Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Loving tales of the past


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There was a time when Barbadian breezes were ripe with the heady scents of salt and sugar.

“It is very rare now that I get that smell when I get off the plane,” American author Bernice McFadden mused, sitting in the heat of a typical Caribbean summer. The sounds of construction and public service vehicles interrupt conversation at an otherwise serene Becky’s By the Sea, Fitts Village, St James, where the author was staying.

Things are certainly not the same.

“Barbados is very commercial now; the crime is probably the most disturbing thing [and] the land being sold off for hotels and mansions. When we were younger we used to have skeleton keys or some people did not lock their doors at all. Now there are bars on the windows.”

Born and raised in the Brooklyn, the New York Times-acclaimed author has meticulously maintained her roots to Barbados, and has been coming to the island twice a year since 1987. As a child, she spent most summers in Paynes Bay, St James with her family.

As a writer, she recreates scenes of Barbadiana she recalls or has been recalled to her, brought to life through African American historical fiction.

“I think the first time I mentioned something about Barbados was Glorious which came out in 2010 and it was about the Renaissance,” Bernice began. “We had so many Caribbean people, including my great-grandparents who migrated from Barbados during that time. My aunties who are in their seventies now, remember their older siblings leaving on the boat and they remember the march from Pie Corner to Bridgetown to catch the boat. I heard that story, and that vision was stuck in my head.”

It was a motif she will be using in her latest effort, to be released late next year.

“I talk about Paynes Bay and the men leaving Barbados . . . . It was so noticeable that there were more women than men because they had gone out on contract and had gone to work on the Panama Canal. My cousin would tell me about how the churches would be filled with women and babies and there would be no men except the minister and the little boys and that was the image stuck in my head.”

Bernice was always intrigued by tales of the past. As an early reader, she believes the love was planted by her grandfather, who would read random pages of a “huge encyclopaedia” to her and discuss its content.

Four decades ago, a nine-year-old Bernice decided to be an author. A job in tourism and travel paid the bills and assuaged her passion for seeing the world until she was offered her first book deal in 1999.

“For my first book, I have 75 rejection letters over a ten-year period. I knew at some point that I would get a deal and I would be able to do it professionally, but I figured in the meantime, I could do something else that I loved that would take me around the world . . .,” she said.

“I could have received 1 000 rejection letters. If you have that one thing that is pulling you and calling you, some people are able to walk away from that, but I was not able to do that. I took a lot of different roads to get here, because it does get you down. There are days when you run home to get the mail and there is another rejection letter, and I figured that it was not what I was supposed to be doing. But in those times when I am alone and with my art and the voices that are speaking to me are saying: ‘this is what you need to be doing.’ As we get older, we realise that things happen when they are supposed to happen, not before that. It is about being patient and submissive to whatever is your calling.”

Sugar received positive reviews from her peers and public. Bernice has published 13 other books since Sugar’s 2001 release, including Gathering Of Waters which was hailed as one of the most “notable books of 2012” by the New York Times and one of the “50 best books of 2012” by the Washington Post.

“The millennium was really good to writers, especially black writers and then the market crashed and everyone suffered. Just like the economy, we are now starting to recover. The money is not as good as it used to be, but I don’t do it for that. I would publish even if I didn’t get paid.”

Along with her African American historical fiction, Bernice flaunts a more sensual side, under the name Geneva Halliday.

Once again, she shows Barbadian pride, as the island is the locale for Seduction, one of the five books written under the pseudonym.

“I call it humorous erotica, because it is both sexy and funny. [In Seduction] the woman leaves New York and comes to Barbados to lose weight . . . after she was jilted by her lover. He comes down here as well and he doesn’t know who she is and she gets payback.”

Bernice admits there are big differences in the writing processes.

“When I am writing as Bernice McFadden, I am listening to what the ancestors are saying to me and I am putting down whatever they are telling me to put down. When I am writing as Geneva Halliday I am listening to you, and watching what you wear . . . .  I am pulling from real life and making up crazy scenarios,” she said with a short laugh.


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