I’ve wanted to write this post since my partner in words, Hadlee Sobers, asked getWriters what writers most influenced their writing style. As usual, I have to start the story from when I was a wee tot, and can never just give a straight answer without the back-story.
Sweet Valley High
I have to fight off the wave of nostalgia just from looking at this book cover. I used to INHALE Jessica and Elizabeth stories. Charles Colton says that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,and I certainly proved my adoration for the troublesome twins with my first story called Jealousy Can Kill, written when I was about nine or ten years old. My protagonists were Lily, a red-haired, green eyed cheerleader, and Zachary, her blonde, blue-eyed boyfriend. I’m looking at the story now, and it really isn’t bad. Maybe I will share an excerpt in another post. 🙂
Now, every time I think about Sweet Valley High, I think about Chimimanda Adichie’s Ted Talk on the dangers of a single story. At that time I wasn’t reading children’s books with Caribbean characters, or stories that I could relate to. I don’t know if these books weren’t written or if they just weren’t available to me. I remember asking a friend what “a crumpet” was, and I desperately wanted to try treacle pie, thanks to Enid Blyton. That discussion is for another post though. Right now I want to thank Francine Pascal for sparking my interest in reading, and being my first inspiration for putting pen to paper.
PS. I just found out that Charles Colton coined that famous phrase thanks to Google.
Mills and Boon
Previous and current romance novel fans, does this picture make you want to cuddle up in bed and giggle at the naughty sex scenes? Or is it just me? Before Mills and Boon, all of my romance knowledge came from reading first-kiss scenes in Sweet Valley High and those Sweet Summer teen books (can’t remember the name), but as a new and avid reader, I quickly finished the supply at my local library.
I wandered over to the adult section, saw a blonde woman on the cover of a Mills and Boon, decided that she was pretty, and so I would read the book. At that time I was just about ten or eleven years old, and I remember the librarian being hesitant about lending me the book. She must have looked at my wide-eyed innocence and decided it was time I saw the light.
And that I did. The light was on til early hours in the morning, as I could not put down this
book filled with pleasure giving tools called “members” which made women climax. I read ALL of the Mills and Boon books in the library, and even graduated to historical romances. They were about five times the size of Mills and Boon books, but the library was taking too long to get new titles. Eventually, I created my own stories, and boy, they were something else.
I was impatient and decided to forget about the romance, and I just wrote sex scenes. During that time, I graduated from primary school and entered secondary school (high school), and my sex writing came to an end after one traumatising incident.
I was bringing a copy of my latest raunchy story to school to show a friend, and one of the boys got a hold of it. He read that story out loud to everyone in the school bus, and at the end of the story declared that thanks to me, he was now..um..excited. That is still one of the most humiliating moments of my life, and I not only destroyed that copy of the story, but the diskette (ha ha diskette) containing all of my other ‘romance’ stories.
Although I don’t read romance novels regularly now, I would still like to thank Mills and Boon for inspiring me to experiment with another genre. I didn’t write again for years after that traumatic incident, but I did keep reading those romance novels for most of my teenage years.
Guy De Maupassant – (Big up a story like The Necklace)
Fast forward to about eleven years later where writing was just a hobby for me, and I had a full time job at an event planning company. I enrolled in a Master Class with George Lamming where I got exposure to Caribbean writers like Samuel Selvon, and where I saw my culture, dialect and humour reflected in a story. Yes, we read Caribbean books in school – I have fond memories of Harriet’s Daughter and Green Days by the River – but I always associated these books with school and work. Much later I would re-read titles studied in school, and actually enjoy the story and the language. But anyway, the charismatic George Lamming introduced me to Guy de Maupassant, a French short story writer, who was a master of dénouement and irony, and gave us the challenge of writing our own story using Maupassant’s signature style.
It was love at first write.
Lamming invited me to perform that same story at the opening of the George Lamming Pedagogical Centre at our local university, and it was well received. An audience member asked me to read it again at some event, and that lead to more performances. Since then, I use irony in all of my stories, so thank you George Lamming, and thank you Guy.
Now that I had a taste of Caribbean literature (for pleasure) I wanted to read more, and a friend recommended Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning. And yes, to be dramatic, that book changed my life. One of my biggest insecurities is writing dialect, and this fear that snotty classical writers and publishers would turn their nose up at my “broken English language” and tell me to buy a dictionary and enrol in an English class. But here is this internationally renowned and celebrated Jamaican author, with stories written as if my Bajan grandmother was telling me them herself. I realised that writing in Caribbean dialect is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is in fact, a rare gift.
Furthermore, I fell in love with her story “A Boy who Loved Ice-cream” written from the point of view of a little boy, and decided to try that style out for myself. That story was my first major publication (click here to read), and the editor, Robert Sandiford said: “While being all yours, it reminded me in parts of Austin Clarke, Timothy Callender and Oonya Kempadoo.” This is the moment I said to myself, “You Shakirah, you like you cuh write yeh”.
I hope to meet Olive Senior at BocasLitFest next month in Trinidad, and I will be try to stay calm, normal and be level-headed, and thank her for inspiring me so much with her novels. I will not scream like a groupie…I will not scream like a groupie…I will not.
Update: I did meet her! Read about it here.
Fun Fact: I later did a workshop with Oonya Kempadoo and she enjoyed it, and gave me great feedback! But again, that is another post. 🙂
I don’t remember how I came across this novel of short stories, but am I glad I did! She is such a storyteller, and the person I would want to meet after Olive Senior. She is brilliant. You know those stories where you finish read them and think “Wow, I wish I had written that”. Best of all, Chimamanda just tells the story. Another one of my insecurities is that my writing isn’t “beautiful”. I suck at doing those long beautiful descriptions; my stories aren’t filled with big words to make a person google, and I always thought that they weren’t good because I couldn’t write like that. Chimamanda showed me that there is beauty in all types of writing, and every style has its own charm.
She also showed me how to reveal cultural, moral and social issues through characters, without shoving the theme down the readers’ throats. I bought every one of her books, and I can’t wait until the new novel, Americah, comes out in May. Just in time for my birthday *Clears throat*.Thanks to her, I started reading more African Literature, and I’ve enjoyed all of them so far. Thank you for opening my eyes Chimamanda.
I’ve found my voice.
I like to show irony (Guy de Maupassant) through innocent and naïve characters (Olive Senior). I like to tackle social issues, and make them culturally relevant (Chimimanda), through humour and dialect (Samuel Selvon). I just like telling simple stories.
And this voice is constantly evolving. When I read a novel I like, or I see an unconventional style, I attempt it for myself. For instance, I read Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, a book told entirely by one character in an unbroken monologue, and LOVED it! I was inspired to give the style a try, and got a lovely story called If Dogs Could Talk, which was published by POUI: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing.
Sometimes if I’m bored, or stuck in a rut, I google literary devices and try to write a story based on a particular style.
As Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” I’ll keep reading and I’ll keep experimenting. 🙂
So…now I pose the question again, who inspired your writing style?
Thanks to the internet, we can now thank those authors directly. You never know who is reading…