Commonwealth Writers Conversation – The Untold Story: By Our Own Tongues
Joanne Hillhouse, Ivory Kelly and Martin MacIntyre spoke about language, identity and authenticity with moderator Gemma Robinson in the Commonwealth Writers Conversation as part of the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow on Friday, 11 April.
The event also celebrated the publication of the Pepperpot anthology. Pepperpot collects Caribbean entries from the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and is the first book from Peekash Press, a new imprint from Peepal Tree Press in Leeds and Akashic Books in New York, which grew out of the joint British Council-Commonwealth Writers initiative, CaribLit.
The speakers got into some gritty discussions about identity politics, vernacular, creole and oral versus written language.
Authenticity and Language
Joanne spoke about writing, how her characters speak, and the rhythms and patterns of speech in her homeland of Antigua. She doesn’t feel constricted by the creative process. She feels free to follow the characters and let them tell the story. Ivory talked about her conscious choice to write in English so that it is accessible to a wider audience. This in Belize, a country containing twelve distinct languages where the lingua franca is kriol. ‘We don’t even use the word dialect’, she said. She also stated that it is shared human experience that connects with the reader, whatever language the writer chooses to write in.
Ivory explained that she chose to submit her Pepperpot story, The Thing Called Love, to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize to introduce readers to the ‘speech flavours’ of Belize. She believes in the need to represent her culture authentically: ‘This is how we talk, this is what it feels like to be in Belize.’ Ivory spoke positively about recent efforts in Belize to institutionalize kriol (e.g. an insistence on consistent spelling), as well as speaking about what it was like to write in what is still predominantly an oral language.
Joanne emphasised that Pepperpot feels like the story of the modern Caribbean. She described how her story in the anthology, Amelia at the Devil’s Bridge, was inspired by real events and how she was curious as to ‘how we as a society were responding (to those events)’. Her writing comes from the things that trouble her. She spoke about the relation between truth and fiction: writers should ‘write the story that is true to where you are right now’. Joanne also runs a writing programme in Antigua that seeks to enable writers to do exactly this; to write from their own space.
Martin talked about the stereotypes of Gaelic, that ‘ethnographic’ feel of a closed language and how important it is to counter those stereotypes. He described how he wasn’t inhibited when writing in Gaelic and how there had been an outpouring of writing in Gaelic in the last ten years. Very much like Joanne, he is driven by real characters in real situations. Writing in Gaelic he is influenced by the whole Gaelic culture, in particular the music, poetry and song.
Moderator: Gemma Robinson
Gemma Robinson is a senior lecturer at the University of Stirling. Her recent work has been collaborative and focused on questions about diasporas, the writing of place and the role of reading within global contexts. With Jackie Kay and James Procter she co-edited Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe, 2012), an anthology of place-poems about Britain written by black and Asian poets. Other publications include three collections of essays: Reading After Empire (New Formations, 2012), Postcolonial Audiences: Readers, Viewers and Reception (Routledge, 2012) and Caribbean-Scottish Passages (International Journal of Scottish Literature, 2008). She is also the editor of University of Hunger, Collected Poems and Selected Prose of Martin Carter (Bloodaxe, 2006), and a contributor to the Guyanese newspaper, Stabroek News.
Born in Antigua, Joanne Hillhouse is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach in Antigua. She has also worked in local film and television, and received awards for health and environmental journalism. She is the author of The Boy from Willow Bend (Macmillan, UK, 2002; Hansib, UK, 2009), Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (Macmillan, UK, 2003), Fish Outta Water (Pearson, UK, 2013), and Oh Gad! (Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, USA, 2012). She is also a contributor to the anthologies So the Nailhead Bend So the Story End: An Anthology of Antiguan and Barbudan Writing (A Different Publisher, Canada, 2013), In the Black: New African Canadian Literature (Insomniac, Canada, 2012), For Women: In Tribute to Nina Simone (MZWrightNowProductions/Black Classics Press, USA, 2012), She Sex: Prose and Poetry, Sex and the Caribbean Woman (Bamboo Talk Press, Trinidad and Tobago, 2013), and forthcoming A Letter for My Mother (Strebor, USA, 2014) and Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2014). (Photo credit: Emile Hill)
Ivory Kelly is from Belize and the author of Point of Order: Poetry and Prose (Ramos Publishing, 2009). Her works have also appeared in the Caribbean Quarterly (December, 2013) and in several Belizean anthologies including The Alchemy of Words, Vol. 2 (2008); Treasures of a Century (2005); Memories Dreams and Nightmares, Vol. 1(2002); and She (2001). One of her newest short stories, “This Thing We Call Love,” will be published in April 2014 in the Caribbean anthology Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press). Kelly currently teaches in the English Department at the University of Belize.
An acclaimed author, bàrd and storyteller, Martin MacIntyre has been working across these genres for a number of years now. In 2003 Ath-Aithne – a collection of short stories – won the Saltire Award for First Book and his two subsequent novels Gymnippers Diciadain and An Latha As Fhaide achieved short-list placings for their Book of The Year Award. His early poetry was published in Let Me Dance With Your Shadow in 2006, and in 2007, at The Lochaber National Mòd, Martin was crowned ‘Bard’ by An Comunn Gàidhealach. Since 2010, he has been an Edinburgh ‘Shore Poet’. His third novel Air A Thòir was published in 2011. Martin’s first young persons’ novel A’ Challaig seo Challò! won Duais Dhòmhnaill Meek 2013. His second collection of short stories will be launched at The Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2014.