Diane Browne is a Jamaican writer who has written children’s and young adult books and novels from a Caribbean perspective. Her most recent novel Island Princess in Brooklyn deals with the reality of migration and separation that many children in the Caribbean face as their parents move to the United States in search for a better future for their family. These children, known in Jamaica as barrel children, face the effects of migration and the adaptation of a new life outside of their Caribbean homeland, when their parents send for them to live the American dream.
“The Owl’s Bookshelf” had the honor to interview Diane Browne and learn more about her literary work.
1. When did you begin writing children’s and young adult books and novels?
Reply: I began writing children’s books some 30 years ago. These books were mainly for the 12 and under age group. Then about 10 years ago I decided to write a novel about Time Travel. This was something that I had wanted to do for some time. So the two novels in my Time Travel Series and Island Princess in Brooklyn are for an older age group, the Young Adult group.
2. Can you share the titles of the books you have published up to the moment?
Reply: I have written a number of books. I started writing supplementary reading material for the Ministry of Education for children in government primary schools (what are called elementary schools in the USA) and so I probably wrote about 30 books or stories for this series, the “Doctor Bird Reading Series”. This was in the early 1980’s, and this project was very important as many of these children would have had no other story books besides these. The books I’ve written since are: Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees, Debonair the Donkey, Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, about 6 stories/books in the “Get Caught Reading Series” (published in the UK, all of them having the background of cricket – done for World Cup Cricket); Every Little Thing Will Be All Right (a collection of stories); the YA novels, A Tumbling World …A Time of Fire, The Ring and the Roaring Water (both in my Time Travel series) and Island Princess in Brooklyn which came out last year.
3. What themes do you present in your literary work?
Reply: love of family; importance of friendship; love of country; the importance of always to keep on trying to achieve things/success; being true to oneself and respect for self; bravery and courage, especially in the little things that children face, like teasing, which adults do not always realize can be devastating in a child’s life; preservation of our culture (often interwoven into other themes so it is not overt); growing through one’s experiences, hope, migration. When I write I don’t set out to focus on a particular theme. The story comes to me, the main character comes to me, and then the themes are interwoven into the story.
4. Who has been your inspiration in your writing career?
Reply: Different people in different ways. The late Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley, our famous folklorist, who wrote and performed in Creole or patois, which showed all of us that our ‘home language’ was an important mode of communication; consequently, by extension, whatever we had to say was important. In the area of children’s literature, Judy Blume: her book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret introduced me to the concept of the modern child, the character with a well formed personality, quite different from the Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins with whom I’d grown up, and which had their place, but Judy Blume’s character was a real person. I was also inspired by Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden enchanted me. Again, it was different from the fantasy of the fairy tales and folktales of childhood. It was fantasy that you wanted to be a part of. The late Peggy Campbell, with whom I wrote on the Doctor Bird Reading Series also inspired me. She had been writing before I started writing seriously, and working with her was delightful and instructive.
5. How do you see the field of children and young adult literature in the Caribbean? Does it receive support from educational institutions and the public in general?
Reply: Many studies state the importance of children reading the children’s literature of their own country. However the support for indigenous children’s literature continues to be challenging. From time to time, throughout the Caribbean, there have been projects (by governments, international agencies and sometimes private institutions) which support the writing and development of children’s’ literature and it’s procurement, but it seems as if in each case, there is the excitement of this activity, but the activity itself cannot be sustained. I, myself, have been involved as a writer, trainer or publishing manager in some of these initiatives over time.
I do not think that indigenous children’s literature gets the encouragement from the educational institutions and the public in general which the books deserve, which the children deserve and which our countries need. Books are not bought in quantities which would make publishing of children’s books viable . We realise that in many of our countries there is not the disposable income to buy children’s material. Economies of scale also affect us; books from developed countries (large print runs) are much cheaper than those produced in the region so are the ones most easily purchased. However, I sometimes wonder if the socialization during colonialism, which has been replaced by American influence in media, has not produced peoples whose reading interests continue to be ‘outside of ourselves’. If so, it would be a great pity if our educational institutions, from Early Childhood/Primary to Tertiary, where children’s literature is a part of the curriculum or is taught, do not understand the importance of using more of our own children’s literature.
However, there are two things which give me hope. 1) There is a new crop of young writers who are very talented and passionate about their writing, who are bringing new energy to this genre. 2) Modern technology and communications have made us more aware of what is happening in the various Caribbean countries, who the writers are, what they are doing, so hopefully we will be able to support each other.
6. What inspired you to write Island Princess in Brooklyn?
A few years ago, my older daughter and her husband, who is a surgeon, moved from Barbados for a time so that he could do a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at a hospital in Brooklyn. They lived in an apartment close to the hospital. I went to Brooklyn for the birth of each of their two children, and I was thrown into the middle of the migrant experience, and I loved it; different ethnic groups all there working for the American dream; helping one another, all the members of the extended families playing their part, the grandmothers sitting outside watching grandchildren at play. I saw their lives, our lives, all of us in the world trying to make our way.
My father’s family migrated to the Sates in the 1930’s but by the time I began to visit them they were well established in Jamaica (Queens), Long Island, so although that was my first exposure to the migrant experience, it was the Brooklyn experience that brought my character, Princess, to Brooklyn.
7. Who is the character you felt more related to as you wrote your novel Island Princess in Brooklyn?
Reply: Princess, although she is not me. She is braver, and also more stubborn, but I really got to like her a lot by the end of the story. I think I might have liked to be her friend if I could step into the book.
8. How have young adult readers responded to your novel?
Reply: There has been a wonderful response from young readers. It gives me hope that this book might make a difference in how our young people relate to our literature, seeing it as something they would like to read rather than a literature book prescribed by the school. There is actually a demand for it in bookshops. What is quite surprising is the adult response to it, both here and from other parts of the world. Many adults have told me how much they liked it, how it engaged their emotions, how it was a part of their life experience. I think this is because migration is part of the fabric of our life in the Caribbean. I know that in any group of Jamaicans, if you asked if anyone has a family member/friend in America, Canada or the UK, everybody would reply in the affirmative.
9. What future projects do you plan to develop for the enjoyment of children and young adult readers?
Reply: I have the first draft of a children’s picture story book, fantasy; I feel my characters from my Time Travel series calling to me almost daily. There are always stories waiting to be written.
10. What recognitions and awards have your literary work received?
Reply: I have received gold medals for stories from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, the local body which has annual cultural competitions. Two of my books received awards for best children’s book from the Book Industry Association of Jamaica. I received a Bronze Musgrave Medal in 2004 for Children’s Literature from the prestigious Institute of Jamaica. In 2011, I won the special award for a children’s story from the Commonwealth Foundation (representing all the countries which were once British). Although the recognition of my own people is essential, I also feel very blessed for the recognition from the much wider group making up the Commonwealth.
11. How do you define yourself as a writer?
Reply: I am essentially a writer of children’s literature (although I have written adult material and had some published). I recognize that along with two other writers, I was part of the largest initiative by the government in association with international agencies (the Doctor Bird Reading Series) to bring our stories and books to our children. When we, the writers, first went into schools in the 1980’s our children believed that all writers were foreigners or dead. We changed that. I run into adults all the time who remember with delight reading those books and I am so grateful to have been part of that initiative. I think of myself also as giving our children a voice, of being a writer who celebrates the lives of our children, who celebrates our Jamaican and Caribbean lives, because we ourselves are a celebration of a new people descended from all the people’s who came to this region and can now tell our own stories.
“The Owl’s Bookshelf” wants to thank Diane Browne for taking the time and sharing her experience as a Caribbean writer for children and young adults. Ms. Browne’s literary work is one that should be known not only in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean but in its diaspora.
Diane Browne has a blog that you can visit at_
_. Her novel Island Princess in Brooklyn can be purchased from Carlong Publishers
(Caribbean) Ltd. .