It is possibly the best testimony to the value of the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize that one of its past winners is now a member of the organising team. Having aged out of the competition, now that she’s over thirty-five, 2011 overall winner Devra Thomas decided to volunteer — running down donations pledged, collecting prizes, and speaking to school groups on behalf of Wadadli Pen, the creative writing competition started in 2004 by Antiguan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. “I wanted to give back, to encourage young writers, to surround myself with anything concerning writing,” Thomas says. “To have an organisation validate my work in that way — to have Joanne’s support . . .” She doesn’t finish the statement, as if words can’t express the value of what she has gained. “I want to give back in some way.”
The competition — Hillhouse prefers to call it a “challenge” — and its attendant workshops for young people were born of her experience as a writer, but also grew from a specific seed planted by fellow writer Ruel Johnson, a winner of the Guyana Prize. “I was at the Caribbean Canadian Literary Expo in Toronto in 2003,” Hillhouse remembers. “Ruel was the speaker at a luncheon I attended, and he made a point that resonated with me about the lack of nurseries for young writers in the Caribbean. Growing up in Antigua, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I did not know how it was going to happen. I wanted to create something that wasn’t there in my teens . . . I thought in my island I could create something like a nursery, to motivate, to encourage, to showcase young writers, to help them realise and believe in their potential.
“So I came back and I approached another writer friend of mine, and a youth publication, and put a proposal together, and we launched in 2004. We didn’t know what we were getting into. I certainly didn’t realise the amount of work that would be involved,” says Hillhouse with a wry laugh.
The name Wadadli might be familiar, because it’s the Amerindian name for the island of Antigua. There you can find Wadadli beer, Wadadli catamarans, and a Wadadli Music Festival, among others. The writing competition is not related to any of them, and Hillhouse just chose the name because she liked the ring of it. Wadadli Pen is unfunded and autonomous. It might share its name with other things, but the organisation is unique in Antigua, and one of the few in the Caribbean devoted to nurturing writing talent in young people.
“There was nothing like it at the time in Antigua,” Hillhouse says. The long-running annual Independence Literary Arts Competition conducted by the Antigua and Barbuda government operates around a different theme every year. Wadadli Pen is different — it does not force its entrants to adhere to a theme. “You’re not writing to any agenda. You’re writing whatever story you want to write,” Hillhouse says. “We also try to keep it Caribbean. There are stories right in their backyard. They don’t have to look outside, they have to look within.”
Apart from prizes of cash or gift certificates from sponsors, previous winners have got computers, three months’ worth of Internet access, and airline tickets. Although it was started as a “challenge” for writers under eighteen, Wadadli Pen has been expanded to include those up to thirty-five years old. Hillhouse is happy to pit anybody’s writing against the work of her competition’s younger participants, but still awards special prizes for the younger age groups, just to give them encouragement. She says she’s heartened to realise that youngsters often end up on the roll of overall winners too.
Hillhouse is herself an author, with three novels under her belt. Her first, The Boy from Willow Bend, was recently re-issued by Hansib Publishing, and is on the schools’ recommended book list in Antigua and Barbuda. Her most recent, Oh Gad!, was published by Strebor Books, an affiliate of the international house Simon & Schuster that publishes zesty adult fiction. Clearly, her work runs the gamut of literary expression, but that’s what often happens in “a small place,” to name-drop the title of a book by Jamaica Kincaid, the best-known Antiguan writer alive. Hillhouse isn’t oblivious to her value as a role model. Quite apart from giving prizes to writers, she knows that just being a writer herself gives young people something to strive for. She herself began writing in earnest when she was a teenager. “I didn’t know any Antiguan writers at that age. This idea that writers walked among us is something that I didn’t know about. It motivates and encourages us to dream outside the box, I think.”
A freelance writer by profession, Hillhouse found herself biting off more than she could chew when she first began Wadadli Pen, and had to put it on hiatus in 2007. “You have to be tracking down sponsors, going to schools, promoting it, running workshops — it’s very time consuming. It got tiring and I felt burned out, and I said I’d put it on break for a year, trying to figure out how to do it better.” A year became three, but she succeeded in reorganising and getting more support by 2010. Now she looks forward to formalising its structure — Wadadli Pen isn’t yet registered as a not-for-profit and hasn’t got charitable status — and perhaps expanding to other countries in the Caribbean. She’s also thinking of expanding its publication programme.
But that is down the road. Right now, Hillhouse would be happy to get continued support for the prize, and for the Wadadli Pen workshops for schoolchildren.
You can support Wadadli Pen’s programmes for young writers by emailing a financial pledge to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help young people in your own community? Joanne Hillhouse suggests starting a reading club. You can do it on your front porch, and it doesn’t have to cost a cent. Reading stimulates creativity, and is indispensable for budding writers.