An Interview and cover reveal with Donna Hemans, author of Tea by the Sea

Tea by the Sea, Donna Heman’s second novel, will be published by Red Hen Press in June 2020. The winner of the 2015 JaWS JAMCOPY Lignum Vitae Award for unpublished manuscripts Heman’s new novel is an important addition to the world of books from the Caribbean. Below is an interview with Donna Hemans, who is also a member of PREE’s editorial team, by Annie Paul along with a brief essay on the image she chose to use on the cover of Tea by the Sea. 

Donna, thanks for your very engaging, thought-provoking new novel. Agency is mentioned several times in Tea by the Sea and is a consistent theme throughout, the female protagonist’s lack of it, the male protagonist’s abuse of it, blithely enacting decisions that completely deprived a woman and her child of agency for example.  Why is personal autonomy and agency so important today? 

Marginalized groups—women and black and brown people—have spent a long time fighting for agency, for the right to make our own free choices. We’ve made a lot of headway, of course, but each day there’s another group trying to chip away at those rights. You can see the extent of the worry about the loss of personal autonomy and agency in the current interest in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, about a society that totally restricts the freedom of all women. We’re not yet living in that type of society but where are we headed?

Tea by the Sea looks at one small area where the female protagonist, Plum, is deprived of agency. The decision the male protagonist makes hangs like a cloud over the rest of her life. Even one decision, or being deprived of an opportunity to make a decision for oneself, can have a big impact on the entirety of one’s life.

What kind of background do you yourself come from? Was it rural? Urban? A big family? Religious? The thing that is remarkable about Tea by the Sea is how ordinary the characters seem. These are not riotous Bohemians or heroic warriors or lords and ladies. Just regular people whom family and kinship fails, and postcolonial society lets down, forcing them to improvise as they go along, to work out their problems themselves in order to make their lives. 

I grew up in a small town—Brown’s Town—with my parents and two sisters. But we always had a full house, either boarders attending one of the local high schools or somebody staying with us for one reason or another. A rotating cast of characters. 

I try to write about the people who I would encounter in my everyday life, whether they’re in Brown’s Town or some other small town across Jamaica or they’ve migrated. I want readers to feel they know the people I write about. I want my own people to feel that I am writing about them, writing about their communities, telling their stories. And that means, I’ll leave the riotous Bohemians and lords and ladies and heroic warriors to others who are better equipped to portray those groups. That’s just not my reality. That’s not to say I can’t write outside of what I know, because I do. Everything I write is an attempt to understand something I don’t know. But it’s based on the culture I know and my writing will always reflect that. 

In a sense, it goes back to the whole business of agency. For a long time, our stories were told by someone else. Our history was told by someone else. It matters that we own our stories and that we tell them. And that means writing about ordinary people living ordinary lives and working out problems the best way they know. 

The fugitive male, a familiar trope in the Caribbean both in real life and in literature, plays a pivotal role in Tea by the Sea. The novel is in many ways an anti-romance, an anti-love story almost like a reminder to girls and women that reality is considerably harsher than stories in which people live ‘happily ever after’. Could you talk about this?

I’ve never understood the “happily ever after” ending. That’s where the story really begins. What kind of trials will that couple encounter? How do they survive the trials and what kind of person emerges from that trial? That’s the real story. We do a great disservice to girls and young women when we push the idea of happily ever after, when we push the idea that earning or getting someone’s love is life’s biggest trial. 

But rather than thinking about the book as an anti-romance or an anti-love story, I like to think of it as an exploration of belonging. Where do we belong and to whom? For most of the novel, Plum searches for the daughter taken from her at birth. And throughout the novel there is the ever present question of to whom the missing girl belongs. Does her daughter belong to her and with her? As a mother, does she have the inherent right to raise her child? And the other question it asks is “where is home?” Is home with a person or in a specific place? Those are the questions that I think about more. 

There was quite a long interval between River Woman, your first novel published in 2002 and Tea by the Sea which will be published in 2020. Was this intentional? Or are you the writing equivalent of a ‘slow cooker’? Will there be another long wait after Tea by the Sea?

The long wait after River Woman wasn’t intentional, and I hope there won’t be a long wait after Tea by the Sea is published next year. The fact is that I’ve written two other novels that just weren’t quite ready even after multiple revisions. One part of the writing process that is often overlooked is revision. I like to think of it as re-vision, the process of seeing the work with new eyes. With some stories, there’s a clear sense of the edits and rewrites needed, and with others it takes a longer while to see the work again with new eyes. 

“Once a book is published, it can’t be unpublished.” A professor and writer once told me that and I’ve never forgotten it. So rather than rush the process or the stories, I’ve waited for them to be just right, to ensure that I am telling the story I want to tell. And right now I can say that at least one of the two is just right. 

When did you know you wanted to be a writer and why? Were there models? Who were they?

I knew for sure that I could and wanted to write fiction in college. I took an independent study class, and one of the books the professor had me read was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston wrote about people whose dialect sounded like mine, and that stayed with me. Nothing I read in undergrad literature classes sounded like that. Of course, I had read Caribbean literature in high school in Jamaica, read stories with characters who used dialects from the Caribbean. But the dialect and community of Their Eyes Were Watching God resonated with me in a different way. Perhaps because I was older and reading literature differently, reading it without any concern for themes and message and what high school literature classes tell us to focus on. I was reading the book alongside a fiction writer and learning how to look at how a writer builds a story. And I knew I wanted to do what Hurston did. I knew I wanted to write about Jamaican communities in the same way.

Are there writers you admire who inspire you?

We just lost the writer who has inspired me most: Toni Morrison. I admired her way of looking at the world, her certainty about who she was writing for and why. I recently saw the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” and what stays with me as a writer—especially as a writer who grew up in a post-colonial Jamaica that in some ways still holds on to colonial-era ideas—is the presence of the white gaze. She called it, “the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do or say. You sort of knock him off and you’re free. Now, I own the world. I can write about anything, to anyone, for anyone.” Imagine how much more we can do when we stop limiting ourselves by trying to fit into a mold created by and for a culture that’s not our own. 

Thoughts on the Cover of Tea by the Sea

Donna Hemans

A baby taken from her mother at birth, an Episcopal priest with a daughter whose face he cannot bear to see, a mother weary of searching for her lost child: Tea by the Sea is their story—that of a family uniting and unraveling.

From the moment I saw the cover image of a girl with her back turned and face hidden—from Brooklyn-based photographer Keisha Scarville’s Mama’s Clothes series—I knew it perfectly captured the perspectives of these three family members around whom the novel revolves. 

There is a moment in Tea by the Sea when Plum imagines how her daughter, then a year old, would look: “Plum pictured her daughter like this: hair parted in four distinct sections, each section a mini afro puff; pudgy cheeks; a smile that opened up dimples; skin the color of chocolate batter; pudgy arms and legs in a frilly yellow dress. Except the baby wasn’t hers. Just a stranger on the train, a baby who smiled openly at anyone who caught her eye.” With her back turned and face hidden, the girl captures the essence of Plum’s search. Any dark-skinned girl could be hers. From Plum’s perspective, this is how her missing daughter appears: hidden, covered, faceless. 

The photo also evokes the sense that at any moment the girl will turn around and reveal herself. I imagine Plum walking up to the girl, Plum’s heart full with hope and longing for a positive outcome. And I imagine the girl finally turning, showing a playful smile and running quickly to someone outside the camera’s view, perhaps to Plum herself, perhaps to someone else entirely. 

Hidden, the child on the cover is also the daughter that Lenworth cannot bear to see. As his daughter ages and her resemblance to her mother grows, Lenworth becomes more uncomfortable around his daughter. Rather than look at her and face the consequences of his actions, he hides her pictures. The child’s hidden face captures his way of “unseeing” his daughter. “Lenworth looked at her as if she had been reborn, a newborn shedding her birth-day wrinkles and mottled skin, growing each day into her own. Seeing how she became Plum’s life-sized wax doll or commemorative figurine that moved around and haunted him. Seeing how he had managed to make every woman and girl in his life seem inconsequential and small. And then he looked away. He didn’t exactly pretend that Opal didn’t exist at all. But it was close. He did it subtly, turning down her third-grade photos. In the photos, she had smiled instead of staring back at the camera stubbornly, defiantly refusing to smile. He removed Opal’s photos from the wall and replaced them with photos of the boys caught in the midst of a mischievous antic, surprise or amusement oozing from their faces.” Here, with her back turned, she is the daughter Lenworth doesn’t want to see.

And the child on the cover reflects Opal’s vision of herself as “a darker-skinned other with unusual topaz eyes.” From appearances only, it is hard to tell that Opal belongs to the family her father creates with his wife Pauline. Opal longs to be seen and longs to feel that she belongs. Here, on the cover, holding up the dress to shield her face, the child reflects what Opal feels she is, the unseen child longing to belong, the unseen child thinking: “[S]he wanted to be his. His daughter. His offspring. His family. His ballerina at the front of the stage, on her toes, lifting her arms as gracefully as a butterfly fluttering its wings, leaping like an acrobat suspended in air.” 

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