Interview by Samantha Watson @peeksawa
Author Jean Goulbourne reaches many families in Jamaica with her tales of growing up on the island. She shares with HopeRoad Publishing how the story My Aunt and the Potted Plant and Other Short Stories came about, and how life in Jamaica has inspired much of her stories and poetry. She discusses her passion for encouraging reluctant youngsters to pick up a book to read and how she approaches her challenges in writing.
Born in Jamaica, you’ve had many experiences and stories to tell. Can you share with our readers about your life as a teacher?
I taught for many years at different schools in Jamaica and retired from the position of Senior Lecturer from a Teachers Training College in Mandeville, a town in the centre of the island. I grew up in a small district south of Mandeville, attended high schools in Mandeville and Kingston before going to the University of the West Indies. I followed the profession of both my parents which was teaching. I taught History, Social Studies and English both at the college and at high schools in the city of Kingston. Now I spend my time on the farm I grew up on where I read a lot and write a lot.
You have published a number of books including Freedom Come, Under the Sun, Excavation and Woman Song. Can you tell us how the story My Aunt and the Potted Plants and other Stories came about?
My stories were written over many years and really deal with life in the country area especially where I grew up. Many of the stories grew as though from small seeds sown over the years but they are fiction based on some basic, what I would like to call, seeds. My Aunt and the Potted Plant really referred to an Aunt, now deceased, who came from the country area but did not seem to want to identify with her past. Some of the seeds of the stories came from my father who was an inspiration to me and who was a writer of children stories which he published in a children’s newspaper. He told me much of what the countryside was like during his own childhood and I enjoyed listening to him.
Growing up in Jamaica are you always inspired to write by what you see in your community and on the farm where you live?
I have always thought that writers, in spite of the importance of a vivid imagination, should write about what they know best. In spite of having lived in Kingston for many years, my heart was always in the countryside with the country people and I love writing about them. I have always wanted to write about South Manchester where I live and grew up and really let people see something of a part of Jamaica that readers don’t know much about.
How has the literary scene in Jamaica responded to your work and what is the literary scene like in Jamaica – is it continuing to expand?
I think people like my work and the magazines and newspapers have responded well when I send my stories to them. Some prefer my poems which tend to be more universal but many still ask for my stories as they tell about a Jamaica that is leaving us because of urbanization and the pervasive influence of the media. Better transportation to the cities and towns and the lure of the bright lights overseas with many coming back home to settle in large houses built from funds from overseas have made South Manchester, something of a place of retirement. These people want my stories as they remind them of their childhoods growing up here in the past.
You worked on a collection of books for reluctant adolescent readers. Are there more plans to encourage young readers?
One of the best jobs that I did was to write the books for the reluctant readers at the Ministry of Education in Kingston. It was exciting work and I enjoyed working with my colleagues. Books like Freedom Come relate to some of these readers and that book has sold well. A teenage novel Janice [to be published by HopeRoad in Spring 2013], which is also an attempt to attract these readers. I hope to write more for them and I am now working on a book about my early years in high school and the influence that my headmaster had in getting me to see my own history and my own reality rather than to look down on myself and my own people during the colonial and early years of our independence. His influence taught me to value myself and urged me to write about people around me. Today when the youth are into bleaching cream and wigs I would love them to appreciate themselves better and this is what I am trying to do in this book.
Did you always grow up wishing to be a writer?
Yes I have always wanted to write. I remember at the age of three standing with my mother under the clothes line with the wet clothes flapping in the wind and the birds in the trees and the butterflies flying about and the trees green and lovely and I desperately wanted to write about it. But I could not as I was just learning to form letters and I did not know the words to use. Yes writing defines me. I am first and foremost a writer and secondly, a teacher.
Who or what inspired you to write?
I remember writing a story at about age ten and having my parents say that they could never have written that themselves. Then on to high school where teachers told me that I have the creative talent and that I should use it. I remember one teacher taking my work and showing it to my headmaster who called me and inspired me. Then on to University poets like Mervyn Morris and Kamau Brathwaite helped me to hone my talents as a poet. Then fiction came along and I started writing a lot of stories. Later in life Wayne Brown and George Lamming assisted me and really encouraged me. I owe much to these people.
What have been your challenges as a writer?
My challenges are getting my work out and overcoming writer’s block. Also being able to cope when the poetry and prose come pouring in and out of me and I cannot seem to stop it. It prevents me from sleeping sometimes but I am learning to deal with it.
Can you give us an insight to one of your greatest achievements today and why you believe it is?
Freedom Come sold well because I think as a History teacher I could translate the history of my country into fiction but I love my adult collection of short stories Parable of the Mangoes which was runner up in an award in Jamaica. My Aunt and the Potted Plant I think is going to top the list. I also like my collection of poems Woman Song.
What is your creative process when you write and how do you overcome writers block?
Sometimes the ideas come in the middle of the night, just the titles and I get up write it down and go back to bed. I leave it for a while but it is still with me. Then suddenly it begins to flow and I have to find my computer. Sometimes it flows until finished, sometimes as fits and starts. Then I go back after a while and rewrite. I write best on a computer as I have to be on a keyboard to get it right. I think the job as a writer at the Ministry got me hooked on the keyboard. Writers block comes and goes. When they come I read and read all the good books and the urge will come back so I do not panic.
What are your thoughts on the e-publishing industry and its future?
With the computer becoming a part of daily life all over the world and our young people being glued to computers I am sure that e-book will flourish and with it, e-book publishing.
What writing projects are you currently working on at the moment?
I mentioned a book about my learning about my own reality and I am also working on a collection of poems.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
To aspiring writers I say never ever give up just remember, as I keep on remembering, that Gone with the Wind went to three hundred publishers before it was eventually published. Listen to advice from those who have gone before but also listen to the little inner voice inside you.
You can buy Jean Goulbourne’s book My Aunt and the Potted Plants and Other Stories here.