A series featuring young people and youth workers recognized during the 2011 National Youth Awards. This week – Brenda Lee Browne, a lifetime achievement awardee.
St. John’s Antigua- Writers write, and teachers teach, right? Well, Brenda Lee Browne is one for whom this line does not seem to exist, as committed to enhancing the skills of other writers as she is to working on her own writing.
To wit, one of her greater accomplishments is the workshops she’s done with the Culture Department, with the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary festival, the Antigua and Barbuda Literary Arts Committee, on her own steam, and most recently, with Gender Affairs at the women’s prison.
Asked to comment on her teaching, Rilys Adams, one of her former students through the much-missed Culture Department creative arts workshop, said, “I’m a better writer because of her but, ironically enough, this was all achieved without (her) telling me what to do.”
This is consistent, actually, with Browne’s assessment of her approach to teaching. “I’m not gonna teach you to be Toni Morrison,” she said. “This is about (helping) you to find your voice.” She’s emphatic about the point that her goal is not to change but to help those who’re willing to let her help them.
“She taught by encouragement and suggestions,” Rilys said. “None of her advice ever seemed like something I ‘had to take’…I’d defend my exercises, short stories, and working novels to death and she would allow me to. Granted, almost always it took possibly two weeks for me to decide that she was in fact right!”
But how did she become such a skilled midwife to other writers. For the answers, we travel from the home of her parents, Antigua, to her birthplace, England, where she struggled with establishing her identity as someone not exactly Caribbean but not entirely British either. Books were her great escape though it wasn’t until later, at A levels, that she would read Caribbean writers like Naipaul and Selvon, the generation of writers that could better help her relate to her parents’ experience. While she began writing her own stories as a child, sharing with her audience – her best friend, her brothers – she didn’t know any writers nor entertain the possibility that she could be a writer. And, for a time, the teachers who either discounted or discredited her early efforts turned her off writing altogether.
These early experiences taught her, if anything, the importance of encouraging children’s creativity, which she did with her son. “Had somebody done that to me at that age,” she reflected, “I would have done a lot more writing; it wouldn’t have been so hard.”
Brenda Lee was an adult by the time she settled in Antigua, having come initially to visit her grandmother’s in the early 1980s. It was here, she said, that she started writing in earnest again. Of course, her print journalism diploma in hand, most of her writing here was journalistic.
It was her involvement in journalism that led her to the man, the late writer and publisher, Leonard ‘Tim’ Hector, who would do for her what she is now doing for other young writers, help her find her voice. They became friends, she said, his encyclopedic knowledge, and no doubt his sense of humour, drawing her in. She would show him her poetry and he would critique it. “He became a mentor,” Browne said. “He’s the reason I went to do my masters. You need someone who would tell you as it is and at the same time push you forward.” He was that person for her; but beyond that, she said, “we became real friends.”
There’re echoes of this in Rilys declaration that, she, in time, started looking to Browne “for advice and trusting her judgment in more than just writing but life in general…it doesn’t hurt that she’s terribly funny, relatable and offers the best advice ever.”
It was during a stint – concurrent with pursuing her masters at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK – working with disadvantaged kids in the secondary schools and managing an after school programme for Afro-Caribbean youth, that Browne began to see a bigger picture. “Working in education, it gave me tools; that’s when I realized my creative writing can be used to unlock people.”
She put those skills to use promptly on her return to Antigua. “She gave of her time and knowledge to a most successful children’s literary workshop at the Department of Culture when I was director, 2003 to 2006,” recalled Heather Doram, who also describes Brown as a fantastic writer. “She is extremely giving and willing to share.” Best of Books manager and Browne’s successor on the Independence Literary Arts committee Barbara Arrindell added, “she never seems daunted by what often plagues efforts like this – low attendance at workshops – instead she marvels at what the one or two who attend are able to produce…as with all who stretch minds through encouraging the creative process a price tag cannot be placed on the value of what she does. In some cases, even the recipients of her outreach may never fully grasp how she has changed their lives.”
Arrindell mentioned that you can’t put a price to it, and often the efforts are low to no pay, but Browne has found ways to blend her writing with other passions and skill sets; her involvement with the West Indies cricket team and cricket in general come to mind. But it’s clear that what really drives her is helping writers get a better grasp of craft and helping young people access their voice.
In a perfect world, the monetary rewards would equal the effort; until then the respect of her peers and protégés, and a deserved NYA, will have to suffice. And you know what, that’s worth a lot. As Rilys said, “the literary world is so much better because Brenda Lee is in it; the world is so much better because Brenda Lee is in it…and my life is so much richer, better and more complete because she is a part of it.”