Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Conversation with Bish


How do you escape a hungry tiger? Why do ram-goats smell? What happens if you get too greedy? In this collection of ten retold Jamaican stories, Anansi the spider tricks, sings, and dances his way into and out of trouble.

But who is Anansi? It was the Ashanti of West Africa who brought the spider into the Caribbean. He clung tight to the web he wove in the minds of those who had been captured, surviving not only the harrowing passage across the Atlantic Ocean, but hundreds of years of slavery.

As a trickster, Anansi has both good and bad traits, which makes him very human. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. When he wins he dances and sings for joy. When he loses, he shakes it off and keeps on living, a lesson for us all.
Congratulations to Bish on her debut! She kindly agreed to answer questions I had about writing, researching and publishing her delightful book of retold Anansi tales. Take it away Bish.

Thanks for having me, Vijaya. I appreciate the time you’re giving Anansi and me. Now, on to your thought provoking questions!
When did you first conceive of this project and what were the major steps towards publication? It began a long time ago, sometime before Hurricane Marilyn which hit the Virgin Islands in 1995 and ripped the roof off our family home. My sister gave me – for safe keeping – our old volume of Jamaican stories compiled by Martha Warren Beckwith. It seemed rather serendipitous that that particular the book was saved when the storm destroyed most of the others in the house. There must have been a reason I had it. That led to my seriously thinking about reading them and maybe retelling some of them.
Being a process junkie, I’d like to know how you managed to choose the stories. There is such a nice variety, yet, I know it must just be the beginning. Martha Warren Beckwith went to Jamaica in the early 1920s and recorded storytellers telling Anansi stories. When she returned to the states she faithfully transcribed them in the Jamaican dialect/patois. I was surprised at how difficult they were to read and make sense of. It took me a long time just to learn how to read the stories. Figuring out which ones to pick and then how to retell them in a way that would be understandable took even more time. Most of them are more like fragments than real stories. As for how I chose them, I don’t really know. They just seemed to evolve organically. I would say this whole project from first reading to publication has taken about twelve years.
What was the journey into self-publishing like? I’ve been blogging for a long time and I kept seeing fellow bloggers self-publish and being happy about it. My own efforts going the tradition route was going nowhere. And, the older I got, the more I realized I just didn’t want to play the waiting game any more. I knew in my bones my stories were just as good and, in some cases better, than what’s being published by the big guys and I thought, “What the heck, what do I have to lose?” The answer came back, “Nothing.” So, I took the plunge.
That takes a great deal of courage. What did you have to learn to do? I think the one thing I’ve had to learn was to trust my writing. You, Vijaya, and several other people whom I consider “real” writers, [Everyone who writes is a real writer! Those who publish are authors] have consistently encouraged me and told me my writing is good. But I’ve had to convince myself of that. The other thing I’d had to learn was to not be afraid to ask for help. The blogging community has been phenomenal with its wealth of information and willingness to help when asked. I wouldn’t have even thought about self-publishing were it not for all my blogging friends.
Would you do it again? Yes, absolutely I will continue to self-publish.
I’ve always been worried about copyright issues. I even worry about plagiarizing myself since I sell all rights. Can you explain what makes a retold folktale uniquely yours? I suppose there’s always a possibility of encroaching on copyright issues. Anything published before January of 1923 in the United States is in the public domain. According to Stanford University Libraries
Expired Copyright
Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. As an example, the graphic illustration of the man with mustache (above) was published sometime in the 19th century and is in the public domain, so no permission was required to include it within this book. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire)
.See more at:

But Martha’s book was published in 1924. How do I protect myself?
The Renewal Trapdoor
Thousands of works published in the United States before 1964 fell into the public domain because the copyright was not renewed in time under the law in effect then. If a work was first published before 1964, the owner had to file a renewal with the Copyright Office during the 28th year after publication. No renewal meant a loss of copyright.

If you plan on using a work that was published after 1922, but before 1964, you should research the records of the Copyright Office to determine if a renewal was filed. Chapter 13 describes methods of researching copyright status.
  - See more at:

From everything I was able to determine, the copyright had expired. I also significantly changed the stories making them uniquely mine. I gave them a beginning, middle and end that few of them have. In many cases I gave them a moral or lesson that is only implied or I made one up to suit the story. That’s why I say they are retold. They have also been translated making them more understandable to a broader readership. AND, to give myself an extra layer of protection – I hope – I cited Martha’s book as my source. I’m not claiming those seeds as my own, they aren’t. Those seeds belong to the storytellers and to Martha’s foresight in preserving them.
Can you share with your readers what they must do if they want to publish a story that their grandmother told them, and not get into trouble? If your grandmother told you a story I can’t think of any possible reason why you would get in trouble for writing it down. That’s not plagiarism. That’s preserving family or cultural history. However, if your grandmother wrote a book that was copyrighted and that copyright was still in effect, it would be plagiarism if you took those stories, copied them, put your name on them and said they were your own.
Thanks. You’re welcome.
The riddles are great fun. Did you make them up or are these specific to the Caribbean culture? The riddles also came from Martha’s book. Even though they were collected in Jamaica, I heard similar ones while growing up in the Virgin Islands, so I’m going to say they’re traditional to the Caribbean. But some of them have a distinctly European flavor.
You used very little dialect, which makes it easier to read, of course. But the few times you did, it was very flavorful. How did you choose the balance? Well I’ve heard/read from more experienced writers/editors, to keep dialect to a minimum. The dialect of the Caribbean is musical and has a quality that is difficult to write. When I first started working on them the characters spoke completely in dialect. But I soon realized how difficult it might be for a child or even adult to read. My purpose was to make the stories accessible, so toning down the colloquial way of speech wasn’t a hard decision.
Did the stories become increasingly Anglicized? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think I stayed true to the nuances.
Speaking of evolution of stories (I told you I was a process junkie), you mentioned that the original stories were extremely violent. The folktales I grew up with were filled with murder and mayhem. I am curious that children nowadays are exposed to more violence from movies and games than ever before, and even some of the literature is more graphic, yet we worry about folktales that might be too violent. Something doesn’t compute. I’d like your thoughts on this. It’s because kids, particularly younger ones, are so exposed to violence that I chose to remove as much of it as I could. When you and I were children, violence wasn’t coming at us from all directions like it is for today’s kids. Yes it was on TV, but for me, what little I got to see, was in black and white. When the good guys shot the bad guys often there wasn’t even any blood. Nowadays it seems the more graphic and realistic the better. I think this can lead to a desensitizing to real pain and suffering. I want, if only for a little while, for there to be a small space that is calm and peaceful, that is filled with the magic and wonder that should be the natural state of childhood. Thus, I took out the violence.
What are your hopes for Anansi? I hope that he brings a smile to someone’s face and that the lessons his stories teach will not be forgotten. I hope Anansi gets the credit he deserves for being the grandfather of the Uncle Remus stories.
Hey, what are you working on right now? Lizard? A couple of other people have asked me about my next project, but only you could have guessed right, as YOU were the very first person to read the story. Once I get Anansi into a print version I'm going to work on getting A LIZARD'S TAIL published. Here's a little bit about Marvin's story.

From the moment he hatches, Marvin P. Tinkleberry knows he is destined for greatness. For one, he has a marvelous, well-groomed tail. For another he can puff out his throat pouch in the most spectacular way. Maybe the other lizards in his colony don’t take him seriously, but he knows the truth. It lives in the marrow of his bones; he’s going to be a hero.

When a feral cat threatens the lives of all who live at Stone Wall in the Garden by the Sea, Marvin knows it’s HIS destiny to get rid of the fearsome beast. Travelling Over the Hill to find help should be as easy as snapping up a sleeping moth. But it doesn’t take long for Marvin to see that the world beyond Stone Wall is not the same as his pampered life back at the garden. From the deadly Sucker Cactus Forest to deadly mongooses, danger lurks around every corner and Marvin will have to decide if he’s willing to be the hero he’s long bragged about being.

I'm so happy to hear this Bish! As a great fan of animal stories, it was a great delight to go on an adventure with Marvin. I couldn't believe it was a first draft, how well plotted it was! But it was Marvin himself who drew me in. I won't spill the beans on the other animal ... but just so you know, I do have a fondness for tropical fruits, chocolate, and good books!

Folks that's it. I hope you are excited about all the stories Bish is putting out into this world!!! She is a great inspiration to me and I am very thankful she chose to share her stories. I have ICL to thank for my connection to Bish. That's where me *met* many years ago. 

[Coral+Shower+Mustache.jpg]Bish Denham, whose mother's side of the family has been in the Caribbean for over hundred years, was raised in the U. S. Virgin Islands. She still has lots of family living there and visits them regularly. She says, "Growing up in the islands was like living inside a history book. Columbus named them, Sir Francis Drake sailed through the area, and Alexander Hamilton was raised on St. Croix. Pirates plied the waters and hundreds of years of slavery left its indelible mark. It was within this atmosphere of magic and wonder that I grew up. My hope is to pass some of that magic and wonder on to my readers."
You can learn more about Bish by visiting her blog Random Thoughts: 



Bish Denham said...

Thanks for this, Vijaya!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Glad you took the plunge, Bish! Sounds like you are safe with the copyright, especially since you made the stories your own.

Mirka Breen said...

fascinating discussion.Who knew copyrights can be this interesting? As writers we have an interest in protecting and observing copy right law.
And yes- you must truest your abilities whether you self-publish or are dealing with traditional publishers. Thank you Bish & Vijaya.

Marcia said...

Thank you both for this interview! And count me as another Lizard fan. :)

Vijaya said...

Bish, it is my pleasure!!!

Alex, it's daunting, but I am happy Bish took the plunge too.

Mirka, this gives me some confidence to pursue retelling some of the stories my grandmother told me :)

Marcia, so you know Marvin Tinkleberry too! Clapping!!!

Bish Denham said...

Mirka, Thanks for stopping by. I so wanted to retell the stories in Martha's book so I looked hard into the copyright issue.

Marcia, Marvin is looking forward to hanging out with Anansi. He's impatient actually... :)

Susan Kane said...

I thought, “What the heck, what do I have to lose?” The answer came back, “Nothing.”
Bish, Thank you for bringing these stories to a new generation, in a way in which they can be enjoyed by all ages!

DMS said...

What a wonderful interview. I learned a lot about copyright laws and the how Bish changed up the stories to make them her own. I agree that a little dialect adds flavor, but too much would be tough for kids to understand. Bravo Bish! :)

Bish Denham said...

Thanks, Susan!

Jess, I really wanted to use more dialect but knew it would be too much. Thanks for stopping by!

Vijaya said...

Susan and Jess, that's what I enjoy about Bish. She might be part of the insecure writer's club, but she doesn't let her fear stop her.

I also learned much about copyright laws.

Thanks Bish and thank you all for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

This was a pleasure to read since I enjoy Bish' blog and loved her Anansi collection.

Vijaya said...

Thank you Marcia and Medeia for stopping by.