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Unburnable

Best book of 2006
Debut fiction

Black Issues Book Review


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Q & A

You've done a lot of work in the area of human rights for women and children in Africa--when did the writing come into play? Were you writing on the side? (It would seem your career would have kept you quite busy).
There was no writing – unless you count hundreds of mind-numbing proposals written to funding agencies, and even more soul-crushing quarterly project reports -- until I decided to try my hand at a novel. Growing up, I’d been told I was a good writer based mostly on my English compositions and the letters I wrote as a child to cousins living in other islands. With this in mind, I though of journalism as a career option and took the requisite writing courses – mostly journalistic writing, and one creative writing course. I wrote a few short stories at that point. In the end I decided to do my Masters in International Affairs, focusing on Africa, and went on to a career as an Africa development specialist.

How does one grow up in Antigua and then become an Africa Development Specialist?
After leaving Antigua, by the end of my first year at City College in New York, I had a sense of how small the world I grew up in was, and how much else was out there to experience. I heard about an exchange program to Nigeria that City College was about to launch, and I applied. It was as simple as that, the thought: “that would be an interesting thing to do.” I didn’t have any burning desire to see the African Continent in particular. But once there, I felt totally at home in many ways: people looked like Antiguans, behaved in a familiar way. I felt a strong cultural connection – I could see the origins of many of the things we do. It seemed to me that there had been a big gap in my understanding of myself as an Antiguan and as a Black person, and that seeing the origins of some of our physical, cultural, and spiritual manifestations had begun to close that gap. Not just seeing them, but understanding the original meaning.

Let me give an example. While I was in West Africa, I saw a “masquerade” – which is in fact a facet of many African religions, masquerades being representations of various spirits. The people who are representing these spirits wear masks, often have horns, and are covered with various types of fibers, cloth, or dried banana leaves, and come out during various festivals and also in times of social crisis. I was standing there in Togo, I think it was, and was looking at an Antiguan “John Bull” or a Dominican Bande Mauvais (other islands call it by different names). As a child, when the John Bull came out, we were terrified and would run – and our understanding of what they were was: “something scary we see at Carnival.”
But I came to know the original MEANING behind the strange thing we call John Bull (spirit representation). So these sort of experiences were what led to my interest in Africa and things African. I toyed with going on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology, but in the end I didn’t want to be an academic, I thought I wanted to be more hands-on; and so studied development/ Africa/ culture and went on to work in that field.

How did your work with development and human rights inform your writing? Why was it important for you to link parts of the African Diaspora in this book?
I think it's more my connection to African culture than the human rights/development work that you see in this novel. I DID try to get some of the women's rights work in the story, specifically, the denial of women's inheritance rights. The original version of Unburnable had another character, a friend of Lillian's, who had traveled with her to Africa when they were in college, where I got to deal with inheritance issues. But that part was cut as there was just too much going on. So I've saved it for another book.

But as I said, my connection to Africa was first and foremost a very organic, cultural connection that started when I went to Nigeria as an undergrad exchange student. THAT is the thing that informs the writing, this cultural connection, this understanding of the origins of Caribbean AND African-American culture. The importance of knowing our "roots", so to speak, and the distortion that happens to a people when their history has been traumatic, when they've been severed from the things that allow them to make sense of the world through their own world-view; when another world-view has been imposed on them -- the damage that is done in such cases, because obviously the world-view that will be imposed on colonized or enslaved people will be one that tells them that they are inferior. This is the thing that informed my writing, I think, and that's why it was important to link the Diaspora.

You are from Antigua, but Antigua is only mentioned in passing, and Unburnable gives an insider’s look at Dominica’s culture and history, and Dominicans feel that you’ve truly evoked the spirit of the place. What is your connection to Dominica?
My mother is from Dominica. She moved to Antigua after marrying my father, who is Antiguan-born of Lebanese descent. Most of her friends when I was a small child were also from Dominica, and we went to Dominica often as children to visit our grandmother and other relatives. To find out more about Antiguan and Barbuda, and Dominica, please visit www.antigua-barbuda.org and www.dominica.dm

There is a Lebanese community in Unburnable: are there Lebanese in the Caribbean?
Yes. Just about every island has such a community. The first immigrants came around the turn of the century, so they have been in the Caribbean for over a hundred years already. In the beginning, they almost never married outside of their community, which is where I got the idea for the storyline. In fact my father was one of the first of his generation (second generation) to marry a Black woman. Today, it’s more common for them to marry non-Lebanese, although they (as well as the Syrians) do maintain a close-knit community.

Can you tell us about the research process for this book?
My life experience and interests were the primary research; also my mother's stories of growing up in Dominica , her discussions with her sisters and friends about Carnival (Masquerade) when they were children, the role of the chante mas songs (Carnival Songs) in social control and commentary. My great-aunt was a famous chantuelle (a woman who composed songs and led costumed bands) -- although she was not a grass-roots person, she was before her time in terms of being a cultural activist, promoting and writing about the importance of these traditions and their links to Africa, so I think I was given a great understanding of 1940s Masquerade and what that was like.

I traveled extensively in Africa for many years so I drew on that; and I made a few trips to Dominica while writing, did a lot of talking to old people and also made a climb to Jacko's Flats, which is the site of a Maroon settlement. That went a long way to helping me write some of the scenes, such as Lillian and Teddy's climb to Matilda's (fictional) village.

When did you start writing Unburnable and how long did it take to complete?
I began thinking about it seriously in the Fall of 2001. A South African co-worker mentioned that his brother had written a book and was currently on a book tour, and said that the book was doing quite well (Achmat Dangor, Kafka’s Curse). Suddenly, I almost knew someone who had written a novel, and for some reason that made it seem feasible. I started writing in the Spring of 2002, and finished the first version, the one I sent to my agent, in the Summer of 2004. Then followed another eighteen months – rewriting, selling the manuscript, and editing, editing, editing.

How did you schedule the writing in?
I started out, the first couple months, writing at night when my two kids and husband were asleep. I didn’t say anything until I saw that I really did have the makings of a novel. Then I ran my plan by my husband– to give up my work (for just one year, I thought) and try this writing thing. He supported it completely, and so my writing schedule was to write daily from the time the kids left for school until they came home.

What was the inspiration for Unburnable?
Unburnable started out as a very different kind of book. I turned to writing as a career change option, because the travel involved in my kind of work was taking its toll on my family – my kids were young and it was a major strain that wasn’t getting any better as they got older. So my goal was to write something commercial, something kind of Terry McMillan-ish, involving a group of friends who vacationed together every year. You had the African-American woman, the Caucasian woman, the Caribbean woman, and the Black man who might or might not have been gay, I hadn’t yet decided. But when I tried to give the Caribbean character a family background, Unburnable was born.

When I was writing it, the story of Matilda and Iris and Lillian’s childhood, all of that came unconsciously. It’s just what showed up on the page when I sat at the computer. Now that it’s finished, I can see all these very clear themes -- the history of Black people and how it’s been distorted, for example, and “colorism” and “classism” within Black communities, those things are all over Unburnable.
So rather than being able to identify one particular inspiration, I see Unburnable as the creative expression of a whole bunch of things that I’ve been preoccupied with at some level for all of my adult life, some of them through my work and my travel. And of course there are the obvious cultural influences of my parents, and how my life was shaped by growing up in a tiny Caribbean country.

How did you go about getting the novel published?
I did a lot of research – looking up the agents of all my favorite authors. I really liked what I read about Eric Simonoff, who is known as the top agent in New York. I spent two weeks on my cover letter to him, and sent it with my first 30 pages. Although he didn’t agree to represent me after reading the full manuscript, he offered valuable suggestions for major cuts and revisions, which I followed. He was in effect my first editor. Three months later he took me on as a client. He did all the work after that. He’s amazing.

You wrote of the prejudice that can sometimes exist between Caribbean people and African-Americans through Lillian's aunt Margaret. And you explained that both groups have had a different history in terms of slavery which accounts for some of the differences in culture. You then spoke on how some of this is still true -- when you say some of this, do you mean racism or prejudice, or something else? You also said that some of these things still remain and Lillian rejected them-- again are you talking about particular stereotypes that can be applied to Caribbean people and African-Americans? Please explain.
These “prejudices” (not in the racial sense – maybe the better word is stereotype), which are explored through the opinions of Lillian’s aunt, are old ones and therefore were best articulated by an older woman (this aunt would have been middle-aged at that time, the early ‘80s); the young Lillian easily rejected that analysis. Yes, old ideas do persist, and the stereotype of the hard working West Indian and the lazy American living off welfare is still out there -- a sort of cultural snobbery on the part of Caribbean immigrants (I’m talking people who came to the US in the 40s, 50s, 60s, perhaps even 70s). Caribbean people, for the most part, never lived as a “minority” group of people under the racist laws and racism of a white majority (this in not to say we didn’t have our own version, the equally oppressive colonialism under which we also had to struggle and overcome -- but that’s another story), and I think when these Caribbean immigrants came to the US – and they really only located in northern, urban cities for the most part – they were flabbergasted by the cycle, the TRAPS of poverty and social decay among Blacks that they saw in these inner cities. For various reasons, they didn’t have the tools to really analyze why this was the case, to see the systemic, institutionalized reasons for the social decay and poverty – thereby giving rise to the stereotype.

I would venture to say that we only have the vestiges of this left, that there have been enough cultural connections over the years for this stereotype to have become outdated. I must say there are new stereotypes that have come with cable TV and the dominance of BET-watching -- the whole Gangsta- misogynist music video culture but that’s, as we say, a whole, ‘nother story…..

Were there historical figures like Mary-Alice?
No, I made them all up! However, some general historical concepts are of course very historical (see the SPOILERS section for more details). And let's see: the sexton (church caretaker) Pope was based on an Antiguan sexton who we used to first call Bishop and later Pope because he was so into his job, we did used to laugh at him a bit and say he was more holy than the priests... I think that's it in terms of basing a character on anyone.

Were you prepared for the success of this your first novel?
I’m not one of these people who work through flashes of brilliance, much as I envy them, so I plod along slowly with a long-term plan and have faith that hard work pays off. I never doubted that, once having made the commitment to “write a book,” I would write a book (it took four years from the decision, to the day it was on the shelves – many people in the meantime had stopped asking me how it was coming, thinking that I was delusional!).

Whether it would be successful or not, though, I just hoped for the best – I did have confidence that I’d be able to write something good, but so many other things come into play as to whether a book makes it commercially, which is certainly one indicator of success. So far, one could never call Unburnable a commercial success – I don’t know how many copies have sold to date, and I refuse to find out, because I don’t want to focus on the numbers at the moment. I’m using other indicators of success, like reader response, like professors teaching it in their literature courses. Like being picked as the best debut novel for 2006 by Black Issues Book Review.

Share some unexpected but gratifying moments since the launch of this novel?
When I’m at large book events like the Harlem Book Fair or the Delta Convention, and people come up to say that they’ve already read Unburnable and share some of their feelings about it. One time in particular, a woman rounded the corner and actually screamed, “Unburnable!” -- she’d seen it at her daughter’s house, read a few lines of the first page, and intended to buy it for herself. Her daughter had recently called her to tell her that she finished it and it ranked among her best reads of life. So we had a great time; she called her daughter from her cell phone and we talked and took pictures.

What do you see yourself continuing – your development work in the African continent when the kids are older? Or your writing?
I’m hoping to combine the two. In particular, I want to return to working and advocating on the issue of women’s inheritance rights in Africa – the fact that according to traditional law in Africa, women cannot inherit. The problems that stem from this are huge, especially in the context of HIV/AIDS, now that so many young women are becoming widowed, and so many young girls become heads of households when their parents die. Without being able to inherit – especially land – these women and their children and siblings suffer extreme poverty, violence, marginalization from society -- and the poverty traps orphan girls in a terrible cycle: HIV killed their parents, and the poverty they encounter without having access to land and their parents’ resources pushes them into prostitution, which then increases their risk of contracting HIV. Click here to read more about the denial of inheritance rights to women in Africa

I thought that, with Unburnable, I could bring out that issue and thereby have a platform for raising awareness (and funding, first and foremost, for the groups in Africa which are working on inheritance). I wrote a big “disinheritance scene” which took place when the central character, Lillian, had visited West Africa during her college years.

Unfortunately, my agent decided , correctly, that Unburnable had too much going on; and suggested that I get rid of at least half of the manuscript. So that part was cut. But it’ll be there in the second novel, for sure, and I will be actively trying to use that novel as a vehicle for this issue.

-SPOILERS-
If you haven’t yet read unburnable please don’t click through to additional questions, as many surprised and plot twists are discussed.

Click here to continue reading questions and answers.

 

To learn more about the history of Dominica  click here http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/heritage.cfm and here . http://www.geocities.com/parariviere/paradhist22g.html

These questions came from many sources, including journalists, reviewers, book clubs, and friends.  Thanks to all who showed their interest by asking or sending me questions.  Thanks also to writers  Jada Bradley from the Washington, DC area, (http://inotherwordz.blogspot.com/) and Joanne C. Hillhouse of Antigua (http://www.myspace.com/jhohadli) for asking some of these questions.



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