An Interview With Dominican Author, Celia Sorhaindo
Celia A Sorhaindo was born in Dominica. She left when she was eight, lived for many years in the UK and returned home in 2005. Her poems have been published in Caribbean journals and in the anthology, New Daughters of Africa. She is a fellow of the Cropper Foundation Creative Writers Workshop and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She has been long-listed for the UK National Poetry competition. Celia was co-compiler of Home Again – Stories of Migration & Return, published by Papillote Press. Her hurricane themed poetry collection Guabancex, was published by Papillote Press in February 2020.
Tell us something about yourself and your background.
I was born in Dominica, went to Convent Prep. I migrated with my family to England in 1976. I went to school there and after A-levels, worked as a Computer Programmer for many years. I always wanted to come back home and finally was able to return in 2005, with my husband.
Since living here, I’ve done lots of different freelance/self-employed work. I have worked as a photographer and an artisan. I was project and content manager for an annual Dominica Food & Drink Guide magazine as well as the Dominica section of the Caribbean Homes and Lifestyle magazine. I was the Dominica literacy link for an American NGO for 3 years, helping to establish, stock and maintain school libraries and encourage a love of reading in children. I have also been involved in a few local NGOs ; Dominica Arts and Crafts Association and the Nature Island Literary Festival.
Most recently I have been focused on writing poetry and I am also a keen hiker and a passionate reader.
What sparked your initial interest in poetry and when did you begin writing?
At school I enjoyed both English and Maths, so perhaps my interest started there. But I think my first influence and inspiration came from seeing my twin sister Imani perform her poetry in England, and reading her conscious, passionate and moving poetry; she really showed me the power of words. Living here too, I have enjoyed learning about our rich Dominican and Caribbean literary heritage, extensively reading local and regional writers, attending various poetry events and being involved in the annual literary festival. Prior to a few years ago, I did not consider writing or performing myself. I was extremely busy and did not have a lot of extra time or headspace. It was during the period of building our home, when I was doing a lot of the mundane decorating that I suddenly had all this time for my mind to just wander; it was then that words started forming in my head and I started writing poems. So maybe around 6 or 7 years ago now.
How does your Dominican heritage influence your writing?
Being born here, and spending the first 8 years of my life here, is the bedrock of my being, my grounding, my foundation, so yes, that influences who I am and therefore my writing. But I think everything influences my writing; all I have experienced personally, all I take in through my senses, what I read, what I hear, what I observe, what I feel, my character, the people I interact with, the environment, even perhaps whatever I may have inherited from my ancestors, and of course what I imagine too. Although my writing is not autobiographical, it draws extensively from my life and is an integral part of it. My Dominican heritage, my African heritage, and all the other mixes that go into making me who I am, including my connection to the physical island itself, definitely influence my work. I left Dominica when I was young, so even though I feel very much Dominican, I recognize I did not grow up immersed in the culture, I did not have all the day to day cultural interactions that Dominicans who have lived here all of their life have had. There are certain cultural nuances, cultural reference points that are missing for me and these spaces can never be filled; I can’t go back in time to fill them, like learning patois from a young age for instance. So although my work covers life here, traditional Dominican cultural heritage and ‘nation language’ are not some of the most dominant themes in my work.
Can you say something about the different ways you chose to present your poems in the collection Guabancex? What was your intention?
Firstly, Guabancex did not start out with me saying I was going to write a collection of poems about hurricane Maria. One of the things I have discovered about writing poetry is that, for me, it can be a very cathartic and therapeutic exercise. It helps me work through various thoughts and feelings, question and interrogate, helps me consider things from different points of view.
I had so many complicated feelings and emotions during and after Maria, that when we had got through the survival stages and there had been enough emotional distance, the words and themes for each poem just started coming at different times, out of a need I guess to try and make some sense of that mental and physical chaos and trauma. As more poems kept coming, I began to think that maybe one day I would write towards a full manuscript of Maria themed work.
I attended two writing residencies and had ramped up my reading of poetry. I was learning as much as possible myself about the craft. So, with each poem after the initial inspiration of words, I would experiment with the craft skills that I was learning. I am a very visual person, so not only does the poem have to read and sound a certain way, it has to look a certain way too, for what I’m trying to convey to the reader or for what I feel looks right. The line breaks, punctuation, capitalization, stanza breaks, line spacing, spaces between words, indentation, how the poem looks on the page, is normally all intentionally crafted to add to the meaning or tension in the poem. Sometimes the intention is mine and sometimes the intention comes from the poem itself. It guides me how it wants to look. So, for instance for Myrmecology I wanted the lines to be in strict rigid 8 line indented stanza formation, like the orderly regimen of ants; and for Invoked I wanted to try and convey some of that ferocious hurricane chaos, peaking to a loud shouting crescendo and then dying down. I also wanted the collection itself to be a testimony and reflection that something beautiful can be created out of a devastating hurricane.
I have to thank the publisher, Polly Patullo and her designer Andy Dark too, for doing such a great job in how the book looked.
The poems of Guabancex record a traumatic experience in the life of Dominicans. However, you show us our humanity by threading through some touching, tender and funny moments, can you highlight some of those for us?
That was an aspect that was really important to me to convey, and one of the difficult things to logically get my head around after Maria. It was not just a period filled with traumatic and horrible things happening all the time. It was a time of immense togetherness, love, support and laughter too. It is part of the paradox of life, that even within horror and devastation, there can be incredible ‘collateral beauty’ in the mix.
I think that is part of our culture too, we can make a joke out of anything, see a light hearted side to things, perhaps that’s part of what makes us resilient. People shared their food with each other, people cleared their roads and villages together, helped each other temporarily repair their houses, offered rooms to those made homeless, went to the river together to wash, things like that.
My mum lost most of her roof and many of her possessions were destroyed or damaged, so I went to stay with her and my aunt for a while. We set up a little table in a squashed-up corner of her back porch and sat there to have dinner at the same time every evening with our solar lamps and head lamps. It became our ritual and we called it Maria restaurant. We would chat, mum and aunty would tell me their childhood stories growing up and we would listen to the radio announcements. I used to marvel at the tasty ‘menu’ that was amazingly created with extremely limited rations. And there was the time I rigged up a rainwater collection and filter system using a barrel, some guttering and a pair of Mum’s old tights. Those are some of my special and fun memories.
What are the main aspects of your life that influence and inform your writing?
I believe I covered a lot of that in the question about my Dominican heritage. I think my writing starts as a process of close attention, questioning, curiosity, investigation, interrogation and introspection; an attempt at finding my true and authentic voice; an attempt at understanding myself better and aspects of life and the world or whatever subject I am drawn to; something I can only attempt to articulate through poetry. I find it an incredibly sacred and spiritual literary form, which tries to get at fundamental and universal truths through a particular individual lens. But I also try to have a lot of fun with it. Although I regard it as ‘serious work’, I also regard it as joyful, playful work. I also want to stress though, that my writing is not intended to be read as autobiographical or a factual account of ‘my life’. I use ‘I’ a lot for my speakers but it is not always a factual ‘me’; each poem is a crafted entity drawing on all sorts of ingredients from all manner of sources, some of them imagined.
Who are some of your favourite poets? Which have been most influential in your development?
I have come to poetry late, so this is all relatively new to me and I have a lot of catching up to do and quite a backlog of books to read. I am still very much in the process of feeling my way around at the moment and still exploring which poets’ work resonates with me more than others and also different poems connect at different times, depending on what’s happening in my inner and outer world. I am just enjoying soaking in as diverse a range of poetry as possible, and I try to immerse myself daily in a wide variety of poetry from Facebook feeds such as: The Poetry magazine, The Slowdown and Frontier Poetry as well as various journals I subscribe to. In addition to my sister, all the writers I saw and met during the events and literary festivals here, both local and from overseas, were all my early inspirations.
I don’t have a ‘most influential poets’ list yet; as I say, this is all still relatively new for me and to be honest, every poem I read, leaves some kind of mark on me and something to take away, learn and develop from. I feel I am being molded by the whole literary tradition stretching way way back. I think writers absorb and build from the accumulation of everything that has already been laid down and then add their little bit of individual flavour and ingredients to the mix. When a poem really connects or resonates, I usually search out the poet’s collections and add them to my really long ‘to buy later’ list. I also look at who published the work and I’m finding Copper Canyon press poets come up time and time again; I especially also enjoy diving into the work of our Caribbean poets and read work online in Moko magazine, BIM, PREE, Small Axe and our own local poets, both spoken word and published, who I enjoy reading and listening to.
Do you have a writing or community group that you share and discuss your work with?
I don’t currently have a fixed, regular writing group that I share and discuss my work with but one of the better outcomes of COVID-19, has been the proliferation of online literary events and workshops, so I have been enjoying being part of these virtual literary communities. Poetry Foundation has been conducting their poetry writing workshops online, and I am trying to participate in as many as possible; it is an amazing opportunity, especially for house bound writers, financially challenged writers and writers from remote countries like Dominica without access to writing workshops. In these sessions we don’t discuss our own work but we discuss poems related to the particular workshop theme. I have been enjoying and learning a lot. I have also recently participated in online open mics, poetry readings and online literary festivals, so I see myself as part of a vibrant and fluid ‘virtual’ writing community.
I think writing communities and groups are important for any writer, and I don’t think any writer gets by solely on their own steam; there are usually people either visible or behind the scenes, supporting and encouraging in tangible and intangible ways, and I know I am personally grateful for all the help, encouragement, support and inspiration I’ve received from writers and others both inside and outside the writing community.
Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced as a writer.
The biggest hurdle is my own mind and its constant questioning and doubting about what I am doing. The chatter of, you need to ‘earn a living’, you need to get a ‘proper job’, your work will never be ‘good’ enough, you’re too old, you should have started years ago, look at all these amazing words already out there, why should you want to add yours, the world is so messed up what can writing poetry hope to achieve, is this action enough…. Time and headspace is also a big factor. Much of the writing process for me is not actually writing, it’s a ton of reading, researching, craft developing, thinking, processing, experimenting, and I often feel so guilty that it looks, from the outside, like I’m not ‘doing’ anything. I am working, and working hard at what I do, most of it is intense but invisible, and the unpaid aspect means it’s not going to be sustainable for long.
Being, seriously committed and focused on becoming a good writer over the last few years, has also meant other areas in my life are receiving less attention. I have had to give less time to other commitments and responsibilities,
In the Caribbean distribution of hard copy published work is also a problem with limited outlets and limited population.
I use ‘I’ for the speaker in a lot of my writing, and although of course I draw a lot from personal experience and real events, none of my work is intended to be read as autobiography. I am finding, from some of the feedback received, that people are interpreting my ‘characters’ as me, my family or someone they know and that assumption that it is all ‘real’, that visibility and vulnerability, is a challenge. It also makes me aware that what I am doing may have unintentional consequences on people around me and may negatively affect others I care about.
I am also having a deep think about certain labels at the moment, like ‘writer’, and what is even actually meant or assumed when that word is used. As soon as I give myself a label, or someone gives me the label of ‘poet’ or ‘writer’, there is an expectation of what that means, how I should be and act, what I should be doing as a ‘writer’, and I’m not sure which of these assumed boxes, if any, I want to be put in right now. Also the expectations on constant self-promotion, publicity, visibility. Finally, there is something fundamentally sacred about poetry for me, I want my words to go out into the world and be of service to others if possible, but this having to constantly think about ‘monetizing’, ‘capitalizing on’, ‘earning a living’ from this work, often feels uncomfortable and incompatible and it’s challenging to balance all these internal conflicts.
What are you working on right now?
That concept of ‘what are you working on’ is interesting and the implication that you must constantly be seen to be ‘working on’ something. Like I say ‘poeting’ is not something separate to living and ‘being’, as far as I’m concerned. So right now, I’m focused on ‘working on’ the practice of ‘poeting’ as a daily ritual, which means for me; paying attention, reading, thinking, reflecting, listening, observing, writing, meditating, healing, exercising, following where my curiosity leads, doing a lot of internal reflection on ‘self’, trying to form better, more caring, empathetic and authentic connections with all aspects of myself and with others, with nature.
I still have a pre Guabancex manuscript that I have been working on for several years and I am establishing a practice of writing new poems regularly, I used to mainly just write when I felt inspired. I am also trying to get into a regular habit of sending more poems out to various journals.
What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
I am also an ‘aspiring poet’, but I’m not exactly sure if I know fully yet, what an ‘aspiring poet’ is assumed to be aspiring to, or what exactly my aspirations as a poet are. That ‘aspire’ goal, might not look the same for every poet. Being a poet or a writer, means different things to different people and people have different reasons for wanting to claim/be given, the label of poet/writer. At the most fundamental level, I think, there is no such thing as an emerging or aspiring writer/poet. You are a writer if you write and you are a poet if you write what you regard as poetry, end of story, no-one else even has to see the writing or validate it.
The advice I give myself and would give to other writers, is to first think about what those terms mean for you and what your aspirations are; and believe in yourself, trust your instincts, go wherever you are led with courage, focus and conviction; there is not one route to anything, no wrong or right path. I would also say, you are unique, you have something only you can bring to your writing and offer to readers, tap into your internal power, your personal experiences, thoughts and feelings, see what resonates with you, what are your interests, what are your obsessions, your passions and let these be your guides as well as external resources. Some of my learning has actually been unlearning some of what I was taught about poetry, what poetry was and what it looked and sounded like. Being taught, and having your poetry judged, through a colonial lens, I personally feel has been extremely detrimental to many Caribbean writers, or being told this is ‘good’ poetry and this is not good. To me all creations are valid, have their audience, and are not right or wrong, and creatives need a lot more encouragement and support to find their own way to their authentic voice and art.
As well as reading a wide variety of poetry, I read and listen to other writers talk about their experiences; some of the highs and lows, some of the challenges they’ve encountered with workshops, getting published and being published. This can give insights into what to expect but also helps me to organize my own thoughts. Articulating myself clearly to others, especially verbally, is something I am having to learn, as it is something writers are expected to do, and expected to be good at. Finally, dedicate as much time as you can to learning the craft and use what you’ve learnt to practice writing in your own unique way, developing your unique voice and style, but take time away from it too, just to enjoy and live life. And most importantly, have FUN. There is likely to be lots of rejection along the way, you will feel like giving up, so try and make the act of writing as joyful an experience for you as you possibly can.
Guabancex by Celia A Sorhaindo
On 18th September a category 5 hurricane, Maria, ravaged the island of Dominica. In this anthology named after the ancient female deity of the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean, who controls nature and the ferocious storms of the region, Celia A Sorhaindo explores the ordeal, the memories and emotions of living through Maria as well as
‘… the happenings after we
woke from her wake, were whole other all mighty storms to be living’
Sorhaindo’s poems capture the essence of confusion, devastation and loss brought by the hurricane. Images drawn are sharp and tight with emotion encapsulating the experiences of many through intimate description.
Reading ‘In the Air’, we are with the speaker’s grandmother as
‘She stared from room to room
swaying like a punched drunk spirit
mouth and eyes wide black holes of disbelief’
She communicates with punishing immediacy the ‘dank despair’, the ‘crazed lines for food’ and asks poignantly
‘Who could explain anything then?
understand or explain anything now’
The poet documents the bewilderment and the struggles of day to day living that followed Maria in Thank You. In this poem we live again the exhausting numbness and the absurdity of chaos which became normal in the lives of so many Dominicans.
‘ We do not see the sky, the windows are gone, standing
in water we look down …
Our faces dead, drained, we hardly remember our names
but trust us – we feel still – thankful’
These poems speak of the displacement of people, the dispersal of possessions, the mayhem of living.
‘ …. I can’t work out
exactly what month, day, hour my life so frantically inhabits’
Hurricane PraXis (Xorcising Maria Xperience ) is a powerful litany of experience cataloguing the trauma and the contradictions of survival in belief and faith
‘ we thank god constantly for sparing our lives we stop believing in god
we ask god why we ask ourselves why
we stop asking questions’
As in the final stage of grief there is the acceptance of loss and the speaker confronts the new reality
‘ we may never stop grieving we will never stop caring
we may never be the same we may never see things the same way’
Ultimately the poem outlines a path towards healing
‘I have started seeing
differently seeing what I still have faith in
I have started doin
what I be-live’
Guabancex is a poetic rendition documenting an important chapter in the history of the island of Dominica. It is a testament to survival.
Kathy MacLean 20/02/2020
Guabancex by Celia A Sorhaindo is a poetry pamphlet published by Papillote Press and is available from various booksellers at £6.50
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