Book Chat | On being ‘well read’ (part 1)

Hey everyone!

When you hear the words – ‘well read’, what comes to mind? What does it mean to be ‘well read’?

From my observations over the years, I realized being ‘well read’ was synonymous with being knowledgable in the ‘Classics’ – which typically comprise of the works of English writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë ; American writers like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald ; Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood‎, Lucy Maud Montgomery and a myriad of other books by WHITE writers.

Image via Arao Ameny’s Instagram

The concept of being ‘well read’ is very subjective and personal. In my opinion, there’s more to being ‘well read’ than being well-versed in the work of white writers or books we were forced to read in English Literature class.

I was curious to find out how other readers defined being ‘well read’, so I asked some of my favorite readers and writers I follow and interact with via Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram. In this book chat, three of my favorite readers and writers will enlighten us on what it means to be ‘well read’, with some recommendations on which authors and/or books we should indulge in to be considered ‘well read’, per their views on the concept.

Enjoy!

 

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is an African book lover who’s the creator behind the blog – Bookshy, where she’s been blogging about African literature since 2011. Her wonderful African Book Covers (ABC) Tumblr page, which celebrates African book cover art inspired my book covers showcase here at African Book Addict! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?
The first word that popped into my head when I read the question was ‘informed’, then I thought ‘very informed’, but that word (like ‘well read’) can take on many different meanings.

By ‘informed’ I mean that the reader knows a lot about many things because they have been able to read a lot.

Similar to a well-travelled person, who has been to way too many places. In that sense, a well-read person has read way too many books and so is informed by so many things.

That was my initial thought.

As I kept on thinking, I felt that ‘well read’ is pretty subjective. How many books does it take to become well read? Also, you might be well-read in one particular genre, but not in every single genre ever.

You might be well-read in your field of research. For example, ask me about gender and urbanisation or about paid domestic work and I’ll probably be able to list the key authors and what their arguments are. Ask me about contemporary African literature (in English) and I would like to think I’d able to hold my own with other ‘well-read’ African lit readers. Ask me about Literature from Ethiopia in Amharic (don’t bother), about anything IT or tech-related (seriously, don’t bother).

So, I wouldn’t take well-read purely as the number of books you’ve read since you started reading. I would take it as being very informed as a result of the number of books you’ve read. I also wouldn’t necessarily see well read as being well read in one genre, but being well read across a range: say, fiction, history, non-fiction, art etc.

Although I try not to be prescriptive as to what that entails, a lot of the ‘well-read’ people I know have read the classics, read a lot of non-fiction, as well as newspapers and magazines, and a variety of fiction.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Tough and I wouldn’t even know which 5 to select, but I would definitely include Buchi Emecheta on my list and bell hooks. Currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” so would include that. Sylvia Tamale’s “African Sexualities: A Reader”. My list could go on and on. So I’ll leave it at 4 and leave the 5th one blank – as there are many possibilities.

 


David DaCosta is a Goodreads friend and author who’s views I admire. Since 2002, he’s written an autobiography, two novellas set in Jamaica, a book of poetry, and is currently working on his debut novel. Whenever I’m looking for my next read by a Caribbean writer, I usually like to pick books that DaCosta has reviewed on Goodreads. I appreciate his critical book reviews and hope you all enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

‘Well read’ encompasses the spectrum of various mediums of writing, whether literary, newspaper, magazine etc.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

As a person who has alternated between living in Jamaica and Toronto for decades now, I have a natural leaning toward Caribbean literature. Earl Lovelace is the greatest author the Caribbean has produced. “The Dragon Can’t Dance” and “The Wine of Astonishment” are masterpieces. Trinidad & Tobago holds Earl Lovelace in high esteem, as they should.

Haitians should hoist Edwidge Danticat high on their shoulders. Her output over the past decade has been stellar. “Create Dangerously” and “Claire of the Sea Light” are both first-rate contributions to the literary world, each representing the best in fiction and nonfiction. Danticat’s latest offering “The Art of Death” further exemplifies her significant talents.

Octavia E. Butler is the definition of genius. I’ve had the privilege of reading five selections of her work (Xenogenesis trilogy, “Parable of the Sower” and “Fledgling”). The common thread that connects them all is a frighteningly authentic sense of realism. As an author, she really takes you there with well researched narratives and immaculate character development. It always amazes me how a black woman became the greatest author in a white dominated genre like Science Fiction. May she rest in peace.

I’ve read my share of works by African authors, mostly Nigerian. “Kehinde” by Buchi Emecheta remains my favorite. The novel truly represents female empowerment in its purest form. Having been raised by a strong woman, I gravitated to this particular protagonist’s character arc. I literally just learned that Miss Emecheta passed away earlier this year. May you rest peacefully my sister.

I’d be remiss If I didn’t make mention of author Uwem Akpan. I stumbled across his powerful collection of stories from the continent one day in 2008 while perusing the ‘Recommended’ shelf at a local library in Toronto. “Say You’re One of Them” stared back at me, daring me to pick it up. Taking its challenge, I did so, studying the front and back covers and eventually checking the book out. Once I began reading, I was hooked. The fact that it explored various countries throughout Africa made it all the more engaging. I can’t say enough about the exceptional level of writing contained within. Oprah eventually introduced the book to the world by making it an official Book club selection the following year.

 


Leslie Reese is the curator of the blog – Folklore & Literacy, where she muses on reading, writing, people, and culture. I enjoy Leslie’s thoughtful pieces as well as her love of literature and occasional book reviews that go beyond the books and storylines, but delve into her past experiences, her skilled photography, her appreciation for first edition book covers and artwork. Leslie is also a loyal visitor and commenter here on African Book Addict! which I deeply appreciate! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you? 

I kind of love this question, and I would probably answer it differently for ever year of my reading life!  Today, I’m going to say that being well-read means having an insatiable appetite for reading books that:

(1) nourish my imagination and spirit and tickle my “funny bone;”

(2) challenge me, that teach me things, and make me feel compassion for myself and others;

(3) make me feel connected to my ancestors, as well as connected to people with whom I never expected to share an affinity;

(4) inspire me to be more of myself;

(5) make me feel awestruck/ “blow my mind!”

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

The only way I can not be overwhelmed trying to answer this question is to select a sampling of works that made me feel awestruck/“blew my mind!” on my first encounter, and continue to feel fresh and striking anytime I open their pages to read from them, again.   

Sula by Toni Morrison

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (A Zora Neale Hurston Reader) edited by Alice Walker

The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire translated and with notes by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith

A People’s History of the United States 1492 – present by Howard Zinn (1999 edition)

Art on My Mind by bell hooks

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

What does being ‘well read’ mean to YOU?

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This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

Date Read: May 25th 2017

Published: 2012

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Pages: 217

 

The Blurb

From the award-winning author, a stunning collection that celebrates the haunting, impossible power of love.

On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In a New Jersey laundry room, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness–and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses.

In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, these stories lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

This Is How You Lose Her is a short story collection with brilliant writing and absorbing storytelling, but I was not a fan of the stories. In this collection, readers get a glimpse into the life of Yunior and his family who are originally from the Dominican Republic, residing in New Jersey.

I hated ALL the characters in this collection (Yunior’s brother – Rafa, really struck me though. I wanted to know more about his cancer and I wished readers got a closer look into how Yunior reacted to his brother’s fate). The characters in this collection can easily make you lose faith in humanity by their shitty actions and intentions (especially towards women). This collection tackles issues of immigration, infidelity, misogyny, love, grief, racism & colorism within the Dominican / Dominican-American community, family, brotherhood, illness, (hyper)masculinity and disappointment.

I usually love when a writer’s skill allows me to have strong feelings towards the characters, but the misogyny in this book was too strong for me. On Goodreads, other readers had issues with Díaz’s use of the word ‘nigga’ and the superfluous vulgarity of this collection. I had no issues with Díaz’s colorful choice of words – the vulgarity in the dialogue between the characters actually gave this collection so much life! But I wonder how the average Dominican feels reading this book – how much of the portrayal of men from the Dominican Republic is exaggerated?

Another thing that bugged me was the arrangement of the stories in this collection. I felt the stories were arranged haphazardly –  for example, the story entitled ‘Invierno’, which explains how Yunior and his family migrated to New Jersey and coped through winter as new immigrants from the Dominican Republic, should have been the first story and the rest of the stories should have followed chronologically – in my opinion.

Junot Díaz is no doubt a brilliant writer, but this collection was a stressful read for me. I will read his debut collection – Drown, just to experience more of Yunior; as well as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at some point.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase This Is How You Lose Her on Amazon

LIT LINKS MÉLANGE IV

Hey everyone!

I hope the month of October is treating everyone well. Over the weeks and months, I’ve been consuming some great literature finds and gems online. Below is a compilation of some of the LIT links I highly recommend you indulge in:

 

  • This Land is My Land  is a Kickstarter project by three students from Macalester College (Saint Paul, Minnesota) who are publishing a children’s book to build empathy. I really love the unique illustrations (I especially love that the characters are dark-skinned with kinky/ tightly coiled hair!) and strong premise around a necessary character trait everyone must strive to embody – empathy.

I think adults could learn a lot from this children’s book as well. The ways of the world have become quite disheartening and we could all learn to have more empathy with one another. Check out their website and donate to the kickstarter if you can, so they can meet their goal of $7,500 by November 2nd! #WeAreWithAmina

Image via This Land is Our Land website


  • Book bloggers are real readers via The Irish Times. Tunrayo of the blog Tunrayo’s Thoughts tweeted this AMAZING article to me some months ago. I’ve shared this article before in the last LIT Links Mélange, but I just have to share it again. The article articulates and defends the role of book bloggers and the influence we hold. Golden!

  • Pa Gya! Literary Festival in Accra this weekend!! I always feel like I’m missing out whenever there are book festivals in other parts of the continent and in the US when I’m not there. I’m thrilled that Writer’s Project Ghana will be hosting this 3-day literary festival, starting this Friday! Check out the packed schedule and start planning which events you’ll attend, if you’re in Accra :).

Image via Writers Project Ghana website


  • Writing Between Countries and Across Borders via The Lit Hub via Issue 20 of PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers is a brilliant conversation between authors – Kwame Anthony Appiah, Marlon James, Jamaica Kincaid, Valeria Luiselli, and Colum McCann. They speak about their creative processes, identity, the concept of home, immigration, their writing careers and more! I wish Jamaica Kincaid spoke more in this conversation, but here are two quotes I LOVED from this conversation, by Jamaica Kincaid –

We are on a powerful continent, and this powerful continent produces so much disturbance that the citizens of the continent would like, when they sit down to read a book, for that book to offer some solace about the human condition. I insist on offering none. 

When I’m writing, I am only true to the thing I’m writing. I find the contemporary obsession with the consideration of others in writing really disturbing, and I almost can’t respect a readership that would expect me to please them.

If you haven’t read any of Jamaica Kincaid’s work yet, I hope these quotes and my book reviews of her work pique your interest! Enjoy this conversations and gain wisdom from these geniuses!

Image via The Lit Hub


I love that she tries to encourage African writers to do away with appealing to foreign/white readers by setting their stories abroad and watering down their texts to accommodate the white gaze. But this article seems to give ‘African literature’ a specific criteria; it also suggests that being ‘African’ or an ‘African writer’ is monolithic and frowns heavily on Afropolitanism. It’s always problematic and divisive when people impose their rigid standards of identity onto others. I have so many thoughts on this article! If you don’t have time to read any of the links in this post, I strongly recommend you indulge in this excellent, yet polarizing article, so we can discuss in the comments!  

Image via Okay Africa


  • Edwidge Danticat on Memory and Migration via The New Yorker. I like to believe Haitian writer – Edwidge Danticat, is known for her beautiful, melancholic writing which really speak to the heart. Enjoy this interview where Danticat talks about Alzheimer’s, family, and hanging on to the past even through heartbreak. (Her short story collection – Krik? Krak!, has been reviewed on this platform. I’m yet to find the words to review her beautifully painful novel – Breath, Eyes, Memory soon)

  • The Elma Lewis Center (of Emerson College in Boston, MA) has blessed us with the The Hidden Figures Syllabus! The syllabus was launched on September 15th, on what would have been Elma Lewis’ 96th birthday.

In honor of Lewis, and in gratitude for the powerful legacy she has left, this syllabus was carefully curated with lists of texts and other resources by and about Black women and femmes from around the African diaspora. This is a resource I will be referring to often, especially when I want to find my next read and raise my awareness on Black literature & culture.

Click image to download the Hidden Figures Syllabus below:

Image via Hidden Figures Syllabus website


  • bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward has been re-released by Penguin Books! I read and reviewed the poetry collection last year, from the self-published edition. This Penguin edition is just as good as the self-published edition but better, as it has new breathtaking poems full of Daley-Ward’s raw, healing writing. If you love poetry by Black women poets, I highly recommend this collection!

Image via African Book Addict! Instagram/ Bookstagram


  • Diriye Osman has launched his new website! In case you’re wondering who Diriye Osman is, he’s the British-Somali author, visual artist, critic and essayist whose short story collection – Fairytales For Lost Children, was my favorite book last year! The collection follows characters who desire to live their lives free from hate, criticism, and scrutiny, while trying to understand the intersectionalities of their identities. Fairytales For Lost Children is probably the best LGBTQ-themed African fiction out there.

The new website looks wonderfully Afro-futuristic and is a compilation of all of Osman’s work – fiction, interviews, essays and reviews of other works. Enjoy!

Image via Diriye Osman’s website

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Date Read: May 19th 2017

Published: 2000

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 81

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

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]

Purchase A Small Place on Amazon

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