The Evolution of My Writing Voice

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.

Olive Senior

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. 🙂

Chimamanda Adichie 

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.

So…

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…

18 thoughts on “The Evolution of My Writing Voice

  1. Well done….this did bring back memories for me…..an avid Enid Blyton Fan, and also Mills and Boon….Violet Winspear was the hottest….”tantalizing tendrils draping the nape of her neck”…I have never forgotten that….and the raunchy scenes in my time were not as bad…kinda mild..but for you it would be about 20 years later…lol..so I guess the heat was turned up by then….I enjoyed this post quite a bit….KEEP WRITING…I definitely have heard your voice. Here’s hoping mine will be heard soon.

    • If you keep shouting eventually someone will stop and pay you attention 🙂

      “tantalizing tendrils draping the nape of her neck” ,<= that right there is what made me want to relax my hair! Nigger knots don't drape you know lol but again that is another post.

      Thanks for commenting again Cher. Your support is awesome.

  2. Wonderful post, Shakirah! As our own Dana Gilkes always says re: reading material, “Put good stuff in to get good stuff out.”

    As far as writing, as a girl, I pictured myself with a microphone in front of a camera telling the world stories as a journalist. So I’d scribble little news stories and fictional stories here and there. I was also greatly inspired as a little black girl living in a predominantly white country, by looking at beautiful black people in “Essence”, “Ebony” and “Jet”. Imagine having something of MINE published in one of those magazines (still conquering my fear of that)
    READING:I was such an egghead, for fun I’d randomly read the dictionary. Other than that, hearing my teacher Miss Snow read “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” in the 4th grade at Mill Valley Junior in Etobicoke, Toronto, Canada, got me. Other than that, every kind of fairy tale from any country. Imagine knowing from age 8 what a “fakir” was (go Google it! :p)
    Then coming to Barbados at age 12 , “Christopher”, “Miguel Street” and of course “Green Days By The River”. Later at BCC, Kamau Brathwaite, Bruce St. John and a love for Naipaul deepened. Couldn’t relate to poetry, much less write it, until Dr. Viola Davis at BCC who brought it alive with her vivacity.
    WRITING? Reading Cecil Foster’s “No Man In The House” as well as Glenville Lovell’s “Fire In The Canes” – definitely pivotal in how I aspire to capture my West Indian Heritage in our stories – how I want to approach The Great West Indian Novel living in me.
    BUT novel writing is leading me to joyfully explore what I read by the pound – saucy, contemporary adult fiction: Terry MacMillan, Bebe Moore-Campbell, E Lynn Harris and Eric Jerome Dickey.
    The difference is rather than being set in America, it will be OUR story through my eyes.

    Thanks for the opportunity to reflect and look forward.

    • Wow Sandra,

      I think you need to write a post of your own!

      All these wonderful authors and novels…so little time to read. I vow to read more this year though, so again will add all of these to my reading list.

  3. Thanks for baring your soul Kirah. It’s such an amazing thing how our journeys in finding and refining our voices are so diverse and yet so similar. We’re thankful that you ventured your pen again after that incident on the bus – and look forward to reading the stories where you work in that sense of trauma, overcoming and renewed confidence 🙂
    Speak Up!

  4. This was such a great post .. I really am bought back in time with the Mills and Boon, Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams references and it also took me back to the days of reading Danielle Steel and some Historical romances that inspire the way I write my short stories and I will always be thankful to being introduced to the work of Bebe Moore-Campbell who is one of my favorites.

  5. Growing up with Enid Blyton, Francine Pascal, Carolyn Keene, etc, were the wonderful norm, but it was Christopher Pike’s ‘Last Vampire’ series that began to shape the literary path I would take.

    My first full length was a character inspired by his main character Sita and even though at 11 – 12 I wasn’t supposed to be reading them – because of the content – I loved every minute and was always hungry for more.

    Since then I’ve embraced writing about wicked, seductive and strong, (often paranormal) female characters and though I moved onto various others male and female over time, I still remember those dark beginnings with extreme fondness.

    I still love that first novel, how raw and gritty it was and even though it needs lots of work, I hope to produce it as a graphic novel in the future.

    So, my true inspiration, the door that opened to unveil the worlds of Anne Rice, Stephen King, C.J. Cherryh and countless other fantasy and sci fi authors, was definitely Pike :).

    • How could I forget R.L Stine books?! It seems like the things we weren’t supposed to be reading inspired us the most lol.

      That first novel sounds good though. One day soon someone will say they were inspired by Secrets of the Tenari 🙂

  6. Hi, I really enjoyed your literary journey and as many of your replies have indicated, your literary influences at a young age resonate deeply. An interesting journey to be sure, I can recommend one Caribbean writer that I fell for Edgar Mittleholzer, a Guyanese writer who is so worthy of more acclaim. Thanks for sharing.

    • I completely agree with you with regards to Edgar Mittleholzer. It took me months to read “My Bones and My Flute” because it was so creepy. Thanks for commenting Dominique 🙂

  7. This is not an intelligent response to your question just a …squeee Sweet Valley High moment…loved those girls…although I discovered Mills and Boon first after graduating from Enid Blyton, Uncle Arthur Bedtime stories and Anancy to my mom’s Mills and Boon collection before high school and the trading of Sweet Valley Highs, Sweet Dreams, Harlequins and Silhouettes…why don’t I read romances anymore?…sure they’re formulaic but they were fun. OH, and ditto re Chimamanda and The Thing Around Her Neck. I’ve loved and learned from so many writers (Bronte to Dickens to Lee, Kincaid to Selvon to Walker, Tolan to Rice to Dandicat…Mervyn Morris to Olive Senior both of whom I’ve had the opportunity to be tutored/mentored by), it would be hard to pin down…but when two Amazon readers compared my book Oh Gad! to reading Maeve Binchy, that was another squee moment for me because I love how she textures the worlds of her stories and gives dimension to even the smallest characters’ lives so that you just lose yourself there for a while.

    • After I wrote this post I borrowed a historical romance from the library. Sometimes we need to put down the serious/dramatic novels and just enjoy a simple love story, know?

      Re Binchy, another author to add to the list! Can you recommend one of her titles to start with?

      • I liked Circle of Friends, Firefly Summer, Evening Class, Tara Road, Scarlet Feather, Quentins, Nights of Rain and Stars…don’t like her short story collections, like The Return Journey, as much.

  8. Pingback: How I Met Olive Senior | getWrite!

  9. It started with that woman Enid Blyton. As an adult I’ve heard the claims that her work was sexist and racist and not always reflective of forward thinking ideals. True or not though, as I little girl, I yearned to take a seat in The Wishing Chair and was mad to visit The Faraway Tree. The Children of Cherry Tree Farm made farm life sound exciting and thanks to Elizabeth aka The Naughtiest Girl In The School and Malory Towers, I wanted to be sent away to boarding school and have adventures. I was a tad disappointed that lacrosse wasn’t a sport anyone in Bim seemed to play. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven assured me it was commendable to be as inquisitive and precocious as I was, even if my neighbours didn’t think so. In my pre-teens I considered being a baby-sitter to make extra cash because of The Babysitters Club by Ann Martin…but that’s not the done thing here, at least not for pay. Later, I too thanked Francine Pascal for Sweet Valley High, and of course no respectable book case was complete without Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys titles so big hail to Edward Stratemeyer and all the ghost writers that followed. It was years later at secondary school that Caribbean writers did a salsa into my imaginative space with the rhythm of West Indian style writing. V.S Naipaul’s Miguel Street will forever be one of my favourite pieces. After that I searched high and low for other Caribbean writers whose prose was as enjoyable to read. But I found I had to deal with voices that seemed far too pedantic for my liking. And for a while I felt like a traitor to the cause. I remember a white Canadian woman asking me how I could read all these other books ( I was reading a book about the American mid-west at the time) and not be fully stocked up on more Caribbean/Black writers. I was part pissed and part ashamed. I’ve always loved reading and from as early as I could remember I was writing stories. But they were (disturbingly I think now) about blonde, blue eyed children who played in the snow. Many years and many, many authors-from-around-the-world later, I think I’ve found my own distinct voice. I am happy (and relieved) that it is very much Barbadian. I shouldn’t have worried…how could it not be?But undoubtedly the mark of those early authors whose work I read, is all over what I write today. Now though, it’s not so much in WHAT I write, but in the goal of my writing. As a child, those early books filled me with wonder; I was taken on wild adventures and I loved (or hated) the characters fiercely. Every new book purchase was like buying a first-class ticket on Virgin Atlantic to somewhere exotic and reading the first page was lift off. It’s that feeling of going on a remarkable, unforgettable adventure that I want my writing to inspire in readers…I want to grip them and not let them go until the very last. I want them to be like I was as a child, struggling to read the last few pages by lamplight if necessary. I thank all those authors for the journeys they first took me on, but I’ll never forget that it all started with that woman Enid Blyton.

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