October 12, 2009

Joanne C. Hillhouse: Musings on The Boy

Joanne C. Hillhouse’s writing has been described as “honest” and “real,” also “poetic” and “lyrical.” Born, raised, and resident in Antigua, Joanne’s culture – its people, language, music, issues, and more – shines through, prompting Island Where to remark “Obvious is the ‘writer’s ear’ for effective characterization and narrative that stays true to Caribbean island experience.”

Her first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, is being reissued in 2009 under the Hansib imprint. Joanne is also the author of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Caribbean, U.S. and African literary journals.

A University of the West Indies graduate, Joanne has won coveted spots at the prestigious Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (University of Miami) and the Breadloaf Writers Conference (Middlebury College, Vermont). She’s also the 2004 recipient of a UNESCO Honour Award for her contribution to literacy and the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda. That contribution includes, in addition to her writing, involvement in writing and reading programmes (Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, Cushion Club, Great Young Minds etc.), organization of/participation in literary showcases (Word Up! and others), conducting various literary workshops and judging literary competitions (A &B’s Independence literary competition etc.).

Joanne has read in Jamaica, Barbados, Toronto, Antigua, and New York. In 2008, a Moonlight street festival celebrating her book, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, capped off an “official summer read” campaign organized by the Best of Books bookstore and the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival. Also in 2008, The Boy from Willow Bend was added to the Antigua schools reading list.

As a freelance journalist and writer, Joanne has received health and environmental journalism awards; published feature articles in Américas, Caribbean Beat, and CLR James Journal; worked in local television/film – including as associate producer of Antigua’s first feature length film The Sweetest Mango; and consulted on campaigns – by the Caribbean Family Planning Affiliation and others, as well as corporate, book, and anthology projects.

Writing and reading have remained her twin passions, however. In an Authors on My Space interview, Joanne said, “I was influenced to write by my desire to tell stories, to impact readers in the way that my favourite stories impacted me…I’m just a sucker for a good story.”

Musings on The Boy

My book, The Boy from Willow Bend, has been re-issued as a Hansib imprint and added to the Antigua and Barbuda schools reading list.

I am happy for The Boy.
His name is Vere. His world is a dead end alley, where he imagines jumbies watching from the willow trees, makes up ghost stories to tease his friends – the Buckley kids, and plays in the pond though his Tanty has warned him not to. He’s a sensitive child, made that much more sensitive by the absence of his mother and never having known, beyond rumor, his father. Vere knows deep longing for his mother, deep love for his Tanty, and deep fear of his grandfather.

As a writer, it was a pleasure to spend time in Vere’s company. I was thrilled to discover that in spite of the book’s heavy themes of abandonment, identity, loss, and survival of the spirit, others felt the same. One woman, in casual encounter, shared her delight at her husband’s laughter, as he read the book, filtering in from another room. I’ve also encountered some who told me it made them cry – including one family member who remembers as I do our own Tanty. In fact, an editor (from my other life, as a journalist) wrote to tell me, when the book first came out, “The Boy is funny, heartbreaking, and at the end, you made me cry.”

Tears, like laughter, are good if they indicate – as I think they do – readers connecting with the character. But, as a reviewer wrote in She Caribbean: “This is no long streak of misery; the reader never feels overwhelmed by hopelessness. She accomplishes this by allowing Vere to retain a child’s enthusiasms, mental diversions, and irrepressibility.”

It’s probably ill-advised to admit this, but I didn’t ‘allow’ Vere to do anything. He came fully formed spent some time with me, and trusted me to be tell his story, authentically.

So, I told of his childhood adventures and fears, his forays into music, his first love and first girlfriend – not the same person, how he nearly lost, yet held on to himself as he lost all that was important to him.

I’m one of those readers who knows the power of stories to transcend their particular place and spark something in people worlds away.

Growing up in Antigua, there were few books by us and about us available to me, so most of my reading was about other places. And yet, not only was I transported there – even if there, was a damp English boarding school or a little house on the prairie – but, well done, there was a real connection with the characters and their journey. The core of human experience, the passions that drive us, I learned, were not that different after all.

At the back of my mind, I hoped that Vere would be that kind of experience for readers. I hoped that anyone who read it would be able to relate – if not to the experience of chasing butterflies in the summer or stealing sugar cakes from the kitchen counter – then, to the passions and potential that existed in this young boy.

For this reason, one of my favourite reviews shortly after the book’s original release was in the Trinidad Guardian online: “The characters in Hillhouse’s book feel real and best of all they feel Caribbean, but the story could have held up in any culture. Change the names and the setting and this could be any teenage boy’s story. Still, Hillhouse has managed not to make this just a ‘boy’ book. I quite enjoyed reading it and I think teenage girls will also enjoy the novel because of Vere’s need for a mother.”

One of the more out-of-left-field responses was an email from an Italian student at the University of Pisa, who wrote to tell me that they’d selected it from several options presented by their course instructor and liked both the character of Vere and the window to Caribbean life and atmosphere the book presented.” All I could think was…imagine that!

My hope now is that the book continues to find an audience and that new readers continue to enjoy Vere’s company.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps like Vere, I’m something of a dreamer.

Praise for The Boy from Willow Bend:

“The coming of age story is well crafted, lively and absolutely believable.” – Daily Observer

“This is a great and insightful look at Caribbean life and the future of our children.” – Expand Your World, Daily Observer

“Hillhouse in The Boy from Willow Bend effectively addresses several issues prevalent in Caribbean society.” – Sun Weekend

“…a story of the triumph of spirit over situation…the book stands out as an example of self-redemption, self-motivation, and self-preservation...” – She Caribbean

“The plot is exciting and moves swiftly.” – Trinidad Guardian


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