I had a little chat with Antiguan and Barbudan author, Joanne C. Hillhouse. We talked about her exciting new book, Musical Youth, and a little bit about Joanne’s own journey.
Joanne’s writing has been described as “honest,” “real,” “poetic,” and “lyrical.” Her culture is at the heart of her writing: “Obvious is the ‘writer’s ear’ for effective characterization and narrative that stays true to Caribbean island experience” (Island Where, St. Lucia).
So, Joanne, Musical Youth… What is the book about?
Okay, the book is about a girl who is a loner, a girl who plays guitar, a girl who doesn’t believe in herself, who kind of wants to disappear; it’s about how she flowers during a summer of musical theatre. The book is also about a boy who knows his ability and, unlike the girl, feels part of a family, traditional and non-traditional, a boy who also has his own journey of discovery during that summer. It’s about this boy and girl bonding over a shared love of music, and it’s about the ways they are connected that they don’t even know. It’s about these kids, the boy and the girl, and others who learn what they can do.
What was your inspiration for it?
I run a writing programme in Antigua and Barbuda, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, designed to nurture the literary and visual arts. These kids, in Musical Youth, are involved in the performing arts (and since they write, some of them, also the literary arts) and there’s a similar belief in the power of the arts to help young people find their voice, that runs through both that programme and this novel. As for the specific inspiration, I don’t know. These kids just started telling me their story one foreday morning; they were insistent about it, and I did what I always try to do when characters show up: I listen, I write, and when the tale is told, the haunting is over, and they leave.
“These kids just started telling me their story one foreday morning; they were insistent about it, and I did what I always try to do when characters show up: I listen, I write, and when the tale is told, the haunting is over, and they leave.”
You grew up in Antigua. What are your most vivid childhood memories?
I never know how to answer that question broadly like that; it was a normal childhood in Ottos, Antigua. But if I use Musical Youth as a reference point, I have a few things in common with main character Zahara. We both went to Catholic school, we both played guitar – though she had a talent for it and I didn’t, we both perhaps lived a little too much in our heads, and both found a way to figure out who we are in the world and how we feel about things through the arts – for me, reading and writing; for her, listening to and creating music.
Beyond that, it was normal – friendships and family, church and Carnival, mangoes and butterflies… (Butterflies always come to mind when I think of my second childhood home, much like willow trees, the willow trees in my first book The Boy from Willow Bend, when I think of my first childhood home…) the days we spent chasing butterflies in the hedges across the street from my grandparent’s home, something I referenced, though re-located, in Willow Bend… in it, I referenced, too, perhaps my most vivid memory, my grandmother, tanty’s, dying… my first heartbreak and the thing that quite possibly set me on the path to becoming a writer.
And when was it that you start seeing yourself as a writer?
I think I’ve always been a writer. I started writing fervently in my teens, and never stopped… but I was probably in my twenties before I said, I am a writer, because it didn’t seem like something you could be and I didn’t know how to be it. That claiming was slow, too slow, and it’s one of the reasons I started Wadadli Pen, ten years ago, so that other young writers in my community who felt this calling could feel encouraged. Favourite authors are hard to narrow down… there’s Jamaica, Edwidge, Alice, Harper, Zora, Maeve… it’s too hard.
“That claiming was slow, too slow…”
What place does music occupy in your life?
If I’m writing, there’s music. If I’m reading, there’s music. If I’m walking, there’s music. If I’m riding the bus, there’s music. Or there should be to keep the irritants away. Sometimes it’s a buffer between me and the world, I admit that, but mostly it just makes me happy.
Growing up, there was a bit of everything. Lots of calypso, and I’ve said that the poetry in the calypso of my childhood, the way it cut to the heart of things and played with language, proved instructive for me, in ways I didn’t realize then, as a writer becoming. Calypso, the calypso at that time, sang the things people were afraid to say and reflected the concerns and reality of the folk, authentically, in their voice, in a way that stirred spirits. I think there’s a part of me that strives for that in my writing. So, yeah, calypso, but also all the other things, all of the music out of America, pop, soul, rnb, country, rock, jazz, later hip hop… reggae and dancehall from Jamaica… anything that moves me and that’s pretty varied.
Can’t choose a favourite; I feel like I’d be cheating on all the other favourites. Do I play an instrument? Not anymore, not for a long time. I still have my guitar, though…
Your mother seemed to always have been very supportive. She brought you your first typewriter. What are some of the values you learned from her, and that transpire in the book?
My mother has had a tough life and has still a determined spirit… that can be good and bad… when determined spirit meets determined spirit… but whatever disadvantages she had made her push us hard, certainly when it came to education. The typing lessons were a part of that, much like the extra lessons she paid for for my sister in whatever subject she needed it in… it was about giving us what she hadn’t had… and I understand now in a way that I didn’t then what a sacrifice it must have been. But she’s a fighter… and I don’t know yet everything I’ve learned from her… I’m still learning.
“My mother is a fighter… and I don’t know yet everything I’ve learned from her… I’m still learning.”
Tell us about your writing process.
I have no set routine. I wish I did. I wish I could afford to. But as it is, I’m on the hustle and my own writing… I get it wherever I can…which is why I always have something to write with…
I schedule writing time every day to remind myself that this is a priority… but more often than not it will show up at the most inopportune time, because life, the life away from the page is the stimulus, and when things suggest themselves… I just try to roll with it…but it’s at its best when I finally get a rhythm going so that even when real life calls and I’m away from the page, I’m still writing, still figuring things out in my head.
What do you love the most about your birthplace?
Except for my years at university, and workshops, and other writing or work related activities, short and medium term abroad, and travel for discovery, I live and have always lived in Antigua, a place which both frustrates and feeds the writing process. It’s hard to be an artiste in Antigua, sometimes hard to make life in Antigua, but that’s anywhere, I think, and, well, never say never… but, much as I have embraced opportunities and continue to remain open to pursuing opportunities to go wherever this writing takes me, I can’t think of anywhere else that I want to commit to long term…
I think most Antiguans and Barbudans, even the ones who’ve made life abroad feel this way, it’s not for nothing that one of our signature songs is King Obstinate’s I’ll always come back to you… and one of my in-my-head anthems is Short Shirt’s Nobody go run me… besides, I think my stories have benefited from me being here… they are Antigua stories, specific of place, and I feel there is so much soil still to be dug up, I want to be here to do the digging. So I love that. I love that as difficult as it is to write here, ah right here, and I write here, you know.
As for what else I love… it is a place like anywhere else, a place with beaches I don’t visit enough, sunsets that still make me stop and stare, summers of Carnival and music that offer release, food to make your mouth water and your belly full, like my favourite, pepperpot… so many mini-pleasures, sometimes the boundaries of the world a comfort, sometimes a jacket that fits a little too tight… usually at times when it feels we are not rising to our potential, at times when it feels we are slugging through life, stagnating… but it’s home and I love it even when I struggle to accept certain things about it… what do I love most, probably our resilience… a resilience I hope hasn’t been lost… a resilience I hope to be able to continue tapping into every time life tries to break me.
Joanne is scheduled to receive from the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Committee, named for one of our late great activists and journalists, for, according to their letter, her “perennial and exemplary contributions to the advancement of our country, especially in areas of journalism, literary arts, and the development of our youth”
Tell us about your participation to CODE?
CODE is a non-profit based in Canada. They do programmes to stimulate literacy and the literary arts in various parts of the world. In 2013, they announced the Burt Award in the Caribbean, a programme designed to encourage the creation of content for the teen/young adult reading population (maybe the non-reading but would be if they found something interesting population as well). The programme was also intended, I think, to make publishing more accessible to Caribbean writers by working with the independent publishers in the Caribbean to bring to market the best of the books from the Burt Award, and to offer a sizable portion of those books for free.
In 2014, the first cycle of the awards, my unpublished manuscript Musical Youth, was one of those. I placed second, signed with Caribbean Reads, an independent publisher registered in the eastern Caribbean, and have worked with them to bring Musical Youth into the marketplace.
I love these kids, these Musical Youth, and I am excited to see how the Caribbean teen/young adult reader interacts with them. It’s a bit of a perfect storm in terms of my involvement with CODE at the moment because so much is happening at once, it’s a bit overwhelming. I’m preparing to host a two-day workshop here in Antigua; CODE is sponsoring, something I’ve been lobbying for since I knew CODE existed and did this kind of thing.
I’ve also been asked to be a Burt Award judge this year, so I’m currently reading manuscripts and books submitted for the 2015 prize. And of course my book, Musical Youth, is now being rolled out, at the same time, and I’m doing my part to promote that, an absolutely time consuming but absolutely necessary process.
That’s me and CODE, a momentary intersection of a number of things and an opportunity to keep doing what I love.
How exciting! Where can we meet you?
I have a reading this Friday in support of the launch of Musical Youth. That’s 7:00 p.m. at the Best of Books, Antigua; then the workshop is Saturday and Sunday of this week. These series of events coupled with an award I’m scheduled to receive from the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Committee, named for one of our late great activists and journalists, for, according to their letter, my “perennial and exemplary contributions to the advancement of our country, especially in areas of journalism, literary arts, and the development of our youth” means that November 20th to 23rd is going to be crazy… and after that, it’s back to the hustle.
MORE ABOUT JOANNE
(and she’s on Facebook!)
Born in Ottos, Antigua, Joanne placed second for the inaugural Burt award in 2014; her manuscript Musical Youth was published later that year by Caribbean Reads Publishing. Her previous books are The Boy from Willow Bend (Macmillan, UK, 2002; Hansib, UK, 2009), Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (Macmillan, UK, 2003), children’s picture book Fish Outta Water (Pearson, UK, 2013), and Oh Gad! (Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, USA, 2012). In 2014, Oh Gad!– her first full length novel – was added to a course on Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College (NY) and also recommended on NPR, both by Elizabeth Nunez, renowned Caribbean-American writer. Hillhouse has contributed to the anthologies Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash, USA, 2014), African American Literary Award winning A Letter for My Mother (Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, USA, 2014), In the Black: New African Canadian Literature (Insomniac, Canada, 2012), For Women: In Tribute to Nina Simone (MZWrightNowProductions/Black Classics Press, USA, 2012), and others. Her poetry and fiction have also been widely published – Columbia Review, Caribbean Writer, S X Salon, Calabash, Womanspeak, Tongues of the Ocean, Poui and other journals.
Hillhouse graduated with a degree in Mass Communications from University of the West Indies (Mona) where she was taught and mentored by current Jamaican Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris among others. She has participated in the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (University of Miami), Breadloaf Writers Conference (Middlebury College, Vermont), and Texas A & M’s Callaloo Writers Workshop (at Brown University) – her sessions led, respectively by Olive Senior, Ursula Hegi, Ravi Howard, and Maaza Mengiste. Her awards and fellowships include the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks International Fellowship to attend Breadloaf in 2008, the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer in 2011, recognition by JCI West Indies in 2011 as one of Ten Outstanding Young Persons in the region, and a 2004 UNESCO Honour Award for her contribution to literacy and the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda. She was short listed in 2012 and 2013 for the Small Axe Literary Prize.
Joanne has read at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, Brown University, University of Miami, Middlebury College, University of Toronto, the Aye Write! Festival in Scotland, where she was also a Commonwealth panelist, the Nature Island Literary Festival in Dominica, the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad, the BIM symposium Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers in Barbados, the International Congress of Caribbean Writers in Guadeloupe, and at the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars conference in Suriname, and elsewhere. She was keynote speaker when University of Puerto Rico held its annual Islands in-Between conference at the Antigua State College. That’s a sampling of the literary activities in which she’s participated within and beyond the Caribbean.
She has won awards for her reporting; and freelances fulltime as a journalist, writer, editor, writing coach, workshop facilitator, and producer.
Her main off the clock activity is the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize which she founded in 2004 to nurture the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda.