Author inspired by her strong ties strong ties to Bermuda
Bermuda is at the heart of an American writer’s new book.
Toni Ann Johnson’s strong ties to the Island served as her inspiration for Remedy for a Broken Angel.
The author is related to the Darrell family whose ancestors include James (Jemmy) Darrell, a slave who won his freedom due to his ship piloting prowess and went on to fight for better rights for blacks.
According to Ms Johnson, Bermuda has always felt like home — her mother was adopted and her paternal grandmother, Bermudian Artimeza Ward, is the only biological grandparent she has.
“We have a lot of family here and my grandmother’s nieces are here, so I visited a lot of family growing up,” she said. “In fact I still visit a lot of family and am staying with family now while I’m in Bermuda.”
Her grandmother wasn’t much of a cook, so she relied on other family members to introduce her to cultural staples like fish chowder and cassava pie — some of which got a brief mention in her book.
The novel tells the fictional tale of a mother and daughter who are trying to learn to forgive themselves and each other.
Loosely based on her own relationship with her parents, Ms Johnson said writing was a therapeutic process for her.
She first started seriously composing the book in 2003.
The first draft took three years to complete — but didn’t sell. Then she went off to graduate school to get an MFA in creative writing and started a new draft in her spare time.
“There were multiple drafts after that, so seriously it has taken me from 2003 until 2013, which is when I got my book deal.
“I hope the next one doesn’t take that long,” she said with a laugh.
Ms Johnson is primarily known for her work writing television screenplays. She won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award in 1998 for Ruby Bridges. The ABC movie was based on the true story of a young girl who integrated the New Orleans public school system.
She won a second Humanitas Prize in 2004 for her Showtime teleplay Crown Heights about the 1991 Crown Heights Riots in Brooklyn, New York.
As a screenwriter she said her job was to write about what other people told her to, so this book gave her the opportunity to share what she really wanted to say.
“I think to some degree you can do that in film, but it’s different in a book where you are writing as if you were opening someone’s journal and writing what’s in their minds,” she said.
The book, released last month by Nortia Press, has so far been given stellar reviews by readers on Amazon.com.
The positive feedback has helped her to feel “a little bit more relaxed” following the nerve-racking experience of putting out a first book.
She said: “Before anyone responded to it I was very nervous.
“It’s a little bit different from a movie because I’m the author. When you do a movie, the director and producers can take some of the blame if something goes wrong, but with a book it’s pretty much just me, and somewhat my editor. So if they don’t like it, it falls on my shoulders.”
Ms Johnson first started out in the entertainment business as an actress and later started writing plays.
But she has been interested in writing ever since she was a little girl.
“I wanted to write a novel from the time I was like ten years old, but I didn’t have much to say,” she explained. “So I would sit down to write and nothing would come out.
“I didn’t have a story or know what I was doing. I had to live for a while to have some stories to tell.”
More than anything else, she hopes the novel will teach people a lesson about the power of forgiveness.
Even if something unforgivable has been done to you, it’s healthier for yourself if you can let those resentments go and find healing, Ms Johnson said.
“This book has taught me that,” she told The Royal Gazette. “I had a lot of anger towards my own parents and wanted to understand the choices they made from their point of view, so I looked at my mother’s life and loosely based part of the book on that.”
The story follows Serena, a biracial child whose Bermuda family abandons her to her coloured aunt because she can’t pass for white.
“My mother is not [the main character] Serena, she didn’t abandon me,” Ms Johnson said.
“But I looked at things from my own family’s life and tried to understand what could have made my mother treat me in a way that seemed she didn’t love me. I examined what didn’t happen to her or what did happen to her as a child. I tried to understand that.
“Through writing the book I can say that if something happens to you then you don’t develop the tools to be able to love. It taught me how to forgive her.”
She said sometimes when people are younger they don’t see their parents as “fully realised human beings”, they expect their parents to be perfect.
But as an adult she has come to a better understanding of the humanity of people — that life is hard and hurts and it’s from that hurt you might hurt someone else.
Ms Johnson will be available to sign copies of Remedy for a Broken Angel and answer questions at Brown and Co on Reid Street, Hamilton, on Saturday from 1pm until 3pm.