THE FOOTPRINTS OF PARHAM is the name of folklorist/poet Joy Lawrence’s new book: It follows on The History of Bethesda and Christian Hill: Our History and Culture, signaling a commitment to chronicling the folk history that is a departure from the creative roots of her first publication, Island Spice. Though given the two books that fall in between The Way We Talk and Other Antiguan Folkways and Colours and Rhythms of Selected Caribbean Creoles hardly a surprise. Increasingly she has focused less on creative works and more on research based works rooted in the Antiguan and Barbudan culture. Her books have as a result become valuable resources for anyone seeking to know that culture. Congrats to her on the new release and thanks for agreeing to this exclusive interview. Read on.
Joanne C. Hillhouse for Wadadli Pen: First, congratulations on the new book.
Joy Lawrence: Thank you very much.
JCH: Why’d you want to do it?
JL: I’m retired now and this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. It gives me a much satisfaction digging into the past. When I drive around the island I don’t see beautiful houses, I see relics of the times our enslaved ancestors struggling to survive under inhumane conditions, and I try to imagine how they felt. My reward is in recording our history for everyone to read and appreciate.
JCH: You’re a trained educator who, as far as the literary arts is concerned, first came to the fore as a poet – a creative artiste, but in recent years you’ve become more of a historian and folklorist. Do you ever see yourself going back to poetry? What is it about folk history that attracts you? Do you see these roles – i.e. educator, poet, historian – as overlapping ones or do you think of yourself as one more than the other?
JL: I’m and will always be a poet. Poetry is rhythmic and dramatic; as a folklorist I’m also dramatic and rhythmic. I tell the history of our African ancestors. Once you have African ancestry you’re rhythmic. We walk with rhythm, we like to sing, dance, use our limbs to make gestures. We are poetry in motion. In short, there’s no separation between my poetry and the folktales and history I reproduce. In fact in my latest book The Footprints of Parham I introduce each chapter with a Creole poem. Not only my skin colour tells me I’m of African origin. A recent DNA test reveals that I share paternal genetic ancestry with Umbundu people living in Angola. In 1755 Antiguan planters bought all 500 Angolans offered for sale although they did not like them regarding them lazy, weak and sickly coming from a more temperate climate from those of Ghana and other West African countries. I cannot separate myself from the rhythm of my homeland. Showing interest in other areas does not in any way diminish my interest in poetry. I think we need to tell our story – from our perspective – to show how despite the injustices meted out to our forefathers we have lifted ourselves up. Being a folklorist and a historian is extending my pride in wanting to preserve what is uniquely African; to show the passion our ancestors had for their way of life despite a desperate attempt by their enslavers to rid them of anything African.
JCH: An Interview with Hurricane Luis is on record, from what I’ve read as your first public performance. Can you tell me about that? And had you been writing for a long time before? What does the literary arts mean to you?
JL: Without even realizing it was my hobby I’d been writing poetry before Hurricane Luis. In fact I won second place in a national competition maybe a few months before that but when Hurricane Luis unleashed its fury on Antigua and Barbuda in 1995 it prompted me respond to him – to pose questions to him I needed answers to; my poetic nature came out in my questioning and that got public attention when I placed it in my first book.
JCH: The investigation of folk history – its language, food, personalities, experiences – requires skill and tenacity, I would imagine – can you talk a little bit about what’s involved in the research aspect of what you do? What were some of the challenges?
JL: You as a novelist know it take a lot of skill and dedication to provide characterization, so too in non-fiction you have to be careful in preserving language, personalities, way of life of a people. Much research is involved. What you write must be true and accurate and carefully referenced. Some periods for various reasons are lost to historians. Some plantation people’s handwriting can be difficult to decipher and so some stories are not told. In my situation, writing as an outsider about Parham I had to depend on the Parham people for 20th century and contemporary history which in some instances are conflicting or downright wrong. You have to do a lot of leg work to get the truth. People sometimes don’t come forward with their stories until the book is published then they complain, “Wha mek she na min come to me? Me coulda min gee she more information,” or “How come me na ina de book? Me used to sing pan Choir.”
JCH: Which of the books has been best received, most successful and why?
JL: The Way We Talk is my most successful book. It’s easy reading, familiar to locals and a treat and a challenge to visitors. Tourists buy this book more that any of the others. I always have to have that one in stock.
JCH: Why are you so determined to investigate our culture from the perspective of the folk?
JL: The history books we are familiar with are usually written from the European or American perspective. I want people to understand our story from our perspective – how we feel, our likes and dislikes, our goals and aspirations. No outsider can tell our story the way we can.
JCH: You are from the Bethesda and Christian Hill area so it seemed a natural step for your investigation to begin there. How did you select the next village for your inquiry?
JL: My next selection after Bethesda and Christian Hill was Betty’s Hope, a large estate where my father worked. Once I settled on Betty’s Hope I thought to include Barbuda since they had common proprietors in the Codringtons. I also tried to add Parham a nearby estate but the book was getting too large. Besides, I obtained some valuable documents on Parham pushing the Parham story in front of that of Barbuda /Betty’s Hope.
JCH: Have there been any surprises during this last investigation?
JL: I’m surprised how little people know about their ancient history and how much they yearn for more recent history in print – the history they have experienced themselves. I am pleasantly surprised about how much the people of Parham have embraced this book as their own – how much they went out of their way to make the launch a success. I must mention here a few: Bertsfield Smithen, Longford Jeremy, Suzette Gregory, Avon Williams, Gloria Benjamin, Charlene Samuel and Arlene Smithen and the many sponsors.
JCH: Tell me about the process of putting it together – from research to publication – how long did it take?
JL: It took a lot of digging for material, a lot of reading and a lot of understanding the material. Interviews took a lot of time having to go back for clarification and even expansion. Arguing with my editor and graphics designer took a lot of time, patience and compromise. Overall it took about five years on and off but two steady years to put the book together.
JCH: Tell me three teasers about the village that you think folks might be interested to learn?
How much money did the ghost of Parham Lodge bury in that area?
What was the name of the ghost of Parham Lodge?
Name the estates owned by the Tudways.
(sidebar: are you curious? I am)
JCH: I want to talk a little bit about rural tourism and how exploring our literary landscapes might fit into that. Having written these books about our historical spaces do you see potential to ‘exploit’ the tourism potential of these rural spaces? Through educational tours or familiarization tours for instance?
JL: These books that I’m writing should serve not only to educate about our history but also to show those in charge of our resources – those in government – to see the need to do some sort of restoration of our heritage sites to enhance the tourism product. When I visit Betty’s Hope for example I see so much potential. They could put up model houses where the enslaved people, the managers, overseers and others lived, the factory and other structures. Pave the roads leading into Betty’s Hope and those leading to the different areas on the estate; have proper signage and labels; upgrade the visitors centre. Let us all see how it was and make some money from the effort.
JCH: I want to talk as well about our awareness as Antiguans and Barbudans about these spaces and about our own history. Do you see a need there as well to sort of deepen our understanding of who we are and where we come from? Is this the kind of thing you’d like to see a greater push from from government agencies like Culture? Speaking of which, do you get support for your research?
JL: I think the people of Antigua and Barbuda generally want to know about our history. There’s much talk about showcasing our history on talk shows and even by government when they want to sound interesting or important. Now here I am devoting my life to this very thing and I get no recognition from them, no financial or any support, no purchasing of the books for schools or even libraries; nothing on the local news. Nothing I get from the government. School children are forced to go to the museum and copy from my books to complete assignments. This is so unfair and the leaders are so shortsighted.
JCH: How much more of this type of research do you hope to do?
JL: If I get governmental support I keep on going but on my own its too much in many ways.
JCH: What’s next?
JL: Barbuda and Betty’s Hope should be completed next year.
Joy’s book launched in June 2013, in the village it chronicles. She said, “The highlight for me were Kwame Apata’s overview of the book and the honouring of Parham Town’s oral historian Myson James.” .
<—–Lawrence at her book launch.
CHECK OUT OTHER WADADLI PEN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS WITH filmmaker Melissa Gomez, pannist Joy Lapps, writer and Womanspeak editor/publisher Lynn Sweeting, novelist Eugenia O’Neal, and novelist Diana McCaulay.
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