Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Hippo Hangs Out . . . . with Joanne C. Hillhouse

Who wouldn’t want to be  somewhere warm, sunny, tropical and idyllic right now? Well, that’s exactly where we’re heading to meet today’s lovely author, so grab your swimwear, flip flops and suncream and join me as I welcome Joanne C. Hillhouse to The Hippo.

Photo courtesy of Emile Hill

Joanne C. Hillhouse, named in Literary Hub in 2018 as one of ’10 Female Caribbean Authors You Should Know (And Add To Your American Lit Syllabus)’, is an Antiguan and Barbudan writer described as “a powerful writer, raising questions directly and with great energy.” Her writing has also been said to be “honest”, “real”, “poetic”, “moving”, and “lyrical”. Her culture is at the heart of her writing:  “Obvious is the ‘writer’s ear’ for effective characterization and narrative that stays true to Caribbean island experience” (Island Where, St. Lucia).

Born in Ottos, Antigua,  Joanne was nominated for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. In 2014, she placed second for the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean Literature in 2014; her manuscript, Musical Youth, has since been published to critical and reader acclaim by Caribbean Reads. She was also invited by Burt sponsors, CODE, to organize and facilitate a writing workshop in 2014 and to act as a mentor for the Africa leg of the prize in 2017-2018; and by Bocas, through whom the prize is offered, to serve on the 2015 judging panel. Joanne has, at different times, had her books and stories read and/or taught in schools, colleges, or universities in Antigua-Babuda and other places.

Joanne has written six books - 2 adult novels, 2 teen/young adult novels, 2 children's picture books and you can check them all out here. Her latest book is Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure and I’m in love with the gorgeous cover.


When an Arctic seal named Dolphin finds himself far from home in the warm Caribbean sea, he has to rely on new friends for help. Will he make his way back to his Arctic home?

This book includes a short story and a puzzle.

Who is Dolphin, the Arctic seal?

The story of Dolphin, the Arctic Seal, was inspired by Wadadli, a young male hooded seal that left its home in the North Atlantic and found himself stranded in the Caribbean Sea just off of the island of Antigua. He was rescued by the Coast Guard of Antigua and Barbuda, and like Dolphin, the Arctic Seal, he was returned to his home by plane.

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What book/books made you cry and why?
So many…but I’m currently reading Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, a work of fiction centered on the life of a family of tenant farmers in rural India a time ago, and the scene where the baby dies due to hunger crushed me. Dying from hunger as described in the book, from the mother’s perspective, as she watches with helplessness, after losing so much already, able to do nothing but hold her child and say “sleep”, hoping that death will bring him some relief, is rough. And so unfair. But what made me truly sad was this line, at the opening of the chapter after his death, “When Kuti was gone – with a bland indifference that mocked our loss – the abundant grain grew ripe.” They had been holding on, hoping that the land would bring relief, and it does, when it is too late.

What’s your favourite under-appreciated writer/book?
The first book that popped in to my head was a teen favourite The Last of Eden by Stephanie S. Tolan which was about an awkward teenage girl who wanted to write, so, obvious why I related to that one back when I was myself an awkward teenage girl who wanted to write.

Do you often hear from your readers and what do they say?
I have. Quite often, living on a small island where people have easy access to me but also from people I'll never meet in far away places. In fact, given the lack of critical attention to my work especially earlier in my publishing career, that reader feedback was all I had to let me know what, if any, impact my work was having and it defined my marketing model which is driven by performance reviews in the case of my writing, editing, coaching, and course/workshop facilitation services, and reader reviews – though I have been getting some critical attention of late – in the case of my books and other creative works. I remember when my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, came out someone telling me it made them cry and someone else relating how it made them laugh, with Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Oh Gad! there seems to be a common compulsion to knock some sense in to one of the main characters, but I think the reviews that have stuck with me the most are the ones speaking to the ‘truthfulness’ of the fictions I've tried to craft – from the reader from a different part of the world calling a story of mine “emotionally genuine” to the reader from my part of the world who dubbed another story “unapologetically Caribbean”.  I write from character quite a bit and a fair amount of reader response suggests that they are responding to my characters; responses like, "I’ve always said that Joanne has this way of filling her characters with the breath of life." Plus I'm a Maeve Binchy fan, so imagine how humbling it is to see her referenced not once but twice in Amazon reader reviews. One said, “I was trying to figure out which author this book reminded me of and it is definitely Maeve Binchy… I have never been to Antigua but I enjoyed the description of the scenery and the realness of each character." Responses like that are a blessing.

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing etc come from?
I don’t think there’s a single source. Oral storytelling was a big part of Antiguan and wider Caribbean culture from Paul Keens Douglas and his humorous stories with "Tanty dancing and Slim steupsing" to the stories in calypso form, with characters like "Crazy Ellen and Big Foot Maude, and oh me lard, how they cussing hard" in King Obstinate's 'Wet Yuh Hand' on the radio; to Anansi stories and Jumbie stories in school and community. There were the books my parents would bring home from the hotels where they worked, that book of poems and stories that I've had since I was six and still have to this day, the black and white notebook I inherited as a child when my tanty died…it had writing in it, in her hand, and I started adding my own writing on the blank pages, the fact that I was always making up stuff in my head...; so many sources.

The African Folklore character Anansi

What did you edit out of your last book?
My last book was actually the children’s picture book Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure and the editing process involved fleshing things out more than cutting things, shaping and trimming more so than massive cuts.

What do you think is more important: characters or plot?
Seriously, it’s both. I tend to be drawn in, as both a reader and a writer, by character but that doesn’t mean it’s more important. The story still has to go somewhere.

If you could spend time with a character from your book who would it be and why? What would you get up to?
The teens in Musical Youth are a fun, interesting bunch. Sitting in on one of their rehearsals while they prep their Anansi themed summer theatre production, watching their squabbles and their creative blossoming and frustrations and triumphs, I imagine that would be fun.

I know that it’s totally unrelated to your book but this is what springs to my mind when I heard the title of your book Joanne, it takes me right back to my youth! 🎶 Pass the dutchie on the left hand side (I said) pass the dutchie on the left hand side 🎶

If you were a superhero what would you be called, what would your super-power be and what would you wear?
I’ve actually thought about this and, variously, I’ve hoped for invisibility, teleportation, and flight, so I’m going to be greedy and say all three…and I’d wear whatever I want, just like I do now. But I'll also add that it was fun being able to don the wings of the mango tree faerie from my other children's picture book the Caribbean fairytale With Grace and play mas as Grace's Merrymakers with a couple of my friends last Carnival - that's better than being a superhero.

Photo courtesy of Joanne C. Hillhouse

What a fabulous photo Joanne, you’re really rocking those wings!  😉

You can  find out more about Joanne, her books and connect with her using the links below:

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Joanne for taking the time to answer my questions and for bringing the sunshine with her to The Hippo today!


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