Spotlight

[Interview] Floella Benjamin: A Heart for the Caribbean (Part 1)





It’s 3pm London time when Floella Benjamin picks up the phone. Although I am calling at a prearranged hour, there is at first, a hint of confusion in her voice. I am not offended. After all, Baroness Benjamin is a very busy lady. It only takes her a brief moment to re-orient herself to the prospect of our interview. Once she does, Benjamin’s larger-than-life personality registers fully across several thousand miles. She speaks with her trademark conviction and authority, yet there is an unassuming warmth about her conversational style that makes me feel like I’m chatting with an affectionate aunt. After more than fifty years in London, her British accent is fully-formed, but she is not averse to throwing out a Trini-ism now and then.

Benjamin is taking a break from writing a speech for an upcoming session of the House of Lords to talk to me about her new children’s novel, Sea of Tears. At one point, she tells me matter-of-factly that she is in the habit of turning down interview requests because of how busy she is. She says when she got my request however, she felt compelled to speak with me. "You're doing something that I'm passionate about; spreading the word about Caribbean culture. Of course I'll do it, but I'm very busy."

Benjamin is no newcomer to children’s writing. Following her long and illustrious career as a children’s television presenter on Play School, the UK’s equivalent of Sesame Street, she launched into writing for children, producing two successful picturebook collaborations with the English illustrator, Margaret Chamberlain. My Two Grandads and My Two Grannies are jovial stories that celebrate cultural differences. They’re picturebooks on whose pages the influence of Benjamin’s Caribbean roots can be seen.

Benjamin’s first children’s novel, Sea of Tears displays a similar focus. In fact, Sea of Tears reaches back even further; it signals a return to themes Benjamin first started exploring in Coming to England, the now classic 1995 autobiography about her migration from Trinidad to England as a young girl in the 1960’s. It is clear that Benjamin’s material has not changed. In Sea of Tears, a British teen reluctantly moves with her family to Barbados where her parents were born and struggles with homesickness and marginalization. Migration, culture, crossing barriers, the ties that bind, the unique perceptions of childhood― Benjamin speaks fixedly and recursively on these themes during our interview.

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Summer Edward: You were inspired to write this book by something that happened to you in Barbados. 

Benjamin at Days Bookstore in Barbados earlier this year
Floella Benjamin: Yes, I went to Barbados. I was filming over there. They’re making a program on the history of the Caribbean, and I met this young girl who was about thirteen and she was very, very unhappy and I said, “What’s the matter?” And she said, well, I was born in London and my family decided that they wanted to come back to Barbados to live, so that meant I had to come with them and leave all my friends behind and now I’m here and people kind of treat me as if I’m an outsider. They call me you know, English and I hate it, so I want to go back to where I was born. And I realized that that was the same thing that happened to me in 1960 when I left Trinidad. When you go to a new place it’s hard to fit in if you’re different and migration means going to somewhere that’s different and that you will perhaps not be accepted because of you being perceived as being somebody who’s different. So that theme, even through Sea of Tears, was to show that it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, what you have to do is try and fit in and try and, as long as you love yourself and know who you are as a person, establish yourself in a new environment and that’s what Sea of Tears is all about.

SE: I can certainly relate to that. And your character, Jasmine, does learn this doesn’t she?

FB: For Jasmine in the story, she, first of all, believes that friends last forever, and that isn’t necessarily the case. You can make new friends in a new land, as long as you know who you are as a person, and you become, you blossom into the environment that you’re in. Don’t kind of keep judging people on things [sic] of what you left behind. When you move forward, you have to see, okay, they don’t like me because of this. What am I doing that they don’t like? How can I change my perception of myself and see myself through their eyes, how other people see me. And other people might not like you because they don’t like themselves, and if they see something special in you, they want to take it out on you. So they might be fighting their own battles. And people who can’t accept differences are people who don’t like themselves as human beings. So you have to understand that as well. So that’s the philosophy I want to teach young children and young people, especially if they have to move to a new land. I think if you’re about five or six it’s not so difficult, but when you’re a teenager trying to find your own self and establish your own personality those kinds of messages are very important for you to be aware of and need to be spoken about and told. And that why I think Sea of Tears is a book that I really try to concentrate on those emotions that you go through at the kind of age.

SE: Yes, the teenage years…

FB: Becoming a teenager, kind of when the clock strikes midnight on your thirteenth birthday, suddenly so many things change, you don’t know who you are, your hormones are going wild, you’re trying to find out you who you are. You rely on friendship and I think, you know, there is nothing different about young people, teenagers living in the Caribbean as there are in America, Canada, London. They are all the same and as long as you understand that, as long as you understand why things are happening to you, then you can cope with life. But I think a lot of the problems we have in life is because no one talks about it. No one has, you know, you need to have a conversation with somebody who’s been through that and who can actually talk about it through the eyes of that person at that particular stage in their life. Through the eyes of the child. You have to speak to people through what they’re going through at that time, not as an adult, but you talk to them on the same level. And I think that is what I try to do and I hope it came over in Sea of Tears, is that I was talking to a thirteen year old, talking through the eyes of that thirteen year old so they understood.

You know, their parents are going through traumas themselves because as you come, as a returnee in the Caribbean, you know, as an adult, you’re treated with, you know, with resentment as well, you know, rejection. And we all have to face rejection but at different stages in our lives it’s how we cope with it. And as a child it could be quite catastrophic for you when you feel as if nobody loves you, nobody cares about you, your parents are telling you off, your friends have abandoned you, you can’t find new friends and you feel your whole world is falling apart […] but you can cope, life gets better. You just go through different phases in your life. You know, like the terrible twos, the seven year olds, the teenagers. Even when you’re fifty you go through some sort of phase in your life that you have to cope with. And it’s just getting young people to realize life gets better and the more experiences that you have, the richer you are as a person.

SE: I saw this book as being about difference as well. What it means to be different. 

FB: I know for a fact when I first went back to Trinidad, I left Trinidad in 1960, I went back ten years later, eleven years later, and everybody knew. They said, “English girl” and I said “Why?’ What is it about me? And I think when you are living in a particular culture, in a different environment, in the different land, you pick up, the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you dress, your style, and it tells a person when you go back to your homeland or go back to an environment where you think you fit in, they know you immediately. And you then have to work even harder to tell people, I might be from a different land but I understand everything about you. And so you have got to make the extra step, you can't expect them to come towards you, because they won’t, because they perhaps might feel threatened by your existence. They don’t understand who you are as a person.

But I know from experience, when I go to the Caribbean, when people first see me, they kind of go, “Uh, uh, who is this person?” But I say, “Hello." I smile. I ask them questions about themselves. I say, “I like how you are looking.” And so that person thinks, “Hey, this is a really nice human being!” I kind of engage in conversation. So you mustn’t wait for people to come to you. I’m one of these people who go to people, because I know that people don’t like differences and when they see you they have, they kind of, within thirty seconds of somebody setting eyes on you, they form their opinion about you. And that’s human nature. So as long as you’re aware of that, you can actually break those barriers down by jumping over the barrier, being the first one to engage, being the first one to be constructive about relationships that you want to form with those particular people that you’re with.

And so it’s human nature that you smell differences. You look at something, that’s different. You don’t know why you know. But if you know that you’re different and there’s a feeling in that way, you’ve got to say, hey, I might be different, I might be from England, I might be from America, I might be from Canada, but I know my culture, my roots. My roots are Caribbean, that’s what makes me the person that I am. I might be living somewhere else, but I’ll never forget what my ancestors have gone through you know, what my African connections are, wherever I’ve come from, I know who I am. And if you show them you have the ability to think like the person trying to have a particular view about you, then they warm to you. And that’s what happens to me every time I go anywhere in the Caribbean. People say “Aye aye! You Trinidadian! Who are you?” And it’s because I become the people of that land. Because I connect with people. And I want children to not just sort of, kind of have fixed views about who they are. Saying well, she’s from Jamaica, she’s from Grenada, she’s from St. Kitts, she’s from Venezuela, she’s from this and that. No. What you do is, you are [indistinguishable word] human beings on this earth and we can only move forward if we take that out of each other and don’t have any preconceived ideas, judgmental, but to have consideration for one another. And the ability to connect.

SE: Yes and that seems to be an idea you explore through the character Devlin, the Bajan boy who befriends Jasmine, the fisherman’s son. 

FB: I wrote Delvin as a strong character. I wanted to make him somebody who, because of what he had to go through, the maturity of his life taught Jasmine to realize that yes, you know, the important thing in life is not to ever give up, to love the person who you are, and to respect who you are. And at the end of the book, you find that comes out quite loud and clear. It’s that together, when you find something, you know, you can move mountains if you start believing and understanding who you are. And having values, the values and principles that you have in your life, what’s important and what’s not important.

SE: In the first half of the book, you paint a rather grim picture of Jasmine’s life in South London. It’s this sort of tableau of the many troubling issues Jasmine and her friends face as young people. Is it something about their community or do you think their issues are the reality for young people today, universally speaking I mean? 

FB: Why I wanted to highlight it is because, the parents, when you’re a parent of young children, you worry about the world they might be drawn into. And one of the reasons why I highlight those particular incidents is because her [Jasmine’s] parents were concerned that they didn’t like the kind of environment that big cities like London, like Montreal, you know, like New York, the kind of environment a child could be drawn into. There are good things happening as well, but the parents in the book weren’t looking at the good things, they were looking at the negative things that might just derail their child. In fact, I just had a phone call just now, somebody living in Belgium who’s worried about the gang culture that her son, who is a good boy, is being drawn into and she’s saying, “What should I do? How should I protect him?” And so in the book, I wanted to highlight these are the kinds of things that parents focus on. They don’t look at so many of the good things, but the bad things.

And I work with a lot of children’s charities where we deal with grooming, sexual exploitation and how young children get drawn into a world where they think at the time is kind of nice, that people are being nice to them, but they don’t realize that they want to take advantage of them. And there is gang culture because there are lots of people who feel that they don’t belong to a society, so they clump together to have a cluster of friendship that is sort of a bad thing. Because society is telling them they’re no good, they’ll say alright, well if you don’t think I’m any good, I’ll show you how bad I can be. So they turn on society. So those are the kinds of issues I wanted to bring up.

Just this week here in London, we heard about a young girl who ran away from home and went off with somebody she met through the Internet. We talk about Internet pornography. Children can do online games but they’re seeing pornography on the site. So children are being exposed to so many things that they shouldn’t really be exposed to because of the kind of modern world that we’re living in, with the technology that we’re living in. And Jasmine’s parents were wanting her not to grow up so fast, and wanted to protect her, they felt the way of protecting her was to go back to Barbados. So the book highlights the negative things rather than the positive things about being a young person. The majority of young children growing up in London, they have a wonderful life. They have a very happy life, where they have friends, who don’t do shoplifting, who don’t have gangs. But as a parent, you don’t think about that. The book is a work of fiction, so even though I was writing part reality, it was also part you know, telling a story, of what a parent like you or me, what we would want for our children. So that’s why I actually pointed it out. So it’s not something that’s the be-all and end-all of most cities. Instead, it’s something that actually does happen and that does affect young people’s lives. Perhaps it’s a minority, but you don’t know as a parent, you don’t know if your child will be attracted to that minority.

SE: It’s not like life is perfect for Jasmine in Barbados either right? 

FB: No it isn't. Going back to Barbados, you find there are other problems you have to cope with. So everywhere you go in the world, there are problems for children and young people. So I wanted to cut the balance both ways. The grass might look greener over the way, but it’s how you cope with that and what you do for your children. Jasmine’s parents were making a moral judgment about what they wanted for their child and the opportunity came for them to go back to the Caribbean and they felt that would be a better place for her to grow.

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This is the first half of Summer's interview with Baroness Floella Benjamin, Trinidadian-born author of the children's novel, Sea of Tears. You can read part 2 of the interview here.



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About the Interviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as tongues of the ocean, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Philadelphia Stories, The Columbia Review, sx salon and The Caribbean Writer (forthcoming). She was a participant in the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Creative Writers Workshop.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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1 comments:

  1. Thanks for featuring Floella's work. I had not heard about her before so I will definitely check out her work. I appreciate her sensibilities and would love for more children in Jamaica to be able to read her work, and to be able to see themselves in her stories.

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