On a recent Saturday, after thinking about it for some time, I finally had ‘morning coffee’ with writers – three children’s writers, one adult and one poet, a male. The first time we have had a male for any meeting here. (And my husband joined us because he knows the poet, and actually seemed to enjoy our literary conversation) We were supposed to be looking at the usual, the viability of children’s writing, marketing and other miseries. However, as we always do, we wondered off agenda to things of general interest, bearing in mind that anything we actually mention can be considered fuel for creativity. And this time, here with us was a writer writing in another genre. Our poet wondered if any of us had ever considered writing poetry. It turned out two of us had. I have known him from he was a young poet of 19 or so, impressing us with his poems at the gate at the bottom of a hill on which his cousin, my friend, lived. I think she and I were about 14. How far we have all come. Bona fide writers.
We talked; our poet was astonished as we addressed the matter of gatekeepers in the world of children’s books, no violence, nor reality as faced regularly by sectors of this society, etc. So he said, (paraphrased of course) ‘You people can’t express your creativity fully; you have to be aware of what teachers, schools, the ministry will say? Silence for a moment as we considered this. (I think personally that we are so aware of this that it may be second nature to us now, or it will be to our editors.) We all talked at once. My friend, also one of my editors, told him of a story I wrote which one teacher said he didn’t like because the child was rude (she was inclined to have an opinion about things and children who answer back or have opinions are not role models, in his opinion). My friend also indicated a series of YA books where there was a bit of the supernatural, and some parents in another territory found that objectionable as Christians. Well, we know that there was objection to Harry Potter for a similar reason, and if I think far back enough, I come up with one of my favourite books, Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I recall being astounded that in the early 80s there was a problem with this book in the USA because the characters discussed unmentionable female body functions, and I think it would also fall into the ‘opinionated’ children category.
I cast about for examples of real life which have made it into print for our region. I mentioned Bad Girls in School, by Gwyneth Harold (Harcourt Education, 2007) which I knew was used in some schools. I also mentioned Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis (LMH, 2009, and third place Burt Caribbean Award winner, 2014,) as one which certainly dealt with the realities of life, the other side of Jamaica, far away from middle class norms and niceties. I also told our group of a visit two of us made to read at a library in a rural town. We read! The children then, with great pride, read a story they had written for us. It focused on a young man who was stealing goats in a village. The villagers caught him and chopped him with their machetes (true to life) and he was put into hospital where he could at length consider his evil ways. The children may write it, but we can’t.
So after our little ‘coffee morning’, I gave this further thought. And sometimes when you give further thought, you attract things to you. So I was sitting in an establishment, and one of the young ladies started telling us about her life. It was hard, unbelievably hard. I’m sure my eyes opened wide; I’m sure my mouth fell open. I know I kept saying, “Oh, Oh”. It was not that I hadn’t heard that story, or a version of it, before. It was that I knew her, and had no idea that she had had such a hard life, that indeed she was the heroine of her own life, as I told her. And that sounded so hollow in the face of the obstacles she had overcome, just to become a ‘normal person’.
I wondered if I could write her story, do it justice. I even considered coming straight home and writing down the main points before I forgot them. However, I don’t think the gatekeepers would pass it, too sad, too hard, to really true to the life of some. I wondered if any of us could write it. Then I remembered Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp, (HopeRoad Publishing, 2013). Dew Angels is a well written book, story harrowing and ringing true, and you feel you need to see how it works out. I think that Melanie or Gwyneth could have done justice to my ‘real-life storyteller’. But the question is, could I write my storyteller’s story? Honestly, I don’t know. There’s so much to overcome, even if it culminates in success. There’s so much emotion. So maybe it’s not only about the gatekeepers, when all is said and done.