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Unburnable Gets Rave Reviews by Joanne Hillhouse, Daily Observer: 2006-12-15
  • Antigua’s newest author leaps into elite company with Unburnable’s selection by Black Issues Book Review – “the African American Book Publishing Authority” – as Debut Fiction of the Year. Breaking the news to the Daily Observer, Marie Elena John was still processing this good fortune even as she celebrated what it could mean for her career in publishing.

    “I wasn’t expecting it, to tell you the truth,” the author confessed. “Even though I knew it (Unburnable) had merit and had been going places in terms of (the) Caribbean .”

    The recognition, however, means even greater possibilities beyond the region’s shores. “I think it will do a lot for me,” John noted, “because up until this point the response is very good for the very small group of people that have access to it; what exposure it got went a long way. (But) this is the leading review magazine for black books, so having that will position it differently and allow it to be in front of a bigger audience than it normally would.”

    Breaking into the American mainstream, John has discovered in the months since the Unburnable’s release earlier this year, is not an easy task. This is so even with the weight of Harper Collins – under whose Amistad imprint the book is published – behind her, and Antigua’s government – specifically the Ministry of Tourism – assisting with a book tour that’s taken her from a star studded launch at Harlem’s Baton Rouge to a luncheon reading at the World Bank in Washington to the St. Lucia Jazz Festival, to many more book festivals and college readings across the U.S. In fact, on the heels of the November Caribbean International Literary Festival in Antigua – at which, incidentally, John shared a panel with Trinidad/American Elizabeth Nunez, author of BIBR 2006 Best Book selection Prospero’s Daughter – John represented at the Miami Book Fair. Due to the bill she shared – with a famed Chinese author – John said of that experience, “I was exposed to people who would never have got a chance to know I existed.”

    The whirlwind post publishing experience notwithstanding, given the realities of publishing, John admitted that the BIBR selection came as a surprise.

    “It’s my first book and I know it’s flawed,” said John, who is currently at work on book number two. Of course, artistes tend to be their most meticulous critics, as Unburnable’s merits have far outweighed whatever flaws it may possess with readers and critics alike – from Caribbean Review of Books to Essence to Upscale to the Daily Observer to Essential to Island Where, which has her as its December cover girl (only the second Antiguan to be featured on the cover after film producer Mitzi Allen) and many more. This more, of course, includes the self same Black Issues Book Review. In its assessment, currently re-posted to John’s new website www.marie-elenajohn.com, the publication noted “John takes the risk of incorporating many themes into a central story of three generations of women – and she succeeds.”

    For the Antiguan-born author with Dominican and Lebanese roots, who’d spent much of her career in the U.S. and Africa , success has always been about turning this second career into a lucrative one. As the former African pro-democracy and human rights advocate said in her very first Daily Observer interview – shortly after her first ever reading of Unburnable at this year’s Word Up! literary showcase -- “My intent was to write a book that would sell.” The wife and mother has sold well relatively speaking; “the first three months were like 4,000 copies sold (and by the end of the first year) it looks like I’ll come close to 15,000,” John said.

    She added, “I had kind of reached my limit. I could do no more and I needed to back off (and acknowledge that) I had given this child everything I can to make it out in the world.” The child was well on its way, but perhaps the reality that even successful authors are compelled to supplement their income in other ways was also setting in. “I’ve never worked this hard, this long for no money,” the author said with a laugh, before launching into other upcoming plans to capitalize on her book’s success; such as an Unburnable themed Escape to Jungle Bay Resort and Spa in Dominica.

    Of her foray into publishing, John said, “having done it, I’m willing to keep going and do whatever else I need to do.”

    Of the book in progress, she said only, “it’s much more contemporary. It’s a very different story; less sweeping and much more intimate.”

    Before that, however, fans can look forward to the release of the paper back version of Unburnable round about May 1st.

    Permission required prior to reposting or reprinting.
    Contact Joanne Hillhouse at www.myspace.com/jhohadli

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