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Literate Nubian - Interview with Marie-Elena John by Justin Adewale Collins: 2006-12-10
  • Born and raised in Antigua, Marie-Elena John wasn’t considering a writing career when she left her Caribbean island for New York’s City College. There, thanks to a semester spent at the University of Nigeria, she became fascinated by the intertwined cultural commonality of the Continent, the Caribbean, and the African-American experiences. After graduating as CCNY’s first Black woman valedictorian, she went on to earn a Masters degree from Columbia University, focusing on culture and development in Africa. From a Washington D.C. base throughout the 1990s, she worked with non-profit organizations, traveling throughout Africa, first in support of grassroots development efforts, later working with pro-democracy and human rights movements, and eventually becoming best known in her field for her pioneering work on the denial of women’s inheritance rights in Africa. Recently, though, she has been channeling her vast knowledge of and passion for the African Diaspora into her dazzling literary debut, Unburnable – a multi-generational novel that powerfully brings together Caribbean history, African customs, and African-American sensibilities, published by HarperCollin’s Amistad in April 2006.

    Marie-Elena John and her husband and children currently share their time between Washington D.C. and Antigua.

    LiterateNubian: Marie-Elena John, how did you go from being an Africa development specialist to a novelist?

    Marie-Elena John: It was a matter of necessity. The kind of travel you need to do when the organizations you work with are so far away becomes difficult when there are kids to think about. Before I had kids, the travel to the Continent was the best part of it! But once I went back to work after having my kids, I felt like I was compromising on all aspects of what I was doing, and the result was not satisfying, even though I stuck with it for five years. I was working part time and doing my best but it wasn’t working out very well. I’d have situations where I’d been planning a multi-country conference on violence against women in Nigeria, and then a few days before I’m to travel, our care-provider quits suddenly and I can’t go…
    So I tried to figure out what else I could do that would put me more in control. I came up with writing a novel.
    However, I had been working on one particular issue, the denial of inheritance rights to women, and I plan to return to that work in some way, once I figure it out.

    LiterateNubian: Have you always wanted to be a writer or is it something you picked it up along the way?

    Marie-Elena John: Never wanted to be a writer, but I did understand that I “could write;” it was a talent, a gift. I considered journalism and majored in mass communications as an undergrad, but never worked as a journalist. Instead, I turned to the African continent, where I’d spent time as an exchange student, and where I felt a strong cultural connection to my Caribbean upbringing. I did my masters in Economic and Political development, with a regional focus on Africa. I really didn’t do much writing (apart from proposals and reports) after college.

    LiterateNubian: What inspired “Unburnable?”

    Marie-Elena John: The story seemed to write itself, once I got going, but on looking back, I can see all the themes coming through, and I can see some influences in retrospect. I see my interest in African culture, I see my interest in the colonial experience and how domination of one culture through slavery and colonialism has lasting effects on the psyche and socialization of Black people. The importance of not accepting what “they” tell us is our history; of reconstructing our history for ourselves. I see my interest in the intersection of class, race, and poverty as played out in the Caribbean. What else? Multiculturalism, and how culture is probably the most important lens through which we view the world. How different groups have opposing yet valid perspectives, and how the inability to see beyond our cultural box can lead to tragic results.
    Also, I was inspired in a way by all the bad writing that’s out there – I knew I could write better quality than much of junk that’s produced!! And similarly, I was inspired by so-called “good” writing, a lot of which I find really boring. I wanted to come up with something that was good AND gripping.

    LiterateNubian: How long did it take you to write “Unburnable?”

    Marie-Elena John: Four years from the idea that I could write a novel, to the day it was on the shelves. Much of that was writing and editing.

    You’re a first time author published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins (one of the major publishing houses in the world), how did that happened—how did you get your publishing deal?
    I sent a cover and the first 30 pages to my agent -- of course I didn’t know him then, but I knew he was one of the top literary agents, Eric Simonoff. He accepted it, after I did some revisions, and he’s the one who sold it. It was quite amazing that he took my manuscript out of his slush pile -- he’s very sought-after and goes years in between taking new clients. I chose Amistad from among the others who bid on it because I thought it would get the most attention from them, and I knew the manuscript needed a lot of work. Also, Amistad had just published The Known World by Edward Jones, which won a Pulitzer, so I thought it would help to have the same editor as a recent Pulitzer Prize winner!

    LiterateNubian: How does it feel to be a published author?

    Marie-Elena John: I’m getting used to it slowly. I’ve been traveling a lot, and every time I come back to Antigua, I have to fill in the entry forms at the airport. Now I don’t hesitate to put “writer” in the box for “occupation.”

    LiterateNubian: What is it like to be published by a conglomerate?

    Marie-Elena John: To tell the truth, I have no idea what being published by anything else is like. I’m not of the writing world, so I don’t have anything to compare it to.

    LiterateNubian: Is this a one book deal or are you going to publish more books with Amistad?

    Marie-Elena John: It’s just this one book. I like consistency, and I had an excellent editor in the person of Dawn Davis, so I hope Amistad will bid on the next one.

    LiterateNubian: What have you and your publisher been doing to let readers, both in the United States and Caribbean know about “Unburnable?”

    Marie-Elena John: Unfortunately, my publishers don’t have much of a marketing budget for Unburnable, but they sent out the book to all their media contacts and that resulted in coverage in Essence, Ebony, Jewel, Upscale, Black Issues Book Review, and others.
    On my own, I’ve been beating the bushes. I’ve drawn on all my contacts and reached out to all my friends, and the response has been wonderful. I’ve done launches in New York and D.C., and have asked all my friends to host small (and some not so small) book parties in their homes. I gained access to BET Jazz and did a very successful promotion at the St. Lucia Jazz Festival in May. I was also interviewed on the talk show My Two Cents on BET-J, to air in the next few weeks. I’ve been interviewed by Caribbean radio personalities in New York, Walter Greene and Bevan Springer, and had coverage in Caribbean-American as well as Caribbean publications. I’ll be launching in Trinidad soon, and basically going all over the US and the Caribbean – where ever there are groups of readers, I’m there.

    I’ve also worked with Antigua’s Tourist Office in New York, and they’ve been very supportive and have provided sponsorship in the form of my travel to and from the U.S., because they see how much I also use the opportunity of promoting Unburnable to promote my country – which leads me to invite everyone reading this to come on down to Antigua for your next vacation! We have 365 of the world’s most beautiful beaches and it’s time people started hearing more about this wonderful vacation destination!!

    LiterateNubian: How would you describe some of the reaction you have been getting from the public while on the road promoting “Unburnable”?

    Marie-Elena John: I’ve been so very excited by all the feedback in just two months. I don’t yet have a website (it’ll be up soon --- www.unburnable.org) but people are still finding ways to track me down and send me emails expressing their feelings. Many have told me that they were drawn into the story and were literally unable to put it down, it was that gripping. Others focus on the cultural aspect of the work, and they express appreciation that I so accurately and honestly portrayed various cultures. I’ve had many, many people tell me that they’ve recommended it to book clubs, that it’s a really good discussion book because there are so many issues explored. I’ve also heard from book clubs that have read it, and received invitations to book club discussions over the summer. I’ve also heard from literature teachers who plan to use it in their classes.

    LiterateNubian: Were you involved in any aspect of your book’s publication process at all?

    Marie-Elena John: I was consulted especially on the cover, and I’m very grateful for that, because I think that the cover is absolutely perfect for the novel.

    LiterateNubian: It is often said that most fiction authors especially first time authors, tend to draw stories for their books from real live experiences; “Unburnable” is set between Washington DC and Antigua—you divide your time between DC and Antigua, is this statement true in your case?

    Marie-Elena John: No, I went out of my way to make sure that I used my imagination and didn’t base anything (apart from the overall contexts) on any specific experience I’ve had. I discovered in the process of writing that I’ve been blessed with a very strong, active imagination, so I made good use of it! Having said that, I think I’ll continue to write about Caribbean and Caribbean-American characters who interact with African-Americans, and who either are very familiar with or who travel to or visit Africa. This is my “context-base” and it provides me with an inherent authenticity, which I think is one of the keys to “Unburnable” success.

    LiterateNubian: So, what next for Marie-Elena John, are you working on anything new?

    Marie-Elena John: Right now I’m just trying to get out there and let people know about Unburnable. I’m enjoying it because for four years I was locked away writing and didn’t get out much. But I have the next novel pretty much already written in my head. It’s been there for about two years now, and so hopefully I’ll be able to sit down and start writing again in the fall.

    LiterateNubian: Marie-Elena John, it has been a pleasure talking to you.

    Marie-Elena John:Thank you.
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