Archive for the ‘Caribbean literature’ Category

Today began with a migraine but ended with some great news—I found out that I’ve been accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program, which will enable me to spend the spring semester focusing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. Around noon today, when I could bear to sit at my sun-soaked desk, I scanned and printed out an illustration by Leonard Weisgard from The Little Island. Now, up on the wall, I’ve got an 1871 map of Nevis, an 1817 slave register, the logo for my future Black Dog Arts Center, my partially-completed family tree, and this image:

I spoke with my aunt in Nevis this morning and learned some good and bad news. The good news is that my citizenship application was approved—on my birthday! So I am now a citizen of Nevis. The bad news is that my aunt’s doctor found a mass during her colonoscopy and she has to have surgery next week. I hope to hear soon about a grant I applied for that would fund a trip to the Caribbean in January, but I’m thinking I should just go ahead and book the ticket now. Until I get there I’m sending love and prayers and positive vibes across the sea…

Are you wondering what to get that special someone for the holidays? Why not support Hands Across the Sea, a nonprofit that provides books for Caribbean children? Sonita Daniel, Director of the Nevis Library Service, let me know that Hands Across the Sea has selected Nevis to receive donated books this year so any amount you give will help to provide books for children in Nevisian schools and community centers. I’ve got a school visit early tomorrow morning and think I’ll put the honorarium towards the Steel Pan Band package, which includes a “Selection of 35 hardcover titles from well-regarded Caribbean niche publishers.” Other packages range from $10 – $2500.

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Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Carol Ottley-Mitchell, author and publisher of the Caribbean Adventure Series. Carol kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her books and her role as publisher/promoter of Caribbean children’s literature.

Describe your evolution from reader to writer to publisher–did any particular book inspire you as a child? Why write for children and why focus on the Caribbean?

Evolution…perfect description. I read voraciously as a child, everything I could put my eyes on. My drive to write my own books developed when I had my children. They inherited my love of reading and fell in love with Roald Dahl, the Magic Tree House, and many others. I wanted them to also read books that reflected their heritage, so I searched for books with children of color and—even more importantly to me—children of the Caribbean. I was frustrated with the choices. There are good Caribbean-based books for children out there, but I found that many of the ones I came across were difficult to read or emphasized stereotypes that were not necessarily a part of how I saw myself as a Caribbean person. The straw that broke the camel’s back may have been one book, I believe it was a Macmillan publication, in which a family was having a snack and the children were snickering about what Daddy was drinking, which turned out, from the illustration, to be “Rum.” I could not see how this added value to a story aimed at 6-year-olds and I determined to do better.

I went up to Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts (one of my favorite places in the world) one April and I thought—what a great place for a kid to have an adventure, and the Caribbean Adventure Series was born!

The second reason that I write about the Caribbean is that I believe in writing about what I know. I have lived in the US on and off for 15 years, but I have never quite assimilated. I would not feel comfortable writing about a society that I appreciate but often don’t understand. This may also explain why after living for three years in Ghana, I have only written one story set in Africa.

African American author Sherley Anne Williams once despaired that there was nowhere in the past she could go (as a black woman) and be free. Your three black child protagonists journey into the past but race never seems to be a problem for them–even in the 1600s. How do you want black children to relate to the past?

The first book in the Caribbean Adventure Series, Adventure at Brimstone Hill, kind of wrote itself. There was never a drawing board with a master plan of how it would end. Not the textbook approach to writing, I know. When I got to the point where the children travel into the past and meet the British General, I was stuck for quite a while. It wasn’t writer’s block; I was battling with a big question. How would a white General react to two black children showing up in his office with a monkey, no less? Did I want to introduce a discussion of slavery and black-white relations into this particular book? I decided to stick to my plan to create a light book that portrayed children in the Caribbean the way that they may see themselves. Many black Caribbean children have the benefit of growing up in an environment where they are the majority, where the successful adults around them also look like them. So it would be natural for the children to meet a Caucasian on their island and question his legitimacy rather than their own.

While the Caribbean Adventure Series is not intended to influence how children relate to the past from the point of view of race, it does reflect how I would recommend that our children relate to their past. It is important for children to understand why we of African descent are in the Caribbean, not in a way that engenders bitterness or self-hatred, but in a way that develops the self-confidence that comes with knowing one’s history.

What are the greatest rewards and the biggest challenges of being a publisher?

Rewards? The children, always the children. When we were in Ghana, children who had read the books or been at one of my readings would approach me to compliment the books or to say “Auntie, when is the next book coming out?” This never gets old and makes my day, perhaps my year, and inspires me to keep writing and to keep looking for good children’s books to publish.

Challenges? How much time do I have? Just kidding. If I had to pick one thing, I would say that the biggest challenge is marketing. Now that my publishing company CaribbeanReads has six books in distribution, we have a good understanding of the process of getting the books from raw manuscript to the press. The difficult part, once you have the book, is to get the word out that you have published a fantastic book and to get people (besides your family and friends) to buy a copy.

What is your vision for the future re: literacy in the black community and/or the African diaspora?

The future of literacy in the African diaspora has to be viewed from both a demand and a supply side. We need to read, read, read. As black people, we often have to overcome initial expectations about our abilities and our level of intelligence. We should not overcompensate, but we need the tools to ensure that when we go into that job interview, into the board room, or show up for school that we can contribute in a way that forces others to forget their preconceptions and question their prejudices. Being able to speak intelligently about our area of expertise and more is an important part of that and reading widely helps.

On the supply side, we need to have more books written that portray black people—our past, our present, and our future—in a balanced, reality-based light.  I remember a friend of mine from Ghana saying that from years of watching African soap operas, she thought that relationships were supposed to be male-dominated and violent and so accepted such relationships as being natural. What we read about ourselves and how we see ourselves portrayed affects our psyche. No race is uniform and our literature should reflect that.

It has been great chatting with you!

Carol is an Information Technology professional. Her main profession is as General Manager of Leyton Microcomputer Services, an Information Technology firm based in St. Kitts. Born in Nevis, Carol has lived in several Caribbean countries. She spent a large part of her formative years in Trinidad, where one of her favorite pastimes was competing with her father to see who could compose the best humorous lyrics to existing songs. This was just the beginning of her interest in creative writing. Currently, Carol lives and writes in Virginia. Carol is married with two children who are her inspiration and her biggest critics. (Author Photo by Jaxon Photography)

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It’s happening again—I’m not taking photos of everything that’s going on! Yesterday I snapped a few images of the wonderful kids I met at Gingerland Library, but today the wind was blowing everything off the table and then waves of rain rolled down the mountainside…I still had a great time at the book fair—I met yet another cousin, saw some friends I met in June, and read Bird to a great group of kids who didn’t seem to mind the stormy weather. Last night I attended a performance of Nevisian folk songs at the Methodist church across the street, and then I went back this morning to give a brief presentation to their teen group. At the book fair I met the premier (who *must* be related to me because he looks exactly like my grandfather!). Right now I need a nap because there is a rooster who seems to live directly beneath my window; the first night he crowed from 4-5:30am and last night he got all the neighborhood roosters going at 2am…and yes, I’m staying *in town* this time. Still, it’s good to be back. Yesterday morning I walked over to the hospital and learned that they only keep records going back to 1980. So if my grandmother was institutionalized in 1945, those records will be at the registrar’s office in St. Kitts. I heard from the Secretary General and he’d like to meet while I’m in town so I’ll probably spend a day in St. Kitts next week. On Monday I present on The Hummingbird’s Tongue since we got rained out today…Mrs. Daniel has been an amazing host *and* she’s taken photos of everything so I’ll post more pix later. Time for my nap since Gavin the rooster will no doubt start up at 1am…

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Summer Edward asked me to share this call for submissions with you; the deadline is August 25 so start writing!

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Sometimes people suck. On my way to the airport this morning I found myself making a mental list of the people in Canada who could do something significant about youth violence but who instead choose not to use the power they’ve got to stand up for our kids. I worked myself into quite a funk and realized—yet again—that I can’t wait for those with power to do the right thing. As a friend from Montreal pointed out, we’re going to have to address the problem ourselves. As always.

I was still pretty cranky on the plane but my seatmate, Sylvia, was warm and friendly—when I told her about my father only returning to Nevis twice after leaving as a teen, she admitted she hadn’t been back since 1970! The plane was packed, as was the ferry coming over from St. Kitts; everybody’s in town for Culturama. I was just making the mental transition from “people suck” to “crowds suck” when a pretty little girl came up to me at the airport and asked, “Are you Aunty Zetta?” And from that moment on I remembered that sometimes—even most times—people ROCK. I met Carol Ottley-Mitchell online about a year ago, I think; she was living in Ghana at the time, but shared her fabulous children’s books with me (which are set in St. Kitts) and we swapped stories of our respective struggles to provide kids with culturally and historically relevant material. When I told Carol about the book fair in Nevis, she emailed me back and offered to meet me at the airport; her lovely daughter joined us for lunch at The Ballahoo, which overlooks a busy roundabout in Basseterre. Over a delicious meal we talked about self-publishing, living a transnational life, and which services would best serve the youth of SKN. I met Carol’s parents, got signed copies of her books, and I even got a cheap little cell phone to use while I’m in Nevis. While walking through town we ran into Mrs. Daniel, intrepid organizer of the inaugural book fair. Later she and I took the ferry over to Nevis and on the pier I was introduced to half a dozen people. My landlord was waiting for me in a bright red shirt with “Canada” printed across it. If you look at that photo of the restaurant in St. Kitts you can see a sign for Scotia Bank on the far left…they also have CIBC (another Canadian bank). I’m still thinking about the gun violence in Toronto and the alienation that leads *some* young people down such a destructive path. I grew up in a different city, and my childhood friend sums up the way I feel in this earnest letter to the city’s most recent victims:

I’m sorry that I didn’t have the privilege of knowing you. I’m sorry that you were killed so horribly, so inexcusably, by stupid men with guns. And I’m sorry if now, in death, both you and those you loved are being blamed.

I’m sorry if you have grown up in a city and in a land where it is easier for some to offer hurtful words about immigrants and their children than it is to express simple sadness for your deaths. I’m sorry if your family and those surrounding you are dealing not only with unfathomable grief, but also with the bigotry and cynical politicking that preys so eagerly upon the suffering of others.

The truth is, as angry as I get at those who sit back and do nothing to defend children of color in Toronto, I can’t deny the fact that I’m not there doing something—anything—for the kids who can’t escape the city I was able to abandon. Guilt sucks and it doesn’t get us anywhere. I was planning to visit Toronto sometime this fall—think I better get there sooner rather than later. Ah, the transnational life…

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Up at 2am. I’ve *never* had insomnia like this before. Once a month I’ll have a restless night but I’ve never found myself progressively losing sleep like this. It was happening in Brooklyn, too—over the past couple of months I started to wake at six, then five, then four. So what could it mean? Around 4am this morning I decided that it must be related to my ancestor search. Each time I find another generation and reach farther into the past, I lose an hour of sleep! The only good thing about this is that I have moments of lucidity while self-directing my waking dreams. I realized this morning that I want to open a museum. Not just an arts center, but a museum. What I haven’t found here in Nevis so far is a critical, comprehensive examination of slavery. The perspective of colonizers and slave owners is still being privileged—the one ghost story that’s mentioned in the tourist material I’ve gathered is a white woman whose fiance shot her brother in a duel and then proposed to another woman. So she shut herself up in her great house and now haunts the crumbling remains. THAT is the ghost story we’re supposed to care about? I realize the intent is not to alienate tourists who are primarily white, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that whites don’t want to know the truth about slavery. In fact, the greater risk is getting too deep, too graphic, and turning the past into another kind of exotic artifact. I mean, we have to have a conversation about language—what’s in a name? Why does the word “plantation” trigger positive associations for tourists and negative associations for me? I can already see a panel in my museum that will list “Ways to Be a Better Tourist.” All the grant-writing experience I’ve been accumulating will come in handy because I’ll need a major grant to make this happen. Everything prepares you for what’s next. I’ve been teaching this course on neo-slave narratives, and now I can select the best slavery novels for my museum bookstore. I’m going to enlarge those slave registers and line the walls with them. I’ll find an artist to develop a rendition of the mass suicide that took place in 1736 when 100 slaves jumped from the Prince of Orange slave ship anchored off the coast of Nevis. The history book I’m reading suggests it was a “cruel joke” that prompted an enslaved man to board the ship with his owner and tell the slaves that they were to be eaten once they were taken ashore. Maybe what he really said was, “Life as a slave on this island is unbearable,” and the newly arrived Africans decided death was the better option.

Ok, I better get myself ready to go. Alexander Hamilton House, lunch with Amba, and then all that other stuff. And maybe another nap on the beach…

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If I really was a bird in a previous life, I think I might have been a bananaquit. Yesterday while I was eating breakfast in the open air dining room, a tiny bird flew up to the railing next to my table. Then it flitted to the next table and the next and the next—and each time it tried to use its beak to prod the lid off the sugar jar! A bird after my own heart. I realized today that I haven’t had anything sweet since I arrived—no cake, no cookies. So I broke down and had a candy bar (which required me to walk over to the main office on my stiff, sore legs). I didn’t do much today. Woke at 3am again and finally got up since it was clear I wasn’t going to fall back to sleep. Dozed a bit this afternoon and then put on my bathing suit and lay out in the sun. I keep thinking about my grandmother’s birth certificate—we thought she was born in St. John’s Parish but it turns out she was born in Gingerland (great name, right?). The certificate was signed by Jane Hanley of Crab Hole—could that be Rosetta’s grandmother? My great-grandmother? I also discovered that the most famous writer in Nevis, Amba Trott, is an old family friend; I haven’t seen him since I was a child, but his first wife up in Canada put me in touch with him and we’re going to meet tomorrow hopefully. After I visit the Alexander Hamilton House, the police station, the registrar’s office, and the hospital (to see if there are any medical records for Rosetta). Hopefully I can visit my cousin’s school on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I head home…

I bought a new instant camera for this trip, but have hardly taken any photos. And then when I do, I can’t post them online–frustrating. I need to get someone to take some pictures of me over the next couple of days to make sure I’m part of the official record…

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For three days I woke up and worked on my conference paper—I’ve got nearly 8 pages but I’ve finally accepted the fact that I won’t be able to finish it before leaving on Wednesday. I’m depressing myself with this paper, which makes me wonder what impact it will have on my audience. Maybe getting away will help shift my perspective on publishing, which is admittedly bleak right now. I feel anxious about this trip, but am trying to take it moment by moment. I could just go and lie on the beach for seven days, but I’m mostly going to do research. I’m not sure what I’ll find, but I’m reading up on Nevis (Out of the Crowded Vagueness) and somehow learning the island’s history makes everything seem more weighty. I have my own expectations to live up to, my family obligations, and then there’s this growing pressure to vindicate those who passed without having a chance to tell their stories…enslaved Africans were bought and sold in Nevis since the 1600s—it was the Royal African Company’s “depot” for the region. Of course, I’m not from Nevis and that will limit my ability to speak for the dead. But I can do my part; I can encourage and assist others so that a new generation of writers can emerge. This is the final paragraph I tacked onto my grant proposal:

I named this project The Hummingbird’s Tongue because I feel I am uniquely positioned to write this book. Found only in the Americas, the hummingbird is tiny yet powerful, beautiful but elusive. Hummingbirds are determined migrants (able to cross the Gulf of Mexico without stopping), and they can survive in both hot and cold climates. Caribbean hummingbirds have beaks and forked tongues that have adapted over time to reach the nectar hidden deep within long-throated tropical blossoms. My grandmother probably never could have imagined that one day her namesake would return to Nevis equipped with the skills needed to probe the past, unearth her story, and redeem her reputation.

I hope I’m right about that! I hope I really do have the skills I need to write these books. It’s humbling…which is good, because that means I’ll have to ask for help instead of going it alone.

Will try to blog daily while I’m away, so stay tuned!

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I had a moment yesterday when I wanted to quit teaching. As soon as I submitted my grades, the whining began…no matter how clear you are about the course requirements, no matter how many opportunities you give to earn extra credit, there are always a few students who think you owe them something more. I love teaching and I hope to teach for the rest of my life, but I’m wondering if there’s a way to build a life that lets me do what I love and discard all the rest. Yesterday’s meeting with Terry Boddie was great—I can’t imagine what I’d do without the support of fellow artists! Artist/professors who teach, and grade, and deal with ridiculous demands, and yet still manage to get their work out into the world (Terry’s got FOUR shows up right now). Giving up the academy would mean working as a teaching artist and supplementing my income with grants. I’ve gotten three grants so far this year, and right now I’m applying for a fourth. It’s a different kind of hustle but the good thing about writing grant proposals is that the process lends clarity to your work. Why do I do what I do, and what does my writing offer the world? I’m still working on my project summary but thought I’d share what I’ve got so far. This is Nevis book #1:

The Hummingbird’s Tongue

This nonfiction book—a blend of memoir, genealogy, and mythology—will attempt to trace the life of my paternal grandmother, Rosetta Elliott. Born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Rosetta was institutionalized approximately ten years after the birth of her two children, George (my father) and Ilis. Both children were removed from Rosetta’s custody when they were quite young; George was raised (alternately) by his maternal and paternal grandmothers, and Ilis was raised by her biological father and his wife (though his paternity was kept from her until adulthood). Stripped of her children, my grandmother continued to live in Nevis until the mid-1950s when she began having “fits” and was committed to an asylum in neighboring Antigua where she allegedly died.

Shortly after his mother’s death, my father emigrated from Nevis to live, for the first time, with his father in Canada. Fifteen years later, in 1972, my father returned to Nevis with my mother (who was pregnant with me at the time). They visited the asylum in Antigua and found no record of Rosetta Elliott. In his unfinished memoir my father implied that Rosetta was involved with prominent men on the island; I plan to investigate this claim and others, including speculation that my grandmother’s “fits” weren’t caused by epilepsy but by obeah (so-called “black magic”). My grandfather once worked as a policeman in Antigua—did he use his professional connections to make his former lover “disappear”? Was the news of Rosetta’s death prior to his departure for Canada a lie designed to sever my father’s connection to the less reputable side of his family?

I have lived with depression and anxiety since my teen years, and suspect that my father battled depression throughout his life as well. Fortunately, I evolved into a black feminist writer, though my commitment to self-expression led my father to call me “a stranger in the family.” I feel a strong sense of kinship with the woman for whom I was named, though we never met and I have not even a photograph of her. My great-aunt once told me that Rosetta had “hair down her back”—a significant feature for a poor black woman. Was she beautiful? Was marriage unavailable or uninteresting to her? Perhaps my grandmother traded whatever assets she had in order to survive.

If my grandmother did indeed suffer from some type of mental illness, I would like to know what symptoms she exhibited and what services were available to women in the eastern Caribbean at that time. Could any “undesirable” be institutionalized? Was Rosetta truly a danger to herself, or was her sexuality deemed dangerous to an insular, patriarchal society that expected women to know and stay in their “proper place”? The 2009 study of Nevisian girls, Pleasures and Perils by Debra Curtis, reveals disturbing patterns of coercion and early experimentation with sex; my book will consider contemporary conditions for women in Nevis and will offer strategies to ensure that girls have the tools they need to recognize and resist exploitation and marginalization.

Green-Throated Caribbean Hummingbird

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Actually, it’s pouring. Good thing I went out early to get some groceries: two apples, soy milk, juice, and a mini Toblerone bar. I needed some little treat since today I plan to get ALL my grading done. I’ve got one exam left and about ten book reviews. Once grades are in I can turn my attention to my conference paper for ChLA, which is starting to take shape (in my mind, at least). I wake up visualizing the slides I plan to share, and then I sit down at the computer and my mind is filled with ideas for a new novel set in Nevis circa 1765…it’s about the two siblings who befriended Alexander Hamilton when he was a boy. The brother is thirteen, mixed-race, the emancipated son of a successful white trader; his younger half-sister is black, enslaved, and on the verge of being initiated into a secret society…

I learned yesterday that Horn Book will run a review of Ship of Souls in its summer issue. They chose a Canadian reviewer, which is interesting. She didn’t share the exuberance of The Book Smugglers, but that doesn’t really surprise me:

Elliott’s story is quick, clean, and briskly paced. Although the elements of the fantasy adventure wobble, Elliott engages some interesting content—the historic dead who lie beneath Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the three African American teens, all from different backgrounds.

It’s cold in Canada. Good thing I’m heading south…

Tomorrow I meet with Terry Boddie, a Nevisian artist who’s been giving me advice on conducting research and making art in Nevis. This morning I emailed the local radio station—there was an address specifically for “requests,” and I’m sure that meant song requests, but instead I asked for help locating listeners who might know something about my paternal grandmother. I could put an ad in the paper, too, I guess. This is new territory for me and I know I should show some restraint, but there’s been so much silence for so long…I feel like I don’t have time to ease into the past. It’s like a ship pulling away from shore. She who hesitates is lost…

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