Joanne C. Hillhouse, who hails from Antigua and Barbuda, is the author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad! (just released this year). The Caribbean editor and cultural activist has also published poetry and fiction in Caribbean, African, and American journals. She has won several awards and fellowships, including the 2004 UNESCO Honour Award for her contribution to literacy and the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks International Fellowship, and the 2011 David Hough Literary Prize from The Caribbean Writer. Joanne is also the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, designed to celebrate and nurture the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda.
Sandra Sealy: What influences on your writing come from your homeland, Antigua and Barbuda?
Joanne C. Hillhouse: That’s a difficult thing to quantify. All of my lived experience as a girl coming of age in the working class community of Ottos, Antigua feeds into my writing. My writing strives to be an authentic experience of my Antigua and Barbuda, and the human core beneath whatever surface realities may exist.
In terms of the creative arts, specifically I’ve said before that I believe that calypso was an early influence because the calypsonians were the popular singer-songwriter-folk singers giving voice to the lives and frustrations and hopes and dreams of the people; for many of us they were our inauguration into the craftiness and power of storytelling. Also with other homegrown arts like the steel band, the Carnival mas, and jumbie and Anansi stories, the toys we crafted of necessity from our environment, the way our parents sewed the scraps of life together, it all created in me a latent awareness of the creativity of my people; our ability to cut and contrive.
Ironically, much of what we read came from other places; it taught me how well art can transport without a passport. Later, as I discovered other writers from the African and Caribbean diaspora, including Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid, I felt a sense of urgency and possibility for re-telling our stories--which is what I encourage with the writing programme I run, Wadadli Pen.
Sandra Sealy: You’ve been published by well-known houses like Simon & Schuster and MacMillan. What steps did you take early on that you think led to your success in the traditional publishing world?
Joanne C. Hillhouse: Well, first there’s a difference between being published and being a success. But as far as early steps toward being published, to be honest, I felt my way in the dark. I come from an island in the Caribbean. I had no idea how to make it happen. But I loved to read and I loved to write. I did both constantly and started feeling my way toward the right opportunities; tripping over things, bumping into things. So, maybe the thing I learned early on was how to pick myself up and go on. And how to feel my way in the dark because there is no single sunlit path; each person’s journey is different. Looking back, though I’d say reading a lot, writing a lot, coming out of my shell and sharing my work, embracing opportunities to learn were all there in the mix; and, yeah, finding ways to pick myself up and go on because this is a pot-holed journey, still.
Sandra Sealy: What are some of the challenges of being a Caribbean writer?
Joanne C. Hillhouse: There’s no infrastructure in place to support your dream, or to encourage it, really; even exposure to other Caribbean writing and writers, though they do exist, was limited when I was coming up. So, there’s a long journey to owning up to the fact that this is what you want to do because it seems so fantastical, so impractical--which, as it turns out, it kind of is, but it’s still worth pursuing in spite of that. All of the elements that make up the industry--agents, lawyers, publicists, publishers, endowments and fellowships for artists--are hard to find in the Caribbean, as are writing programmes and other avenues to either grow or share your art. There are a growing number of festivals, but island-hopping to attend them, whether to learn, network, promote, or just enjoy, can be expensive. So you can imagine how much more expensive it is to contemplate, say, a U.S. book tour. Money is elusive, certainly for this Caribbean writer, the kind of money that will allow you to live comfortably and practice your craft; but then, maybe writers aren’t meant to be comfortable, since the discomfort is often what gets us writing in the first place. Being cut off from the publishing world is a huge drawback, though the Internet is a solid bridge, especially for me this time around with Oh Gad!--my third book and first full-length novel; still, getting noticed is a challenge when you’re so far, as I wrote in a previous blog post, Off The Map.
Sandra Sealy: What attracts you to fiction writing?
Joanne C. Hillhouse: I don’t know, I think there’s something about the element of masking that I love. When you play mas in Carnival, you put on a costume and even if the costume is skimpier than what you normally wear, it’s like this outlet, this thing you can hide behind and just be free; you’re not self-conscious, you’re not ashamed, you’re not worried, you’re just you at your most elemental. I look back at my teen years when I started writing prolifically, incidentally also when I started playing mas, and I realize that writing was an outlet, and that through poetry and fiction writing I could be free to express me without shame or self-consciousness . . . because it wasn’t me. I write from character a lot, I try to figure out who they are and I find their rhythm and, though my writing has matured beyond self-therapy, I’m able to use the emotions and experiences of my life to tap into them a little bit better. I like the flow that happens when the character is coming through, and my fingers are moving across the page and I’m not so much writing it as trying to keep up with it as it reveals itself to me, the character’s story. I like that, in the end, the characters come alive for people and they cry or laugh or get angry, as I do when I’m in the flow; I like that it connects and that it articulates the stuff of life, of our lives. I love how free I feel to express all of this stuff as I don’t when I’m writing as a journalist and have to parse my words or stay on the surface or remember the word count or whatever. I love getting to know my characters and discovering things about myself and my world through them, even as I use my world and myself to discover them. I love that when it’s flowing everything real slips into the background and they become real; I love the compulsion I feel to get it, to get them, to race with them to the finish, without rushing it, of course, and I love that burst of joy I feel when we get there.
Sandra Sealy: What attributes do you think make a successful contemporary writer?
Joanne C. Hillhouse: I don’t believe in single models of anything, life is too nuanced for that. So I couldn’t say these attributes make a successful anything. As far as the push goes, I know the reality for a lot of writers like myself is you have to be prepared to sell yourself, even with the backing of a publisher, something I’ve come reluctantly to as I’m not a natural saleswoman; but I’ve come to it, and God bless the Internet. As far as the writing goes, I know that if the writing and the world, the Caribbean, I’m creating/reflecting feels authentic, if it feels like I’ve been true to the characters’ experiences, and people respond to it as such, and find some emotional/universal truth they can relate to in it, that feels like a kind of success to me. I suspect success in terms of money takes other things, but I’ll let you know what those are when I get there.
She Writer Sandra Sealy is a communications consultant, blogger, award-winning Caribbean writer, and spoken-word artist from Barbados. Her blog, Seawoman’s Caribbean Writing Opps, offers markets and tools for international writers.
Joanne C. Hillhouse photo credit: Emile Hill