It's been some time since I've been a blogger. For quite a few years I blogged over at thechutneygarden.com where I talked about my garden, my life, and pretty much anything that caught my attention. When I began writing fiction, it seemed inevitable that I would make the move over to blogging about the work, the process. But it's been hard to pin down what I want to say in this space.
So I'm really happy to be re-entering my old world with a blog post about camaraderie and sisterhood among the women writers of the Caribbean. Physical distance and separation is a real thing in the Caribbean, especially for writers. Projects that bring the women writers of the region together can become the source of deeply nourishing connections. It's hard to write without a community. In this first post, I want to give a big shout out to Lynn Sweeting from The Bahamas who is the woman behind the gorgeously produced WomanSpeak magazine. I was fortunate to be one of the writers who contributed to the most recent WomanSpeak and I wanted to spend some time speaking with Lynn about the evolution of WomanSpeak and the thinking behind this most recent publication. Thank you also to Danielle Boodoo-Fortune for the use of her beautiful art here. For me Danielle's images articulate the essence of the collection.
Lynn it’s such a pleasure to be able to chat to you about WomanSpeak. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of WomanSpeak?
WomanSpeak was first created in 1991 in Nassau. I had been a journalist for about ten years by then, formerly a reporter, working as a freelancer, and beginning to meet a group of local women writers including Marion Bethel and Lelawattee Manoo Rahming who were already published and prizewinning poets, and enthusiastically in favor of creating a literary journal of women’s writing in The Bahamas. It felt like a revolutionary, feminist thing to do, to make a forum for writers who were telling the truth about women’s lives in poetry and fiction about controversial and often painful subjects like the death penalty, surviving child sex abuse, rape, patriarchal oppression and other difficult topics from a decidedly and unapologetically feminist point of view. In their company I began to write my first poems, which were most often about my grandmothers, both the personal and the archetypal kind.
WomanSpeak was created to encourage island women to write, especially Bahamian women, its existence definitely encouraged me to keep writing poems. We made four small, humble, and very limited editions before shelving the manuscript of the fifth issue that included our first international submission, in the late nineties. I revived that manuscript in 2010, thanks to a gift of financial support from arts patron Dawn Davies of The Bahamas, and vol. 5 was published, becoming the first issue of the new era of the journal. Volumes 6 and 7 followed in 2012 and 2014, and now there is the new 2016 issue, vol. 8, just released in March, made possible once again by the generous support of Mrs. Davies.
The new journals have grown into beautiful editions with striking covers and full colour art throughout, featuring work by a growing lineup of internationally acclaimed writers, like you Sharon, who see the necessity for this kind of forum. I am still most interested in work that is feminist, and the fact is, whether we like it or not, if we are women in or of the Caribbean and we have the notion that we should write poems, fiction, fairytales and even a private diary, then we are feminist. But I am always especially looking for well written new work with subject matter that speaks directly to issues related to social justice for women. I look for outsider voices, controversial subjects and different points of view. Again, just being a woman writing in the patriarchal Caribbean makes one an outsider voice, in my view. I don’t know if all the international, acclaimed authors with work in this new issue will appreciate being called “outsider” voices, on the other hand, I am sure they will totally understand what I mean.
What was the thinking behind the theme, “Letters to the Granddaughters?”
I was thinking about a future time, fifty or seventy five years from now, picturing a young Caribbean woman, a great reader (because all writers begin as great reader, perhaps she has written in a diary all her life, perhaps she has written some poems that she’s never shown anyone, and she is looking for a book she needs, unsure of what book it is exactly, but putting herself in a place where the book calling to her might fall into her hands. You know how some books do that, they come to you just when you need them. I imagined WomanSpeak being that book for her. I thought of her opening this issue and finding letters written to her from literary grandmothers of her past whom she didn’t even know she had, recognizing them and realizing, the stories they told were her stories, recognizing that this was the kind of writing she wanted to do, that these were her forbears calling to her over time, calling her to her own creative voice. I imagined a collection of fiction, poetry, fairytales, essays and art that would empower and inspire that young woman to write, to speak, a book that would perhaps even save her life. I am hoping we have made a book that will, like Lorna Goodison says, make her life better.
How has WomanSpeak fed your own writing?
Writers like to be called, don’t we? So when I send out a call for submissions on a particular theme I am in a sense calling to myself, challenging myself to write to that theme. When the works come in and I am over the moon about it, there is a voice in my head saying, OK Sweeting, now what do YOU have that can hold up in this company? I love folklore and fairytales, and the idea of creating new myths with feminist themes intrigues me, I’ve had the pleasure of publishing some wonderful new folklore by Caribbean women, including a fairytale by you Sharon in the new issue. This year I was ready to publish a couple of my “fairytale poems,” and seeing them in print in such company is empowering, and I’m inspired to continue. On the other hand, when a new book is in production I don’t get to do much of my own writing at all. Maybe this is why my new poems are so short.
Who do you go to for inspiration in your own writing?
Right now I’m looking at old fairytales, Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and re-reading the book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes, as I work on some new fairytale poems. I’ve also been re-reading some of the “new myths” published in WomanSpeak, “Lily and Evie” by Lelawattee Manoo Rahming is a good one (Vol 6/2012). This morning I listened to a Yale lecture about Yeats, this afternoon I read some H.D. Right now I have an enormous book of Frida Khallo’s art open in front of me at the picture of “The Wounded Deer.”
You produce such a high quality publication. Can you describe some of your commitment to this quality?
My designer is Julia P. Ames and she is the one who takes my manuscript of text and art and turns it into a beautiful book. I have to give credit to the professional services of lulu dot com, whom in the old days we’d call “the printers,” who have produced four beautifully printed and bound books for me that I hope do justice to the writing and art within. It is everything to me that the writers themselves like the books and the way their work appears in it. They give me their best work and I want to give them a book they are proud to have their work in.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank you for fostering spaces for women of the region to speak to each other via the work. Was that a deliberate intention or just a happy coincidence? Where would you like to see us grow as a region in terms of women writers? Do you think we are moving forward?
You are welcome. Yes, a space where women writers and artists speak to each other via the work is definitely a deliberate intention. We are not only creating a journal, we are creating community among women. Nothing upsets the patriarchy more than when women gather together outside the company of men to speak of womanish things, its very existence depends on our being divided from one another. And these are not just any women, these are some of the best womanish voices of our generation. So I am always eager to hear what they have to say to one another, honoured to contribute to the conversation. I think we in the Caribbean need all the women writers we can get, there can never be too many.
How do you see the art complementing the work? Can you share some of the pieces that spoke to you most intensely?
The art is integral to the WomanSpeak journal. The artists whose works are included are storytellers too. Often the artist and the writer are one and the same, in the new issue there is art by four of the writers included. There are paintings, assemblages, digital art and even quilts, showing that creative Caribbean women are hard at work in many mediums. I have to note here that WomanSpeak is focused on Caribbean women’s work it is open to all women, and this year the art on the front cover is by feminist painter Maria Maria Acha-Kutscher from Madrid, Spain, a portrait of a woman at a candlelight vigil for the return of the kidnapped schoolgirls of Chibok, Kenya. This painting jumped out as the one for the cover, because of its beauty as much as for its powerful feminist theme. I love the quilts by Jacqueline Bishop that celebrate mothers, grandmothers and daughters, and elevate humble quilt making to high womanish art. I love the paintings of Chantal Bethel that continue to give solace to the victims of the Haiti earthquake. The art compliments the writing perfectly because not only are these pieces beautiful and unique, they are the works of storytellers, truth tellers, conscious of the power their work has to uplift women’s lives and effect change in our communities and in the world.
Have you seen a change in how women Caribbean writers are writing? Is there a shift that you can see?
These are early days for this new era of WomanSpeak. I can say that the idea of a forum like this is resonating with more women writers; each of the four issues is a little bigger than the last. I can say that the notion that women’s literary voices need to be amplified in the Caribbean is a shared one among the writers of the WomanSpeak community. The idea of creating community and dialogue with each other through the work is a shift, the notion that “women’s literature” is even a thing, or should be, is a shift. We’ll see what changes unfold as the journal continues to publish and new generations of women are encouraged to write.
What would you like to say about WomanSpeak?
It is the little journal that could.
Where can people get WomanSpeak?