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The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

Publishing as a Black Woman Writer

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.

I was born in Bradford, Yorkshire to West Indian parents from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic. My Dominica is a small island between Guadeloupe and Martinique. The island was originally inhabited by the Kalinago or Caribs and then later colonised by Europeans, predominantly by the French from the 1690s to 1763.  I think because my parents and siblings were born in Dominica I have always had a deep connection with the place. I first visited Dominica when I was twenty-one. I went with my Dad who hadn’t been back for thirty years. Both of us were looking at the place from different perspectives. Dad was looking at it and saying how small it looked to how he remembered. To me it was a whole new world and the possibilities there for me were endless. Being in Dominica allowed me to begin to think about my ancestry more seriously. I discovered that on my dad’s side his mother’s mother is a direct descendant of an enslaved woman taken from Sierra Leone. Though my grandfather was Dominican, my great-great-great-grandfather (or something like that) on my dad’s side was a white sailor from Whitby. I don’t know if Captain Cook has any connections with us. There is no ‘e’ on the end of his name like mine but I have heard that ‘e’s were added and dropped from the end of names all the time. I have to do some serious research to find out more. (I have that on my list of things to do.)  Funny how we have somehow ended up back in Yorkshire. Full circle.

‘Write what you know’ is a phrase that resonates with me. Everything I write starts with what I know and then from there I research the things I don’t know, and then of course my imagination does the rest.

I started writing as soon as I knew how. When I was ten years old I made up stories for my nephews and anyone that would listen. I think my first serious writing was when I started writing a diary at the age of eleven. I was one of the youngest in a big family of seven girls and three boys and so my voice was not always heard in a room full of family. I started writing the diary mainly to hear myself think and to get my thoughts down on paper. As I continued to write my diary I discovered that not everything I wrote in it had to be true. I exaggerated. Elaborated on stuff. Writing gave me the power to create my own reality. I could daydream, write it down and when I did, the worlds I created were real. Once I discovered this there was no turning back.

My mum and dad were great storytellers. Not in the conventional sense. They mostly spoke a lot about their time ‘back home’ and I enjoyed listening to them reminisce. Mum and Dad came over to England in the mid-fifties. England had put a call out for workers and so my parents like many others came over on the British Government’s invitation to fill the employment gap. When they came to England they weren’t made to feel welcome though. Instead they were met with ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’ signs in windows of places when they were looking for accommodation. It was very difficult for them to settle in London. They heard about work opportunities in Yorkshire and better housing, so from London Mum and Dad moved to Bradford and Dad worked as a cooper (making barrels) and then he worked in the steel factories. Mum was a domestic, a cleaner in a hospital. They had left three of my sisters and two of my brothers back in Dominica, with the intention of sending for them once they had settled down in England but this did not happen as quickly as they had anticipated. They eventually could afford to send for them and by then they had children born in the UK too. I was one of them. I grew up in Buttershaw, a white working-class council estate in Bradford. There was a sense of community there. Kids would play out together. I remember playing things like two ball, bulldogs charge, elastic twist, skipping, whip and top, hopscotch, hide and seek. There were yearly summer fairs at the local school. My sisters would decorate their doll’s pram and bicycle with tinsel for the competitions. There were Easter bonnet parades and May Day Fetes etc. I grew up during the Miners’ strikes, power cuts, steelwork closures, and the kids on the estate shared common ground. We all came from poor working-class families. However, names such as ‘golliwog’ and ‘blackie’ were thrown around like missiles by some kids on the estate. I knew I was different to most of the children in the neighbourhood and from a very young age I identified as being Dominican, although I didn’t exactly know what that truly meant.

In 1984, I had the opportunity to visit Dominica for the first time with my dad and hoping to find my sense of belonging, I jumped at it. However, when I arrived in Dominica the native Dominicans saw me as English. I was met with ‘Pssssst psssst English Gal!’ on every corner. It threw me as I had believed that once there I would find my sense of belonging, but although I felt something special, I had to accept that it wasn’t my home.

Having listened to the memories and stories from my parents and siblings about Dominica my interest in the diaspora grew and later this fascination spilt over into much of my work.

My first publication, Mammy, Sugar Falling Down, published by Century Hutchinson in 1989 is about a six-year-old girl called Elizabeth, living in Dominica who is sent for and has to go join her mother in England. In England she sees snow for the first time and thinks it is sugar falling from the sky, hence the title. It’s written in quite a comic style with talking vegetables and foodstuff that Elizabeth reunites when she arrives in England.

I spent a lot of my twenties trying to work out who I was and where I truly belonged. In 1993 I explored that sense of belonging in my play Running Dream which is about three Dominican sisters — one who stayed in Dominica, one who was sent for by her parents to join them in England, and the third born in England. The three sisters are together for the first time in Dominica at their grandmother’s funeral and their meeting brings up how place and circumstance has an effect on belonging and identity.

I approached the same subject some years later in 2001 in my children’s book, The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant, published by Franklin Watts. This is written for eight-to-twelve-year-olds in diary and letter form and tells the story of the emotional journey of Gloria Charles who travelled from Dominica to England as a child and what happened to her between the ages of ten and fifteen. Although this book covers the same subject matter as Mammy, Sugar Falling Down the tone is more serious. With this book I was able to do my research with a wider selection of adults who had travelled to England, from different islands in the Caribbean, as children. A few of them shared that they had been psychologically scarred by the journey and had buried their emotions for a long time. They were all glad to share their stories with me. In 2002, my mini-series Unspoken for BBC radio Woman’s Hour used a different storytelling form to tell the story of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her only child leaving home for university. She takes a look at her own life and the journey she made from the Caribbean to England as a child.

My own personal search for identity and belonging has raised questions that I have tried to answer through my work. Nowadays I proudly say I am a Dominican and a Yorkshire lass. I feel at home in both places and I can switch from one dialect to the other effortlessly. To me language is a very important part of identity. The way people speak fascinates me. It plays a key role when I am creating characters and writing dialogue. My first play, which was written in 1988, Back Street Mammy, is about teenage pregnancy and the characters in it are from Yorkshire and the West Indies. When I was writing it I was very conscious of how the characters spoke and I had to find a way of writing down the spoken word so it could be understood but I also had to use a style that was easy for the actor to read. In Back Street Mammy I used a generic West Indian dialect replacing words like ‘ask’ with ‘ax’ to suggest the Caribbean but I wasn’t specific to Dominica with the dialect. With the Yorkshire dialect I could be more regional-specific. I used words like ‘nowt’ and ‘owt’ instead of ‘nothing’ and ‘anything’. I was aware that written Yorkshire dialect was more familiar to the British reader than written Caribbean dialects. This made writing down the Caribbean dialects more of a challenge. I have a musical approach when I write and I hear the sound of the characters’ voices and the rhythm of the speech even before their actual words come. I like to create these rhythms through my dialogue. I try to do that in both scriptwriting and my books. With my play Running Dream (based in Dominica and Yorkshire) I was more adventurous with the vocabulary that I used for the Dominican characters. French kwéyòl is more of a spoken language and up until recently had hardly ever been written down, so there had to be an agreed method of notation. Though the play is mostly in English I had to learn a whole new written vocabulary for the French kwéyòl bits. In rehearsals we had someone come in to teach the cast the written kwéyòl alphabet I had used in the text.

At the root of the stories I want to tell are characters that I recognise in the world I live in — characters that don’t often get their stories heard. This has sometimes proven to be problematic for mainstream publication and production. Though the stories I write are universal, they are written from a Dominican-Yorkshire woman’s perspective and a lot of my characters happen to be black.

Between 2005 and 2017 I have had the privilege of writing pantomimes for the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London — retellings of fairy tales like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Dick Whittington, Robin Hood, Aladdin. With these fairy tale retellings, I have always stayed close to the original fairy tales and put my own slant on them by making them relevant to today’s audiences. I like to write for diverse casts. As a writer I feel I have a responsibility to make a difference and to introduce worlds and characters that may not be otherwise explored in the mainstream. It hasn’t been an easy, straightforward journey for me as a playwright and children’s book writer. It took a while to get my first works published and produced. I was writing stories publishers and producers weren’t familiar with, about characters they did not recognise and using language they were unsure of. Publishers did not think they would be able to sell my work. But thankfully there are readers and audiences who are interested in what I have to say. Although things have improved since I first started writing professionally and more books and plays are being published and produced by black writers, there is still plenty of room for improvement and there are so many more stories we have yet to tell.

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