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Question & Answer with Barbara Jenkins

Question & Answer with Barbara Jenkins, our Small Wonder International Writer in Residence 2015.

In anticipation of her residency she told us about coming to writing later in life and the hottest Caribbean books around now…

  • Can you tell me when and why you started writing?

‘Writing’ as opposed to say, writing personal letters to put in the post and setting unusual exam papers for my geography students, came late, very late – in my late sixties. Two friends, teachers of English literature, wanted to start writing fiction and memoir and felt a third person would round out the group. I agreed to join out of curiosity and idleness. We met at one another’s homes every week for a few months and shared little stories we’d written. I loved the experience of writing, the challenge of a deadline, the novel experience of having to recall and make sense of things that had happened to me, in words, not just in unexamined feelings. I guess it was the confessional nature of the experience and the catharsis it brought that I valued at the time. The group disbanded when one member went back home to London, but by then I was completely smitten with writing. I submitted a short story to the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2009 and it was shortlisted; two more won the Caribbean Region Prize in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I enrolled at The University of the West Indies for the MFA graduating in 2012. All of which is fine and could have remained low key and marginal if it were not for the biggest stimulus to making me feel I could be a writer. This came with the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad & Tobago’s literary festival, now five years old, as old as I am as a writer. Through Bocas I met well-known Caribbean and diasporean writers as well as writers from the many heritages that Trinidad claims. My publisher, Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press, first heard me read at the Bocas New Writers Showcase. Through Bocas Lit Fest I am able to attend workshops, hear talks, be introduced to new books, all of which make the world of writing and writers real, present and relevant.

  • What do you find is the most creative environment in which to write?

I’m tempted to say, ‘Peace & Quiet’, and I have written loads when in rustic settings away from internet and phone, but I’ve also squandered time in many such places, producing little of worth while in, for example, Balandra on the north coast of Trinidad, The Hurst in Shropshire and Bon Accord in Tobago, all totally conducive to worry-free creativity, yet there I could and did as easily slip into torpor and indolence as write. For me, I think it’s the environment in my own head that matters most. When my head is receptive, anything can be the spark to fire up a story – a person passing by, an event, a news item, a casually overheard phrase. I can write anywhere then. But all that said, once the first draft is done, I do need to be in a place where there is no ordinary domestic life to distract me if I want to hone the story. No noise but the ambient sounds of nature, preferably breaking waves, bird song, whistling frogs, creaking bamboo.

  • Which Trinidadian / Caribbean authors would you recommend to curious readers?

Such a rich treasure trove to mine, it’s hard to choose just a few. Plus there’s the difficulty of identifying a writer as Caribbean. Is that to do with birthplace, usual residence or heritage? VS Naipaul, Trinidad born and raised there to young manhood does not consider himself a Trinidadian/Caribbean writer; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cartagena, Colombia, refers to himself as a Caribbean person. Where also to place Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/USA), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/USA), Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison (Jamaica/Canada) Austin Clarke (Barbados/Canada) Lawrence Scott (Trinidad/UK), Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic/USA) and Caryl Phillips (St Kitts/ UK/ USA)? All writers of internationally acclaimed literary work straddling the Caribbean, the UK and North America; all writers living and working outside the Caribbean.

Does the curious reader want literary works that reveal the history, sociology, politics, the geography of a place through memorable characters and events? Then Earl Lovelace (Trinidad & Tobago). Salt and Is Just a Movie are two of his titles. Leave out the geography and go for all the rest plus racing contemporary plot and sharp characterisation and read Marlon James (Jamaica). His latest, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is the hottest Caribbean book around now. There’s Oonya Kempadoo (Guyana/Tobago/Grenada) All Decent Animals and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (Trinidad &Tobago) Mrs B, and so many other writers.

Short stories? This year Peepal Tree Press published beautifully crafted and totally contemporary debut collections by two Trinidadian women – Rhoda Bharath, The Ten Days Executive and other stories and Sharon Millar, The Whale House and other stories. Read both, they’re different.

As for poetry, such an excess of richness. Derek Walcott. Any collection by the Nobel laureate will transport the reader to another plane. Try the epic, Omerosor White Egrets. Then there are the Jamaicans: Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Tanya Shirley, The Merchant of Feathers and Edward Baugh, Black Sand; the St Lucians: Vladimir Lucien, Sounding Ground and Kendel Hippolyte, Night Vision; the Trinidadians, Nicholas Laughlin, The Strange Years of my Life and Andre Bagoo, Burn – those are just the ones on my bookshelf and all were published in the last couple years.

  • What are your hopes for your time as International Writer in Residence at Small Wonder?

It’s the first time I’ll be at a festival dedicated solely to the short story, my absolute favourite form. I’m devoted to Alice Munro’s work above all, but I’ll just as happily read and reread Chekov in translation or Carver or Welty. So it’s a thrill to know I’ll be completely immersed in short stories and short story writers for a long weekend. If I’m not too overawed, I’m gonna have me the time of my life. Then there’s Charleston House and its ghosts to investigate. I’m particularly interested in Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, and her bittersweet relationship with the house and its history.

  • Stories on a shelf: ghost story, love story, adventure story, real life story. Which do you choose?

That’s ticklish. Actually I wouldn’t choose any strictly genre novel. Speculative fiction, romance, adventure, don’t appeal to me. If by ‘real life’ you mean memoir, not auto/biography, then that’s what I’d choose. I loved Michael Ondaatje’s amusingly revealing Running in the Family.

About Small Wonder:

Small Wonder is a festival dedicated to short stories that takes places in Charleston, located in the South Downs in East Sussex. From 1916 Charleston it was the home of Bloomsbury group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, whose long-term guests included Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster.

This opportunity for an International Writer in Residence has been made possiblethrough a partnership between The Charleston Trust and the British Council, and is also supported by Bocas Litfest, Trinidad. As writer in residence, Barbara will attend all the events at Small Wonder and then produce a piece of work arising from the festival.

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