Saturday, August 1, 2015

Response to a critic re my story Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight a Caribbean Cinderella: symbolism and sensitivities

I posted a promo about Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story, on Facebook. I must admit it was not the most brilliantly written promo. It referred to Ebony being in a children’s home and having no future. This critic took me to task, asking how would children from children’s homes feel should they read that. I replied giving the exact words from the text (which she had not yet read). Ebony concludes, ‘People say that children from children’s homes have no future.’  I explained that I had very carefully thought about placing Ebony in a children’s home, and that eventually when Ebony comes into her own, (becomes a manager at the spice factory), she invites other girls from the children’s home to work at the factory and she trains them. Independence for Ebony and for the other girls as well! I thanked her very much for being interested enough to want to comment and to take the time to do so, and said.
 I welcome the challenge posed by the pitfalls of relevant material for our children, as all our local writers do. If this book, even though it is fantasy, makes people think more about the children in children's homes, realise they are of great value (in that we are all valuable, our lives are valuable, no matter where we come from or how we got here), and full of promise, then it will have accomplished something.
 I hoped that when she read the story she would let me know if/ how well the creating of this Caribbean Cinderella story works.
Some  things stand out.
1.    One should write well thought out promos.
2.    If a foreigner had written about children’s homes in a children’s book, no one would mind or even notice. Of course, foreign places are very big; the children’s home could be anywhere in the foreign land, so it never becomes personal or painful. 
3.    Yet, it is good that people notice. And this is why I say  that  writers of children’s stories in small developing nations, especially post colonial countries, have a great responsibility. Some people think writing a children’s book, is no big thing. Not true, guys. A good children’s book must entertain, but the writer must also be aware of the sensitivities of the society in which the story is set, and consequently, the values embedded in the story. Stories are never value free. Yet one must never appear to be preaching as that spoils the story.  

So I want to use this post to talk about the thought processes that went into this story. Many of them will not be evident to our child or adult readers, but they are important nonetheless, because they may stay with the reader long after the story has been read. 

1.    I wanted to write a story in which the Auntie of the Starlight would again play a role. She first appeared in a Christmas story, “Once Upon a Starlight”, written by me and published in a book “Big River and Other Stories”  by the Children Writers Circle. In response to my wish, she requested to appear in this Cinderella rewrite.

2.    The Cinderella character is called Ebony, to indicate a consciousness and celebration of our colour, and because I like Ebony trees when they bloom and promise rain. (Ebony trees appear in other children’s stories of mine.)

3.    It was a deliberate decision to place her in a children’s home. I didn’t think the term 'orphanage' would have much meaning to our children, but children’s homes tend to be in the news from time to time. They are perceived by many as a place of last resort for children. This is not necessarily so, but there is the perception that there is no future there. The story then sets out to show that there can be a future. And note,  Ebony is not ill-treated in the children’s home.

4.   The stepmother character is replaced by Mrs. Redeyeness (‘red eye’ being a term for envy in Jamaica). Mrs. Redeyeness, who lives near to the children’s home, takes pity on Ebony, and invites her to her home to play with her daughters. She does this only to impress people that she is kindhearted. The stepsister characters are Mrs. Redeyeness’ two daughters; not wicked, just spoilt and indulged. They are not really ugly, but their mean-spirited thoughts show on their faces, making them appear ugly. (Perhaps a warning to tell children this can happen. Oh, yes, it can. A cautionary tale?)

5.    I make Ebony into our version of the fairy tale princess.
And then Ebony began to grow into a young woman.    . . . her eyes,  were  big and brown and beautiful like burnt sugar in her face, which was the colour of rich chocolate. Her black hair had grown long over the years. She combed it with scented oils into six plaits, then she put the plaits up and secured them with the tortoiseshell clip. The clip flashed like magic in the sunshine, and the plaits fell like a spray of palm leaves all around her head.  . . . when she smiled it made people feel happy, as if gentle breezes were blowing.

6.    Mrs. Redeyeness now shows her true colours.
  Mrs. Redeyeness was overcome with envy that Ebony had become a beautiful girl and the envy turned to boiling anger. (Of course, people like that exist.)

      So Mrs. Redeyeness invites to Ebony to come and live with her. Ebony, feeling she has no future, goes.  Mrs. Redeyeness hates her for her beauty and kind nature, and hopes that she can hide her away from the world in the back of her house. ( Why? Pure bad mind! There are people like that. Wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

7.     Ebony becomes a drudge. Since there is no electricity in that part of the house ( surprise, surprise!) Ebony has to use all sorts of old-time Jamaican things - old time iron wood burning stove, coconut brush, sad irons and coal stove. (Chance for the children to hear about these things. And this does happen, you know. Decent kind-hearted people are taken advantage of, and some have so little self-confidence that they are complicit in their own sacrifice. Females who have been programmed to be nice have to take note of this.)

Mrs. Redeyeness is delighted that Ebony, who has no time to even comb her hair, is looking . . .a bit bedraggled. (Every now and then I like to use a word which is not one children will easily come across, but it’s so suitable. Bedraggled is one of those.)

Mrs. Redeyeness cackled to herself every time she looked at Ebony. "How bedraggled she looks. Ha! Ha! Bedraggled! Ha! Ha!”

8.   ( However, by this time, dear readers, I’ve just had about enough of Miss Ebony. I’m fed up with her. I can’t believe that she could be so ‘fool’. Can anything save her? I seriously consider not going any further with the story. I suspect that it is only Mr. Redeyeness’ malice, as shown in that excerpt, that forces me to continue the story.)

9.  Ebony, does not need a ball to meet her ‘prince’. Instead, there is going to be a parade for Independence. The parade is sponsored by the spice factory in the district. The heir to the spice factory has come home from his studies and everybody concludes that he will need a wife. All mothers get in gear. Everybody dressing up for the parade! The ‘ugly sisters get their costumes made by a dancehall  tailor. Ebony is sewing hers by hand. The sisters steal it and cut it up. They look even more ugly after doing this dastardly deed.

10.  Mrs. Redeyness, to make sure that Ebony cannot reach the parade, gives her a long list of Jamaican foods to prepare, (every Jamaican food you can think of and love, saltfish and ackee, bammies, fried dumplings, curry goat, jerk pork, etc.) No way she can finish in time to go to the parade.

11.  However, a starlight left on a windowsill where Ebony is cooling food, falls into the coal pot. And out of the wonderful starlight display, steps the Auntie of the Starlight. She is clearly as fed up with Ebony as I am, as she says, 

I was wondering how long it would take you to see that these people taking advantage of you.

     The Auntie of the Starlight gives Ebony three wishes ( of course) and sings a song with a lot of the names of Jamaican trees, as she works her magic:

 Mahoe, logwood, cedar, lignum vitae, mahogany, ebony,
Trees of the land of wood and water
Grant this wonderful wish to this daughter . . . 

12.  Ebony gets to go to the parade in a beautiful dress, but without glass slippers - not needed in the Caribbean. And no, she doesn’t need a coach either, or any of those things from the old fairy tale. Everybody is dancing: 

Dance to the Independence beat
Move your feet, . . .

 Along comes the parade with people dressed up as Jamaican spices, with the Spice Prince (Alfred) himself travelling on one of the floats. He sees Ebony and stops the parade! Everybody is in shock. He is attracted by her beauty, and her kindness and goodness, which he can see in her smile (at last her goodness begins to pay off).

13.   Mrs. Redeyeness, seeing that this could be a dangerous situation, invites them  back to her house, where she plies Alfred with all the various foods cooked by Ebony, and implies  that her daughters have cooked them. Alfred soon uncovers that lie, and  asks for Ebony’s hand in marriage, in spite of Mrs. Redeyeness shouting that Ebony has no family and is nobody. Alfred, seems to feel that one can make one’s future even if you don’t have great family credentials.  (Chalk one more point up for the inhabitants of children’s homes.)

14.   At this point Mrs. Redeyeness and her daughters throw themselves upon Ebony declaring their love, saying they cannot do without her. And for a moment Ebony wonders if they really, really love her. (I am in despair of her yet again, wondering if this silly girl is really going to believe them. This can happen, you see, if you’ve never been loved and feel a bit insecure.)

15.   She comes to her senses, however, and goes off to work for the ‘spice prince’ at the spice factory. Where does she live? Oh, it’s all very proper. She lives with his parents. He doesn’t live there. He has his own place (modern times). Soon she becomes a manager. She brings other young women from the children’s home to work there and trains them. As part of her wedding present she gets shares in the business.  (Now this is big time! Even I wouldn’t think of that. Independence! This is a totally modern girl. I worried if this might seem as if she was a gold digger, but I realized that she was just recognising her full worth to the business. And after all, Alfred offers them.)

Ebony has a lovely wedding with everybody there from the district and the children’s home, and the Auntie of the Starlight. Ebony and her Alfred dance the night away in true Caribbean fashion.  

So on this wonderful night, Ebony hitched the train of her wedding dress over her arm, and extended her other arm as she danced, sway, sway, sway, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle,  yo, yo, yo across the floor. And the Spice Prince took off his jacket and rolled his sleeves halfway up his arms and danced around her, sway, sway, sway, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, yo, yo, yo.


Lovely illustration by Rachel Moss that so captures it.

You can still buy the book, if even just to find out if we do indeed discover who Ebony may be,  what her three wishes are, and if they come true, but hopefully, to enjoy the story, and tell me if the Caribbean flavour and the symbolism works.

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