Shakirah Bourne: “If we don’t tell our stories, who will?”

Barbadian writer Shakirah Bourne on “holding up a literary mirror” to society — as told to Michelle Springer

Barbadian writer Shakirah Bourne. Photograph by Marlon James

I have no idea where my love for reading came from, because when I was a child no one else in my family read anything. I used to read so much that when I was naughty my punishment was to have my books taken away.

I used to read books available to me in the library and at school, which were Enid Blyton stories, the Sweet Valley High series, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Mills and Boon novels. Influenced by Sweet Valley High, I wrote a novel called “Jealousy Can Kill”. My protagonists were Lily, a red-haired, green-eyed cheerleader, and Zachary, her blond, blue-eyed boyfriend. The antagonist was Amy, Lily’s best friend, who had black hair and brown eyes.

My first creative writing experience was with poetry, when I was about six years old. I’ve always been fascinated with paper, and I used to cut up different types and colours of paper in shapes, and keep them in a plastic bag. One day I decided that words would make the cut-up paper look more interesting, and I wrote verses of poetry on them.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I wasn’t able to write. I viewed it as a hobby — the idea of having a career as a writer didn’t make logical or financial sense to me. When I graduated from university at twenty-one, I got a full-time job at an event planning company, and simply did not have the time to write. It took me a year to understand why I was so miserable. I quit in 2009, and I’ve been a full-time writer since.

I like using child narrators, because children normally see truth and honesty in every situation. They are unintentionally blunt, and have yet to conform to social norms. Where unethical and immoral behaviour is ignored or swept under the rug, who best to expose them than an innocent child? Their frank observations often bring humour to what are very serious themes.

It’s important for art to reflect society as it is, and not what it pretends to be. I don’t write with the intention of being a social activist, but to expose hypocrisies that I observe. How readers react to my observations, if they recognise their behaviour and try to change, is entirely up to them. My goal is just to hold up a literary mirror.

There are a few young Barbadian writers who explore this sort of literary writing, but I find that many writers are attracted to other genres, such as fantasy, thrillers, or romance. While this diversity and experimentation is good, and oftimes [these books] still have some aspect of the Barbadian environment, in my experience, the young spoken word artists and poets — those who perform in backyard spaces and poetry clubs — are those whose art speaks most about those hidden aspects of society that persons tend to ignore, and advocate for change.

Art should never be restricted. All I simply ask is that the stories be ours. If we don’t tell them, who will? It is important for Caribbean people to have characters that reflect their identity and their culture.

Payday was my first screenplay to be produced, but it wasn’t the first screenplay I ever wrote. I’ve been writing screenplays for a while, and had numerous meetings with producers, but nothing ever came out of them. The Payday movie is director Selwyne Browne’s brainchild. He approached me about writing a story that was set in one location, was funny, and that was cheap and easy to shoot. I went into some communities and just sat on the block, observing the characters that passed by. That’s how the story of Payday was born.

[pullquote]“It’s important for art to reflect society as it is, and not what it pretends to be. I don’t write with the intention of being a social activist, but to expose hypocrisies that I observe”[/pullquote]

Payday is a comedy-drama showcasing a raw slice of Barbadian community life. Romie and Pack hope to invest their salaries in a garage, but their dream is challenged by Romie’s philandering ways, Pack’s addiction to marijuana, and eccentric village members.

Attending my first film festival in Trinidad as a filmmaker was very intimidating — mainly because I hadn’t even adjusted to the name “filmmaker.” Six months earlier, I didn’t even know what a boom [microphone pole] was. However, all the filmmakers there were very open and willing to share information and give advice. In fact, hearing about their experiences and watching their films inspired me to become better.

My first book, In Time of Need, is a collection of stories that showcase the controversial and often hidden aspects of Barbados. The themes of love and relationships, domestic and emotional abuse, politics in the rum shop, sex tourism and human trafficking and more, are narrated in a satirical and humorous style, often through the voices of innocent and naïve characters.

If I could invent a genre for my work, I would call it “thought-fiction” — fiction which captures the beauty of the mind, the processes and emotions that can occur in a few seconds. It would discuss and describe the mental and emotional impact of seemingly everyday activities.

I admire work by [Jamaican writer] Olive Senior, mainly because her book Summer Lightning was the first Caribbean book I read for pleasure. I admired her use of unconventional characters, and the prevalence of dialect in her stories. She showed me that writing in Caribbean dialect was a gift, and not a grammatical error. Also Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. She is an excellent storyteller, and showed me that there is beauty in all types of writing.

Reading famous Caribbean authors who use nation language in their work is a validation of our culture. I wonder, when I submit stories to international journals, if they think that my uses of nation language are spelling and grammatical errors. But it is so important that the rhythm of Caribbean dialect is present in my stories. I want that when an audience hears or reads my story, they hear my Caribbean voice.

  • Lisa

    beautiful….I love the way this woman thinks; love her realistic take on life…love her open, honest approach