Saturday, March 30, 2013

Writing biographies for our children - Essential

In participating in the High Schools Tour for the Kingston Book Festival, we were asked to tell the students about our careers. My writing career began with the Dr. Bird Readings Series for the Ministry of Education. There were three of us writers;  one of the first tasks we had was to visit the government primary schools to get to know our target audience, what their interests were, and so on. It did come as a surprise to us that these children thought that all writers were either foreigners or dead. So we were their first  exposure to Jamaican writers. I shared this story with the students on the Kingston Book Festival  tour.   I hope that by now all our Jamaican children know that there are Jamaican writers.
(Image from Dr. Bird supplementary reader: Jamaican returning from Panama wealthy)

When  we were writing for the Dr. Bird Reading Series we had access to a wonderful library. There was no Internet in the 1980s. In this library there was a magnificent, thick two-volume book about  outstanding Black people in the world. I was mesmerized, astounded, but most of all, validated.  The information in these books formed the basis of some of the biographical stories in our series.  I thought then, and it still applies: Do our children know these stories? Do they know that Black people have been scientists and inventors, as well as athletes, dancers and entertainers, wonderful as the latter are; even as we celebrate those people, even as those persons are more likely to catch world attention? Children need to know that we can do all sorts of things, that they are capable of doing great things, because there were those who came before us and did them. It’s not just foreigners who can be scientists and inventors, or anything at all.

We know about our National Heroes!  But  do we know of the many other Jamaicans who can be role models?  Role models whose example  can guide us as we move forward into  the next fifty years of our country’s life? We need positive role models  to balance the only too visible anti-heroes, in danger of becoming heroes for young people who know of no others. At this time of great challenge in the world and in our own island,  children need to hear about our achievers, so that they can take hope and realize that Jamaicans have been trailblazers against all odds, that we have played our part in history. To name only a few, do they know about Dr. T. P Lecky? Do they know about Dr. A. Lockhart and Dr. M. West? Do they know about Una  Marson? (My grandmother acted in one of her plays at the Ward Theatre). Do they know, for example, that Jamaicans helped to build the great Panama Canal?

So do you want to tell the story of our people, or even of someone in your family who achieved great things? Imagine a child reading a story written by  a living descendant of a great Jamaican!  What an exciting story. However, bear in mind that the word ‘biography’ is not synonymous with dull. Biographies, stories of our people, should be interesting, worthy of the reader’s attention. So this advice given by Latoya West Blackwood of Pelican Publishers  at the Kingston Book Festival should come in handy.

She identified these points in relation to writing biographies.

1.       You need to decide from whose point of view the story is being told.

2.        Is your report balanced? ( I think that is something you’d really have to be aware of if the person is known to you.)

3.       If the readers don’t know you or the person being written about, would they be interested? (I think this especially applies if the person is in your family – for example, if I decided to write the story of my grandmother’s life.)

4.       What is outstanding, different, unique about the person?

5.       There should be a ‘wow factor’!

So  perhaps Latoya is the person to see? Oh by the way, you do know that even when you think you know everything there is to know about the person you are writing about, you do need to do research to check your facts, and to see if there is anything else to discover.
                                       Latoya West Blackwood  centre of group

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kingston Book Festival: a future for children's writers

(L-R: Michael Williams, Jeremy Poynting, Marva Allen, Johnny Temple, Jaime de Pablos)

So what did the Kingston Book Festival have to offer children’s writing and children’s writers - the Cinderella of writing and without a prince?

1.       The first thing was that  a children’s writer, Tanya Batson Savage was on stage at UWI for Love Affair with Literature, Literatures in English Month. Promise of a fairy godmother to come/ the arrival of the fairy godmother? 

2.       The High School Tour: this was great.
a)   The children who had attended government primary schools  and the teachers who had done the same, hailed me when they discovered that I had been a writer for the Dr. Bird Reading Series produced by the Ministry of Education in the 1980’s ( revised editions are still being used in the schools).  Validation indeed! Do we need anything more to tell us that our children can be interested in stories about their lives?
b)    The students enjoyed the writers, Kei Miller and Roland Watson Grant, both young men, 40 and under. They enjoyed them as persons but they also enjoyed their work, the sounds of words. As I said, I would love to see us do this sort of thing, going around to schools, teachers’ colleges, so students can come to understand the joy of language, the wonderful images words can give us, the sound, the sound; far and apart from having to study it in school, which can kill the love for anything, unless you have a skilled teacher, and even then, with exams looming over your head…

Entertainers often go around to schools, which is great, and which I know the children enjoy. We need, for balance, for a different exposure, writers to  go around to schools also. A sponsor needed! 

3.       Using Language: Both Kei Miller and Roland Watson Grant  had  interesting points of view on use of language (which speaks to our ever returning discussion on Standard English and Creole). Roland said the ‘character speaks in his own language’. Kei spoke to the recognition of the continuum of language which we use. He felt that it was patronizing to deliberately use Creole spelling, because he said, even if the word is in Standard English spelling, we, the readers, will hear it as we would say it. He felt that we should be able to embrace the Jamaican audience but also include the non-Jamaican audience. In regard to symbolism, he indicated that sometimes  a blue sky in a poem, is just a blue sky, not a symbol of any to be discovered truth. The students loved that.  After all, there is much talk of symbolism in their literature classes. 

4.       Publishing Opportunities
a)      Jaime de Pablos from Random House stated that the  e-book is the great equalizer. And so it is, but for those who want to try that route  - self publishing - it’s very difficult to get noticed, it seems to me.  By the way, his company only accepts manuscripts from agents. You know, we need for somebody to be an agent here.
b)      A suggestion from Marva Allen  (Hue Man Bookstore, US) was that we think of the wider Caribbean rather than trying so hard to get our material into the USA. I restrained myself and did not tell them how hard we have been doing that for so many years, and with little success. However, guys, perhaps with Kingston Book Festival and Bocas Lit Fest, and the soon to be activated CaribLit, this will be the time.
c)       Johnny Temple of Akashic Books (US), who is publishing Anthony  Winkler’s next book The Family Mansion,  and who will be linking up with Ms. Allen on some projects,  said he is interested in doing young adult material. Sounds promising,  however I think that you’d have to check his catalogue to see what types of books he has published so far, a clue to what his approach might be.
d)      Michael Williams from BIC Publications (UK) spoke to the need for  books which depict  black people in significant career positions so as to provide  positive role models for ‘Black British’ children. He has himself done a book, Black Scientists and Inventors. Now we know that the USA has produced books like this.  Question: how do we get our books into that UK market? One suggestion was to use the UK print on demand/digital publishing houses. Something to think about, because we tend to see the US market as being the solution to all our dreams.
e)      Latoya West Blackwood of Pelican Press, says that they are planning to publish books for children on the achievements of Jamaicans, especially in science and technology. I got the idea that some of these might actually be based on books for adults, but redone to the appropriate reading level for young people. So it sounds as if she’s someone to contact.
f)       Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree Press, a major publisher of Caribbean adult fiction,  said that the UK is really  more interested in  the UK experience of those descendants of Caribbean migrants, now all British, than the contemporary people in the Caribbean. He stated that ‘the Caribbean has fallen out of British consciousness’. I love that expression; it is beautifully crafted, a wonderful image (for me, I see leaves falling from a tree, drifting to the ground, the tree almost bare – no, I haven’t the faintest idea why that is the image). However, it is a dramatic truth. Perhaps we have to, as Roland Watson Grant suggested, think of how  our writing can be the centre of global culture’.  Cool, eh!

5.       Memoirs: Christopher John Farley, Senior Editor, Digital Features, Wall Street Journal, was one of those who spoke about writing memoirs. (Remember his book, Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley). Memoirs often reveal something unusual about the character that you can’t believe he/she did ( but  it’s not just for shock value); the setting of that person’ s life, what was happening then in the environment/the  world at the time is also important. I love that. I’ve seen this setting of the individual  in time in  books and it makes what the character has achieved  that more relevant. I’ve used it in my children’s stories. As indicated  in the previous blog, we do need books about our great and near great Jamaicans for our young people, before everybody forgets all who came before and all they achieved.  This could be the key to biographies  you plan to write. 

6.       Writing advice from Jeremy Poynting:  I’ve left this to the last because perhaps it does give some hope for us, the Caribbean not being uppermost in British consciousness.  He gave good advice for us as we try to reposition ourselves. Questions/comments he asked us to think about:
a)      How does Jamaica fit into power centres of the world? Some writers devise  a strategy in their attempts to reach their identified target audience. However,
b)      All writers are carried along by a good story.
c)       The writer’s voice must be heard: The writer must have a voice and a vision. Editors can sometimes fix the writing and the plot, but if there isn’t a voice and the rhythm of that voice, you may not be able to fix the story.
d)      Have the characters been given their space? Some characters even surprise the writer. (I’ve had this experience and it’s fantastic).
e)      Writing has to be of the level where you can trust the readers and not have to explain everything to them, (which of course can affect the flow of your writing – my comment).
And finally, he said that often you can tell from the first paragraph of a story whether it’s going to be good or not, acceptable to the publisher or not. (Scary eh! – work on those beginnings.) And , my fellow writers, he said that he can always tell whether the writer is a reader (of books) or not. Why did I insert 'of books'? Because, dear reader, I needed to stress it. Do you know how many children’s writers I’ve run into who do not read children’s literature, but want to write it. That’s like deciding to go swimming in the sea, when you’ve never ever, even had a shower or a bath.
As I said in the previous blog, the book fair at Devon House was delightful. I saw new persons who are self publishing children’s books, so  the genre is alive, and I hear that some people did well with sales; one writer/publisher of children’s books even having to send for additional books. Wonderful! So children’s writing is not only alive but doing quite well. Cinderella is on her way to the ball to find  the prince, or maybe, she’ll just strike out on her own and start her own business, or something like that. Who knows? It’s your call. Happy, brave writing, my friends.

(L-R: Sydne Lowrie, Latoya West Blackwood, Christopher John Farley)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kingston Book Festival 2013: A celebration


The Kingston Book Festival is part of the Book Industry of Association of Jamaica's annual calendar of events. The organization was done by Kellie Magnus, Tanya Batson Savage, both of BIAJ and with their own children’s publishing houses, Latoya West Blackwood and her team from Pelican Publishers, Scarlet Beharie from JADA, and of course, the full organizing committee would be all the BIAJ directors, including Elizabeth Ramesar, Damani Johson, Franklyn McGibbon and the reps. from the partner agencies, including UWI, Edna Manley College, National Library of Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica, and others, as can be seen on the flyer.

I put a comment on Facebook which was: ‘Kingston Book Festival rocks’, and it did, for me anyway, and I think for all the people who were able to attend any of the various events. So, much congratulations to  the organizers, and Kellie and Tanya, who were the faces of the Festival for the events I attended.  I will go into  greater detail about some of the events  in other blogs, but in this blog I’ll give you a quick rundown of the events I attended, with perhaps a word or two about each, to give you the flavour, the feeling.

The Festival  opened on Saturday night March 2 with a cocktail party at the Spanish Court Hotel. Loved the décor, the little trees with the little-book decorations.

Sunday March 3. Love Affair With Literature: the beginning of Literatures in English month at the University of the West indies.  A feast of words and writers: Eddie Baugh, the Voice and ‘catching you unawares humour’, Lorna Goodison, playing on the chords of your heart with  quiet but  overpowering  emotions; and the younger writers;  Kei Miller, totally blows you away with Words and Words evoking Images, and Tanya Batson Savage, a children’s writer, wonderful rendition of the dialogue in a  children’s story, (memories of old time Jamaican scary  folktales). But guys, what a something! Children’s writing reach UWI platform of readers!  All is not lost, my friends. And it may even be found. So I came away from that morning feeling wonderfully ‘full up’  to overflowing. Aah!

Monday, March 4. High School Tour. I was part of a group going around to educational institutions ( two high schools and a teachers’ college), talking about writing and our careers as writers. There was Dennis Chung, Kei Miller, Roland Watson Grant and Latoya West Blackwood from  Pelican Publishers, with Kellie and Tanya as our photographers, MCs.   Dennis Chung, economist, thoughtful insights on a balanced life; the young writers, Kei and Roland, superb! The students, delightful, interested, asking significant questions, speaking their truths.  I have always wanted us to do this, go around to schools, and I hope that this can be part of a regular BIAJ initiative. Oh thrilling! that when I mentioned that I had written on the  Dr. Bird supplementary readers, there were call-outs  and shrieks  of recognition. We did something worthwhile then, eh. There is hope for children’s literature; its importance for us, undeniable. I came away from this on a high, as much from being with the students as from being with the other writers.

Friday, March 8. Industry Workshops.

Selling into the Caribbean Diaspora: Marva Allen, Hue Man bookstore (NY), a Jamaican American; Michael Williams, BIS Publications (UK), Jamaican descent;  Johnny Temple, Akashic Books (NY) ; Jaime de Pablos,  Random House (NY); Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree Press  (UK). Very motivating. Made you think that there are some contacts out there.

Getting Published Internationally: Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Trees Press (UK), Annie Paul, Kei Miller and Roland Watson Grant. It’s not just luck, you have to be ready when luck comes knocking at your door.

Making Memories, Making Money. The business of memoirs. Christopher John Farley, Senior Editor Digital Features, Wall Street Journal (born in Jamaica so ‘one a we’), written  book on Bob Marley, Before the Legend: the Rise of Bob Marley, amongst other books, and has interviewed everybody of note; Latoya West Blackwood, Pelican Publishers; Sydney Lowrie, who collaborated as researcher with Dr. Henry Lowe on his biography, It Can Be Done. A look at the business of memoirs and ‘writing for others’. I would love to see this develop. There are a lot of stories here that need to be told before they disappear.

Marketing Books in the Digital Age. Ingrid Riley, ConnectID; Lloyd Laing, JL Mobile; Tyrone Reid, eMedia.  I’ve heard these presenters before, and as usual, I was impressed, accept that this is the future, but found that since I did not fully understand what all of the words meant (the digital age does have words which are not part of the language level of those over 50) and concepts,  I realize that I’ll have to follow up on them to see how they can really help children’s writers (challenge of illustrations).  As a friend of mine said, ‘I want them to tell me , do this, do that, step by step’.

Wake the Town and Tell the People! Same night, Red Bones Café. Presentations by Sonjah Stanley Naiah and Carolyn Copper from UWI, on Jamaican music; academic discourse, accompanied by the music as  appropriate. It’s good to be reminded that ‘rude boy’ (music of our youth -   shaking shoulders while sitting, pure nostalgia) still rules, if even in a different form. Christopher John Farley, author of numerous biographies of musicians, was the main speaker. Impressive! Spoke about the research for his book, Before the Legend: Bob Marley.  I loved his take on Jamaica’s contribution to present day  American music. Yes, man, we rule! The interview of him done by Mel Cooke reminded me of Calabash, and indeed, different as this Festival is from Calabash, it gave me the same ‘full up with joy’ feeling.

Saturday March 9. Kingston Book Fair at Devon House. Venue  cosier than last year, less hot, easier to get around to booths. Lots of independent/self publishers, it seems. At least they thought it important enough to buy booth space, including a ‘new independent’ children’s publisher. There was even an online bookseller, Jamaican of course.  Steelband music always gives a carnival atmosphere. It seems as if the book in Jamaica has discovered a new life. That’s all to the good, and children’s is there as well.

There were many other events happening this last week, of course – something every day, so I hope that you, my readers, got to others. These were just the highlights of mine. You know what, though, I felt almost as if I had gone away to a book fair  overseas, there was  so much going on, so many international contacts available, even if you didn’t actually make any; both Jamaican and foreign luminaries, and it was right here in Jamaica. Again, kudos to the organizers. We can build on this!