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Berkeley Institute honours novelist Florenz

Acclaim: Novelist Florenz Maxwell, centre, with Premier David Burt and his wife at Saturday’s ceremony (Photograph supplied)

One of the island’s most celebrated novelists was honoured for her work at a ceremony at Berkeley Institute on Saturday night.

The school’s Girlcott committee hosted the event in honour of Florenz Maxwell, author of Girlcott.

Ms Maxwell’s novel, published in 2017, centres around the life of Desma Johnson, a young Black girl growing up in segregated Bermuda at the time of the 1959 theatre boycott. The novel has received international acclaim.

Last year, Berkeley’s English department promoted the idea of ‘One Island, One Book’, encouraging the school’s students to read the novel.

Within months, other schools had picked up on the theme, and encouraged their students to read the novel too.

Ingrid Applewhaite, Berkeley’s head of English, said: “Over the years the English department could not help but notice the dwindling numbers of students who were active readers.

“Students did read the set text or whatever reading was assigned but few chose to read a novel for pleasure. We wanted to ignite that passion for reading that most young children possess but they tend to lose as they get older.

“We thought that if the entire student body was reading the same novel in class, that could generate conversations about the novel and trigger the desire to learn more.”

The idea of ‘One School, One Book’ was born. And Girlcott was the obvious choice for a first group-sharing novel.

Ms Applewhaite added: “It was relevant, it was Bermudian, it dealt with a critical moment in our history, and, the author lived among us. It was an added bonus that the author was a Berkeleyite. It was an ideal opportunity to honour Mrs. Maxwell’s contribution to Bermuda and it’s literary landscape.”

Saturday’s award ceremony was attended by the Premier David Burt, and other, dignitaries, including health minister Kim Wilson.

Offering up tributes to the author, Kim Dismont Robinson, the Folklife Officer at the Department of Community Affairs, described Ms Maxwell as “a storyteller of many years, a wise elder, a keeper of the word in the Black Bermudian experience”.

Dr Dismont-Robinson said: “What is a community that doesn’t have stories?

“This is a novel for young people that tells the story of a smart, resilient black girl who, despite the burdens of racism and segregation, remains undamaged and unbroken.”

Dr Dismont-Robinson said the novel represented a significant break in the traditional depiction of young black females as weak victims.

Accepting her award, Ms Maxwell said that, throughout her life, she had always felt her glass was “half empty – until now”.

She said: “When I look around this room, I feel my heart beating, and it’s beating so loud you can probably hear it as well.

“I want to thank all of you for what you have done for me at my age.

“As my friends will tell you, I don’t push, because if you get pushy, you know what happens in Bermuda. So I do not get pushy – I stay very quiet.

“And then I heard the book was really going to be taken out into the community. This shocked me because my best very friends know that my glass is not even half empty – it's empty.

“All through my life I saw the negative side. I tried not to, but every time I picked up my glass, it was empty.

And then, I wrote Girlcott. And I am amazed at the amount of praise and encouragement that I’ve had from so many people – from the very beginning. And I watched this baby grow, and this drop of water fell into my glass. And I couldn’t believe it.

“And then schools began to take on Girlcott. And for three years I was talking to Saltus and then Whitney and other schools, and then before I knew it, people were passing me on the street and were talking about Girlcott.

“And to my amazement, they all enjoyed the book and would talk about it. So many people, so many faces encouraging me. I couldn’t believe it. And then, one island, Bermuda, one book became a part of the community. I didn’t believe it was going to happen but it did – and my glass was filled. This isn’t the Bermuda I knew.”

From the next academic year, the school will offer a prize to the student who shows the most ability in fictional writing. The prize will be named after Ms Maxwell.

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Published May 09, 2022 at 8:02 am (Updated May 09, 2022 at 8:02 am)

Berkeley Institute honours novelist Florenz

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