Finding My Cause Through A Love of Reading and Passion for Writing

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

My first time attending the Cushion Club, I sat with one girl reading a favourite book from my childhood. I could have gone on for hours. When I joined the Club, a reading club for children in Antigua and Barbuda, it had already been in existence for a few years and moved location a couple of times. Around that same time, I was gearing up to launch my own community writing project – the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

I became involved in two literary arts activities roughly around the same time but it was not by design. With the Cushion Club, I was looking for something to get involved with outside of work. Wadadli Pen was more purposeful.

I was in Canada, a newly published author (The Boy from Willow Bend), at a 2003 literary luncheon where a Caribbean writer spoke of the lack of nurseries for writers in the region. I reflected on my own writing sprouting from hard-packed soil, undernourished and launched the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda.

The Cushion Club and Wadadli Pen are different projects that have intersected a few times over the years – like when I held my first Wadadli Pen workshops at the Cushion Club meeting place or when we did a joint summer read challenge.

Cushion Club: Standing Proud at the Book of the Year Presentation

Cushion Club sponsors a gift of books every year of the Wadadli Pen Challenge (Wadadli Pen’s main project, writing and sometimes art competition for youths in Antigua and Barbuda). I may not be an active reader with the Cushion Club anymore but I still handle communication and PR, as I do for Wadadli Pen, of which I am also co-founder and coordinator.

Cushion Club continues to meet on Saturday mornings. It is about 20 years old now. With the use of a revolving door of volunteers, it creates a fun and educational reading space for children. The Club also extends its mission beyond its immediate community, for instance attending spelling bees, going on field trips including joint sessions with other children’s clubs, and, for several years, sponsoring a humanities prize to encourage achievement in arts and social science subjects among sixth graders at a selected primary school. The Club is less a club and more of a space to which children of all ages and reading levels can come. We’ve seen them grow – one, now a university graduate has become a Club leader. That girl I read with my first week as a volunteer is now a teacher.

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Continuity is what drives Wadadli Pen as well. It has, on one level, the mission of nurturing in a continuous way the next generation of writers from Antigua and Barbuda. But youth development is a parallel goal. “Excited, elated and ecstatic are just a few of the words that could explain how he felt, by being able to share his story and be rewarded for his effort,” one mother wrote after her son won the Junior Challenge. Winning writers’ names are emblazoned on to the Alstyne Allen Memorial plaque (named for one of its early volunteers, now deceased). This plaque is sponsored by and hangs in the Best of Books bookstore. Wadadli Pen through its various patrons – solicited fresh each year – incentivizes creative activity among young people and encourages schools and, one year, even teacher-writers to participate.

“Wadadli pen opened the door to my creativity, it inspired me to let go of my fears and speak out, and most of all it helped me to channel all the energy I had by simply putting pen to paper giving something a narrative shape and in so doing I began to believe in the shape of my life again, in beginnings, and middles, and endings,” one past teen finalist, now a young woman, has written.

And so, Wadadli Pen continues to become more than I imagined it could be. From the Challenge and workshops to showcases of literary arts (including dramatized readings and radio distribution for the broadcast of winning pieces, publication on local and regional platforms); our internship programme which began in 2017 with a past Wadadli Pen finalist who is now a university student; and a book of the year initiative through which we were able to promote local publications and, thanks to our patrons, give close to $1,000 in books to a local school of the winning author’s choice. We are working towards firming up our foundation so that we can build.

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The largest Wadadli Pen project outside of the challenge is wadadlipen.wordpress.com – a literary hub and resource. “The sheer volume of information here is highly useful and the effort is commendable,” wrote one international blogger.

Joanne C. Hillhouse

Joanne C. Hillhouse has published six books of fiction (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). Her creative writing has most recently been published in global anthology New Daughters of Africa. Her writing has appeared in Essence, Huffington Post, Caribbean Beat, Writers’ Digest, etc. She has edited books, magazines, web content, and more, and has written for a wide variety of projects in the Caribbean and beyond. She freelances from Antigua and Barbuda as writer, editor, writing coach, and writing and communication course and workshop facilitator. jhohadli.wordpress.com

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