What I learned while writing Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories

AnancySo, I went, gone, and done did it, again. No, this is not my version of Britney Spears' "Oops! I did it Again." What I'm talking about is my second venture into self-publishing, and my first children's book, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories. I'll be launching the book on June 30, 2007, at Kara's Jamaican & Chinese Restaurant, 8120 Pines Blvd, Hollywood, FL 33024. The reading begins at 10: 30 am.
If you didn't read the press release, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is about a young Jamaican-American boy, Jimmy Harrison, who loves school and his favorite subject is snack time! But when a new boy, Kevin, joins his class, he begins to bully Jimmy and the rest of the children. What’s worse, he begins to take away Jimmy’s snacks. Using the wisdom from his Grandpa Sydney’s story about “Anancy, Snake, and Tiger,” Jimmy overcomes the class bully. And for one Sunday, he reunites his family for dinner.
I've published Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories under the imprint of Mabrak Books. Mabrak is the Rastafarian term for Black lightning, and that's what I hope this imprint will bring: sudden, unstoppable illumination--satori, Jamaican style.
As you will see if you visit Mabrak, I'd been thinking about publishing, not just for me, but for a group of Caribbean writers. I thought we'd bring out one or two titles per year by invitation only. But the deal I had with a colleague fell through. Still, I kept my options open with Mabrak. Who knows, it still may happen.
So, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is now a self-published book and there is still a lot of stigma attached to self-publishing and those casting the aspersions pretend as if it's a level playing field. It isn't. Nuff said.
But what's a writer like me to do after he's brought an idea to completion? I'm not a writer who believes in hiding a piece of writing after I've obsessed over these and a million more questions:

Could I have written a better title?
Does the opening catch the reader's interest?
What about the word choice?
What about unity and coherence?
What about the conclusion? Does it leave the reader with a final thought or call to action?

When I am writing a poem, the questions become even more obsessive:

Do I enjamb the line here
Or here?

And even after I published the piece, I look at it and say, "This is rubbish! What will X think about my writing now?"
Yes, reputation, the false identity that the Buddha says leads to suffering has me on the run. But I am learning, Master.
So why did I do it, again?
First, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is a gift to children and their families, especially the Caribbean-American children who don't have many books written about them. Here they are growing up in a landscape that neither they nor their parents can fully understand. The Caribbean-American identity a new frontier and nothing in the media have prepared them for this new reality. But what do we teach our children when we are trying to figure out the whole new array of options? What assumptions can we make? Should we make any assumptions? Let me explain.
A few years ago, I was painting a room in our house and I asked my son to help me paint a wall. I gave him the paint brush and the paint and I showed him how to do the brush strokes. I left him for a few minutes and he was so happy to be painting that he jumped right into the job. When I returned a few minutes later, he was painting very well, but he hadn't put any newspaper on the floor. I was about to get angry with him when I realized that I hadn't shown him nor told him to put down newspaper. I had assumed he would know this. Wrong!
I helped him to clean up the floor and I showed him how to put down the newspaper. How many more assumptions had I made as he was growing up? We can never assume anything about our children and hope that they "will get it by common sense." Their "common sense" and our "common sense" are two different things. You don't believe me? Challenge any one of them to play a video game and see how your assumptions match up against theirs.
That's why I'd like to think of Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories as a gift. Books are such wonderful things. They speak about the most personal issues through the medium of metaphor, so that each reader "gets" the story, but each in a different way. And the earlier we begin reading and asking questions, the greater the impetus towards the development of a recognizable personality and identity.
You see, the question of identity has always interested me. From my first book, Exodus and Other Poems, I've been examining the question of identity in many ways because as the context changes, so do certain responses. But what remains true? We haven't figured out what Caribbean means and now some of us have become Caribbean-Americans?
I have no problem with the designation. It's an accurate designation of what we've become, but what does it mean? These are the kinds of questions that writers ask and the answers come in poems, stories, plays, and blogs.
The other reason is I've been going around the place talking about freedom and it was time to walk my talk. Freedom involves risks and if I wasn't willing to take the risks of ridicule and loss of face, then it was either put up or shut up. And after I had a little talk with my friend, Richard Grayson, (Thanks, Richard!) who convinced me to try Lulu.com, I chose to speak and learned many things.

So, what did I learn from writing Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories?

I'll give you snippets from the Q&A. It's part of a press kit that can be downloaded here: http://geoffreyphilp.com

Well, the interesting thing about Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is that it has a story within a story. The first part of the narrative is the conflict in Jimmy's life with the bully. His grandfather, Sydney, tells him the Anancy story of "Brother Anancy, Snake, and Tiger," and he uses the story to outsmart the bully.
From Jimmy's conflict one of the things that I re-learned through the voice of the grandfather was that Jamaicans are a very conservative people. We believe in values such as saying, "Good morning, please and thank you."

From the Anancy story, I learned the depth of psychological insights that these simple stories contained. I mean, I knew they were there, but when I had to write the story that was another matter. For example, Tiger, Snake, and Anancy are archetypes of power, delusion, and tricksterism. In this story, Snake represent a lower form of tricksterism (an un-evolved Anancy) that seeks gain only for itself.
I also learned this:

  • Tigers may make great displays of power, but they are as insecure as the rest of us.
  • Snakes are driven by urges of "more, more, more!"
  • Snakes can be manipulated if you promise them "more!"
  • Tigers are afraid of Snakes because Snakes know their secrets.
  • Snakes may manipulate our insecurities, but they are as insecure as the rest of us.
  • No matter who we are, Snakes or Anancy, we can be manipulated by our insecurities.
  • Our insecurities can wrap us so tightly that we lose sight of our goals and dreams-our great imperatives. (Sorry, I just had to put that in there.)
  • Tricksters are not revolutionaries. They will support the status quo as long as it suits them and they can get what they want. But if these needs are not met, watch out!
  • All of us, Brother Snake, Brother Anancy, and Brother Tiger, are sisters and brothers.

So why did I write this book?
The short answer is that there aren't many children's books from the English-speaking Caribbean that deal with the issues of the diaspora and bullying. I also believe that writing is an integral part of personal and cultural self-esteem and without books like Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories many children grow up thinking that writing and many other professions are simply not for them because of their race, color or culture.
One of the most heartening incidents in my life was a few years ago, I was strolling across the North Campus of Miami Dade College and a young man came up to me and said, "You may not remember me, but we used to call you, Mr. Poetry Man. You came to our school every Thursday and we looked forward to you coming to teach us to write poetry. I want to thank you."
"Mr. Poetry Man." I liked that.
But here's a little bit more from the press kit:
From the time when my children were toddlers, I've wanted to write a children's book. Of course, my wife and I read them Green Eggs and Ham, Goodnight, Moon, and But No More Elephants! and they grew up listening to my stories about Jamaica. I told them Anancy stories, but they had no context to connect themselves to the Anancy stories and I wanted to give a connection to Jamaica through the stories because that's how we understand things--through stories.
Later when I worked for the Poet-in-the Schools program with Miami-Dade Public Schools and English teacher at West Miami Middle School, I taught the children how to write stories because many children didn't have any way to connect with their parents. At least on a story level. I'm hoping that Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories will give them a chance to begin talking with their children and teachers will have a relevant resource that will connect them to their students from the English-speaking Caribbean.
But then I read a beautiful book by Kyra Hicks, Martha Ann's Quilt for Queen Victoria, and that did it. I had to try and write a children's book.
Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is about self-esteem. So what if your father is a security guard? So what if you mother is a nurse? So what if your parents are not millionaires? So what if you don't come from a "traditional" family? If you are loved and you are able to give love in return that's what really matters.
So, I did it and it has been immensely freeing. And I'll tell you this, too. Writing a children's story is hard because I really had to tell a story: beginning, middle and end.
But go see for yourself.
Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories may be ordered online @ http://www.lulu.com/content/877456

For Educators, Librarians & Community Leaders


For an overview of the cultural significance of Anancy in the Caribbean, please follow this link: Anancy

PS. Stephen Bess has written a great little review of Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories over at his site. Please go over and browse @ Morphological Confetti


Richard said…
Congratulations, my friend! It looks like a great book. But all your books are worth reading (and buying).
Thanks, Richard!
Yes, I hope many people will buy Grandpa Sydney and all the other books. And as they say in my neighborhood, "From your mouth to G_d's ears."


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