Donna Hemans, TEA BY THE SEA

Donna Hemans, TEA BY THE SEA

Zibby Owens: Donna Hemans, born in Jamaica, is the author of award-winning novel River Woman and most recently, Tea by the Sea. Her short has been featured in Caribbean Writer, Witness, and other publications and anthologies. She received her undergraduate degree from Fordham University and her MFA from American University. She currently lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Welcome, Donna. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Donna Hemans: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what Tea by the Sea is about?

Donna: It’s a story about a young mother whose baby was taken from her at birth and her search to find this child.

Zibby: That was very concise. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Donna: I initially started writing a story or just a short piece about a woman who goes to a church and refuses to leave. After I wrote that, I had to figure out why she would not want to leave this church, what she was looking for. A few weeks after writing that first piece, I happened to be in Jamaica. It was a Sunday evening, playing Scrabble with my parents. There’s a program that comes on, on the radio at seven o’clock in the evening on one of the stations. It’s a program called Sunday Contact where people call in to look for family members or friends who they just simply can’t get in touch with. A woman called in looking for her son. What she said was that the father had taken the child. She had no idea where they were, where they had gone, whether they were still in Jamaica, whether they had moved to America or Canada. She just simply had no idea. I believe the child at that point must have been about seven or eight years old. I don’t remember the details. Once I heard that, I said, this is my story. This is what this woman is searching for. This is why she’s in that church and is refusing to leave.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so funny how novelists think about life events. I interview, often, people who are like, I heard this story and I knew I had to write a whole book about it. Whereas I feel like I would hear the story and just hear the story.

Donna: You pick up so much from everyday life. Even without even being aware that that is what you’re doing, something that you hear about, something that you know will be the basis for a story or will be even a small piece in a story. Sometimes it’s those little things that actually give you the foundation for something bigger.

Zibby: Were you actively on the hunt for a topic having published your first book already? I’ve heard about the sophomore slump type of thing where it’s hard to figure out how to follow up the success of a first novel. Your first novel, which I didn’t read, I’m sorry, is called River Woman. This novel I read, which was amazing.

Donna: The funny thing about that is that in some ways I guess you could say I had that sophomore slump, but in some ways, I don’t know that I did. I probably went about things a little bit differently from some other writers I’ve heard about. People will talk about how many books they wrote before they published their first book. In my case, it was a little bit different. River Woman was my thesis for my MFA program. I published that a few years after I finished the program. Maybe three years after I finished the program, that book was published. That was the first book I ever wrote. Between River Woman being published in 2002 and now 2020 with Tea by the Sea coming out, it certainly is a long time. I wrote two other books in between. Those books, I have been revising and revising and revising. I think I’ve finally got to a point now where I will be finished revising at least one of them because I finally figured out what the story was, what I wanted to tell. With Tea by the Sea, it was in some ways a slightly different process. I figured out what I wanted to write, what the story was, and I just simply wrote it, which in some ways was probably the same thing I did with River Woman. I knew what the story was. I wrote that story without thinking too much about structure and everything else that seemed to have been the hang-up with the other two in between.

Zibby: When you started the MFA program, had you written short stories? What made you drawn to enroll in that program to begin with?

Donna: As an undergrad, I studied English and media studies. I took some fiction writing workshops. I knew that I liked writing stories. I didn’t necessarily know how to go about writing something fuller and bigger. I started writing this thing which I thought was a novel. I had to figure out, how on earth do you finish a novel? How do you put it all together? I knew that what I needed to do was an MFA program.

Zibby: Wow, very cool. Do you feel like you actually got specific skills that helped you write the books? What is the best thing that came out of the MFA program for you?

Donna: For me, I think that what I learned from an MFA program is really how to read. It’s not necessarily so much how to write. I think the biggest part about writing, really, is knowing how to read your own work and knowing when to edit, when to stop editing, what to take out, and really understanding how a reader reads and understands your story. I think that’s what I got from an MFA program. By the numerous workshops that I had to take, I heard what other people were saying about my work, what they were looking for. After a certain point, I began to anticipate those things myself. I would look at something that I wrote and ask myself whether somebody else would understand it. What else do I need to say? How much more do I need to explain? Am I explaining too much? That’s how I really understood how to pace a story, more by learning how to read it as opposed to really being taught how to write.

Zibby: So interesting.

Donna: It is. I remember one professor saying at one point where I think I may have had a note or I may have said, I knew somebody would ask that question, and I think the response was, you’re learning how to write because you’re beginning to anticipate those things. I think once you get to that point, you have a better understanding of your own story and what it should be doing.

Zibby: Although, you have been working for like twenty years on these two other books.

Donna: Well, it’s the process.

Zibby: No, I’m totally joking.

Donna: No, I fully understand. I think that for me, and I think it’s something that I am also beginning to realize, that the other two books — once I finished River Woman, I think I started thinking too much about how I wanted the books to be structured. I stepped away from, this is a story about X person, and really started thinking too much about the structure. I got hung up on shaping the story as opposed to just simply telling the story, which I guess goes back to what I learned early on. What does your reader want or your reader anticipate? It’s a lesson I just need to keep in mind from now on.

Zibby: This was a heartbreaking but also inspiring story, the emotions that you have, the idea that you could have your baby just snatched away at childbirth. The scene that you wrote where she comes back — Paula, right? Paula?

Donna: Plum.

Zibby: Plum. Oh, my gosh, I’m losing my mind. The scene that you wrote where Plum comes back to the room that she had been in with the woman who she rents the room from, it was apoplectic. The baby’s gone. The two of them are just — what a scene. What a moment, the desperation and how she looked everywhere for the baby and then when she couldn’t find the baby, one day said, I’m going to lay down on this wall and hopefully the sun will just, basically, kill me. Oh, my gosh. How did you tap into that feeling? I started thinking to myself, has she had something like this happen? This feeling of hopelessness and despair, how did you get to that so well?

Donna: I don’t know. I haven’t experienced that myself. As writers, even though you may not necessarily experience that thing, there are other things that you can pull from. I can’t think of anything that I have experienced to that extent. I think in some ways, though, that the book itself is also about, it’s about the loss, it’s about the search, but I think it’s also about that longing to belong. In a number of ways, I believe that it’s the kind of story that I feel like I’m telling over and over and over. I shouldn’t say over and over, but it’s a story that I’m telling. I think it’s coming from my mother’s story in some ways. What I’m telling is her story. My mother basically grew up with her grand-aunt and her father. When she was born, her mother “returned” her to her father, so to speak. My grandmother had three boys as well, but she kept the boys. What my mother had said at one point was she gave away the daughter but kept the sons. I keep looking at and thinking about, how does that child feel about not having that mother? How does a mother feel about not having that child? In some ways, that’s the story that I feel like I’m telling. That’s what I’m reaching back to. That’s what I’m trying to understand. A lot of what I write, there is something I’m trying to understand. For me, it’s that loss of a child not having a parent or a parent not having a child.

Zibby: Really, you’re like Plum’s daughter in this whole scenario. I’m kidding.

Donna: I guess in some ways.

Zibby: Do you think it made your mother or Plum parent differently for the children that she ended up — no, it wouldn’t be Plum’s daughter. It would be Opal’s daughter.

Donna: Right, yeah. It would be Opal’s daughter.

Zibby: It would be Opal’s daughter who would be you.

Donna: Yes, I guess so.

Zibby: Even though that person doesn’t exist.

Donna: That person doesn’t exist.

Zibby: Just follow along with me here. Come on, Donna.

Donna: Theoretically, yes, it would be. Not having that parent I think makes somebody parent differently. In this case, Plum certainly did. When she had her twin daughters later on, she never left them, never let them out of her sight because she didn’t want the same thing to happen again. There is the flip side of that, which could be overparenting, but I think she did a good job.

Zibby: When Plum first gets back to Brooklyn — she was in Jamaica. Her parents had sent her there. I don’t want to give away the whole book. She was sent there by her parents in a form of abandonment, she felt. They thought it was for her own good, and so stranded her there. Then she came back. She had lost her daughter. She was very young, seventeen when she had her baby. You write, “She didn’t care about other people’s stories or past lives,” because her mother was trying to make her feel better about it. “She had her own storied past and present. And now she had a firm conviction that despite her parents’ claim, the fairytale endings, the scripted Hollywood kind, weren’t really available to her. Hollywood’s movies had told her that fairytale endings weren’t available to a dark-skinned girl, and an immigrant at that.” Tell me a little more about that passage. Oh, and then she gives up all her dreams and says she wants to settle for a simple, ordinary dream, a job that paid for food and shelter.

Donna: There are two parts to that. One is that there is, for so many of us who are not accustomed to seeing ourselves represented, whether it’s in literature or in movies from Hollywood, we have a different viewpoint of the stories that are told. I’ll tell you, when one of my nieces was about three or four years old in preschool, one of her friends told her that she couldn’t be a princess because princesses don’t look like her. It’s something that children internalize from a very young age. It was surprising. I don’t know that any adult told that child that that was the case, but that was something she internalized based on what she saw. I think that girl, she was either white or very light skinned. If she was internalizing it and she saw herself there, then imagine what it is for a person who is darker skin who does not see herself at all. That was one piece of it. I think that Plum had grown accustomed to not seeing that, had grown accustomed to seeing stories of success for somebody else who didn’t look like her. She also saw her parents working very, very hard. At one point in the book she talks about not being able to go to dance classes because her parents were always working or always tired. For her, it’s a different reality.

The second piece to that is something somebody told me at one point, that you didn’t have to like a job, you just simply had to do a job in order to get by because that’s all that you wanted, enough money to be able to live your life. My approach is just completely different because I think I need to enjoy whatever it is that I’m doing. I think that’s the reality for some people where you are an immigrant and that is your sole role here, is to make enough money to either send back home to take care of your family members or your relatives or to make enough money so that you can then go back home at some point to live your life in your home country. That was what Plum was seeing around her, was living with. For her, it wasn’t about dreaming and trying to be something. It was about just simply trying to exist at that point. So much had already been taken away from her that she didn’t see how she could continue to dream.

Zibby: Interesting. By the way, I never felt like I looked like a Disney princess either. There are no 5’2″, slightly overweight, short brown hair princesses. I never thought, oh, yeah, Cinderella, that’s so me.

Donna: I think now we’re beginning to see so much more that not everybody who’s reflected as the heroine in movies looks the same, which is great. It’s what we need to see.

Zibby: It’s true. Lenworth, the man, the dad in the book, I felt like at times you were making him almost sympathetic, like could we understand, perhaps, why he did this? Did he really maybe do this for a good reason? There was a train of thought where he was thinking, she was young, Plum should go off and enjoy her life and not be saddled with a baby at such a young age. Yet he goes on and — I won’t give too much away for what happens with him later. Do you feel like we should have some sympathy towards him? Do we hate him? What do you think?

Donna: I think you should have some sympathy. I think that everybody, no matter what you do, you have some good in you. There’s something. I couldn’t make him be all bad. There just had to be something redeeming about him. I think he had noble intentions at first. What he actually ended up doing was certainly not good. There could have been, certainly should’ve been, other ways in which he got to do what he wanted to do. I think there was — he had noble intentions. For him, a lot of it really came from the fact that he had seen his mother and he had seen his sister, their lives in some ways stopped because they had children or they were depending on a man for support. He wanted Plum to not become his mother and not become his sister. That’s noble. I have to admire somebody who thinks like that. At the same time, what he did and how he went about doing it ended up being the opposite of what he intended. He wanted to make sure that Plum could make choices, but he took away her biggest choice. I don’t know if that’s forgivable. I’ll leave that up to readers to decide.

Zibby: Do you have children?

Donna: No, I don’t.

Zibby: This is just a fairytale, fantasy, nightmare situation.

Donna: It is. I don’t know anybody personally who has had a child taken away. I certainly have seen enough people who have lost, whether it’s a parent or a person who has lost a child. I’ve seen how they respond to that and how they deal with that.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your writing process. When you’re sitting down and going over and revising and all of that, are you at a coffee shop? Are you in bed? Give me a visual. How do you write? Do you have papers everywhere? Is all the structure in your head?

Donna: All the structure is definitely in my head. I don’t outline. I usually just start with a character. I have somebody or a place that I am interested in. In this case, Plum, I had decided she was not leaving this church. I begin from there. I just keep adding bits and pieces to it until it begins to shape itself into something that feels like a novel, that feels like a book. Generally, I think I have a little bit of a sense of where I want the story to end. Very early on in the process, I wrote what I thought would’ve been a last line of the book. I know what I’m going towards. I don’t necessarily know what comes in the middle. It can be dangerous in a lot of ways, but part of the process for me is discovering something. I think if I already know every single thing that’s going to happen in the book and I’m not discovering anything, then the joy of writing it is just simply gone. In some ways, that’s why I have difficulty writing personal essays, for instance, because I know in some ways, the outcome. If I don’t have something in the middle to discover, then there’s not that joy for me in terms of writing that essay. Also, in terms of where I write, I’m usually writing at home. Coffee shops don’t work for me. I need peace and quiet. I need to not be distracted. It’s very easy to get distracted. I can’t do coffee shops. I’m usually writing at home sometimes at four o’clock in the morning, or five o’clock.

Zibby: Really?

Donna: Yeah. With Tea by the Sea, that’s how I got this book done. I, for some reason, kept waking up at four o’clock in the morning, or five o’clock. When I couldn’t go back to sleep, I got up and I started writing. It worked.

Zibby: Were you working during the day somewhere else?

Donna: Yeah, I was working full time. I just simply got up, wrote for an hour or two hours every morning, and then got dressed and went to work. It worked because there was nothing at that point that would have been distracting. There were no phone calls to make. I wasn’t cooking. I wasn’t running off to do something. I wouldn’t turn the TV on. I just simply went downstairs sometimes. The only light was the light from my computer screen, nothing at all that was distracting me, and I just wrote. For me, it’s just a perfect time to write because there are no distractions, or I am not creating distractions for myself.

Zibby: What is your day job? Is it related to writing at all?

Donna: For the longest while, I started out as a business journalist and then moved into corporate communications. I wrote speeches and did a whole range of corporate communications.

Zibby: I’ll keep that in the back of my head next time I’m writing a speech. Might have to call on you. What’s coming next for you? You’re going to finish these two other books.

Donna: Yes, I am. Actually, one is pretty close. I’m finishing up the last bit of edits on that one, or what I hope will be the last bit of edits. Then there’s the third one. Well, one of the two that I’m finishing up. I don’t know what numbers they are anymore. That one, I have a sense now how I’m going to retell that story. I have written bits and pieces of it, but not the full thing. I’m getting there, I hope.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Donna: Read, read, read. I think that there are so many things that we as writers pick up when we’re reading a book, how another writer puts a story together, the choices that person makes. I think that as readers, if we’re reading not just to enjoy the story, but reading to see what somebody else does, it helps you as a writer get better. That’s the first thing. The second thing really is to not give up, to understand that a lot of it is out of your hands. The market will change. Whatever the market is doing is not necessarily something that you should be paying attention to because your story will always be your story. If it’s your story to tell, then you will have a way to tell it and you’ll find a way to tell it regardless of what the market is looking for or what the market is doing.

Zibby: There’s one question I wanted to ask earlier. You did such a great job of creating a sense of place when they go to Jamaica and the house that Lenworth ends up with in the beginning and how everything looks there. Then you contrast it so well with the clanging buses, subways, and loud noises of Brooklyn. How do you think you captured those places so well? I felt like I was really there when I was reading it.

Donna: I think it’s by being there, by paying attention to it. I think too, it’s one of those things where there’s so much that you pick up when you’re just simply walking around without necessarily knowing how you’re going to use it later on. I think it was the same thing with this book. I left Jamaica when I was sixteen, but I still go back and forth. There are bits and pieces that are in here because they’re things that I remember from my childhood. There are things that I saw as an adult that will make it in the book. I think too, one of the reasons that I did that is, it’s perspective. Plum has the perspective of Jamaica and somebody who was just visiting Jamaica and somebody who lived there. Some of the things that she talks about are things that visitors would be seeing. Your average, everyday Jamaican is not looking at the color of the sea. When you’re coming down, you’re winding down a mountain, you’re more concerned about the road itself and what the other drivers are doing. You’re not necessarily looking out to see how blue the sea is, or the skyline. Plum was able to see that because she is a visitor at some point. She was also able to see some other things about Jamaica because she lived there, and so she has observations that a visitor wouldn’t have.

It’s the same thing when she comes back to Brooklyn. She had lived in Brooklyn, had stepped away from Brooklyn. When she comes back, she’s able to see things differently. She experiences Brooklyn then as a visitor when she returns from living in Jamaica. I think all of us probably experience our lives like that. If you go back to whatever town you grew up in, you really realize it’s either much smaller than you thought it was or it’s bigger than you thought it was. There so much else that you begin to see. I think too, for me as a writer, I find that it’s easier to write about a place when I’m no longer living there than it is to write about it when I’m there. Maybe for that reason, since I’m not living in Jamaica full time, I can write about Jamaica in a way that I don’t think I would have. I have different observations now than I would have if I were still living there.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing your story and for this beautiful novel that makes me want to hold my kids really close. It was really, really beautiful. Thank you.

Donna: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure.

Donna Hemans, TEA BY THE SEA