Trish Cooke in Conversation
Trish Cooke, a much loved children’s author, actor and scriptwriter, was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, to Dominican parents and grew up learning about “back home” and hearing her mother speak Creole.
Her first and best-known book So Much! won the prestigious Smarties Book Prize in 1994 and is still in print. More recently, she wrote Look Back!, a children’s picture book set in Dominica, and Tales from the Caribbean.
For many years Trish was scriptwriter and presenter on the BBC children’s programme Playdays. Other TV included writing for Eastenders and Doctors. In the theatre, her pantomime Cinderella, performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East received an Oliver Award nomination. Her latest theatre work, Left Hangin’ (2015), was performed at the Bush Theatre in London 2015.
On family visits to Dominica, Trish has read her books to children at Roseau Library and participated in the Nature Island Literary Festival.
Here we present an interview with Trish and images of some of her books.
‘Seeing your heritage reflected in the books you read adds to your self worth…’
An interview with Trish Cooke by Kathy MacLean
How connected did you feel to Dominica when you were growing up in Bradford?
I felt very connected to Dominica growing up in Bradford. Although I was born in Bradford, my parents and 5 of my siblings were born in Dominica. My family is big (I have 6 sisters and 3 brothers). My mum was born in LaRoche in Delice and my dad was born in Wesley. Mum spoke mostly in French Creole so I grew up knowing the Patwa. I think knowing the language makes me feel even more connected. Dominica is part of who I am. Mum and Dad and my siblings spoke about their lives ‘back home’ all the time so Dominica was always present in my life. There is also a strong Dominican community in Bradford and a Dominica Association where Dominicans go so I knew a lot of Bradford Dominicans growing up. For such a small island, I can truly say I have always been surrounded by Dominicans.
Where do you get your ideas?
A lot of my ideas for my children’s books come from everyday life. Although I have written books with fantasy characters in them too - like ‘Mr Pam Pam and the Hullabazoo’ and ‘Mrs Molly’s Shopping Trolley’. Mr Pam Pam started off with real life and then my imagination took over. My first book ‘Mammy Sugar Falling Down’ was inspired by my siblings who travelled to England from Dominica as children. Funnily enough it was one of my English born siblings that used the phrase, ‘Mammy, sugar falling down’ when she saw snow falling from the sky and likened it to sugar but in my book it is Dominican born Elizabeth that says it when she sees snow for the first time.
Many of my picture books were written when my eldest son was born. He was a great inspiration. When he was little, I was fascinated with how he saw the world and that informed and drove my picture book writing. It was like looking at everything through the eyes of a child again.
My ideas for my script writing are also usually triggered off by everyday life and things that matter to me. People watching is something I have always done. I am always observing and listening, so if I am writing a book or a script, I end up using real life as a starting point to create my characters. If I am writing something before it has been commissioned it is usually because I have a strong opinion about something that has happened to me or happening around me. Even when I am writing a pantomime I draw on real life to motivate me. (You wouldn’t think so by the time I have finished the script but rooting the stories in truth helps me a lot). The truth gives me a reason to write it. Where it goes from there is something else.
How has your Dominican heritage influenced your writing?
My Dominican heritage has influenced my writing in a big way. My first visit to Dominica was in 1983. I went with my dad who hadn’t been back to Dominica since he had left 30 years before. I was totally inspired as soon as I landed. I had imagined the place based on what I had heard from my parents and siblings but they hadn’t told me about the sounds of the crickets, the birds, the brightness, the colourful flowers, the scents, the taste of the food, the heat that would hit me coming out of the aeroplane. My senses were immediately awakened. It was so different to what I had known in Bradford!
I felt very Dominican but in Dominica people were referring to me as ‘English’ and it threw me because in England I certainly was not being acknowledged as such. I wrote lots of poetry and short stories when I was in Dominica because I was so overwhelmed and it made me question who I was and where I actually came from. I am not the same now as I was then. I know who I am now. Being a Dominican woman from Yorkshire has of course influenced everything I write.
What is your writing process like?
I don’t have a particular formula as such so I think my writing process is dependent on what it is I am writing and for who and when. Sometimes I have an idea or a gut feeling about something that I have a strong opinion about and then I have to work out what it is I really want to say about the subject. For instance with my play ‘Running Dream’. (This was a play that was performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1993). I had been wrestling with the theme of children travelling from the Caribbean in the late 50s early 60s, after listening to family and friends that had made the journey. I had been dreaming about my grandmother Lagwa (my mum’s mum) a lot. I never met any of my grandparents and I had always felt a bit jealous when my older siblings spoke about their relationship with Lagwa. They told me how she sat in a rocking chair and smoked a pipe and everything I heard about her began to form stories in my head and the beautiful thing about it was, much of what I was creating was coming out of my head in French creole. So, I had to learn how to write the spoken French creole down as it had not been written down much. I loved working on the script and the whole rehearsal process was wonderful. We had the cast learning how to speak creole and we had Dominican musicians too!
Writing is something I cannot help, I HAVE to do it. It can take me a while sometimes to work out what ‘form’ to use to tell the story I have to tell but once that’s done, I’m on my way. The theme of children travelling from the Caribbean to England has been one that I have returned to many times, using different forms. ‘Mammy Sugar Falling Down’ (Century Hutchinson), ‘The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant’ (Franklin Watts) - books; ‘Running Dream’ (Theatre Royal Stratford East) for the stage, ‘Unspoken’ a mini drama series (BBC radio). So I guess my writing process is keep writing on a subject until I have nothing more to say about it! Much of the time, I’m working something out for myself and using different story formats to say it.
Tell us about some of the issues you face as a black writer of multicultural fiction.
When I first started it was difficult to get published. Publishers want to know they are going to make money and many didn’t think that my work would sell. I had lots of rejections but I didn’t give up. It’s still not easy to get work published or produced (but it certainly is easier than it was!!) I am not sure what the problem is, as there is a wide audience out there hungry for work they can relate to. It’s not just in the publishing world this happens but I find it is the same with script writing, particularly for TV.
Over the years I have been on so many TV Writing Initiatives it’s a bit of a joke but when it comes to getting the actual gig, that’s another story. You are allowed to get so far and then no further. My survival tactic in order not to give up or getter bitter about it is basically to move from publishing, to TV to theatre to radio to film. When I move around I am able to take a fresh spin on things and it helps me to get motivated again. I can’t lie it has been tough but I will keep on.
How important is it to read books which reflect one’s own cultural heritage?
It is important to have a wide variety of books to read, including ones that reflect one’s own heritage. I grew up on books that did not reflect my heritage at all and when I got older I began to realise that actually had an effect on me. As a child I could not put a finger on why, at school, I felt I had to listen rather than be heard or why I felt like what the others had to say was more important than what I had to say.
I was very much in the minority and so I always felt like the odd one out if I said something about my home life that did not fit in with the ‘norm’, so I learnt to keep quiet and listen. Had there been more literature about that had someone like me on the pages, maybe I would have felt like my voice was as valid as the next person’s. Seeing your heritage reflected in the books you read adds to your self-worth and so it is especially important in children’s books, in those years when you are questioning who you are and where you come from. How else can you truly learn where you fit in, in the world?
Do you agree with Margaret Busby that the endeavour for BAME representation in publishing is a Sisyphean struggle begun decades ago and still no closer to being won?
I have to keep hoping that we are making progress but if I am honest with myself, I don’t think that much progress has been made. Got to stay positive though and keep fighting the fight!
Several new initiatives have been launched to impact on increasing the representation of BAME authors & publishers. Do you think that they are making a difference?
It’s too early to tell in the publishing world whether these initiatives will make any real difference but on my experience with TV Initiatives, I am not sure. I hope so…
Which of the many books that you have written is your favourite and why?
My favourite book is ‘The Grandad Tree’. When I wrote it my dad had just died and my then four year old son was asking lots of questions about my dad. He didn’t quite understand what was going on. One day I watched him using an ice lolly stick to dig up some earth in the garden. He was burying a dead bee.
I wanted to write a book that celebrated my dad’s life but easy for my son to understand. ‘The Grandad Tree’ compares the life of a man to that of an apple tree and we follow the seasons they both go through. The most amazing thing about that book is the illustrator, Sharon Wilson, had never met my dad or seen photographs of him and yet the illustrations she did looked exactly like him. When I look at that book, I can see Dad staring right back at me.
What advice do you have for would be BAME writers?
Tell your stories! Keep writing. Don’t give up. Share your work (with those you trust) and ask for feedback. Use constructive criticism to improve your craft. Be prepared for lots of rejections. Believe in yourself and improve.
Interview By: Kathy Macklean - DASSSA