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  • Wadadli Pen and Young Writers in the Caribbean
  • Joanne C. Hillhouse (bio)

In 2012, shortly after the release of my book Oh Gad!, I had the opportunity to speak and read at the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars conference being held that year in Suriname. I decided to embrace it as an opportunity to talk about opportunities the digital age had opened up for writers writing from a small place. Rather than lamenting the challenges of being marooned on an island in the Caribbean while dreaming of telling my stories around the world, I spoke of the ways Caribbean writers were working and using technology to overcome those hurdles.

What does this have to do with children's writing? I am not, after all, a children's writer. I do, however, run a writing program for young people in Antigua and Barbuda. [End Page 63]

Here's the thing. No one should have to hide his or her talent or watch it atrophy from disuse or want of opportunity. But as a writer coming up in a poor working class community on Antigua, a 108 square mile island in the Caribbean, successful writing models close to home were lacking. I hadn't a clue really, about how to become the writer I dreamed of being, and it seemed such an impossible dream, I couldn't even voice it to myself. And yet through it all, I devoured books and kept on daydreaming and writing. Then I discovered the writing of Jamaica Kincaid, the internationally renowned writer who began in the same small place I came from, and in time I dared to speak my dream out loud, and to take leaps of faith that would bring me to the point of being a published author.

It still rocks my world when some teenager reading my book in school approaches me to ask if I'm the author and to tell me how much he or she related to the book. I've been interviewed by and had the opportunity to speak to bands of these high school students on my island, and it literally transports me to the world of disbelief, because not all that long ago, I was a girl dreaming and not quite daring to believe.

Now, I don't want the next generation of scribes to ever think it's easy. It isn't. But I don't want them to doubt that it's possible. I want to stir in them a sense of the rightness of putting their art out into the world. Out of that desire grew the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, to help young writers in the Caribbean.

At the ACWWS, I presented my Wadadli Pen experience as a case study, discussing not just what I've done with the support of my partners, but also connecting it to my larger ideas about writing authentic fiction which, if well-drawn, a reader anywhere in the world can connect with. Fostering a sense of Caribbean-ness, and within that a sense of Antiguan-ness, has been a priority, meanwhile, for my pet project, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, since I started it in 2004.

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During a visit to Villa Primary school in Antigua to promote the annual writing contest—the Wadadli Pen 2012 Challenge—which is the centerpiece of what we do, I wrote that in making my pitch to the young ones we talked about using surrounding environment, taking note of the stories that take place in their world. When I shared with them Ashley Bryan's Dancing Granny, encouraging them to keep the beat, and played a recording of the first Wadadli Pen winning story, Gemma George's Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm, their eyes lit up because they recognized it—they recognized themselves and their world: "There I am! My life is the stuff of literature too!" That's where it starts.

Wadadli Pen exists not only to give them an outlet, but also an inlet. From the beginning, Wadadli Pen has been about giving young Antiguans and Barbudans something I had not had growing up—I wanted them to see...


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pp. 63-67
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