Novel written through eyes of Bermudian girl
Like anything, writing fiction has its challenges.
One of them, according to Liz Jones, is finding a way “into the minds of characters who are not you”.
It’s what she did with A Dark Iris.
The novel was a finalist in Code Burt Award, a Caribbean competition for young adult literature; Mrs Jones thinks it’s evidence that she managed to write authentically.
“The judges don’t know the race of the authors,” the 68-year-old said. “All they know is the country they are from.
“If you say that you can’t write about someone who is not of the same race as you, that is the most appalling kind of censorship. Maybe people will be angry that I’ve written this book.
“I have to take that anger on board and judge it for what it is. If I have written a bad book, then I should be blamed. What I don’t like are books that are written about countries where the writer hasn’t spent much time.”
In A Dark Iris, 12-year-old Rebekah Eve is able to time travel through the art she creates. After a meeting with Sally Bassett, an 18th-century slave burnt at the stake for attempting to poison her owner, she gains a better understanding of the social pressures in her own time, 1973.
“In 1970s Bermuda, slavery wasn’t something people talked about,” said Mrs Jones, who knew nothing about the island’s history, culture or racial tensions when she arrived in 1973 to marry her husband Michael.
“If pressed, white Bermudians would admit there had been slavery, but they’d insist it was benevolent. There certainly wasn’t a statue of Sally Bassett on the Cabinet House office grounds back then.”
On March 10, seven weeks after her wedding, news broke of assassinations at Government House.
“I was shocked that Governor Richard Sharples had been shot, but really shocked that aide-de-camp Hugh Sayers had also been killed,” she said.
“He was a good friend of my husband Mike, and they’d been at school together. That really hit home on a personal level.”
When she started teaching at the Berkeley Institute that September, nobody talked about the assassinations, but staff gently educated her on some of the uglier realities of Bermuda life.
“At 23, I was very young and inexperienced,” she said. “The staff and students at Berkeley were so kind to me. I was shocked to learn Bermuda had ended the property vote so recently because it had ended in Britain so long before. I had no idea segregation was so recent in Bermuda’s history. I thought Bermuda was British and would have the same history.
“I was extremely shocked when Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn were hanged for the assassinations in 1977 — there was no capital punishment in England at that time.”
As a teacher at Berkeley and at the Bermuda College, and while writing for publications such as The Bermudian, she learnt about local history and culture by reading, researching and talking extensively with Bermudians.
Today, she feels the island is her home.
“I was just 23 when I left England,” she said.
“Going back to visit, I don’t really feel that I fit in there, and they don’t think I’m one of them either. Of course, when you leave a country and move to another, there is always something of the observer about you.”
Over the years she tried to write from the point of view of a white expatriate, but didn’t like it.
“It felt like I was writing about an enclave, not about Bermuda,” she said.
So, when she set out to pen A Dark Iris, she created a black Bermudian preteen.
The book was one of three finalists chosen from 37 entries in the Code Burt Award. Imam Baksh of Guyana was ultimately named the competition winner, at Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, on April 25.
Mrs Jones was presented with CAD$2,000 ($1,556) and a plaque. Her novel will be published in the coming months. “This is just so wonderful,” she said. “I’ve wanted to publish a novel since I was seven years old.”
She grew up in Breamoe, a tiny village in Hampshire, where she was a voracious reader and loved Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.
“Maybe it’s genetic,” she said. “Both my parents loved to write.
“I dreamt for years of visiting Switzerland. When I grew up I did. I hope that Rebekah becomes Bermuda’s Heidi. She has a deep love for her country.”
She started writing A Dark Iris several years ago. Feedback from a Community & Cultural Affairs workshop with Trinidadian writer Lynn Joseph in 2011 helped her to feel more confident. She is extremely grateful to Bermuda’s folklife officer Kim Dismont Robinson for organising it and similar workshops.
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