[Guest Post] No Blue, No Green: Reflections on Gone to Drift



Teaching young people about the important issues of our time benefits their development, and helps shape their passion for social justice later in life. Social justice, whether it be environmental, political, gender oriented, or economic is a crucial subject to discuss with children if we want them to grow up to be compassionate global citizens. This is the second essay in a new author series in which we're publishing guest posts by children's and YA authors who've written books with social justice themes. Today, May 22nd, is International Day for Biological Diversity and it's also United States National Maritime Day, making it the perfect day to share Diana's reflection centered on her debut YA novel Gone to Drift. Diana is an environmentalist by training and while the book isn't only about environmental justice, it does deal with issues surrounding the environment, marine conservation and pollution. Without further ado, we welcome Diana to the site!


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I was born in Kingston and Kingston Harbour has always been my front yard. My parents and paternal grandparents were recreational fishers, so I grew up with the sea. My mother told me I went to sea before I was three months old; my protagonist in Gone to Drift, Lloydie, does this too. As a teenager, I read books about going to sea by Hemingway, Monserrat, Defoe, Melville─ novels of exploration, war, shipwrecks and castaways. The sea meant adventure, escape, freedom, drama.
My relationship with the sea was never one of risk, however, and I never had to eke a living from the sea. As a child, I saw fishers in their open boats, in calm seas and rough ones, day and night, and I admired their skills and their bravery. I learned to fish myself and later, to snorkel and much later, scuba-dive.
And as I grew older, I realized that the sea I loved was dying─ beaches were strewn with garbage, reefs were covered with algae and Jamaica’s waters were heavily overfished. I became an environmentalist in 1990 on the day I stood on the Palisadoes strip─ the sandy spit that forms Kingston Harbour ─and saw it had become a garbage dump. That same year, I visited the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant, which then had not worked in 15 years. Raw sewage bubbled up out of the pipes and flowed across the land into the sea. In what universe, I asked myself, is this okay?
I knew nothing about the environment but I started reading and the more I read, the more concerned I became. As an islander, I focused on the sea. I learned that all life came from the sea and all life on earth still depends on the sea. As pioneering oceanographer Sylvia Earle famously said: “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” The ocean covers almost three-quarters of the planet and gives us the air we breathe and the water we drink. About half the earth’s people live in the coastal zone and rely on the sea for food and livelihoods. Here in the Caribbean, we live on islands in close relationship with the sea.
I thought my task was a simple one─ I just had to tell people the ocean was under threat, and once they knew, they would act. Of course that was naïve. As the years went by, I began to see that while facts about the state of the sea are important, it is more important to touch people’s hearts. And the best way to do that is through stories.
I have interacted with countless fishers through my environmental work and it seems there are two kinds─ men (yes they are mostly men) who know and love the sea and do not intend to do harm, and men who do not care, who perhaps cannot afford to care. I have seen that a whole way of life is dying in the Caribbean─ the fishing markets and villages, beaches, and the sea itself.  New types of livelihoods have emerged─ some legal, many illegal. My environmental work has also brought me into contact with the captive dolphin industry. I visited one of the dolphin facilities here in Jamaica and I watched those extraordinary marine athletes─ the dolphins ─perform tricks for thoughtless people. Again I thought: in what universe is this okay? I wanted to write a story about this clash between the old ways of fishing and new ways of exploiting the sea. I imagined an old-time fisherman in conflict with a modern fisher and a boy standing between them.
Stories often start with a “what if?” question. Mine was: what if the old-time fisher and the modern fisher were father and son? What if they were in conflict about the capture of dolphins for the tourist trade? And then one night as I was falling asleep, an image came to me of a boy sitting on a wall at night in the rain, staring out to sea. He was waiting for someone. Whom was he waiting for? It had to be someone lost at sea. Why was this person lost at sea? The story of Lloydie’s search for Ma’as Conrad began to unfold in my mind.
Jamaican coast guard patrol vessel. Photo: Mark Matta.
I decided to set the book in Treasure Beach on Jamaica’s south coast, because dolphins still visit the fishing villages there and also because it is a departure point for fishers leaving for the Pedro Bank and Cays. What if something happened to Ma’as Conrad on the Pedro Bank? Was there somewhere he could be stranded and survive? I spoke to people who worked on the Pedro Bank and learned about Portland Rock, the northern-most of the Pedro Cays group. How could Lloydie get to the Pedro Bank? I knew the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard went to the Pedro Cays once a week. Could my young protagonist stowaway on a Coast Guard boat? I had no idea. I asked if I could see one of the boats and somewhat to my surprise, the Commander said yes. I stood on the dock, toured the ship and figured out how Lloydie could climb aboard. I had all the major elements of my story.
Although we Caribbean people live on islands, many of us are not really “island people.” We don’t swim, we don’t go to sea, and we’re scared of the sea which brings us storms and holds our tragic history. This may be particularly true for the upcoming generation. I wanted to write a story to introduce readers of all kinds, but especially young readers, to the skill and trade of fishing. My story pays tribute to the old-time fishers who respected and loved the sea, and to seagoing people everywhere. It is also a story about what we’re losing, about the increasingly empty sea that now surrounds us. My hope is that the characters in Gone to Drift have revealed what is at stake through their struggles.


About the Author

Diana McCaulay is an award-winning Jamaican writer and environmental activist. She has written three novels for adults, White Liver Gal, Huracan and Dog-Heart. Gone to Drift, her first young adult novel, placed second in the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature and won the Vic Reid Award for Young Adult Literature at Jamaica’s national Lignum Vitae Awards in 2016. Both Dog-Heart and Huracan were shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize for International Writing. She won the Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean writing in 2014, for her non fiction work-in-progress Loving Jamaica: a Memoir of Place and (Not) Belonging. Diana’s short fiction has appeared in Granta, Eleven Eleven, Fleeting Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, Afro-Beat, Lifestyle Magazine and the Jamaica Observer. She was the Caribbean regional winner for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story prize in 2012 for her story "The Dolphin Catcher." You can find her online at dianamccaulay.com
I first knew José Martí not as a political hero, but as a storyteller, and as a link to my parents’ homeland. My mother liked to read to my siblings and I from La edad de oro, the children’s magazine that Martí published in New York City in 1889. Our favorite story was Los zapaticos de rosa, and my mom read it to us again and again, along with other Latin American stories, such as Rubén Darío’s Margarita. In my memory, the father in Los zapaticos de rosa and the king in Margarita have the same voice: my mother’s, deep and strong.Our edition of La edad de oro was a heavy tome with Martí’s portrait rendered in bold primary colors on the cover. Above the shelf where the book lived, there was a picture of my grandfather. Martí and my grandfather were both small and slight, and both had big moustaches. As a very young child I would confuse the two of them, sometimes surprised when the big book resurfaced after months beneath a pile of toys to find the red-and-yellow Martí portrait and not my grandfather staring back at me. Of course, these two Cuban men lived nearly a half-century apart, but it is no coincidence that Martí is so intimately entwined with my sense of family and home: my mother’s voice, my grandfather’s moustache, childhood books and toys. Like my family and so many other Cuban-Americans, Martí loved Cuba but made a home anew in the United States. This knowledge, that Martí belonged to both my parents’ homeland and my own, is something that I've carried with me always.
Years later, I rediscovered the connections between José Martí, the United States and Latin America when I was working in the Hudson Valley. A relative in Cuba had given me a copy of Versos sencillos, Martí’s most famous work of poetry. While upstate, I’d been savoring the familiar words, those drawn from the song “Guantanamera,” and unpacking the stanzas that were new to me, whose words and images challenged me or forced me to consult a dictionary. I thought that this exercise was entirely separate from the Hudson Valley, from its people and landscape. But just when I felt most isolated from Latino culture, I discovered another connection to José Martí: Versos sencillos had been written in New York’s Catskill Mountains, in a little town just across the river from where I was. On doctor’s orders, Martí had visited the Catskills after an illness, where he was inspired to write his best-known poetry. I’d gone to a place that felt far from my culture and my family only to discover the wellspring of the well-known words:

Yo soy un hombre sinceroDe donde crece la palma,Y antes de morirme quieroEchar mis versos del alma.

It would be a few years after that before I began writing the picture book Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, and even longer still before it was acquired by Jessica Echeverria at Lee & Low Books, brilliantly translated by Adriana Dominguez and richly illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. In the process of telling Martí’s story for children, I had to re-acquaint myself with Martí through research, by reading the latest academic scholarship as well as Martí’s articles and letters. But the compass and core of this story are what I’ve always known about Martí.
I knew from La edad de oro that the toughest themes can also be laced with magic and music. Los zapaticos de rosa is a story about poverty, but it is lovely in its rhythm and imagery. Its themes are challenging, but even the youngest child can access its simple language. I could never attempt to imitate Martí, but I know he would have wanted his biography to be told with similar bravery. He would have wanted it to include struggles and thorns without sacrificing beauty.
Martí’s Song for Freedom tells the story of Martí the political hero, of his fierce resolve to free Cuba from colonial oppression, but it is also a story about his love for nature and the poetry that flowed from his pen. Most of all, it is a story about connections, and about how a man who loved Cuba so much found inspiration in New York State. The American children’s author Kate DiCamillo has spoken about books making us more capacious of heart, capable of holding more joy and sorrow. [1] I think that Martí was capacious of heart as he held Cuba inside him even while allowing himself to be inspired by New York.I am awed by the many children in our country who, like Martí, hold two homelands in one heart. I hope that Martí’s story will bring us all courage.
Beatriz Vidal's illustrations from Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad,
The scholar Ángel Esteban wrote that Martí didn’t distinguish between “theory and praxis, a poem and a gunshot, a meeting of diplomats or a story for children.” [2] Martí didn’t distinguish, instead he built bridges and tied knots, forging connections everywhere he went. Like my family and like so many Americans, he lived a life that laced together the United States and Latin America, fully capable of fighting oppression while embracing the beauty of nature and literature.
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MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM hits shelves July 17, 2017. Emma is sending bilingual activity packets as well as signed bookplates and stickers to those who pre-order the book. To get yours, pre-order from any retailer and fill out this form. Happy reading!
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[1] Kate DiCamillo. Flora & Ulysses: Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech. American Library Association Annual Conference, 2014.
[2] Ángel Esteban. Introduction. Cuentos completos: La edad de oro y otros relatos. By José Martí. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1995. ix-xliii.


About the Author

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at emmaotheguy.com.

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