Caribbean Literature chat with writer, Joanne C. Hillhouse

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 website and 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).

Enjoy!


  1. 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.

 


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

The breakdown on Wadadli Pen and its works and impacts can be found here: https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/about


  1. 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-Based book 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.


  1. 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 Stories from the Caribbean.

Other links on my blogs:


  1. 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.

Works by Joanne C. Hillhouse


Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me on literature from the Caribbean. I hope we get to do this again soon!

JH: Thanks for the interest and the opportunity.

2015 at the University of the (US) Virgin Islands Literary Festival & Book Fair where Hillhouse (on the right) was a panelist and Jamaica Kincaid (on the left) was the featured speaker.

Photo via Joanne C. Hillhouse – Wadadli Pen

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What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons

Date Read: March 18th 2017

Published: July 11th 2017

Publisher: Viking Books

Pages: 224

 

The Blurb

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love. 

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Laden with meditative, intimate and at times unsettling vignettes, What We Lose will leave you in a pensive state. Thandi – the heroine of this novel, is the only child of her mother (a coloured South African) and father (a light skinned African American) who is very aware of her privileges & multicultural background. Readers follow Thandi on her journey from childhood to adulthood as she navigates what it means to be a black woman in America and South Africa, dealing with the loss of a loved one, motherhood and love.

What We Lose is based on Zinzi Clemmons’s life, BUT it isn’t her life. If you’ve been following Clemmons’s work online, especially her 2013 piece –  A Geography of Hurt, you’d find the subject matter in this novel familiar. While there isn’t a clear-cut plot to this novel, Clemmons successfully portrays Thandi’s life through short vignettes. The vignettes reflect Thandi’s complex thoughts – private, absorbing and heartfelt thoughts, that one probably wouldn’t even share with their closest partner. Some bits of the text feel philosophical which was confusing at times, but appreciated. I love how pictures and graphs and random news articles are scattered throughout the book, as it gave the storytelling an unconventional feel.

Johannesburg, South Africa plays a vital role in this novel. The world is so absorbed in American politics (aka: Trump) that we forget about the intense and ever present racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Thandi and her family are coloureds and wealthy, so readers experience a different account of racial dynamics in South Africa through their lens, which is refreshing. It was intriguing to see how American racial relations and South African racial relations were juxtaposed and how they impacted Thandi’s life and even play a role in her grieving process and the important decisions she makes in her life.

Anyone whose lost a parent will deeply resonate with this novel. I initially thought this novel would be morbid and sorrowful, but I was glad to find that it reads more as a visceral novel – deep feelings and black psyche are articulated so aptly!

Quotes that made me think about blackness and grief:

To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence… We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational… But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance… I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be(pg. 26)

I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. (pg. 31)

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

This is the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it. (pg. 95)

I’m not sure how this book is being marketed to the public; but for me, What We Lose tackles so much more than the issue of race. This coming-of-age novel reminds you that we are all human. We are all dealing with our personal struggles. We are all trying to thrive and heal and survive. Illness, love, race, mental health, motherhood, sisterhood and social class dynamics are wonderfully weaved into the overall themes of grief and the quest to belong.

Read the book chat I had with Zinzi Clemmons on What We Lose, her favorite black writers, her relationship to South Africa, self-care tips, who’d play Thandi if the novel ever made it to the big screen and more.

Special thanks again to Zinzi Clemmons and the team at Viking Books for the ARC!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase What We Lose on Amazon

Book Chat :: with Zinzi Clemmons, author of forthcoming novel – ‘What We Lose’

Happy summer, everyone!

What books are on your radar this summer? I highly recommend you keep an eye out for debut novel – What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, which will be in stores July 11th!

Check out the synopsis below:

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

Images via vogue.comzinziclemmons.com

Back in March of this year, Zinzi Clemmons and publishing team at Viking Books sent me an Advance Reading Copy of What We Lose and I devoured it over the weekend, on the week it was sent. The novel was a pleasantly intimate read and I just had to discuss various aspects of the book with Clemmons herself.

Zinzi Clemmons was gracious enough to have a book chat with me on her debut. We discussed various social and cultural issues that inundate this deeply moving work. (note – ‘ZC’ represents Zinzi Clemmons’s responses).


  1. Before we discuss your forthcoming novel, I want to commend you on your thorough and pretty fierce essay on literary criticism- featured in The James Franco Review. How long have you been writing and what are your views on book blogs in the literary criticism space?  

 

ZC: Thank you, I’m glad to hear you read that piece. The goal of that essay was to merge argument with practice—the essay itself is a continuation of discourse, which is what I was arguing for in the essay. To me, it’s very important to not shy away from tough discussions, to follow them all the way through to the end. That’s what I was attempting to do there.

I started writing in college, around the same time that I started becoming involved in publications. The first one was my college’s black literary journal, called the African Sun. It had been dormant for some time, and some friends and I helped revive it. In grad school, I founded a literary journal called Apogee, and I had a big hand in founding their blog. I love the experience of being in a room with a lot of smart, dedicated people, and arguing over every small editorial decision, every piece of paper, every illustration that goes into it. That atmosphere of collaboration and debate has always really inspired me.

So, first, I think that online publications allow people to do this who otherwise couldn’t afford it. They offer a great opportunity to people who like you who want to get their point of view out into the world. And, they are accessible to readers who otherwise couldn’t afford print journals, or who don’t have access to bookstores that carry them (increasingly a problem), or who otherwise just wouldn’t know where to look. I think they’re an increasingly important part of our media landscape, and they should be supported.


 

  1. In your forthcoming novel ‘What We Lose,’ Thandi – the heroine, is raised in Pennsylvania by her African-American father and South African mother – much like yourself. To what extent is this novel autobiographical and how long did it take you to write it?

 

ZC: The novel is based on my life, but it’s not my life. The biographical facts of Thandi’s life are very similar—not unusual for a novelist—but our personalities diverge. She is much more impulsive, whereas I take a long, long time to think over any decision I make. Some of that is indecision, some of it is that I’m just a very careful person. I’m in awe of people who can think in real-time on Twitter—it takes me a minimum of 30 minutes to think over any tweet, and I always end up regretting it. I like to say that whereas I would think about doing something, Thandi would just do it. It took me about 4 years from start to finish.


 

  1. The novel alternates between the United States and South Africa. I enjoyed the vignettes in South Africa where Thandi spends time with her carefree cousin, Lyndall. What’s your personal relationship to South Africa?

 

ZC: My mother, like Thandi’s, was South African, and her extended family (which is very large) lives over there. There are also family friends and others—altogether, I have a very extensive network over there. My mom was a schoolteacher with summers off, so from the time I was an infant until I graduated high school, whenever we could afford it, she would take my brother and I over there for the entire summer. I was born in 1985, so this means I saw a lot of pre-Independence and post-. I’m still very close with my family over there. My husband also lived in Cape Town briefly in 2013, and the first conversation we ever had was about South African politics and the EFF. It turned out we were there at the same time—in 2013, around the time Nelson Mandela died. We both love the country and hope to return as soon as we can, but of course, it’s a long way there from California, where we live.


 

  1. This powerful quote stood out to me –

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

 

The commentary on post-apartheid race relations in South Africa are truly compelling in ‘What We Lose,’ especially being juxtaposed against American race relations. In your view, how are American and South African racial issues similar and/or different?

 

ZC: I wrote an op-ed on this that will hopefully come out soon, where I basically say that each country offers insight on how the other deals with race. There are many parallels between America’s and South Africa’s racial legacies, but to kind of nutshell what that difference is: to me, American racism is most often disguised, whereas in South Africa, it’s more obvious and out in the open. Trevor Noah made this point recently: the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a defining moment in that it acknowledged the pain and suffering of black people. America never did that; reparations here are still an incredibly hot-button issue. America’s racial legacy is one of denial and cognitive dissonance. We’ve perfected the art of brutalizing minorities while denying we’ve done anything wrong to them. In South Africa, things are not quite so. Of course, that goes on, but not to the degree we do it in America. Philando Castile’s murderer was just acquitted, when everyone could see that he was murdered, and that officer was reckless. But nothing happens, over and over. A lot of that has to do with the fact that America is a white-majority country, whereas SA is black-majority. But we see a lot of parallels around issues of affirmative action, social welfare, and LGBT issues.


 

  1. This novel is a unique hybrid with African and African-American socio-cultural elements embodied into Thandi’s persona. Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labeled as ‘African writer’ or ‘African-American writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer?

 

ZC: For the most part, I don’t mind what people call me. I try not to focus on what I can’t control, and instead focus on what I can: improving myself as a writer and a thinker. The truth is, I am all of those things you name: I’m an African-American writer, a Black writer, a woman writer, a young writer. As far as what I call myself, I have a tough time describing myself as African, because I have not lived there for a long time, but rather been a long-term visitor. I don’t think there’s a word for my relationship to South Africa, but to call myself African as an identifier doesn’t feel quite right. I call myself an artist and a literary writer, and I try to interact with all those identities and the communities that come along with.


 

  1. Who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work? (where ‘Black’ is – African/ African-American/ Caribbean/ Black-British/ Afro-Latinx or simply writers of African descent).

 

ZC: It’s tough to pick from so many, as most of my favorite writers are Black, but I’ll try. Toni Morrison is a guiding light; Claudia Rankine, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon. Jesmyn Ward is a Southern American writer whose work is incredibly important—I’m not sure how popular her work is overseas, but it should be. She speaks from a very particular experience that you don’t encounter very often—she’s from a poor rural community on the Gulf Coast—and her writing is elegant and honest. I teach her work in my classes, and I think it will stand the test of time.


 

  1. Grief and illness play huge roles in this intimate novel. While Thandi and her mother had a complicated relationship, she’s nonetheless deeply affected by her mother’s passing. In these tumultuous times, ‘self-care’ has become more important for many of us Black millenials. What are some of the ways you preserve your mental health, especially in these times?

 

ZC: It’s a really tough thing to do, and I think the first thing to acknowledge is that everyone has a different role to play in these times—if we want to call it a struggle, so be it. I gave an interview the other day where someone asked what I think the role of the activist is nowadays, and I couldn’t give a concrete answer. I think that everyone should decide what they can handle—for some that means protesting, for others that’s writing articles or poetry or fundraising. There’s no one way to participate—your role can look different. But it’s important to remember that we all need rest. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so always think about what you need to do to keep yourself going. Whether that means shutting off the TV for a weekend, or changing your media diet. Do what you need to do to support the work you’re doing. That’s my motto in general, but it’s particularly applicable today.


 

  1. While reading, I often pictured this novel on the big screen: stellar cinematography sans excessive dialogue but with vivid imagery (as in the book) that reflect the meditative nature of the novel. Have you ever wondered who would play Thandi, if ‘What We Lose’ ever made it to the big screen?

 

ZC: I’ve always flirted with the idea of making a film, even before I published this novel. I’ve made some pretty amateur art videos myself, and from what you described they may be along the lines of what you envisioned. The film rights are actually being shopped now, so I hope this does come true! Lisa Bonet is sort of my celebrity doppelgänger, so from a pure verisimilitude angle, Zoe Kravitz would fit the bill. But, I’d also love to find a new up and coming actress and give her the spotlight.


 

  1. I was elated to see that ‘What We Lose’ will also be published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, in South Africa. When will the book be released in South Africa? Why have the book published and available in South Africa as well?

 

ZC: The book will be released shortly after the July 11 US pub date. It was very important to me for the book to be published over there, and I insisted on it when 4th Estate (my UK publisher who distributes in Commonwealth countries) offered to buy it. Two reasons: First, because the book is set there and I think South Africans will want to read it, and I’m interested in what they think of it. Second, and more personally, I have a big family over there and it meant a lot to me for them to be able to buy it in bookstores.


 

  1. Finally, why would you like for people to read your forthcoming novel, ‘What We Lose’?

 

ZC: I wrote this book to challenge ideas about literature, race, and motherhood. I hope that anyone who is interested in these ideas finds this book. I also wrote this book for black women, for young women like you and me, to offer a different representation than the ones we are used to. I wanted to create a narrator like me, who could to tell this story. This has always been a main goal of mine: to broaden peoples’ ideas of what blackness is, and who black women are. Solange has been a very influential cultural voice for me, so to borrow the title of her last album, I hope this book offers another seat at the table.


 

Zinzi Clemmons is a Philadelphia-raised writer and editor with South African and Trinidadian roots. She’s co-founder and former publisher of Apogee Journal, as well as a contributing editor to the Literary Hub. She has a great number of critical essays and short stories online and currently teaches literature & creative writing at The Colburn Conservatory and Occidental College.

(Image via zinziclemmons.com)

 

Pre-order What We Lose on Amazon 

And the 2017 Caine Prize winner is…

YES, it’s that time of year again! In less than two weeks, the 2017 Caine Prize winner will be announced!

For those who are not familiar, the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was first awarded in year 2000 is an award “open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition” (source).

Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include (click on links to my reviews):

  • Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000) – author of novels Minaret, The Translator, Lyrics Alley among other works. 
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002) – founding editor of Kwani?, author of memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place and the essay How To Write About Africa found in various literary magazines.
  • Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003) – author of the novel, Dust.
  • E.C Osondu, from Nigeria (2009) – author of the novel This House is not For Sale and collection Voice of America: stories.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo, from Zimbabwe (2011) – author of the novel, We Need New Names

Previously shortlisted writers include: Mia Couto from Mozambique (2001), Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria (2002), Laila Lalami from Morocco (2006), Chinelo Okparanta from Nigeria (2013), Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone (2013), Tendai Huchu from Zimbabwe (2014), Elnathan John from Nigeria (2013 & 2015), among others!

The Caine Prize and the shortlisted stories play huge roles in the authors I read from Africa. Many Caine Prize winners and shortlisted writers have found great success and I’ve reviewed a good number of these writers’ works here on African Book Addict!


This year, the Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five talented writers with unique short stories (left to right):(Image via caineprize.com)

Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) – Read her short story: Who Will Greet You At Home

Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria) – Read her short story: Bush Baby

Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan) – Read his short story: The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away 

Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria) – Read his short story: God’s Children Are Little Broken Things

Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa) – Read her short story: The Virus


The Caine Prize shortlist wouldn’t be a shortlist if a previous shortlistee isn’t back on the list, right? I’m no longer shocked or disappointed when I see previous shortlistees and winners back on the shortlist – the Caine Prize is good for that.

I was happy to see Bushra al-Fadil, a writer of Sudanese heritage on the list! I think the last time a Sudanese writer was on the Caine Prize shortlist was back in year 2000, when Leila Aboulela won the first Caine Prize. But I wasn’t able to finish al-Fadil’s short story- The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t get it. The Virus by Makhene is 26 pages and I haven’t found the time to enjoy it yet. Maybe I’ll listen to the podcast/ audio of the story if I have 1 hour 11 minutes to spare. I found Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story – Who Will Greet You At Home, softly magical. I recently purchased her short story collection – What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky (which was the title of her last year’s shortlisted story) at it’s full price, so I hope it’s worth it. Hmm, I wonder if Arimah will compete to win next year’s prize as well, even with all the positive buzz around her new book.

Chikodili Emelumadu’s story – Bush Baby, is one hell of a rollercoaster! I was initially hesitant to read the story, as it’s a long read of 17 pages. But once I started reading, I just had to stay on the intense ride and endure every bit of it. I love Emelumadu’s succinct writing style. She manages to accurately capture the tiniest nuances which I found impressive. Bush Baby is a haunting story that follows adult siblings Ihuoma and Okwuchukwu (or Okwy) as they battle being tortured by an evil spirit that is out for Okwy. Ihuoma is back home in Nigeria from studying/living abroad and Okwy has resorted to satisfying the desires of his flesh – drugs, gambling, prostitutes and juju. YES- juju! Without giving too much away, just beware – there is black magic/ juju/ voodoo/ magical realism (however you choose to call ‘evil spirits’) in this story. Emelumadu’s palpable descriptions had be cringing and feeling deep sorrow for Okwy and his demise. I discovered Emelumadu’s blog, Igbophilia late last year and find her commentary/stories hilarious and very entertaining. I’m proud of her for making it on this year’s Caine Prize shortlist.

Arinze Ifeakandu’s story – God’s Children Are Little Broken Things MUST win the 2017 Caine Prize. Arinze is one heck of a writer! God’s Children Are Little Broken Things follows 2 university students, Lotanna and Kamsi. They are both young men and they become lovers. However, their relationship is very complicated. Lotanna is a soccer player and lover boy who is dating Rachael but he’s attracted to Kamsi – a piano player who’s small in stature. I don’t want to give too much away but I urge everyone to read the story – it’s the perfect short story for this month, which is considered LGBTQ Pride Month in the US. The story is deeply compelling and layered with many themes, such as – love, homosexuality, domestic violence, family, grief, illness, masculinity etc.

Reading God’s Children Are Little Broken Things got slightly confusing as it’s a second-person narrative, but I believe Arinze writing in this point of view made the story very personal and hence, powerful. I’m curious to know more about Arinze Ifeakandu and what compelled him to write this important story. I’d love to know how other readers feel about this story and the types of arguments/ conversations it will open up, especially among Africans who believe sexual fluidity and homosexuality are abominations. Arinze Ifeakandu must win this year’s Caine Prize and expand this riveting short story into a book! *fingers crossed.*

Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the Caine Prize this year?

The winner will be announced in London at Senate House Library in partnership with SOAS, on the 3rd of July. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!

You can also check out past commentary on the Caine Prize below:

2014 | 2015  | 2016

A Bitter Pill To Swallow by Tiffany Gholar

Date Read: February 15th 2017

Published: 2016

PublisherBlurb Books

Pages: 315

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Winner of the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

On the edge of the Chicago medical district, the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth looks like a castle in a snow globe. Janina has been there since she was ten years old, and now she’s fourteen. She feels so safe inside its walls that she’s afraid to leave.
Devante’s parents bring him there after a tragedy leaves him depressed and suicidal. Even though he’s in a different place, he can’t escape the memories that come flooding back when he least expects them.
Dr. Gail Thomas comes to work there after quitting her medical residency. Frustrated and on the verge of giving up on her dreams, she sees becoming a counselor as her last chance to put her skills to the test.
When he founded the school, Dr. Lutkin designed its unique environment to be a place that would change the students’ lives. He works hard as the keeper of other people’s secrets, though he never shares any of his own.
But everything changes late in the winter of 1994 when these four characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. None of them will ever be the same.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

A Bitter Pill To Swallow is a young adult novel set in 1994 Chicago that closely follows three characters as they battle with various stresses life brought them. Devante is a young black high school student, suffering from intense PTSD; Janina is a quirky young black high school student, who has been diagnosed with some features of schizotypal personality disorder; Dr. Gail Thomas is a determined young black women who is finally a medical resident after taking a break from her residency program, due to family issues. All three characters have their own bitter pills to swallow and eventually meet at a therapeutic boarding school- The Harrison School, run by a kind and gentle psychiatrist, Dr. Lutkin.

Each chapter alternates between the three characters’ or Dr. Lutkin’s point of view; no, it’s not confusing – Gholar does a great job at allowing the story to flow quite nicely. The characters have their own storylines, which eventually merge towards the end, making this an absorbing, suspenseful read. Dr. Gail’s chapters were bold and readers see black girl magic at work in her character. In my opinion, she’s the heroine of this novel – you’ll have to get your copy to find out why!

The Harrison School is not your average therapeutic boarding school. It is an ideal environment for anyone – not just students who battle with mental illness. Tiffany Gholar’s palpable descriptions of various rooms decorated in tones like amethyst purples, sapphire blues and emerald greens as well as descriptions of students having their own comfy bedrooms with medical staff always on call, made me wish this sanctuary actually existed. Since Tiffany Gholar is an artist (she designed the four different book covers for this novel), writer and interior designer, trust and believe that her descriptions are impressively vivid and vibrant. Vivid descriptions + great storytelling sprinkled with suspense made this an enjoyable read.

Tiffany Gholar’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a reminder of why we need to support more Indie writers. I would give this novel 5 stars, but the words ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ were over-used for a story of this nature. Maybe the use of these words were intentional, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. One theme that’s constant in this novel is the theme of mental health awareness. Each character is dealing which his/her own stresses that have an effect on their mental and emotional health. From reading the blurb, one may think this novel is super heavy and dark, but it’s not at all. Readers will encounter a blossoming romance, crazy pharmaceutical politics, issues surrounding race, funny commentary on various students and events. Be prepared to enter a time-capsule as you travel back to 1994 when singer Tevin Campbell, Digable Planets (hip hop group) and the film ET were still popular. The novel isn’t bogged down with excessive depressing happenings – trust me on this one!

Lately, there is more and more talk in the Black community around mental health and ‘self-care’ to the point where it’s even (unfortunately) commercialized. Black/African communities rarely used to speak on the issue of mental health because they/we think everything can be prayed away. But I strongly believe seeking help through psychotherapy or finding a counsellor can be the first step towards healing – Devante, Janina, Dr. Gail and Dr. Lutkin are proof of this! I hope this novel gets the attention of various middle and high schools because Gholar’s sensitive writing is a great tool for discussing various personal issues, with young adults of color.

Special thanks to Tiffany Gholar for sending me the Dr. Gail Thomas edition of the book!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Bitter Pill To Swallow on Amazon