st generation privilege of never having experienced immigration ordeals. I recently discussed this novel with my parents and through our discussion, they made me aware of my Ghanaian-American privilege and encouraged me to try and accept Jende and Neni’s struggles as their (the characters’) truth and the truth of many Africans who strive to achieve the ‘American Dream’.
Reading and interpretation of text is highly subjective. The ways readers interpret and find meaning of books they read depends on their politics, morals, level of education, socio-economic status etc. I read this novel through a middle-class, 1st generation, pro-Africa/Black lens, so it was quite difficult for me to read and understand characters express self-hate and shame towards their African origins. Since Jende and Neni were of lower social class in Cameroon, was their xenocentrism of their country of origin justified? Most immigrants I know (of both lower and middle social classes) actually start deeply appreciating their countries of origin when they move to live in the States… but I do realize that for some folks, getting to America is truly their ultimate dream.
The ending of this novel felt realistic and made me appreciate Jende’s character evolution – flaws and all. While I disliked how Mbue perpetuates our self-hate through the characterization of Jende and (mostly) Neni, Behold the Dreamers strikes up conversation around immigration, identity and the need for African countries to better cater to their citizens (instead of us relying on living in Western nations to fulfill our dreams). In my opinion, this novel is popular because it perpetuates American nationalist views with African self-hate as a bi-product of it’s success.
Are you a member of a book club? If you haven’t found the right book club or you haven’t had time to seek one out where ever you are in the world, I introduce to you a super rich and engaging DIGITAL book club, in the form of a podcast – The Sankofa Book Club.
I stumbled upon The Sankofa Book Club when I was participating in a book chat (on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) on Twitter, last year. I resonated with some of the responses the co-founder – Akua, was tweeting and decided to check out the podcast via iTunes. The Sankofa Book Club is a digital book club with a focus on African literature. The co-hosts are of Ghanaian descent who engage in intelligent and honest conversations around books I adore. The podcast is currently 10 episodes deep and my favorite episodes so far have been their discussions on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole.
Enjoy the conversation I had with The Sankofa Book Club team where we discuss their origin story, their favorite writers of African descent, favorite snacks to indulge in while reading and more!
What’s the story behind the book club’s name – The ‘Sankofa’ Book Club?
Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol – Adinkra is a collection of symbols from the Akan tradition in Ghana. You can see the symbol incorporated in our logo. The term “sankofa” translates from Twi as “return and get it” and it symbolizes the importance of learning from your past. As we were thinking about what to call the book club, this just seemed so apt. The co-founders are both Ghanaian and we want this book club to be a platform for people to learn about Africa – especially those of us Africans born and raised outside of Africa.
Who’s behind the scenes of The Sankofa Book Club? Briefly tell us about the team members and co-hosts.
We’re a small team of three. Akua and Mel are co-hosts of the podcast and co-founders of the book club. We focus on producing the podcast and growing our community. Sam is our curator – she researches the books and allocates them every month. However, we are looking to grow, so get in touch if you’re interested!
What was the inspiration for starting a digital book club in podcast form? Will there be book club meet-ups in the future where the team is based?
The inspiration was several different thoughts popping up in my head in no particular order:
I (Akua) worked on podcasts through work in digital marketing.
It was an exciting new media but like most things in this world, it was whitewashed.
Mel and I have thought-provoking conversation anyway.
I really like African lit and wished I could join a book club like that.
I don’t live in London, don’t have the time or energy to do that in London.
Why are we limiting ourselves to London?
Let’s do a podcast on African lit.
It may as well be a book club.
We love that we’re digital and interacting with people all over the world and we don’t want to lose that. However, a live recording in London will definitely be happening in the near future.
How do you decide on which books to read? Why focus on African Literature?
Sam does research into the themes, what people are currently reading and uses that choose a book each month. It helps us stay relevant and prevents us from being repetitive.
Africa is more than the world’s charity case, and who better to tell the true story of Africa than Africans. That’s why we focus on African literature. We want to hear a different narrative. We want to be a different narrative.
Who is your target audience? How has the reception been, after the 10 episodes (and counting) that are available?
Anyone interested in Africa, literature and/or both! What we’d really love is for people who don’t feel connected to the continent to use this as a relaxed and fun way to learn, or just read something different. There’s loads of brilliant African literature out there getting very little attention. We want to change that.
The reception of SBC has been really positive. It’s interesting to see that a lot of our audience is actually in Africa, who just appreciate the discussion.
6. Random Bookish Facts:
a) How do you like your books – Hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks or e-books?
Akua – Paperback.
Mel – Paperback mostly, hardback if it’s affordable; not a fan of audiobooks.
Sam – Paperback until quite recently. E-books are more handy and make my commute less boring and bulky.
b) Do you usually read – New books, used books, borrowed/stolen books (from friends) or library books?
Akua – A brand new book from Waterstones.
Mel – Usually brand new books but I’m also a lover of borrowed/stolen books.
Sam – Definitely new books (I do steal a lot of book lists though).
c) What is/are your favorite book genre(s)? (Poetry, thrillers, romance, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction etc.)
Akua – Poetry. It’s simple but deep.
Mel – Thrillers. I enjoy the suspense and drama.
Sam – Historical Fiction! I love a good mystery too.
d) Favorite snacks/beverages to indulge in while reading?
Akua – Biscuits or cake.
Mel – Peppermint tea all day everyday.
Sam – Potato Chips and chocolate. There’s something about the crunch that keeps me going.
Who are your top three favorite African writers, and why?
Akua – Her Majesty Queen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Afua Hirsch. The first two are authors of my favourite books so by default my favourite writers. Afua Hirsch is a journalist, half English, half Ghanaian. When I see a cutting edge, non-conformist article on current affairs, I just know she wrote it. Such an intelligible Black British voice! I so appreciate her. She has a book coming out in January 2018.
Mel – Chimamanda Ngozi and Chigozie Obioma. I’m still on the hunt for my third favourite African author. Chimamanda is amazing for her attention to detail and empowering me as a women and an individual of African descent. Chigozie is special for his gift of reflecting his literary influences in his novels. He also has a knack for eloquently describing a mere moment, allowing the reader to see it from an in-depth perspective.
Sam – I’m pretty old school so I’m going to say Ama Ata Aidoo because of her style and her pioneering work in African Literature with regards to female independence and empowerment. Wole Soyinka next because I love his sense of humour and the wisdom in his writing. I will have to concede that more recently I too have developed a soft spot for Chimamanda Ngozi. She just embodies everything. She is intelligent, eloquent and still relatable. She has a way of dissecting literally all things that matter to young black women so plainly yet extremely intuitive.
Finally, what can listeners and readers look forward to in the future for The Sankofa Book Club?
Akua – Amazing guests on the podcast and more interaction with our book club members! We know we have a consistent audience out there, we see you and we love you!
Mel – I’d like to echo what Akua has said and add that listeners can also expect that we will continue to encourage their inner book worm.
Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright, A Small Place magnifies our vision of one small place with Swiftian wit and precision. Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay candidly appraises the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonization and tourism. The book is a missive to the traveler, whether American or European, who wants to escape the banality and corruption of some large place. Kincaid, eloquent and resolute, reminds us that the Antiguan people, formerly British subjects, are unable to escape the same drawbacks of their own tiny realm—that behind the benevolent Caribbean scenery are human lives, always complex and often fraught with injustice.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
Where do I even begin with this book? A Small Place is… brutal. It’s brutal for the reader (especially if you’re a white reader), for Antiguans, the Antiguan government and it’s tourism industry. A Small Place is a short book of 81 pages, full of vitriol, which is somewhat justified. Kincaid gives harsh criticisms on her native island’s dishonest and disappointing leadership and ultimately views the poor governing of Antigua as an extension of colonialism; neo-colonialism, if you will.
In A Small Place, Kincaid takes readers to Antigua in four chapters. In the first chapter, Kincaid describes the picture-perfect beauty of her country and juxtaposes the island’s beauty to the not-so-pretty issues everyday citizens endure. In subsequent chapters, Kincaid critiques the essence of travel, tourism and even tourists – who are mostly white. At some point, I began to wonder if Kincaid condoned xenophobia, because the way she describes how fellow Antiguans and other folks from the Caribbean dislike tourists (to the point where she actually insults imaginary white tourists), it could be seen as quite hateful –
An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak… (pg. 17)
Halfway through reading, I also began to wonder if this book was banned at some point – it had to be! The bold quote below explains my curiosity –
Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? For the answer on every Antiguan’s lips to the question ‘What is going on here now?’ is ‘The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief.’ Imagine, then, the bitterness and the shame in me as I tell you this. (pg. 42)
I’d fear for my life if I ever published anything like this! I doubt A Small Place is even sold in the Caribbean because Kincaid spews sharp, controversial opinions on (former) Prime Ministers of Antigua, Grenada and Haiti. She’s really a ball of fire, this Kincaid woman!
I think it’s important to read this book/memoir as a satire. If you take Kincaid’s frank critique to heart, you’ll be missing the point completely. Reading Kincaid lament over the corruption and misappropriation of Antiguan government funds felt all too familiar to me. A Small Place mimics the same issues Chinua Achebe had with Nigeria, as seen in The Trouble With Nigeria and mimics the SAME issues we face in Ghana as well. For example – for years, the Chinese have been mining gold in Ghana illegally (locally referred to as ‘Galamsey’) to the point where most of our water bodies (like River Pra & River Ankobra in the Western region, Enu River in the Ashanti Region, The Black Volta in the Upper West Region, River Densu in Accra, Birim River in the Eastern Region) within the country are contaminated with mercury and other toxic metals. While the current administration is trying to put a halt to the illegal mining, allegedly, previous administrations were benefitting from the illegal act. In A Small Place, Kincaid speaks on how ‘The government is for sale; anybody from anywhere can come to Antigua and for a sum of money can get what he wants. (pg. 47).’ Many citizens in Ghana feel the same way! Supermarkets, coffee shops/restaurants, various corporations and even land, are owned by foreigners. Government officials rarely have locals in mind and seem to be easily swayed by money-making foreigners who are slowly taking over our natural resources,
How does a food importer on a small island have enough money to lend to a government? Syrian and Lebanese nationals regularly lend the government money. Syrian and Lebanese nationals own large amounts of land in Antigua, and on the land they own in the countryside they build condominiums that they then sell (prices quoted in United States dollars) to North Americans and Europeans… (pg. 62)
A Small Place is an important book and a wake up call. It reveals a lot of truth, exposes the bad leadership of her native island (well, I don’t know if the government of Antigua has changed much today) and ties all the complex issues Antigua faces to our imperfect human nature. Kincaid’s writing style is direct yet lyrical in this brutally honest account of this small place.This book was originally published back in 1988, but sadly, it’s still relevant to several countries in Africa and the Caribbean today. When will the greed, lies, corruption and dishonesty from people in positions of power ever end? While this book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria, Kincaid’s sour wit and sarcasm are 100 times more piercing than Achebe’s. Read A Small Place and marvel at this woman’s heroism.
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
[My Kincaid collection thus far. Image via the Instagram page]
How do you feel about literature from the Caribbean? Who are some of your favorite writers of Caribbean descent? 2 months ago, I sent out a Tweet asking for recommendations of book bloggers & blogs that focus on Caribbean literature/culture. I received a good number of responses, with most of them having a focus on Caribbean Kid Lit & Mommy blogs.
(click image to see responses via Twitter)
As I was receiving recommendations, I realized that I had been following writer Joanne C. Hillhouse’s websiteand blog for almost 2 years now. For those who don’t know, Joanne C. Hillhouse is a writer of Antiguan descent, based in Antigua. She’s the founder of Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (founded in 2004), which is ‘an annual writing challenge, guiding young Creatives toward culturally relevant literary expression, and nurturing and showcasing their best efforts.’ Hillhouse’s website and blog have been staples of mine when it comes to getting my Caribbean literature fix, as she often gives lots of recommendations and shares her experiences reading various books from the Islands.
Joanne C. Hillhouse was gracious enough to chat with me via email on Caribbean literature, the reading culture in Antigua, her favorite writers/Caribbean (book) blogs and the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize. Get your TBRs ready, because they will definitely grow after you indulge in this wholesome book chat, with writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. (note – ‘JH’ represents Joanne C. Hillhouse’s responses).
At what age did you read your first novel by a Caribbean writer? How was that experience?
JH: I can’t remember. My introduction to Caribbean literature, the way I remember it, was primarily through the oral tradition (jumbie stories, folk stories, Anansi stories, even calypso the more narrative of which I still sometimes use in workshops) and through short stories used in school. I remember short stories like the one about Millicent with her prideful nature and her organdy dress, by Merle Hodge, though I’m not sure I registered who the author was at the time as this was primary school or at highest first form of secondary school, and Millicent and her classroom tyranny was what resonated.
I remember excerpts of Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando standing out as well. Actually, this is unlocking a memory of what might, emphasis on might, have been the first Caribbean book I read, Miguel Street by V. S. Naipual. My brother was in secondary school and I believe it was one of his, but I read it, recognized it, loved it.
I also remember reading Sam Selvon’s A Brighter Sun, I think it was A Brighter Sun, in secondary school over the summer in third form maybe, and then by the time term started it had been dropped from the reading list; I remember that because I remember being disappointed. It didn’t help that I didn’t fall in love with the Caribbean book I ultimately did have to study – no further comment on that.
A book that stands out though, though this would have been later teens, is Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which hit close to home in many ways, not least of which because I, too, was a girl from Antigua and I recognized the physical, socio-cultural, and emotional landscape of the book. I mark this as one of the books that opened up a portal of possibility for me in terms of me becoming a writer.
What’s the reading culture like in Antigua and Barbuda? Is Caribbean literature required reading in the school system?
JH: Most of the reading of Caribbean literature that happens, I would say, happens in school and even there it’s limited, though I can’t speak specifically to what’s required reading or what isn’t and how much it’s changed since my school days. I’ve been fortunate to have some of my books read in the schools, including The Boy from Willow Bend which has been on the schools reading list here in Antigua and in Anguilla for years. I have been fortunate, as well, to meet some of the young people who did have to read my books in school and they didn’t seem to hate it the way we tend to things we’re obligated to do, which is always the danger. They seem to like them actually.
But the reality is that outside of school, Caribbean books are not widely read, though it’s perhaps better than it was. I grew up reading more books from England and the U.S. –they were just more readily available (and weren’t school books) and I don’t think that has changed as much as I’d like to wish. I would distinguish though between reading and storytelling, and though one of our leaders, reportedly, once said that we’re not a reading public, I would venture to say that we have always been a storytelling public – stories handed down have sustained our culture from the time when we didn’t have agency over our own lives (slavery) to present (post-Independence), and I think people appreciate seeing some of our stories written down.
How prevalent is African literature in Antigua? Are books by African writers sold in bookshops and/or read & raved about among book lovers on the Island?
JH: Not very. Some are sold, yes, but honestly perhaps more so those who’ve been embraced in Western culture – like a Chimamanda Adichie.
You’ve successfully published six books and I plan on getting my hands on your recent novel – Oh Gad!, especially after Trinidadian-American writer Elizabeth Nunez recommended it on NPR’s Weekend Reads. How long have you been a writer? Do labels like ‘Antiguan writer’ or ‘Caribbean writer’ limit how you identify as a writer?
JH: How long have I been a writer… I remember going to see Chariots of Fire on a class trip in primary school and not really getting it but liking the theme music and making up lyrics, that I still sort of remember, to that theme music. There are probably other moments like that, but that’s one I remember. Then I remember journaling and attempting my first story in a black and white note book my Tanty used to own and write in, when she died. Her death was very traumatic, and that notebook and the silver bracelets I still wear were things of hers that I held on to. Then, in my teens, probably earlier, entering school essay competitions – around tourism and Independence themes; won a trip to another Caribbean island once and my mom sent my big sister with me, I imagine because I was too young to travel alone though she is only a year and change older than me.
Lots of writing activity in my teens, poetry, short fiction, song lyrics, including one that I worked out with my guitar teacher and submitted it with the youth choir I was then a part of to a sub-regional radio Christmas carol competition; I still have that prize plaque. I remember taking my stories to show to one of my English teachers when I started the Antigua State College, one of the first times I sought critical feedback. Then at the College, between age 16 and 18, I would write plays, soapy melodramas in retrospect, that were performed by the College drama group; on to the University of the West Indies where I was both taught (fiction) and mentored by Mervyn Morris, who then recommended me for my first fiction writing workshop, the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute facilitated by Olive Senior at the University of Miami. It was there that I started work on what would become my first book.
I’m not a fan of labels and I try not to think in terms of limitations, though I’m certainly aware of and have encountered the obstacles in the path of a writer from a small place – first within the wider Caribbean and then internationally. The world of publishing is paradoxically both crowded and vast. But as far as the writing goes… every writer comes from somewhere, right? New Orleans pulses in the writings of Anne Rice and Ireland was richly rendered by Maeve Binchy, Mario Puzo embedded his readers in a particular part of the Italian-American experience, Junot Diaz provides a window to the Dominican-American experience and Edwidge Danticat to the Haitian experience; their locales/cultures enriched the work rather than limiting them. Antigua and the Caribbean are in my skin, on my tongue, and in my writing. I embrace that. One of my favourite reviews – plural because it’s been said more than once, about more than one piece of writing – has come from readers, Antiguan or otherwise, who have described my writing as unapologetically Antiguan/Caribbean. My stories are particular, and, I like to hope, potentially universal not in spite of but because of that.
You’re the founder and coordinator of the amazing Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which promotes the literary arts among young people in Antigua and Barbuda. What inspired you to start this writing program and how has the reception been since its launch in 2004?
JH: I was at a luncheon in Canada, the Caribbean-Canadian literary expo, maybe the first off-island literary event I was invited to as a published author, in 2003; and the featured speaker at the luncheon was a Guyanese writer of my generation (Ruel Johnson) who spoke of the lack of nurseries for potential or emerging writers in the region. As I had felt that lack keenly coming of age in Antigua, I foolishly resolved to do something about it, and when I got home I fired off a proposal to my first two partners without fully understanding the commitment I was making or the work involved.
It has experienced peaks and valleys in terms of the response; this was our best year numerically and also our most challenging because of those high numbers. It’s hard for me to assess its reception; I’m too deep in it. I only know that it has come to mean as much to me as anything I’ve written, I’ve seen people who’ve come through it go on to do things creatively, I believe that it is now part of the cultural landscape and at the same time something that still has a lot of growing to do…and that it’s been something like a labour of love that has got to become more institutionalized if it is to survive me (or my ability to do it), and I want that.
I enjoy visiting Wadadli Pen, as well as your personal website Jhohadli as there’s always fresh content on the literary happenings in the Caribbean! Do you frequent other websites or book blogs that focus on Caribbean literature? If so, please recommend your top 3 favorite websites/blogs.
JH: I follow many book, arts, and cultural blogs Caribbean and not Caribbean. Top three Caribbean? I’m much too indecisive to ever have a definitive top 3 but the Caribbean(ish) blogs I have most recently interacted with are Island Editions by a Canadian author who divides her time between Canada and Bequia and blogs on publishing and writing mostly; Repeating Islands which curates Caribbean themed content from different sources; and Random Michelle, an Antiguan blogger who regularly posts photo prompts to which I like to challenge myself to respond. So, I’ll mention those with a shout out to the Paper-Basedbook blog, the blog of a Trinidad based bookshop, written by poet and reviewer Shivanee Ramlochan, who also reviews books for the Caribbean Beat magazine and at her personal blog Novel Niche: A Place for Books and who recently published her debut collection – the blog reviews Caribbean books, including my own Musical Youth and a blog, Jamaican Woman Tongue, run by one of my favourite former professors from the University of the West Indies, Carolyn Cooper.
I’ve enjoyed works by Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Austin Clarke and I hope to indulge in more novels from the Islands, including yours. For those who are new to literature from the Caribbean, which books and/or authors do you highly recommend?
JH: Some of my favourite Caribbean books of fiction would be:
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Sevlon
Fear of Stones by Kei Miller
Gone to Drift by Diana McCaulay
The Book of Night Woman by Marlon James
Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer
White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo
A good introductory read to contemporary Caribbean fiction, meanwhile, would be Pepperpot: Best New Storiesfrom the Caribbean.
Finally, do you have any new books or projects in the works for readers and writers to look forward to in the near future?
JH: Works in progress, at least three, one of which is a sequel to Musical Youth, the first book was a finalist for the Burt Award; one of which is a novel with two main women characters from very different worlds; and one of which I can best describe as character vignettes in a moving space. I have been trying to get funding or a residency or something that would allow me to just sit and work on digging in to these for a long uninterrupted while, but short of that I continue incrementally and have been for some time. Bills have to be paid, you know, and I freelance as a writer, editor, workshop facilitator, and writing coach, I love it but the hustle can be draining. But those three that I mentioned, which is more than I’ve said publicly before, more than I like to say at all about works in progress, but maybe saying it will push things along, lol, those three are the works in progress that may be books someday. But there are various works, non-fiction to short fiction to poetry, in various stages of progress. I try to write a bit every day, so I’m always working on something.
Coming soon, a re-issue with new art of my first picture book Fish Outta Water, so look out for that, totally new aesthetic, and I have to note that still new, so I’m still in promotion mode on that, is With Grace, my second picture book, a Caribbean fairytale which debuted in December; and I’m still hoping more people will discover the previous books all of which are listed on my website.