So, a little back story. I met Jamaican writer Sharon Leach April-May 2014 at the PEN World Voices Festival – she and I were two of three Caribbean writers invited to participate in the prestigious event; the other was Barbara Jenkins of Trinidad and Tobago. All three of us were nominated for the programme by Akashic which had compiled stories by us and other Caribbean authors in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, released in 2014.
The three of us hit it off. Sharon subsequently interviewed me for her Jamaica Observer column, Bookends, and I offered to interview her for this site. Apologies to her for the delay in posting – life caught up with me. But here it is finally. Happy reading.
First, a bit about the author…
Sharon Leach was born in Kingston, Jamaica, She was educated at St Hugh’s High School (1976-1983) and the Faculty of Arts and General Studies at the University of the West Indies (1983-1986). She works as a columnist, copy editor, proofreader and freelance writer for the Jamaica Observer, as well as editor for Bookends, the paper’s weekly literary arts supplement. Also a fiction writer, over 100 of her short stories have appeared in the newspaper’s Literary Arts magazine since 2000. Her stories have also been anthologised in Bearing Witness 2000, 2001, 2002, publications of the newspaper. In 2001, she received a Certificate of Competence from The Writers’ Bureau, and in 2002, a Certificate of Merit in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s (JCDC’s) Creative Writing Competition (Adult Category). Her short fiction has also appeared in Kunapipi, Journal of Postcolonial Writing; Iron Balloons: Fiction from Jamaica’s Calabash Writer’s Workshop; and Blue Latitudes: An Anthology of Caribbean Women Fiction Writers, the Jamaica Journal, Caribbean Writing Today, Calabash: A Journal of Arts and Letters, AfroBeat journal and most recently in Pepperpot: Best New Stories From the Caribbean. Her essays have also appeared in Air Jamaica’s Skywritings magazine and The Caribbean Voice newspaper. She was also one of the first recipients of a scholarship to the Calabash Writing Workshop in May 2003.
What You Can’t Tell Him: Stories, a collection of short fiction, her first book, was published in 2006 by Starapple Publishers (Trinidad). A second collection of stories, Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, has recently been published by Peepal Tree Press (Great Britain).
In 2011, she was a recipient of the Musgrave Bronze Medal from the Council of the Institute of Jamaica for distinguished eminence in the field of Literature.
She has participated in the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2012 in Trinidad, and in 2014, the PEN America World Voices Festival in New York.
Now, the good stuff…
Joanne C. Hillhouse: Tell me a little bit about your journey as a writer – including is it what you always wanted, and the question every aspiring writer wonders, how did you get published?
Sharon Leach: Thanks, Joanne, for accommodating me in this way.
I grew up loving to write and tell stories—I loved entertaining my mother with little stories I’d make up for her and write on yellow legal pads she brought home, and I also loved to summarize our favourite radio serials for her in the days when she went to work—but becoming a writer when I got older never seemed to be an option. Meaning, becoming an author was a concept very far removed from me because, I suppose, in my mind, authors, funny as it sounds, were dead people. So there I was, finishing sixth form and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life because there didn’t seem to be any occupation I was particularly suited to. So I figured I would study Language and Literature with Social Sciences and, like everybody who did, go ahead and teach English after. But it became obvious, with each passing day, that I really was not cut out to be a teacher. So I ended up going to work in my family’s business—car parts, of all things—and settling for a life of boredom. However, I’m apparently not the kind of person who settles and, long story short, I ended up seeing a therapist, who, thank God, made me realize the suffocation I was feeling was as a result of not doing the thing I was put on Earth to do. Well! Talk about your aha moment! He said, ‘Don’t think, just answer: When are you happiest?’ And without thinking, I said, ‘When I’m reading or writing.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘There it is.’
He was the one who recommended The Writer’s Bureau, a correspondence course out of England, from an ad he’d seen in one of our local newspapers and my sister pointed out the literary supplement in the other newspaper—edited by the man who would become my dear friend and mentor, the late Trinidadian scholar Wayne Brown—which would become an outlet for my work, and which today, some 15 years Iater, I now edit.
I remember I sent Wayne a short story for publication after I’d started the Writer’s Bureau, and he wrote me back to say he thought I had talent and that I should be a part of his workshop. That’s how I was first published, which would have been quite OK. But imagine my delight when Wayne called to say the Jamaica Observer had paid me for the story. I remember that day as being one of the happiest I’ve ever been: I slept with the cheque in the bed beside me!
JCH: I remember reading your story in Pepperpot and thinking, wow, she goes there, and then I was watching your reading from the PEN festival on youtube and there’s a certain grit to your writing, whether writing of people uptown or downtown, there’s a sense that you’re pulling back the curtain on something kind of ugly but with no hysteria or even judgment about it, rather a matter of fact acceptance of it… am I seeing things? How would you describe your writing?
SL: I’m not sure I know how to categorise my own writing. I only know that there’s a kind of writing I don’t like reading and I try to keep away from it. I don’t like a sanitized way of writing, you know, one that says oh, look at me, I’m West Indian and there’s a certain way I’m supposed to write, to tell a story. Or writing that’s judgmental, that says, oh my God, this character is such a sinner and I want you, reader, to see that I don’t approve. Bullshit. Who am I to sit in judgment of anybody, anyway? I want truth when I read and I suppose I tend to write that way. I remember my mother, before she passed, once shared a concern with me about my use of profanity in my stories. She was a proper Christian woman who probably wondered where she’d failed as a parent since she’d produced a daughter who cussed as much as I do in my writing. But I remember telling her that—and this was in my early writing career—that I needed the writing to be real, to reflect authentically what I was trying to get across. I said to her, ‘Mummy, if I’m writing about a prostitute, I’m not going to make her sound like a church girl.’ To her credit, my mother got it.
I’m not the tourist board; I’m not interested in painting touristy pictures about sun, sea and sand in paradise. I’m not a priest. I’m simply a storyteller who facilitates these characters’ stories to come out on the page in a truthful way. Once I was set on that it was OK to take my writing anywhere because the judgment isn’t there; it’s just a story I’m telling, and so it frees me to tell a story about an uptown girl involved in an incestuous relationship with her father that she doesn’t at all see as twisted, or a poor country girl working at a resort who provides sexual favours for rich foreign guests in order to help her mother patch her roof.
JCH: With your own column you’re something of a tastemaker certainly as relates to the literary arts and culture, what does a writer/book have to do to get your attention?
SL: Tackle a story, even if it’s one that’s been told a thousand times before, in a new, fresh, different way that doesn’t make me want to abandon it before the end.
JCH: How important in your view is literary criticism and why is there so little of it as relates to Caribbean literature in the traditional media?
SL: Criticism is extremely important but there probably isn’t enough of it in our region and in our literature. I can’t be sure why that’s so but it could very possibly have something to do with a hyper-sensitivity that remains one of the vestiges of our shared history of colonialism. I’ll read the New York Times and read a review that savages a book (Michiko Kakutani does NOT pull any punches!) and think, That could never happen in Jamaica. I remember my former book reviewer for Bookends, the late Mary Hanna, would pass on books that would necessitate negative criticism because, as she used to say, ‘Sharon, this place is too small to make enemies.’
JCH: How does the business of writing, and the day to day rhythm of what you do, affect your ability to write?
SL: Honestly, it shouldn’t but it so does. I remember when I just started out, I’d get up each morning and write for a couple hours before I went to work. Now, God bless. The world we live in has become so high-stress and so on, it’s difficult to find the time or even the inclination to be creative.
JCH: You’ve done the Calabash Writers Workshop – one of the first – do you recommend writing workshops? How would you suggest writers make the most of the experience?
SL: Can I tell you, I don’t like them at all! But I completely understand their value. When you’re thrown together with a random group of people who may not necessarily have your best interest at heart, or are dealing with their own petty jealousies, insecurities and crap, it’s sometimes unpleasant. Who wouldn’t prefer sitting in front of their computer alone in a room somewhere? But I think the young writer has to understand that these groups are sort of a microcosm of the wider reading world, so if you can take on a writers’ workshop and come through it, negative reviews won’t faze you. Also, the discipline you gain from them—writing on any given subject at will—is priceless. The truth is that they help more than harm.
JCH: Of all the books you’ve read, what books would you recommend everyone read at one time or other?
SL: I don’t know that there are books I feel everybody should read at one time or another because reading is such a personal experience and everybody connects with different stories at different points in their lives. Also, there are people who glean more from memoirs or other forms of non-fiction and those who do better with fiction. I’m a fiction person, myself. Story collections or novels, it doesn’t matter. That said, I just recently finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. OMG, I loved it. Thoroughly enjoyed it. But then, I enjoy everything she writes. I also had the same feeling when I finished Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and her short-story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. That feeling you get when you read the last sentence and you mourn the loss of the world you were only recently part of. She’s probably who I’d recommend, anything she’s written. She exemplifies the idea that simple doesn’t necessarily mean simplistic: it can actually be very profound.
JCH: What are you working on now?
SL: I’m attempting a novel. LOL. Short stories are so in my wheelhouse, and the longer form really outside it. I don’t know if I can actually write something long-range. It seems like such a long-term commitment. I don’t know how it’ll go. Let’s see how that shakes out. I also wrote a weekly observational opinion column for a few years, and I’m thinking about collecting the best of those, too. At the same time, I’m collecting more short stories for a third collection; I have short stories galore. Maybe I’m destined to be the Jamaican Alice Munro!
Reviewing Sharon’s responses, it occurs to me that one of the reasons we hit it off is because she’s the realest – down to earth as they come in life and on the page.
If you liked this interview, here are some other Wadadli Pen interviews you may find of interest.
Jus Bus (American born, Antiguan and Barbudan artiste/producer)
Melissa Gomez (American based, Antiguan and Barbudan documentary filmmaker)
Joy Lapps (Canada based, Antiguan and Barbudan pannist)
Joy Lawrence (Antiguan and Barbudan folk historian and writer)
Diana McCaulay (Jamaican writer and activist)
Ann Morgan (British writer)
Eugenia O’Neal (BVI writer)
Lynn Sweeting (Bahamian writer)
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