Spreading the Word

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction | Special Guests

By Julie Murphy

A native of Trinidad, Dr. Brenda Flanagan has a voice that truly reaches around the world. With a remarkable life crammed with experience and wisdom learned through overcoming adversity, Flanagan has generously shared some of her personal inspiration with writing.ie while she visits Ireland to begin a busy program organised by the US Embassy.

Growing up in an impoverished family of fourteen, in a small village on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Flanagan told me how she always remembers a strong desire to experience what the wider world had to offer. She explains how she always wanted to be a writer, and the desire she had to write stories for others to read meant that publication was always her goal. However, as with every successful writer, the path to publication is not always as simple as the aspiration. Leaving school at the age of fourteen to help support her family may have put an end to many people’s dreams,  but Flanagan is a survivor who has never stopped striving for her goals.Determined and talented, at the tender age of ten,she already begun to introduce her dreams to reality. Her writing career began with poetry and by 13 she was singing calypso. Following her departure from school she spent a period working in a factory before she found herself in her first real writing position – as trainee reporter for The Nation, the newspaper of the then ruling People’s National Movement.

When Flanagan left her native Trinidad for a life in the USA, life seemed to lead her away from her writing dream as marriage and motherhood became the natural progression, but in 1975 – eight years after she first arrived in the United States – Brenda Flanagan began undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. The university student who had left school at 14 went on to win three major Hopwood Awards for her writing which included short stories, a novel and drama. And that same student has become both a successful author, university lecturer, and a Cultural Ambassador for the United States Department of State. In 2005 she was the first American writer in 25 years to be sent on a cultural mission to Libya and with a voice that truly reaches around the world, she has served as a Cultural Ambassador in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Chad, Panama, India, and the Czech Republic,

With a life and career as varied and fulfilling as Flanagan’s it is difficult to imagine that she has any regrets, and indeed when I asked her this question, she agreed that there are few. Flanagan currently teaches creative writing and Caribbean and African American Literature at Davidson College, North Carolina, and with the benefit of hindsight, she does wish  that she had started her teaching career earlier so that she would now be in a position to retire and focus on her writing. However in defence of this, she explains that the earlier years of her life were not something she had much control over and all she can do now is to “keep hoping the gods will smile on me so that I’ll remain coherent for a few more years to complete all the books I want to write.”

Flanagan is already the author of the prize-winning novel, You Alone are Dancing (University of Michigan Press), a collection of short stories, In Praise of Island Women and Other Crimes (Peepal Tree Press), and Allah in the Islands (Peepal Tree Press), a sequel to You Alone Are Dancing. She is currently working on a book about the year she spent working with the great American singer, Nina Simone, for which she was awarded a North Carolina Council for the Arts grant. Flanagan told me how she loves to write short stories as they take less time, but she does reveal that the story itself usually dictates the form it will take. A certain amount of planning is important according to Flanagan but she doesn’t tend to sketch out the whole plot. For Flanagan character always come before plot and some great advice she offers aspiring writers out there is to listen to your characters. She says

“most of what I write is character-driven and sometimes I may quarrel with them, but for the most part, I trust that they can show me the way to make them come alive on the page.”

Writing and indeed reading are great vessels in which to transport yourself to a different world and Flanagan tells how she absolutely loves Derek Walcott’s epic poem The Schooner Flight. She reveals that “when I feel lonely, when I want to go home mentally, as I often want to do, I read  that poem and it is the language, rhythm, the sea, politics, the whole chaotic vibrant mess that is the Caribbean into which I was born and from which I needed to escape.” Although she felt this need to escape from her island home and to experience the wider world, she also attributes her inspiration to write to the very same society, culture and people that she left.

“I was really inspired to write, not so much by a specific book, but by the interesting people in my village who I thought were just as intriguing as some of the people William Shakespeare had written about.”

Flanagan’s biggest tip to aspiring authors is to:

“believe that you have something to tell the world in a way that has not been done before, then sit down and write that story.”

And her favourite quote emphasises this point: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” – James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues.

Cultural Ambassador, successful author, PHD graduate and inspiration to all – Dr. Brenda Flanagan revealed how bumping into an old boyfriend showed her just how far she had come. This old boyfriend found it difficult to believe her success and in a humble and gracious manner Flanagan explains why. He was upper class: she was poor. She describes how neither he nor his family believed she would amount to much given her family’s poverty but as she says “more fool them.” She happily expresses the pride her own family have in her, but she does admit that one of her sons wants her to write a popular best seller so that they can all travel business class on airplanes. They are all tall people, she explains, and need a little more space than coach usually allows.

Dr. Brenda Flanagan will be in Dublin from May 4th for a packed program which will include workshops, a reading at the Irish Writers Centre and a visit to Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words centre. Check out the writing.ieevents section for full details.


About the author

(c) Julie Murphy for writing.ie

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