The Wadadli Pen judges are deliberating. One of the challenges, they’re up against considering this is a 200 words or less challenge is how to deal with stories that don’t follow the rules. There are really only two rules this year. One is the word count. Usually, word count, previously 600 words, is more of a guide than a rule. Though time and resource constraints compelled me to streamline this year’s Challenge, the reduction is more than a gambit to make a more manageable pool of entries (we also reduced the number of entries from as much as three to only one per person) but to help the writers fine tune their writing muscles by challenging them to get to the core of the story.
The second rule, that the stories be Caribbean-centric has (by any other name) been a staple of Wadadli Pen since it was launched in 2004. It is not a rule meant to limit but to ground the stories. Because, here’s the thing, whether romance or sci fi or fantasy or action or farce, the stories we ingest on film, in music, on TV, in books are informed, however subconsciously, by our culture as much as our imagination. What we know becomes a reference point for what we create, even in the seemingly borderless landscape of our own mind.
Think about it, a lot of what is considered fantasy (a genre I find infinitely fascinating) is heavily shaded by an anglo, western, often male, often white perspective. Before I started Wadadli Pen, when I would judge local writing competitions, read stories by fledgling Antiguan writers, there was a certain troubling pattern in the stories I would read – and this pattern helped inform my direction with Wadadli Pen. The writers’ reality was often absent from their imagination; their characters, how they looked, how they talked etc. defaulted to an aesthetic more reflective of Walt Disney’s imagination than their own. The stories they wrote were the stories they saw, not the stories they lived.
This is not to say that a writer can’t write Other if so compelled but there is something troubling about the instinct to centre Other, even in your own imagination, nine times out of 10. It is reflective of the ongoing colonization of the mind, the impulse to still define ourselves outside-in, instead of inside-in. Through no fault of our own really considering our collective history and the reality that most of the arts and entertainment popular in our world is not our own.
But if art is at least in part about rebelling against what has been prescribed for us, I wanted to challenge us to look within for our stories, within our world, within our reality, within ourselves. I wanted us to see that we, too, could be at the Centre of our own stories, our lives could be the stuff of our own fantasies.
The flipside, of course, is those stories that paint the Caribbean in broad, clichéd, stereotypical strokes – stories in which every Caribbean mother, Caribbean man, Caribbean child, Caribbean neighbourhood is of a certain type, stories in which all the characters speak raw back, as we would say in Antigua, whether it’s consistent with context or characterization. I remember one young man writing to me that he wouldn’t be entering Wadadli Pen because he didn’t write Caribbean stories, and I am convinced it’s because his idea of Caribbean stories is limited to these narrow, un-nuanced portrayals. I wish he had challenged himself to attempt a different model. Because that’s what we want, stories that are grounded in the Caribbean yes but break with the traditions, stories daring enough to take wild flights of … fantasy.
So in addition to craft and word count, this is something that has to be at the back of the judges’ mind as they assess this year’s entries.
The #diversitymatters campaign in children’s publishing is, as I see it, about unlocking the shackles not just on the industry (by reminding it that there are other races, genders, cultures etc.) but on the imagination; it’s about underscoring that all stories matter, that your stories matter, because if you exist, you matter. And when a young boy or girl’s image of a princess no longer defaults to snow white skin and ruby red lips, when they can begin to see themselves in that princess, by default, and see maybe that that princess doesn’t have to live in a British style palace, that that princess can even live in the sunshine, maybe the need for correctives like #diversitymatters and the Caribbean-centric Wadadli Pen rule won’t be necessary. Until then…
As with all content (words, images, other) 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, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and Burt Award finalist Musical Youth). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.