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Talking with the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Co-Winner, Sharon Millar

The co-winner of this year's coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize hails from Trinidad and Tobago. In this interview, Sharon Millar, blogger, gardener and writer, talks to Global Voices about her inspiration, her identity and how blogging helped propel her fiction writing.

Writer Sharon Millar

Writer Sharon Millar

Global Voices: Congratulations on co-winning this year’s Commonwealth Short Story
Prize. What does winning this award mean to you?

Sharon Millar: It’s not something that you can anticipate. It’s wonderful! I was particularly happy to share the stage with Eliza Robertson (Canada). I was very impressed with her story. The fact that the judges could not pick an outright winner was very gratifying. It meant that they had to deliberate on both pieces for some length of
time. It’s rewarding to know that the work was able to stand that level of scrutiny. Eliza is a strong upcoming writer and it’s exciting to know that we are ‘twinned’ in a strange way. A win like this gives you international exposure and attention. It was excellent that my first international publication was with Granta. That was very exciting. The story was disseminated to a much larger audience than I anticipated. But the defining highlight was representing not just Trinidad and Tobago, but the entire Caribbean. It was a landmark moment for me.

2013 Commonwealth Writers Prize Winner, Lisa O'Donnell and co-winners of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Eliza Robertson and Sharon Millar, at the Hay Festival.

2013 Commonwealth Writers Prize Winner, Lisa O'Donnell and co-winners of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Eliza Robertson and Sharon Millar, at the Hay Festival.

GV: Have you always considered yourself a writer? Can you share how your journey evolved?

SM: It’s been a long process in many ways. I started with workshops with Wayne Brown in the early 90s but looking back at that time, I really was just beginning to feel my way around. It’s hard to know what you want to write. You might have the idea that
you want to be a writer but it’s hard to know what you want to say. That took a long time to come. I wrote for magazines, wrote advertising copy, began blogging but I still wasn’t sure where to begin with the fiction.

GV: Can you share some of the experiences that have shaped your writing life and had an impact upon your evolution as a writer?

SM: Several things came together to shape my writing life. You have to want it badly enough to keep trying to crack the code. Also I was lucky that I had a good mentor in Wayne and from very early on I got the encouragement that I did have latent ability. Being a steady reader helps significantly and I still go to certain books to study how a plot has unfolded or how a character has been handled. Initially I read for greedy pleasure but then I go back in to study how the author has achieved the things that move me.

I read a lot of Canadian literature which has served me well. A lot of early Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Alice Munro; these women were all real influences. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, July’s People by Nadine Gordimer were just a few that made an impact at a certain point in my life. I also love Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ben Okri, J.M.Coetzee, and Norman Rush, who is an American but most of his work is set in Botswana.

In an inverted way, the African literature was able to get me to the Caribbean canon. Reading the African literature showed me that I could find a way to write about my life. So much of what I read was familiar. From the landscape, the food, the beauty juxtaposed with violence and crime. It was all there.

GV: You’re an active blogger. Tell us if new media been a help or a hindrance to your writing – in terms of practice, style, time management, etc.

SM: The blogging was (and is) a fabulous experience on many levels. I purposely positioned my blog as a garden blog because I wanted to test the waters in a safe environment. Remember this was before the days of Facebook and I was aware I was creating a brand but it was all so new. One of the most useful lessons that I learned was that you have to give something to your reader. For the reader to come back, you have to find a way to come at material in a fresh way. I used the blog to test the waters in many ways. Looking back now (this was in 2006) I’m amazed at how open I was on the blog, so much more innocent that I am online today.

I was picked up as a Google Blogger of Note and after that the blog became much more popular. It was, in effect, an online journal. This often forced me to stop and pay attention to what was going on in the natural world. I became a much better gardener after I began blogging simply because I paid attention as I knew I’d have to write about it afterwards. I also stopped being so ‘precious’ about my work. I did not tie myself in knots over every sentence or agonize about whether people thought it was ‘good’ and the work loosened up significantly. I think that is one of the most important aspects of blogging, once you get your legs and you realize it is fun; your voice begins to emerge.

But most importantly, I was fascinated by the posts people responded to with the most emotion. Remember I was blogging about ‘neutral’ topics. Food, gardens, animals, landscape but soon larger concepts, such as the idea of identity being contained within the land itself, topography and our response to it, nostalgia in local cuisine; these were the things I started to see. I also saw that too much text exhausts people. Less is always
more!

I got magazine work that came from people being able to go on the blog and get a sense of what I was doing. I still blog. I’m part of a group called ‘The Bloggers’ Table’ and we meet around once a month to visit a restaurant and blog about it.

Pomegranate fruit; Millar's blog, "My Chutney Garden", deals with food, gardening and landscapes.

Pomegranate fruit; Millar's blog, “My Chutney Garden”, deals with food, gardening and landscapes.

GV: Has new media and the Internet been helpful in terms of sharing and marketing your work and connecting with other Caribbean writers?

SM: I really try not to market my work online because it is a fine line. You know the saying – self-praise is no praise. But saying that, the community is great, once anyone wins a prize or has something published, it’s more than likely that someone will post it to a Facebook wall or tweet it out. If I have a colleague or friend or just another Caribbean writer who has achieved a milestone, I’ll do my best to create an online buzz. It’s been an organic form of marketing that is internally driven, in that, there’s no marketing committee or publicist out there in the wider Caribbean driving this – this is coming out of sheer good will. That bodes well for the future of Caribbean literature, I think.

It’s been exciting to become part of the online Caribbean literary community. I can’t think of another time when this could have been possible. When physical distance separates, conversations become difficult. Now with Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Flickr (and the list goes on!), real friendships can be maintained and critical conversations allowed to unfold. One comment about us online avatars (because realistically everyone is
functioning in a form of avatar state when they communicate online), with the lack of face-to-face social cues, emotionally weighted conversations can be polarizing. But largely, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.

GV: What’s the unique perspective you bring to Caribbean writing?

SM: I ask myself the same thing all the time. It has been difficult writing as a white, middle class woman. What do I have to say? The canon has, by the nature of the region’s historical atrocities, been characterized by a sense of revolution, a sense of using the pen to address social inequities and this is as it should be. That’s where the African literature has helped. It’s showed me how to enter certain areas. It has showed me that a canon can release some of its hegemony without compromise.

I try to write in the face of stereotype, I make an effort to bring the story home by being
very specific. I’ve found universality lies in specificity. The more specific my details, the more universal the story becomes. It’s an odd irony. But if the characters or the situations resonate on a global level, the writing can only work to dispel the stereotype that there is a certain kind of ‘Caribbean’ person. We can talk all we want about being multi-ethnic, diverse, multi-cultural, and all the other buzz words, but until the world
puts a human face on us, as a people we remain a regional stereotype.

GV: Where do you see the future of Caribbean writing going and how do you fit into it?

SM: The current state of Caribbean writing seems positive. A few years ago, there was concern about the scarcity of new writing coming out of the region. But attention from organizations such as The Commonwealth Writers and The British Council and publishers such as Akashic and Peepal Tree (who are currently soliciting names for their new joint Caribbean imprint) has helped. Perhaps the most arresting development on the writing landscape has been the debut of Bocas, the festival of words that has branded Port of Spain as the literary capital of the Caribbean.

This happy combination has worked to remedy the dearth of words and there is a currently new batch of young writers, both poets and prose-writers, who are churning out work in way that is heartening. Interestingly there is an emerging dynamic of cross-talk between writer and visual artist which is a promising sign.

GV: Any advice for aspiring regional writers?

SM: Don’t talk about writing. Write. Write what you know. And then write more.

All photos used in this post were provided by Sharon Millar, used with her permission.

She is the winner of the Small Axe 2012 short fiction competition and the Prior to this, her work has appeared on several shortlists. Her fiction is strongly rooted in landscape and she draws her stories from both place and history.

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