Monday, November 24, 2014

Are you underestimating the possible present impact of stories you wrote long ago?

Stories that have meaning from generation to generation: Do you have one of these stories that still provides enjoyment and has significance even after decades? Are you sure that you aren't underestimating the present impact of stories you may have written long ago?

On Wednesday last week, I was asked by Mrs. Grossett, the librarian at Franklin Town Primary, my favourite primary school, to visit and read and interact with the students. It was great seeing again some of the children with whom I had done the writing workshop earlier in the year, to feel the shared connection to story and reading. It was delightful to meet again the dedicated members of staff and the principal, Mr. Leroy Smith. I even met staff who want to write. This is great because I believe that staff can write for themselves as well as for their students.
Most wonderful, and a complete surprise, was the presentation of a plaque which read:
Presented to Diane Browne
Your service to Franklin Town Primary has been phenomenal
 "We love and appreciate you" November 2014.
So my cup runneth over with joy, as you can imagine.   I've been associated with Franklin Town Primary for some time. In the 1990s I used to work in publishing nearby, and we just came together in some way. They ask me to read from time to time, and as long as it's possible, I always go.  Mrs. Grossett is an outstanding librarian. I remember when I first met her, realising that her library was not only a window to the world of books, but also a haven. My doing writing workshops with the children is yet another way she has thought of  empowering her students.

I must say also, that a credit to the school and its staff is the fact that the children were all keen to read, when asked if they'd like to share in the reading of a story. Even if they might struggle with the odd word, they still wanted to read. This is the sign of  a nonthreatening learning environment, where children want to perform, and know that they can try and try again until they succeed. This was even evident in the younger grades, where one might expect to find some children who might be less fluent in their reading.

And now to the story. Mrs. Grossett had asked if I had any little stories which were inexpensive enough for the children to buy, and then I could autograph them. I have none. Everything that is published ends up being too expensive.  However, I thought, surely I can give what actually belongs to me? So I decided to send the text of the story I put on my blog every Christmas, Once Upon a Starlight, first published in The Big River and Other Stories by the Children's Writer's Circle with funding by Caribbean Greeting Company. The children would be able to make their own little booklets, and either colour the black and white illustrations or draw their own.

For this particular story, the group was from grades 4-6. We met in the room with the beautiful teaching aids which you can see in the photos. Many of the children had not yet got a chance to finish reading the story sent, so we talked about it. We discussed the fact that I had wanted to change the traditional 'Once upon a time' to 'Once upon a starlight'; and to make the giver of wishes be the 'Auntie of the Starlight', instead of a 'fairy godmother',  both to make the story more Jamaican. (This was when and why I created Auntie of the Starlight.) I told them  how when I was little we used to go down King Street on Christmas Eve and look at all the toys, and paper hats and starlights that the vendors were selling. Are you there with me, guys? The children were there with me. You know you can feel when you are one with your audience.

Angela, the little girl in Once Upon a Starlight wishes she could have a doll she sees in a store window, but her father can't  find any work, her mother does sewing for stores, but needs a new sewing machine. Things are dire. Everybody understood about being out of work, of needing something like a sewing machine, of not being able to have the Christmas they wanted. This story was written in 1983. Was this when hard times first hit us? Surely not; Jamaicans have been dealing with hard times and  migrating for years to escape it when they can. The fate of small island states! And we are in hard times now again, along with the rest of the world.

Of course, there were the mandatory and recognizable three wishes in the story, each to be stated upon the lighting of a starlight. We did not finish the story because  we wanted the children to either say how they thought the story would end, or draw an illustration for the story. A rush for paper and pencils! Some needed more than one sheet  of paper. There was the buzz of excitement.

Essentially, the children decided what Angela would wish for; definitely a job for her father;  and that all wishes would be granted, including that of the longed for doll. The group had a vested interest in the outcome. The illustrations varied from a glorious big starlight filling up the page ( I contributed by showing them how to use the pencil to create sparkles), to a variety of beautiful 'Angelas',  rivaling any of the traditional fairy tale heroines. Some children added her house and her little sister, who watches the wishing activities from the front steps, but who also wants to hold one of the starlights.

For the children, I'm sure this was an enriching experience. I know that many schools have activities like this. However,  I suspect that there may be others who do not yet understand how this type of activity which relates to stories about us, empowers the children, boosts their confidence. For my part, I learned that stories forgotten can continue to be relevant, can bring meaning to children's lives long after you've relegated them to the past. As people we all wish for the same things, love and security for our family. And always from these activities the children learn: "My life is important enough to be in a story."

Notes on photos: One might think that I decided to show photos of myself. I do have lovely pictures of children reading, both boys and girls, but I try not to show children's faces in any document that will be available to all on the Internet. Those pictures of the children will be sent to the school for them to display as they will. However, I hope that by the pictures I've shown here, you can observe the interactive nature of the activity. Please note the interest shown by the boys. The final picture is of Mrs. Grossett with me donating two of my books to their library.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A real Caribbean book: written by a Barbadian, published in Barbados about a Trinidadian invention: a multicultural/multiethnic book

I do want to start looking at multicultural children’s literature in general, and in relation to the Caribbean. Therefore it was perhaps serendipitous that I picked up this book, Ping Pong by June Stoute in Barbados, at the airport, in the Best of Barbados shop. Everything in that sentence has meaning. The book Ping Pong is about the steel pan, invented in Trinidad; June Stoute is Barbadian; the children in the delightful illustrations by Suzette Humphreys and Jehanne Silva-Freimane depict the various ethnic groups of the Caribbean. That it was bought at the airport in a Best of Barbados shop, suggests that sales are to be gained out of a specialty store selling high end art and craft gift items. The book, in verse,  was published in 2011 by Wordways, Barbados.  At the end of the book there is information about the origin of the steel pan and steel bands today.

What is the significance of all of this? Well on the positive side, it’s great to have a multiethnic/multicultural book published for us. On the other hand, one would have to ask why a book like this is not in bookstores in all the islands, available for all our children to enjoy. Maybe it is in some of the other islands, I don’t know, but I’d be ready to swear that it’s not here, and yet a number of our schools have steel bands.  Of course the price, once it is turned into Jamaican dollars, might seem prohibitive to some parents, but surely it should be in school libraries.  These questions I’m posing are nothing new. I have posed them in one way or another, for years now, it seems. If we do not support one another, if we are not interested in one another, why should anybody outside of the region be interested in our books? As usual I live in hope, so that I hope that as people become more interested (yet again)  in multicultural children’s literature, we will in some way get caught up in it as well. More about that in future blog posts.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

A new take on character driven stories: Inviting comments on a story; a fascinating experience

I’ve asked people to comment on stories as readers,  adults, in the form of teachers, librarians, editors, and children, usually from schools. These comments usually help me and my editor as we continue the writing process. But I’ve never put a story on line and invited comments from the general public. I did this with Daughter of the Time to Come in my last blog. I already knew how one of my regular readers felt as she said she couldn’t comment as she really didn’t work with that style of writing/type of story. Translation: she does not like it at all.

So on to the comments. As far as I can see only two people commented, which could mean people didn’t like it and wanted to spare my feelings, or just weren’t interested. But the exercise has been instructive and fascinating for me because I found out so much more about the story.

First comment: N. said that the story was lovely (or maybe that’s what I took her to mean, when she said it was so gentle). She added that she wondered if it weren’t too gentle. I agreed with her and said there really was no action or excitement. Certainly a damning comment form the author herself, eh. She asked what was the target audience, and I stuttered a reply. I realized that I had wanted it to be for children under 12, but hoped that adults would also read it, and read between the lines. I admitted that I had perhaps imagined a type of Native American approach to story, where things are quietly told so as to let us know why something is the way it is. Yet this is not a ‘just so’/’how it came to be’ story. And as I think of that, I share with you an event at the library, where a visiting Native American storyteller told a story; it was beautiful and calm. The children present clapped politely. Then a Jamaican storyteller told one of our stories; it was full of fun and excitement and some amount of trickery (Anancy-type survival syndrome) and the children roared with laughter and clapped loudly. Who indeed is my target audience?

Second comment: H. said that the story felt unfinished, that she needed more back-story, more info on both characters, e.g. Was the soldier brought up by house slaves, hence had an affinity for Africans? Had the two characters thought of each other in between the meetings which take place in the story? and so on  H. mentioned the idea, as expressed by the characters, that one day people would respect one another, as something that resonated with her. She pointed out that it was still relevant today and that we have not as humans managed to achieve this ideal. In the story, The Red Warrior tells Daughter of the Time to Come that they had respected one another as great warriors, and that even if they could not now be friends, perhaps their children would be friends in this island in the time to come. The story indicates that Daughter of the Time to Come realizes this truth. . . . "This then was the answer, to have the understanding." That, by the way, was the original ending.

There is a history to this story. I had actually sent it to an American publisher and the children’s editor graciously met with me when I was in New York attending a conference. She said they might be interested if I could include what Maroon life was like, how the villages were set up/worked, etc. I understood what she meant and that this then would make it like those stories which could be promoted as historical/multicultural. I thought about it. It seemed an excellent idea. I did nothing about it when I returned home. The story was selected for a collection of Caribbean folktales. I saw the comments of the readers and one had mentioned the element of romance. The collection was never done because the publisher had discovered by then that children’s books were hard to sell. When that collection was passed onto another publisher, I was not surprised that the story was not included in the book they produced. Perhaps it had only made it through that initial selection because one of the readers had a little romance in her soul.

Both readers, N. and H., picked up on the attraction the characters felt for each other. An attraction that would have been forbidden at that time, and always is, wherever we are in whatever time of history, for those who are on opposing sides. (Romeo and Juliet).

The back story: I know all about these two characters. I can see them. The soldier eventually married and had a family. He had grown up with Africans, not as house slaves, but around them on the estate to which his father was attached. He learnt their ways. Always he wanted to be a brave warrior. He is handsome, just because he is, and he is a wise and brilliant warrior; he can also be gentle. All through his life he often thought of Daughter of the Time to Come, always wondered if he would meet her again. Perhaps he always loved her. Certainly, he understood her.

Daughter of the Time to Come also has a family, she too has thought of him over the years, but would not even admit to herself that she is carrying any feelings for him (as we say in these modern days). She is beautiful, just because she is, and bold, fierce and proud. She is not gentle. She has had no opportunity or inclination to be so. She is bitter about the defeat, as she sees it, of the truce with the British. Her people are more important to her than anything else. (‘I could not love thee dear so much loved I not honour more’ – something I remember from English literature in school when I would mentally collect particularly romantic or life-directing quotes).

These two characters are star-crossed never to be lovers. There is no way that any of their feelings could be admitted. Hence, I suppose in 2014, I give her the consolation prize of mothering all the daughters who will lead her country down through the ages. (The later ending). And after all, who can say if it is the consolation prize?

And that is why, even though I’ve read the comments, I don’t think the story can be changed. This is a character driven story and I don’t think the two characters want to tell their back story. There is nothing more to be said. Their story has been written. These characters came to me and said , ‘Tell our story', and yet , here is a story that perhaps should not have been written, because it is not a story. You may then ask if there is any psychological reason why the characters came to me, any family history. That question did not occur to me until I was writing this blog, and quite honestly, I do not think that there is. This is a story which has no future and yet these two characters are as real to me as any I have ever written.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Daughter of the Time to Come: a story for remembering our heroes

In this month of October we celebrate our heroes; we do so in particular in Heroes Week. We remember our designated heroes as well as all the other heroic people who have contributed to the development of our people and our country. We celebrate our  culture and cultural icons. As you can imagine, our history and culture could be the basis for many children’s stories. Remember all the tales we were told of the heroic in stories from Europe when we were children. Do you remember the boy who stuck his finger in the dyke? I can see myself as child, awestruck at the enormity on what he was doing.

 I also wonder about the people who did not get themselves into stories and history books. My story Daughter of the Time to Come is about two such people, each in their own way heroic, each of them human with hopes and disappointments, and hopes again. I had wanted to upload it as a book on Amazon, but the funds just weren’t there. So I’m putting it on my blog. I hope that you will read it. It may seem a bit long for a blog post, but think of it as a story you don’t have to purchase. Let me know what you think, what you would have liked included. For example, should I make her part Taino?  I just thought of that recently, but I really wanted to make her African, to be related to the unsung Nanny heroes.  There was a previous ending to the story before I revised it. See if you can spot it, and say which you prefer. The two endings have quite different implications.

The illustration, which I love,  is by Errol Stennett. When this story was first selected for an anthology  (which never did get published) this was the piece he submitted for it. Perhaps next year Daughter of the Time to Come can be a real book with plenty of great artwork.
Daughter Of The Time To Come
It was the time when the Tainos no longer roamed the forests free. And the Spanish who had brought an end to the Taino way of life, had themselves fled the island from the invading British – for that sadly is the way of humankind, conflict instead of peace and understanding. It was then that there lived in the mountain forests a beautiful girl called Daughter Of The Time To Come.
            No one knew how she had got her name but it was whispered that an African wise man, one who could remember the old ways, had named her. This was taken as a sign that she would be a great leader amongst her people, the Maroons.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come showed every sign of fulfilling this prophecy for she was as brave as she was beautiful. Her skin was the rich colour of polished mahogany, her eyes were like pools of dark secret water, and her short tight black curls framed a face of great sensitivity and intelligence. She was an expert tracker, her long, strong legs carrying her swiftly and silently through the forest. And she was accomplished in all methods of fighting used by the Maroons, those fearless Africans who had been slaves of the Spanish, and who had taken to the hills to continue the fight against the British invaders.
             At that time also there were other women leaders amongst the Maroons who were such brave warriors that the British soldiers feared them, believing them to have special magic powers. Daughter Of  The Time To Come knew she would be one of these, one of those who would lead her people in the defeat of the British in the time ahead.
             One day, Daughter Of  The Time To Come stood in the forest quite still; the breeze whispered through the dense foliage gently moving the vines that hung from the massive trees. She listened carefully for she had heard a sound. She was alone. Normally this would not have been so, but she had chosen this day to scout out the area to see if it was a good place for an ambush.
            There was the sound again. Daughter Of The Time To Come clutched her machete. Was it a wild hog?
            No, it was the sound of men coming through the bush. Closer they came, their boots making a distant noise, however careful they tried to be, as they trampled twigs and bramble underfoot. She could tell that it was only a small party which meant that they were either scouts or stragglers.
             Either way she was in danger for she was alone. Mind you, in a minute she could be safely gone, but if she could watch them, and report to her people on their movements, she would show how clever and fearless she was. She stood, hardly daring to breathe, blending in with the sprawling roots of the cotton tree.
             Suddenly the men appeared below in a little clearing where there was a small stream. They were British soldiers, there red tunics a startling contrast to the green forest. They looked lost and exhausted. They threw themselves down by the stream, drinking and splashing their hot faces with water.
             There were only ten or so of them and there were no sounds of others. Daughter Of  The Time To Come relaxed her tense muscles and waited.
            After a while they got up and went back in the direction from which they had come. And now from where she stood, she could easily follow their movements, as birds fluttered from the trees from time to time as they passed. She would take this news to the camp by nightfall. By the next day the Maroons would have caught up with them.
            For the return journey she would need water. So when nothing else stirred in the forest, she slipped into the clearing, and placing her musket and machete beside her, stooped to fill her gourd from the stream.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come suddenly froze. She knew someone was behind her yet she had heard nothing. She jumped up and whirled around. She was looking straight into the face of a British solder with his sword drawn. The first thing she noticed was that he had flaming hair the colour of the setting sun as it sinks into the sea and cold blue-gray eyes like sharpened steel. Surely this must be one of their devils.
            It took her some time to realize that he was not a man but a boy about her age and that he was as frightened as she was. But even then, he was armed and she could not reach her weapons. Would he kill her?
            The young soldier looked at the Maroon girl and saw the face of a fearless warrior with eyes so dark that shafts of black lightning flashed from them. This must be one of the magic women he had heard about. Would she use her magic powers to disarm him?
            It took him some time to realize that she was as young as he was, and that though she stood proud and brave, she was also a beautiful young woman and she was as nervous as he was. And then he realized that shafts of black lightning did not flash from her eyes, but that they were really like pools of dark secret water.
             To her surprise he addressed her in her own language “You are my prisoner.”
            “How did you know I was here? I was as quiet as the snake while you and your men were as noisy as wild hogs.”
             “I saw you standing in the shadow of the tree,” he replied. “So I hid and waited so that I could capture you and take you back and show the others how brave I am. Though at the time I thought you were a man.”
            “But how did you see me? I was well hidden. And how did you come upon me without my hearing? And how do you speak my language?” For she could not understand how he could be so clever.
             And the young solder was very impressed by the bravery of the Maroon girl. She was not afraid. She only wanted to know how he had outwitted her. “I was born on this island and so I know the ways of the forest as well as you do. And I decided to learn your language.” And he laughed with boyish pride.
And when he laughed she noticed that his eyes were not at all like cold blue-grey sharpened steel, but as light and bright as the skies on a day when the sun is not hidden by clouds.
            “Are you one of the magic women?” he asked.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come lifted her head with pride and replied “Not yet, but I will be in the time to come!”
             “If I take you back as my prisoner, they will believe you are one, and they will think that I am extremely brave” he said with a gleam in his eyes.
             “Yes,” she said, “and then they will kill me or make me a slave. And if they make me a slave I would kill myself.”
             The young soldier looked at her and after a while he said “You are truly very brave. I will not let them kill you or make you a slave. Take up your weapons and go, quickly before the others come looking for me.”
            Daughter Of The Time To Come hesitated only a moment before moving quickly to the edge of the clearing. Then she turned and looked back at the red haired soldier.
            And he lifted his sword in salute and called, “Till we meet again in battle, brave warrior!”
            Daughter Of The Time To Come ran as quickly as she could through the forest, her heart thumping in her ears. She wondered if he would change his mind and come after her, for though she was a skilled warrior she now knew that he was perhaps equally clever. But after a while she knew that he would not.
            And when she reached the safety of her people she did not tell them about the red haired soldier for she did not know how to explain his behaviour to them.
            The years passed and Daughter Of The Time To Come did become a leader of her people, and her bravery was known throughout the island, from the forested mountains to the plantations on the plain, and the British knew her to be one of the magic ones. During this time, although she had not seen the young soldier again, she heard the Maroons speak of a brave Britisher, the Red Warrior they called him. And she wondered.
            One day there was great excitement in their camp. The news had come. The Maroons had ambushed a band of soldiers led by the Red Warrior himself. At last they had caught him. With some of her men she went to the place but when they arrived there was much confusion. They had captured many soldiers but there was not sign of the Red Warrior. Clearly they had been mistaken and he had not been there at all. The Maroons departed but she stood alone in the forest listening.
            She could hear the breeze whispering through the trees. She could hear the call of the parrots. But there was another sound the sound of something breathing. Swiftly and silently she moved through the bushes, and there he was lying wounded. The Red Warrior, the young British soldier, now grown into a man.
             “So we meet again, now that you are truly one of the magic ones. And now I am your prisoner.” He said this with an attempt at a smile but she could see he was in pain.
            She stared at him. To capture the Red Warrior would make her famous even among the magic ones.
            “Will you kill me yourself or will you give me to your men?” he asked.
            “I will not kill a wounded man, nor will I give you to my men. A brave warrior such as you should be able to fight to defend yourself. You should not be killed like a dog or a wild hog.”
             “Then what will you do, Daughter Of The Time To Come?”
            “I must give you back your life as once you gave me mine. Till we meet again in battle, Red Warrior, that is, if you do not die of these wounds before you reach safety,” she replied angrily. But in her heart she hoped he would survive for he was a brave warrior.
            “I will not die of these wounds, I promise you. We will meet again.”
            And Daughter Of The Time To Come left him without a backward glance. Nor did she tell her people what had happened because she could not explain her behaviour to herself, much less to them.
            The years passed, and then one day the wars were over. There was to be a peace treaty between the British and the Maroons, for neither was winning. The Maroons would have their own land in the mountains forever and be their own people forever.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come gathered with the other Maroon leaders to meet the British. She stood tall and proud, the breeze gently moving her African robes and watched as the British leaders approached.
             The Maroons and the British exchanged the gifts that would mark the treaty. Then one of the British leaders approached her, and even though there was grey in his hair so that is was no longer like the setting sun as it sinks into the sea, she recognized the Red Warrior.
            “Daughter Of The Time To Come,” he said, “now that we are no longer enemies, may we then be friends? You are a brave warrior and I have always admired you.”
            But she was overcome with disappointment and could not answer. For although the British had had to make peace with the Maroons, she felt that the Maroons should have been able to drive them from the island.
             And he understood what she was feeling and said, “Daughter Of The Time To Come, your people were brought here long ago against their will, and mine were sent, as soldiers cannot decide where they are to go. This was not of our making. Surely we can be friends.”
             And though what he said was true, and she admired the brave solder, she was a leader amongst her people and they would not want to see her a friend of this enemy. So she shook her head and said, “My people will not like it, nor will yours.”
            He knew that she was right, so he said, “Use your magic powers and look into the time ahead. What do you see?”
             But she could not see, for she was overcome with sadness.
             “I saved your life at one time, and you saved mine,” he continued. “And so without meaning to, we are friends even though we may not meet again. They say your name means you were destined to be a great leader, and so you are. I hope that in the time ahead our children’s children may live in friendship in this land. And so you will have become not only the Daughter but the Mother Of  The Time To Come.”
            And he turned and left her standing under the same cotton tree where he had first seen her long ago.
            She watched till she could no longer see him. And then she looked upwards through the green foliage, up, up into the sky to the place where it is no longer blue, but only white light. Could she see?                        
            And suddenly she saw clearly that in spite of the ways of humankind, the soldier had saved her life because he saw her not as his enemy, nor even as his friend, but as a brave warrior deserving of respect. And she, without thinking about it, had saved his life for the same reason. This then was the answer, to have the understanding to respect another, and then there would be peace and friendship.
Daughter Of The Time To Come knew that two people do not make a world nor could they alone make all the people understand. The time was not now. But perhaps, little by little, there would be others who would understand in the time to come.  
And moreover, the wise ones had explained her name to her at one time. They had said, “You may wonder why you were not called the Mother of the Time to Come, but you see it is the daughters who go into the future and change it. And so there will be your daughter, and then there will be her daughter, and her daughter, and into eternity.
And now Daughter of the Time to Come could look into the far future and she saw them; Daughters of the Time to Come - Time to Come - Time to Come - Time to Come , telling their truths, creating things not yet imagined; leading their  people; forward – forward – forward, in the time to come.
(C) Diane Browne, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Whose folktale is it anyway?

Bookends in The Sunday Observer of August 10, carried a piece by me on Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story. The content  was much like my blog of August 6, for those who want to see the local elements I introduced into the story.

The piece in the newspaper got me to thinking about folktales, the desire to rewrite some in our own image, the recording/rewriting  of our own.  There are many Cinderella stories, most, it would seem, originating from the societies in which they are located. Amazon has a  number of them,  including another Caribbean Cinderella by Robert Sans Souci (wonderful artwork), which I think is set in the French speaking Caribbean. I have not read it recently, and regrettably, do not own a copy.

When I was doing my MEd. research (not that long ago) I found that the teachers I interviewed had not been exposed to many Jamaican/Caribbean children’s books, which was distressing, but not that surprising. Interesting however, was one teacher’s response to my question about what she perceived to be our cultural heritage of children’s stories/material ( as well as Anancy). She said that Bible stories were part of our heritage because that’s what we grew up with, and so were traditional European fairy tales/folktales, for the same reason. I know, many of you are cringing. However, perception is reality.

Consequently, this could be a case for rewriting some of the traditional folktales in 'our own image'.  Cynically, I suspect that any rewritten ones would  not catch on. What can compare with the folktale characters, renamed as the ‘Princesses’ by Disney, with massive marketing of everything that can possibly be connected to them?  I have  attached to this post  covers  from two books written by  author /illustrator, the late Fred Crump Jr. (American)  in the 1980s/1990s. They are traditional fairy tales  with Black characters for African American children. These are from my collection of children’s books. I wonder how well these books did; he wrote a number. I googled him and found that he had one called Ebonita and the Seven Boys (my Ebony and his Ebonita). And no, I did not read his Cinderella  when I was writing Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight. I haven’t looked at it in years. Moreover, I never read anything similar to what I’m writing, at any given time.

We, as minorities/majorities, depending on where we live,  may wish to rewrite the traditional fairy tales/folktales in the hope that  some children will read them and be inspired to greater self confidence, or even be moved to rewrite some themselves (perhaps  modern ones with 'lego type' figures). However, I suspect that any such endeavour would  not meet with much success, except for the exercise itself.

Clearly, it would seem that writing our own folktales would be the best way to go. And indeed at a workshop I facilitated with an overseas YA writer earlier this year, it was suggested that we have so much folklore (and by extension, folklore figures)  that we can create all sorts of exciting stories waiting to be discovered. This sounds wonderfully simple.  The problem I see with this is that many of our folklore figures are extremely malevolent.  Here in Jamaica, rolling-calf with eyes as red as coals dragging his rattling  chain; three-foot horse, which even with that handicap, or perhaps because of it,  will surely catch you;  Ol  Hige, shedding her skin;  River Mumma, at whom you shouldn’t look because  she could drag you down into the river; these are not the stuff of delightful children’s stories. And these are only the ones from Jamaica. Some of them from other territories in the Caribbean are even more frightening; soucouyant,  a shape-shifting blood sucking creature, or douens without faces and feet turned backwards, who lure children into the forest, for them never to be seen again. I think that our folklore is still too threatening, too close to us. European folklore was no doubt just as terrifying; witches and dragons, and wolves and beasts, but over the years they have been sanitized, and are seen as being from a very distant past, with no ability to frighten us anymore. In addition, they seem to lend themselves to being overcome by knights in shining armour, brave woodcutters, clever children and magical kisses. I know of no story of ours where anybody has been able to overcome anything, because ours speak to the supernatural, which one cannot overcome without a priest/parson,  calling on the blood of Jesus,  or some other religious activity. And I’m not being at all flippant.

This leaves us with good old Anancy and his comrades in mischief/deceit, Brer Tiger, Brer Rabbit, Brer Alligator, and so on. I enjoyed Anancy stories as child; the week overcoming the oppressor. These served the slaves well. However,  Anancy was also not averse to tricking his wife and children. This trickster side of Anancy, this ‘samfie’ side, may well be out of place as we move forward. The first time I heard this proposed (some years ago) I was horrified. What! Our precious Anancy! Never! Now, I’m not too sure. Time for samfie to be over and done with as a national construct? Never mind, guys. Calm your fluttering hearts. Anancy will probably always be with us.

It is against this background that I created Auntie of the Starlight, and she makes her second appearance in Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story, as a benevolent ‘fairy godmother’, although one that is somewhat annoyed with  silliness, like you not realising your worth. I must also point out that Helen Williams, (Bill Elm) made wonderful use of River Mumma in Delroy in the Marog Kingdom (Macmillan). Note however, that that book  is for an older child, and not for the Cinderella/Snow White generation. (Yes, I know the Cinderella story has lent itself to teenage movies, but you guys, know I’m not talking about that.)

I’d love to get feedback on this, the use of our own creatures/folklore in stories for younger children. I plan to follow this post with others on multicultural children’s literature, so we might find a connection. There have been recent  articles on this topic of children needing to see themselves in books, by Malorie Blackman in the UK and  the late Walter Dean Myers (USA) and his son.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Despatches: A successful upload; another endeavour disappointing: Rethinking endeavours; to do or not to do

Now why should you read this post? It may be much ado about nothing. Aha, maybe that’s why you should read it; in case it isn’t.

Successful upload. As you know (those who may follow my blog) Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story was uploaded to Amazon. Then  on Sunday, August 10, the Observer newspaper highlighted it in Bookends. I was very pleased.

Disappointment: I saw the PDF of Things I Like. I did not like my painting of the illustrations at all. At all! They looked lovely when I painted them, even when I put them on my blog, but stand alone in a book. No sir! I saw every miss-stroke of the brush, every distortion of an image.  The idea was to  produce the PDF  and get a corporate sponsor for copies for basic schools. Well, I’d be embarrassed to own these images. My designer did  her best. I was so overwhelmed (not to tears, or anything like that), just so astonished, that all I could say to her, is ‘stop there while I think about this’.
There are lessons to be learnt here.
1.       A Level Art does not make you an artist or illustrator.
2.       Four hours of painting lessons year before last, does not get you back to A Level standard, which does not  . . . anyway.
3.       There is a reason why they have illustrators for children’s books.
4.      You may never be able to turn yourself into a painter or illustrator for your own books. Accept that!

So what do I do now?
1.       Clearly I should ask my designer if she can just colour the pictures with Photoshop or something.
2.       Give up the idea of the book and feel ‘pale and wan’ (check the literature we read in school for explanation of the term) about any such endeavour.
3.       Perhaps ask about new illustrations for the text. What a frantic thought!

Well, clearly, I’ll go with #1 first. The fact that I have not done it yet speaks volumes although I cannot hear what is being said.
This post would seem to be all about my angst; much ado about nothing, indeed. However I think it speaks to some very important concerns, none of them new,  but the ability to self-publish underscores them.
The most important is how do you get the money to self-publish what you want to publish, or in my case, republish? People have been asking me why I don’t seek crowdfunding. To show how up-to-date I am on the concept,  I was about to write 'cloud funding' (naturally, things are stored in a cloud, so clearly, .  .  .  ) when a little voice said, “Look it up!”  Eh! Eh! But is a whole world out there of crowdfunding. So many sites. I would of course be shy/too proud/can’t wrap my head around the concept of people I don’t know supporting me, and on and on into further  angst.

I think one of my biggest challenges right now is do I want to continue to try to  break these new barriers, of this new digital  world, and I really hate this being in the spotlight of doing things, doing them differently (no doubt, that is why I write a blog, eh!), or do I want to retreat into the dignity of the ‘pure writer’ who must always be published by a well know publisher to be considered to be a serious, pure, mature writer? To do or not to do; to be or not to be.
This is a case of pure confusion. I’m going to put it down and come back to it another time. Any ideas would be welcome, guys! 

Next post will be about more mature matters.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

And independent Caribbean Cinderella for Independence, as promised

 Ebony  and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story has made it for Independence, August 6. In fact, she was up and ready for Emancipation Day.  The significance of Independence was that instead of Ebony meeting the prince at a ball, she meets him at the Independence Parade.  I do not know if there is any symbolism in Emancipation. I would not ascribe such links between the story and the symbolism  of Emancipation Day. It might even seem somewhat disrespectful. However, in all seriousness, there is the emancipation from mental slavery that Bob Marley sang about.
I have  sent out notices to all the people in my address book, which you guys know I hate, because it seems so pushy, so I’m glad that’s over. I have to develop a better marketing strategy. For one, very few people on my list will buy the book as an e-book. We are not into e-books yet for children.  For two, it’s not a targeted group. Many of the people on my list may not even be interested in children’s books.  
So come with me as we step awhile into the creation of Ebony  as a Caribbean Cinderella.

Differences and similarities are interwoven; they go in and out like maypole dancers (which are both European and part of our Jamaican heritage, as you may remember).
First, Ebony is in the Caribbean, and is an orphan in a children’s home, not related to the stepmother figure/villain figure as in the original fairy tale. However, the evil villain character, Mrs. Redeyeness still has two  mean daughters.
The fairy godmother has been replaced by the Auntie of the Starlight, and her transforming of Ebony from the kitchen to the parade, mirrors Cinderella, even as it creates humour at what is different. Ebony it seems, remembers the Cinderella story,  and wonders if the steps to her transformation will be the same. ( I love to do this by way of showing that the old folktales can make links with our stories today. I did it in Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, but just a mention.) So back to Ebony.

“Oh, Auntie of the Starlight, thank you, thank you!” she cried. “But are you sure I can walk in glass slippers?”  

“They aren’t glass, chile. Everybody knows glass would break,” said the Auntie of the Starlight. “I don’t know where you get that idea of glass slippers. Pure foolishness! They are plastic.” 

“Oh,” said Ebony, “I thought I heard it in a story. So should I have a coach made from a pumpkin? Or maybe not. . .” 

“A coach! No! What would you do with a coach? If you wished for a car. . .  but you didn’t,” said the Auntie of the Starlight. “So run, chile! Run and catch the parade before it pass.”  

The prince is not a prince, but the son of the owner of a spice factory called the Spice Kingdom,  therefore  prince-like as far as the people in the district are concerned. 

 Symbolism and Character in the Story:
Ebony is an orphan in a children’s home. This beginning has never been auspicious for anyone anywhere. Ebony rightly concludes she has no future. This is what she has to overcome in the story,  if she can.  I clearly describe Ebony’s physical  appearance and hair (that which we do not wish to mention) as  celebration of the African part of us.
Mrs. Redeyeness: the fact that she is not related to Ebony by marriage makes her behaviour all the more dreadful. The term ‘red eye’ refers to someone who is envious, grudgeful, jealous and has pure 'bad mind'.  She so dislikes  the fact that Ebony has grown into a lovely woman and that she is genuinely a sweet person, that she goes out of her way to be unkind to her, by inviting her into her home to become a drudge.  See how Mrs. Redeyeness  rejoices as Ebony’s  beauty seems to fade under all the hard work she has to do:

 “Ebony will just look like a poor bedraggled butterfly.” Every time she thought of it, she laughed, “Ha ha! Ha ha! A bedraggled butterfly! Ha ha! Ha ha! A bedraggled butterfly!”

Auntie of the Starlight: we first see her in the Christmas story I wrote light years ago, which I usually put on my blog ever Christmas. I developed her in place of the traditional fairy godmother. Auntie is a term of respect here, and I love starlights, such excitement when I was a child.  Such magic. Perhaps she is also partly the wise old woman who features in our stories, mine included, the mother-female/the grandmother-female.

The song sung by the Auntie of the Starlight, celebrates our trees, links to the fact that Ebony’s name is that of a tree, and so perhaps that allows for extra magic; who knows? for additional help for this daughter of the island, daughter being a respectful term for a  young  woman. Perhaps I got the term from Rastafarian speech. I don’t know. Things seep into the psyche and reappear in stories.

The spices celebrate our spices, that I think we could really develop and access niche markets.

Alfred ‘the prince’ is noble and handsome and good, and sees who Ebony really is. He will respect her, we know. That is very important. His character rather than his position, indicates why Ebony could love him.

Plot: Aha! By the time I’d got to the part where Alfred  has done his ‘some day my prince will come’, asking for Ebony’s hand in marriage, and then Mrs. Redeyeness and daughters cling to Ebony, declaring their love and need for her, and Ebony is wondering if they really love her after all, and maybe she shouldn't leave them, I was pretty fed up with the ‘too-good’ Ebony.  She redeemed  herself in my eyes, however, by working at the spice factory, gaining shares in the spice factory as part of her wedding settlement, along with the ring. Mercenary? Not at all. Modern little girls need to know that a certain amount of security is important, especially when they work for it. In addition, she brought other girls from the orphanage to work there and was training others to do so. Female empowerment, sisterhood, and yes, girls from children’s homes can have a future if they can work for it - independence.
After that Ebony deserves the wonderful wedding with dancing to reggae and soca. ( a nod to the ‘Caribbeanness’ of us all) and in describing  the dancing, I chose words which to me give exactly that feeling, that movement of the feet and body.  . . . sway, sway, sway, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle  yo, yo yo . . . I hope that they succeeded.
There is no ‘happily ever after’  statement (which has fooled up all us females, all our lives) except that which Ebony can make with her life. “And Ebony realized that she had a bright future after all, and she smiled to think how happy she was.”  

Many of the old-time fairy tales/folktales were morality tales of a sort, warning tales, even if today they have been so sanitized and changed  that we have forgotten whatever that was about. Does Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight have any  of these elements? Yes, although I did not set out for it to be so. I think that 1) the message (especially for ‘sweet people’) is do not let people take advantage of you, under the guise of love and affection, and 2) stand on your own two feet even when you think your prince has come.
The  main purpose of the story is enjoyment, the creation of our own Cinderella facing one of our possible realities.  Children know the original Cinderella story and so I hope they will also enjoy these differences, and claim this as their own. One does not expect them to understand the symbolism, but for our present-day girls, I hope the modern twist resonates with them as they are growing up.