By Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper
What is wonderful about the Cayman literary scene is that we have some writers that are established, some on their way to being established, and some who are slowly but surely taking that first step and spreading their wings. We also have young writers – both youthful and new – many of whom are demonstrating that local writings have a promising future. What is also wonderful about the Cayman literary scene, is that with Cayman’s multinationalism and multiculturalism, writers originate from different places and take their varied interests and writing styles with them, thereby enriching what already exists.
This week’s author hails from Kingston, Jamaica, and has a strong background in education, both in Jamaica and Cayman, where she has been part of the Department of Education Services for approximately fourteen years. She clearly has a love for children and has contributed over time to their development. She also has seen them in their varied spaces and has captured their bright, effervescent, and contagious personalities and behaviours in her works. She has also seemingly enjoyed a free and delightful childhood, as many of the poems she produces are nostalgic - reminiscent of home even as they echo the joys of her upbringing and the lessons learnt over time.
In a decidedly Caribbean voice, Kareen Walker-Balfore’s Where Children Play, presents a collection of poems divided into eleven sections that is built on personal experience and clearly presents the values that have long been instilled in Caribbean children. Though appealing to readers of all ages, Walker-Balfore’s collection is especially evocative of the young child, transporting all readers back to their childhood and evoking a sense of home and fashioning an identity rooted in origins and influences.
Also fascinating is the division of the book into sections. I dubbed Section 1 ‘The Curiosity of Childhood’, as Walker-Balfore spends time in nine poems, recalling seemingly specific events from her childhood. Her persona is seemingly a “Curious Child”, who in a poem so named, speaks of how her sister one day innocently barged in on her dad as he bathed, and what then ensued. “Basic School” tells of going off to what we in Cayman know as Reception or Pre-K, and the fears associated with that moment. Her brother’s idle Sunday morning antics brought laughter in “When Pickney Idle”, and the poet tells of her ill sister who was subjected to what we all seek in this covid environment, “Home Remedy”, as her
Mother rubbed her chest
And back with vicks,
Then forced her to drink
Something she missed (lines 9-12)
“Peeny Wally”, “Flies” and “Pigs and Piglets”, all examined in poems so titled, prove the curious child’s fascination with animals and insects - a fact to which many of us in the Caribbean who had a goat, a chicken, a rabbIt, and yes, even a piglet for a pet, can relate. So begins the collection of poems that so unabashedly celebrates Walker-Balfore’s origins. One advice that many experienced authors often pass on to those following in their footsteps, is that they should write from personal experience, as this results in more insightful and entertaining works. Recently, my daughter, another aspiring writer, told me that I have not lived until I have read one of Roald Dahl’s books. Apparently a hit among adolescent and teenage readers – he wrote The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) children’s book – Dahl is said to have used his childhood as the platform for some of his most popular books. He also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and credits his daily childhood journey past a local sweetshop – one of the few highlights of an otherwise dull childhood – as the inspiration for a work based on what was a seemingly simple trek.
Walker-Balfore successfully gave in to the desire to write what she saw, knew, and experienced. Through her creative works, she is able to pay homage to the many persons who influenced her life. Section two recalls individuals who influenced her childhood – neighbours, grade 4 teacher, her sisters and brothers, and her dad and mother. Some persons she called by name – Doreen, for example, in “Morning Fuss”, and granny, also known as “Greasy Minnie” in a poem so titled. Sections four and five celebrate nature, as the poet references goats, love birds, butterflies, and the rooster at daybreak – all relevant to the Caribbean experience. It made me chuckle when I read of “Mother Hen” who
… likes to walk
Around with her chicks,
She scratches the dirt
And then she picks (lines 1-4)
Then Walker-Balfore writes of “Five Iguanas” who are “laying in the sun” and who “sat looking at me”. These are reminiscent of what we see on any given day in Cayman, and she creatively captures what is an integral part of our reality which we often do not see. Also reflective of our reality is the poet’s language. Not at all afraid to write in her ‘nation language’, Walker-Balfore evokes the colloquial concepts of “goat mout”, references “hungry belly”, playing dandy shandy, and appropriately highlights and celebrates the “Pickney” who likes “fi chat”, gets “inna trouble”, and “mek up story” – a seemingly fitting description of the precocious pickney the poet had herself been!
Like many Caribbean writings, Walker-Balfore in Section 10 writes about the mirror which “tells” and “shows” and “is always right”. We have previously explored the notion that writings from Cayman are mirrors which reflect the society, highlighting what needs fixing by ‘showing’ our flaws and ‘telling’ of corrective methods. Section 11 appropriately ends with “A Prayer” by this writer who admits that she has deep Christian roots and has influenced Cayman and Jamaican youths through Sunday School interactions. Not surprisingly, she prays for guidance for herself, for her mom and dad, her sisters, and brothers, and yes, for all of us.