I’ve come to embrace the idea that my choices don’t always have to make sense to everyone, or ever, to anyone, but if I’m not writing, then I’m not doing the thing
that I’m called to do.
Joanne Hillhouse has written three books of fiction – The Boy from Willow Bend, which found its way onto the Antigua and Barbuda schools reading list; Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, for which a Moonlight Street Festival was organized in 2008; and now Oh Gad!
A University of the West Indies graduate, she has participated in the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (University of Miami) and the Breadloaf Writers Conference (Middlebury College, Vermont), the latter as an international fellowship recipient. Other awards include a UNESCO Honour Award and the David Hough Literary Prize. JCI West Indies in 2011 recognized her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Persons in the region for her humanitarian work in Antigua and Barbuda. This includes her involvement in writing and reading programmes like the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – which she founded in 2004.
She’s participated in showcases in the Caribbean, Canada, and America; and has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in local, regional and international publications. Her freelance reporting and feature writing has attracted awards (locally) for health and environmental coverage. She’s worked in television and film – including as associate producer of Antigua’s first feature length film, The Sweetest Mango, and production manager on its second, No Seed. She’s consulted on local and regional campaigns, with corporations, individuals and non profits, in addition to her participation in literary projects like book and anthology editing.
Book: Oh Gad!
Book: The Boy from Willow Bend
Interview at Unheard Words
How Joanne Hillhouse Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Joanne for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I am a writer; there was no choosing that. The choice I had to make was choosing to embrace it. That is, I’d always had a vivid imagination and a love of reading, writing had become my instinctive way of working through things, engaging with the world; but the idea that this was something I could do, make a living at, took time especially coming from a small island (Antigua) in the Caribbean. It just kind of seemed an impossible, impractical dream and I hedged by earning a Communications degree and working as a journalist, my dream of telling stories, writing books being something I was a little afraid to believe in and worked on quietly, if not in secret. In time, I’ve come to embrace the idea that my choices don’t always have to make sense to everyone, or ever, to anyone, but if I’m not writing, then I’m not doing the thing that I’m called to do. If we’re all given gifts, if there’s such a thing as your spirit calling you to certain things, then writing is it for me; it’s the only thing I want to be doing and the one thing that I can do.
Well, there was no blue print that’s for sure. For me it’s involved lots of self-doubt, long nights, soul searching, vacillating, redrafting, revising, seeking feedback, submitting, getting rejected, getting blocked, submitting again, and again and again, finding acceptance, stumbling and falling through publishing, getting up, pushing through; never quite feeling like you’re on stable ground but somehow not knowing how to give up either. Recently, I heard it said that having an MFA is, if not necessary, makes the process easier. Well, I don’t have an MFA. And it has not been easy, but then I don’t think it’s easy even for those who do. Fact is you could be the most talented in the room and still go unnoticed. But what I did and still do is continue to imagine, read, write, research, network, and grow, and most of all, write. And, when time and resources allow, I take up the opportunity to put myself in environments where all of the above is possible such as the Callaloo Writers Workshop at Brown University, the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Midway College, and the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
All the writers I grew up reading, mostly. Plus the people who, along the way, read my tentative offerings and helped nudge me in the write direction; family, friends…my English teacher at the Antigua State College comes to mind as does my mentor at the University of the West Indies who then recommended me for the writing programme at University of Miami where I started working on my first book. But there are others who in ways big and small helped me believe and provided valuable feedback. Calling names can be problematic for the names you forget to call, so I think I’ll leave it at that.
I’ll mention three. Jamaica Kincaid because like me she’s an Antiguan writer and because after reading Annie John, I knew that I had a lot of work to do but becoming a writer wasn’t as improbable as it seemed. Edwidge Dandicat whose writing I admired and whose geographic landscape (she was also from the Caribbean and only a few years older than me) made me see possibilities. Zora Neale Hurston because I like both her writing and her spirit and, like her, I’m committed to rendering my world in its full-bodied authentic self.
I’ll say some of the things I wish I’d known to say to myself.
“You’re going places you wouldn’t have imagined; so don’t waste time doubting. Easier said than done, I know but, Believe. Yes, keep writing. Keep building your network. Keep reading and imagining and growing. But most of all, believe. Oh, and by the way, publishing isn’t the end game you think it is. It comes with a lot of hassles a writer is not equipped to deal with. You’ll just want to write, and I’m still trying to figure my way through it so I may have to get back to you on that. But just know that like writing itself, no part of this journey is easy and publishing least of all…in the moments when you just want to exhale and celebrate, even more will be expected of you…and you’ll give it because you’re not the giving up sort, and seeing your book is rewarding in a way I can’t describe, if not always financially so. But (and perhaps this is as much to me now as me then), believe and don’t give up. Look how far you’ve already come. Remember to be in the moment, this particular moment won’t swing by again. And never lose the joy of reading and writing, the love of a good story, that’s what got you here after all and continue to make being here, wherever here is, worth it.”