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Interview with James Berry

James Berry O.B.E. (for services to Poetry 1990) was born in Jamaica and grew up there in a little village on the coast. When he was 17 he went to America, but only stayed four years as he hated the way black people were treated. But when he went back to his home village he found it claustrophobic so in 1948 he came to Britain. Nowadays he lives in Brighton but visits Jamaica frequently. He is a leading campaigner for black people and helps young black writers. He was interviewed by pupils from John Loughborough School in London and from Foundry Primary School in Birmingham

What attracted you to writing? How did your career start? Did you start in Britain or the Caribbean? Did you start writing prose or poetry? Which do you prefer writing?

Living in my rural Jamaican village, I learned to read the Bible before I was four years old and often had an audience of my mother’s friends. At school I received good marks for my composition work and was praised for my use of English, generally. This tells that, particularly in a story, from early, the worlds that words and their music opened up aroused my imagination, and engaged and excited me. And I was to start writing stories seriously, two years after I arrived in London, at the age of twenty-five. This, though, would take me some time before I had any work published, and much longer before I started writing poetry. Both poetry and story writing have stayed with me as an ongoing occupation. I see that the demands of poetry writing do engage and stretch me more, but go on giving me a deeper pleasure and satisfaction.

Much of your writing is about life in the Caribbean. What do you like best about the West Indies? Do you think that Afro-Caribbean children born and brought up in Britain have any right to feel that they belong in the West Indies, too? Do you think that white children would be welcome in the Caribbean?

I experienced the West Indies and myself in it as an hidden-away place and person. When I grew up there, we never had anything like a ‘Caribbean poem’ or story that showed us something about ourselves and our way of life. Our poems and stories all came from the UK and celebrated that way of life. Now, some of my poems and stories try to contribute school material, for both the UK and the Caribbean, that never existed in my days at school. I have come to believe that, for our human growing and development, we need to identify, understand, know, display and share our varied world as one place. From what I see and understand, Caribbean background parents and children in Britain do keep cultural ties with the West Indies. As for the children at school, in my experience, the Creole language and identification with its culture forms provide an identity significance and give displayed pride and pleasure. On the other hand, yes, some white families live in Jamaica, as they have always lived there, like they do in other Caribbean countries.

What is the first thing that comes to you when writing a poem? Is it the rhythm, the rhyme or the topic? What sort of poetry do you like writing best?

The start-up of a poem may pop up into my head in different ways. Occasionally it is a wrapped up excitement that will soon reveal a part of its content. Like a little part of its body that I have to work and work on for a full revelation of its completeness. Usually, I go to my ideas notebook, pick out an idea, think about it, find its meaning and rhythm, then start writing it, slowly searching for it, with its music in my head searching for its words. Whether I am preparing myself to write a single poem or a whole book, I find that what I call ‘mood-making’ is most helpful. I plan what I want to write then turn to a kind of mental preparation. I spend time reading aloud - reading other writers’ poems that I like and really value. I might even do this overnight, before starting to write early morning.

What advice would you give to young writers who want to be writers or poets?

My advice to young developing writers is: find stories that engage you and read, read and read. Find the poems that really engage you, and silently and aloud, read, read and read them. Write every day, if at all possible. Find a helpful teacher. Join a writers’ workshop where you feel helped and inspired.

Thank you very much, James Berry!

Read more interviews of leading authors by children.

YoungWriter was a magazine published from 1995 to 2003 by Kate Jones.
We here at Myst Ltd had the pleasure of producing the magazine for Kate.
Sadly, Kate passed away in 2010.