“Reading a good story can be like finding an oasis in a desert.” — A Conversation with Author Diane Browne

Diane Browne writes for children, adults, and young adults. Her stories have been published in the United Kingdom, the USA, the Caribbean, and Australia. A number are available on Amazon as e-books. She received a prestigious Bronze Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for children’s literature in 2004 and won the prize for a children’s story from the Commonwealth Foundation in 2011. Her YA novel, Island Princess in Brooklyn, was shortlisted for the inaugural Burt Caribbean Award, a joint initiative between Canada and the Caribbean in 2014.

1. You published your latest book yourself. Tell us about this book?
That would be Abigail’s Glorious Hair, a picture storybook. I also published The Happiness Dress, another picture storybook at the same time. Abigail’s Glorious Hair was germinating for a long time and grew into quite a different book than I had envisaged.

2. How different are these two books?
The Happiness Dress was written some time ago, whereas Abigail’s Glorious Hair was my latest children’s story. The Happiness Dress won a prize for a children’s story from the Commonwealth Foundation which I think of as a great honour for our island. The story depicts the significance of fathers in girls’ lives.

With Abigail’s Glorious Hair, I had always wanted to write the ‘hair book’. Lots of people are now writing the ‘hair book’, which seeks to tell children of African descent that their hair, which has often been viewed negatively, is actually a beautiful asset. By the time I got around to my ‘hair book’, my older granddaughter, then about 8, was the inspiration for it. Her little brother loved her hair, and I discovered how joyous plaiting her hair made me feel, how much love I felt. The story accepts her hair as being beautiful as a given, and then focuses on the ritual of the combing of hair, the love expressed, and how all the family becomes involved. The inspiration for the cover images by Rachel Moss were taken from pictures of that granddaughter. Rachel Moss provided the lovely images for both books.

Blue Banyan Books is now the publisher for both books.

Abigail’s Glorious Hair by Diane Browne

3. Over the years you have been involved with facilitating writing workshops and giving presentations and interviews for local and overseas organizations. Apart from your interview with us, what has been a pinch-yourself moment so far?
When I heard that I had won the Commonwealth Foundation Prize for a children’s story, The Happiness Dress. I couldn’t believe it.  They instructed me not to tell anyone until the public announcement was made. At the time I was part of a team facilitating a writing workshop in St. Lucia, so there was no one I knew to tell. So until I came home, I walked around with this exciting bubble of joy inside me.

4. You were writer, publisher, editor, and promoter for your last two books. What lessons have you learned after being “the head cook and bottle washer” for these books?
I have worked in publishing so the process was not new to me, but believe me, it’s easier to have a publisher handle the production process.

5. What inspires you to write new stories?
Stories just pop up into my mind and I have to write them. Sometimes they are triggered by events or something in nature that creates an atmospheric feeling for me. Actually, most of the time stories or new ideas are circling around in my mind.

6. Where do you come up with the characters in your stories?
They appear in my mind, or I may see or remember someone who makes me think of a character.

7. What is your favorite part of Abigail’s Glorious Hair?
The refrain which reminds us of the love involved with the family ritual of combing our hair:

“Mum brushes and combs out and her fingers are going through my hair, one, two twist; one, two, twist; one, two, twist,…and love flows through her fingers and I feel snug and safe.”

It’s almost like the refrain of a bedtime story, and when we think about it, we tend not to have local bedtime stories, so this story can also be a comforting bedtime story.

The Happiness Dress by Diane Browne

8. What is next? Are you working on another book?
I am working on two short stories (almost finished) for the age group 10 – 14, as well as a Young Adult book which is for the 13 plus age group. I know this one is a book I would want to read, and I haven’t the faintest idea what comes next or how it finishes.

9. Will we see some of the stories in your books become a theatre production?
I don’t know, but it would be wonderful if theatre producers did look at some of the local children’s books for theatre productions. I can think of a number, by other writers as well, that could be adapted for the theatre.

10. What comments do you hear most often from your readers?
How the books have meaning for them. The comment I like most was about Abigail’s Glorious Hair and came from a lady who said that ‘her niece always knew she was beautiful, but now she believes it’. Sort of cool, eh!

11. Which do you enjoy most — writing for fiction or non-fiction?

12. How long have you been writing?
Since the 1980s

13. How did you get published?
I was hired by the Ministry of Education as part of a team of three to write supplementary reading material for schools: The Doctor Bird Reading Series. One of the loveliest jobs I ever had. Can you imagine going to work every day and writing? I was also a member of the Children’s Writers Circle and also wrote for commercial publishers.

14. Where did the writing urge come from?
When I was little most of the books were British or American. I used to wonder why we couldn’t be in books. I wanted to see our lives depicted in books. Then when my children were born I really wanted them to have books relevant to their lives to read. Then I wanted that for all of our children on the island. So I began writing.

15. Do you have one sentence of advice for new writers?
Keep on writing; write something every day if you can, rewrite until it’s exactly what/how you want it to be.

16. What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison; Pao by Kerry Young; Small Island by Andrea Levy; Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce;  Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

17. Is there a book you love to reread?
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

18. Who are your favorite authors?
Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, and Philippa Gregory.

19. Seven-day, six-night, all-expense paid, my vacation destination is…

20. My favorite guilty pleasure is…

21. Growing up my hero was…
A Jamaican teacher at school. We had a lot of British teachers then, therefore to have a Jamaican teacher that you could admire was very important.

22. On behalf of the readers of Jamaicans.com thanks for providing us with this interview. Do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?
Thank you for focusing on me and children’s writing. People say that Jamaicans do not read. While this may be true of many, it is not true of our children. It too often is that with limited disposable income, their parents cannot afford to buy books for pleasure reading for them. Now more than ever, children need to be reading, for enjoyment and knowledge, to give them balance in a world that is now very scary. Reading a good story can be like finding an oasis in a desert. We know that we are great athletes and entertainers. Our children should also see themselves in books and know that we can be writers too. So please buy local and Caribbean books for children in your family, or if you don’t have any, then buy and donate them to schools. The Book Industry Association of Jamaica can assist you in identifying local and Caribbean books.

Keep up with Diane Browne on her blog.

Image Courtesy: Diane Browne/Twitter