Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Donna Hemans

Jamaican-born Donna Hemans is the author of the novel River Woman, winner of the 2003-4 Towson University Prize for Literature. Tea by the Sea, for which she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature, is her second novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Tea By the Sea is a title I had in mind long before I developed the story. I don’t recall now how I came to find it but I jotted it down and knew that I would ultimately find a story that worked with it. In this novel, a young mother spends 17 years searching for her daughter taken from her at birth. That description doesn’t readily connect with the idea of having tea by the sea. But readers will discover that tea by the sea is the activity that connects the daughter, Opal, to a mother she doesn’t know. Built into that activity is the guilt Lenworth, Opal’s father, feels after having taken his baby daughter away from her mother.

What's in a name?

Part of Tea By the Sea takes place in Anchovy, a small town about eight miles outside of Montego Bay in Jamaica. It’s where my father grew up, and the house in Anchovy is my grandparents’ house. My grandparents are long gone and my father and his siblings have long talked about selling the property. I deliberately chose Anchovy as the setting because it was one way of preserving a piece of my heritage.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

When I first started writing Tea By the Sea, I had what I thought was a strong opening. I started with a mother getting her twin daughters ready for school, dropping the girls off, heading to the subway to go to work, but ultimately turning away from the train station and walking to a church. I knew then that she would refuse to leave the church until her demands were met.

At the time, I envisioned a story that took place over 24 hours, slowly unfolding how Plum came to lose her child. But it wasn’t until I sat down with an editor that I realized my story began in the wrong place. So I completely altered the beginning and the structure—shifting the timeline from 24 hours to 17 years. The beginning is now more direct.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My characters are a world apart from me. Perhaps an observer will say something different. But my characters and their circumstances don’t necessarily reflect my personal life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Water. I love being by the water, listening to it trickle over rocks or dash against a shore. So I tend to center water in my books. Sometimes water is life-giving. Sometimes it takes life. Other times it’s purely there as a means of transportation, a barrier between two characters, or, in the case of Tea By the Sea, the thing that sustains Opal and Plum.
Visit Donna Hemans's website.

--Marshal Zeringue