Womanspeak – the Lynn Sweeting Interview

Lynn Sweeting is a Bahamian writer, editor, and publisher. In 2012, she brought women from across the region together under the umbrella of Womanspeak, her literary and artistic journal of writings by women, and the common theme of the environment. In this latest edition of the Wadadli Pen interview, I chat with her about this ambitious project.

But first…Lynn was short listed in the poetry category of the Small Axe Literary Prize in 2010 and has reportedly placed second overall in 2012 (so just so you know, she knows her stuff). We begin, therefore, with the obvious – how does it feel,  why are these kinds of prizes important for Caribbean writers, and what does it take to craft a winning entry:

Lynn Sweeting: I’m very happy my poems were chosen, the prize is a great encouragement to me… The prizes mean that all the endless hours you spent working on your craft have resulted in a better manuscript. They mean your work is being read and becoming significant to other writers and readers of Caribbean literature. The prizes let us know our voices are being heard. And that is all any of us wants: to be heard. I’m also happy that in recent years women are winning the top Axe prizes and I’m honoured to be in their company.

I chose three poems about three women who are iconic and inspirational to me,  Frida Kahlo, Wangari Maathaii and my paternal great grandmother Alice Minns Drudge.  I care deeply about each one of them, Frida for her beautiful suffering, Wangari for the trees she planted and the empowerment she returned to the women of her country, and Great Grandmother Drudge, for returning to me and for receiving me back to her. I’m very happy that these are the poems being recognized.  So I think it is important to choose poems that are connected to one another thematically, and are about something you care very deeply about.  Also, these poems are short, they are made of small, simple words, and it took a lot of revisions to get them that way. So another way to craft a winning entry I think is to cut, cut, cut!  Part of writing well is knowing what to throw away.  Revision is key.

Hear that, Wadadli Pen hopefuls? “Revision is key”.

Shifting gears, If the name of Lynn’s journal, Womanspeak, and her blog, Womanish  Words, doesn’t give it away then surely her emphasis on gender in the answer above should provide a key to where Sweeting’s concerns are as a being and writer. And you might be wondering as we did, wherefore this emphasis on women and in the case of her journal on women writers:

LS: One of my favourite quotes is by Muriel Rukeyser who said, “When a woman tells the truth about her life the world splits open.” We wanted to create a space in Nassau for writing and art that told the truth about women’s lives in the Caribbean. Where we could tell the truth in our own poems and pictures and publish them in a safe place, i.e., in a place where our voices and stories would be heard over the din of the (male) politicians, preachers, businessmen, bankers, the tourism machine, the mainstream media and even the fine arts, all completely male dominated. History, the Bible, the Constitution, all written by men for men. It was like we didn’t really exist. Where were the stories of our lives, of our generation? And particularly, the stories that told secrets and broke silences, the creative explorations of taboo subjects like domestic violence, incest and rape, homophobia, the hatred of and war against women and the collusion of the church in all of these. Where were the women writers who could give voice to a new wave of Feminism in the Bahamas? Where were the writers whose work spoke about these issues? We believed they were out there, that if we made the space they would come, and that together we would make books with the power to change the culture in a positive way, books to uplift and inspire a new tradition of women’s literature in the Bahamas and perhaps in the Caribbean, created specifically to cause transformation, to make our lives better.

The new Womanspeak collection consists of 25 writer and painters. I wondered about the selection process and the challenge of pulling it all together.

LS: WomanSpeak in its new incarnation is only a few years old, and this is only our second book. We are just beginning, quite invisible, a seedling struggling to grow. So when we got about fifty submissions I was very pleased and encouraged. Challenges involved deciding whether to include work that wasn’t exactly on theme, (we did), and writing to the younger writers who submitted and encouraging them to submit to Wadadli Pen, and stopping myself from including every single piece submitted by some writers and painters because I loved every one of them. But it was easy to choose the writers who have been a part of the WSJ community since the beginning, as well as the new generation of rising stars from other countries, and I think I have a couple of actual discoveries in the new book. I feel humbled when I receive these works, half the time I’m saying to myself, “what am I doing, I don’t really have the right to edit this book”, but the other half of the time I’m saying, “Just do it, the writers and painters believe in this project, just do it.”

I follow Lynn on facebook and it’s clear to me that if gender is a big issue with her then just as big, or perhaps even bigger, is the environment. Womanspeak, especially this new edition which spotlights the environment, speaks to that. What it is about the environment (also, incidentally, the theme of this year’s Caribbean Writer literary journal, which speaks to its topicality), and what did she anticipate artistes could say on it, and what did they in fact say. These were some of my questions re content.  

LS: I believe the year 2010 with the Earthquake in Haiti and then the oil spill in the Gulf jarred us awake in the Caribbean, both events caused us in different ways to look again at our natural Caribbean environment  and our relationship to it. The oil disaster was close enough to the Caribbean to cause us to remember that our natural environment is not only beautiful, it is also vulnerable, easily destroyed, and us with it. The earthquake shook us awake to the fact that the Caribbean Earth in her awesome  dark aspect is capable of rending herself open and swallowing us all whole at any time. We look to our writers and painters in these times for the words and images that not only document our experiences  but also try to make sense of them, we look to the writers for our own voices, we want and need to hear our own stories of survival, endurance and transformation . Earth is in trouble, what is our culpability, our responsibility, our work now to defend and save her and ourselves? We look to the poets and painters to show us.

A number of pieces in the collection speak of the sea, some to celebrate the aliveness of the sea, like Danielle Boodoo Fortune’s paintings of spirit beings of the sea; and some to ask us to take a close and careful look at the issue of the pollution of the sea like the poet Lelawattee Manoo Rahming; some that give voice to the Casurina trees, doomed guardians of the in-between places where the sea meets the shore as in the poetry of Sonia Farmer. In your poem, Joanne, you write about being on the beach (by the sea) watching the tractors approach wondering how long you have until your path to the sea is completely blocked. In my poem, First Woman of the Lokono Indians arrives from the sea on the back of a whale. In Anita MacDonald’s poem, the sea is the goddess of death who takes her son. There are the beautiful photographs by Diane Claridge/Charlotte Dunn of the dolphins and whales of The Bahamas for whom the sea is home. The protection, conservation and wellbeing of the sea is central to the work in this collection. Then there is the painting on the cover, Requiem For Haiti, by Chantal Bethel, the artist’s vision of the Caribbean Earth as our mother, even as our Goddess, receiving the dead and survivors both of the earthquake into her womb to await a rebirth, it is a painting with the message of hope, even though the goddess has a belly full of gravestones. This is pre-Colombian Caribbean women’s spirituality rising up into our consciousness again, it is an image of the great mystery of life/death/rebirth that the ancient Earth worshipers knew to be divine. Women of the Caribbean are remembering a time before time when women were honoured and nature was sacred, because these remembrances might save our lives and our planet too.

Given Lynn’s emphasis on women writers and the environment, and the fact that the Earth is often feminized (Mother Earth), it seemed natural to take a bit of a philosophical detour with Lynn near the end. In scientific terms the earth is genderless (right?) so why do we tend to think of her in gendered terms.

LS:   We know Earth is female because we see her do what females do, and that is, produce life from herself and sustain it.  Humanity is a part of the life she produces and for this we have called her Mother since the day before the first day of time.  For many people, ancient and modern, Earth is not only female, but divine, a Goddess. Women have always been deeply and profoundly connected to the rhythms and cycles of the Earth and her cosmos. Susan Griffin said, “We know ourselves to be made from this Earth. We know this Earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature.”  I wanted to know what nature was saying to Caribbean women, what we were saying to nature, especially now in these difficult times.

I look forward to reading the full collection; I feel like a child on Christmas morning waiting for it to arrive in by mail, snail mail… and it feels like it. Best get your order in soon if you hope to have it under the tree for Christmas. Though of course, it promises to be the kind of reading that’s good all year round.

UPDATE November 22nd 2012 – Guess what just came in the mail?

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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