Yello Interviews: Author and Filmmaker Shakirah Bourne
by Karen Rollins Jun 20, 2022
Barbadian author and filmmaker Shakirah Bourne has won awards and recognition for her short fiction, adult books, children’s books, and screenplays.
Shakirah has a vivid imagination which was initially ignited by her upbringing on the south coast of Barbados, and then further fuelled by her love for stories and storytelling.
She put her innate talent for words to good use and has built a successful career on the page, stage, and screen, which has now led to a three-book deal with one of the world’s leading publishers, the Scholastic Corporation.
Shakirah chatted with Yello about her professional life and shared just how much Barbados and the Caribbean have influenced her entire body of work.
Describe yourself using three words.
Creative. Inpatient. Rulebreaker. Mango lover. Proud Barbadian. That’s more than three words, but that goes well with rulebreaker!
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and raised in the south of Barbados in Oistins. I lived with my cousins, aunts, my grandmother, and a lot of family members around.
I remember waking up next to my cousin and going outside to play and we were always off on some adventure. We had a lot of freedom. So, we were always exploring an abandoned house or trying to climb a tree, just getting into trouble and then popping back home for food. I just remember a lot of play.
I went to Christ Church Girl’s School which was five minutes from my home. Some of my best memories are of walking to and from school because sometimes it would take me an hour and a half to get home. We were always exploring.
It’s remarkable how we made unremarkable things interesting; like a butterfly, a bush, or an abandoned car. We would spend 20-25 minutes making up stories about whatever we found.
Then I passed for Queen’s College and that was a big shift because I come from a poor, working class family. So I was nervous about going to a school in the west, but I give credit to Queen’s College for a lot of things, and I think my love for learning was definitely fostered there.
It sounds like you had an almost idyllic childhood?
My childhood was ideal but I’m hesitant to call it that because I know there was trauma around me in the neighbourhood where I grew up. But my mother and family did their best to shield me from it.
It was the 1980s so we were surrounded by negativity, especially towards women, and in terms of domestic violence.
There were a lot of challenges but I think I was quite spoiled. For instance, my dad moved to Canada when I was young, so he was quick to send me anything that I wanted. My mother would also do her best to make sure I had what I wanted.
So it’s an odd complexity and at Queen’s College it was a running joke that I was the spoiled, poor child!
When did you develop a love for words, writing, and storytelling?
When I was about six years old my mum met my stepdad and we moved out with my little sister. That’s when I suddenly had a lot of free time and space and that’s when my love for reading and paper really started. I spent a lot of time writing poems and playing with paper.
My parents and family were not big readers though, so I think my love for reading and writing came from school, my friends, and when I was introduced to the school library and Oistins library. I think I just discovered that love by myself.
But the school library and Oistins library were very small and I was an avid reader so I got through all those books very quickly. I grew inpatient for new books and that’s essentially why I started writing my own stories.
I wrote my first book when I was nine and that was Sweet Valley High fan fiction. It was a book about cheerleading. I wrote stories from then right up to the age of 13 and then I stopped for a little while. I started back writing again at 17 when I entered the NIFCA (National Independence Festival of Creative Arts) Literary Arts competition.
What were your initial career plans?
When I was young I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it drove my mother mad! I went through school just choosing subjects that I liked.
At Queen’s College I was the only person in my entire year to choose English, Spanish, and Art at A-Level. It was so odd the principal even called me into the office to ask me what I planned to do with those subjects and I said, I didn’t know, I just liked them.
At UWI (the University of the West Indies) I chose management and Spanish because I always adored Spanish, but management seemed to be the most all-encompassing degree. If you didn’t know what to do at least you could manage something!
But to tell the truth, I always had a love for writing, I just didn’t think it could be a career.
During that time a lot of people seemed to need help with marketing and that led me to study for a master’s in arts management in Edinburgh. But when I came home there weren’t many jobs in that arena so I went back to freelance writing.
What was it like studying in Scotland?
It was really nice. I particularly remember doing an internship at Edinburgh Playhouse and going to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I did assignments and interviewed people and tried my best to be part of the Festival without actually being part of it.
It was actually a lesson that I didn’t expect because I went to Edinburgh to learn about arts management and I learned more about people than anything else.
I went there on a national development scholarship so I always knew that I had to come back to Barbados and put my knowledge to use back here.
Please explain how / when your writing career began.
After I came back, I started writing short stories for NIFCA. Then I did a fiction course with George Lamming which I would say was a turning point for me.
I wrote a short story for that class, and he loved it so much, he asked me to read it at the unveiling of a room that was being named after him, and from there people started asking me to read my short stories at different events.
I started writing more short stories and publishing them in literary journals and various places. Then in 2013, I decided to collect the short stories into my first published book, ‘In Time of Need’ because I was tired of people asking me where they could buy my work.
So I put my favourite short stories into a collection and put it online.
And, to be honest, I wasn’t even going to charge a fee because I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of it, but in terms of recognition and impact that collection won awards at NIFCA, and it also got me into book festivals around the world.
What was the inspiration behind those initial short stories?
I just knew that I wanted to address Barbadian life and themes that people tend to avoid, which stems from my childhood where I didn’t personally experience trauma, but I saw it all around me.
I also really enjoyed analysing those themes from a child’s perspective because I felt like if you’re able to see these tragedies and social issues through an innocent voice, it made the hypocrisies even more revealing.
I also have a writing style that people find funny in terms of the way I express myself. So I always had humour in there, and people would say the stories are humorous, but they address serious themes.
How did you move into screenwriting?
So, I was writing short stories and I completed George Lamming’s class, and I decided that I wanted to do more workshops because of the success of that class.
BCC (Barbados Community College) had a writing programme but it was at 8am on a Saturday morning which was too early to leave home, so I chose the 1pm class instead, not realising that it was actually for screenwriting.
But I found that screenwriting suited my writing style so I started studying it a lot and writing my own feature films.
However, you need a whole team to get a film produced. I tried making contacts and wasn’t initially successful, but through that I met producer Selwyn Browne. He invited me to be part of a team which consisted of a writer, a producer, a marketer and an editor, basically everyone required to complete a film.
Where did you get the idea for your first released feature film ‘PAYDAY’?
Selwyn approached me with the idea for PAYDAY. He wanted a film that was cheap to make, humorous, with minimal characters and one location. So PAYDAY was made based on those requirements. We shot that film in a week.
I remember people saying that it wouldn’t be successful because the characters spoke in hardcore, unapologetic Bajan accents. It took some time to get it into the cinema here, and it wasn’t actually shown until it had been released in Trinidad and Canada, but once it was screened in Barbados it ran for 13 weeks which was a record at the time and might still be.
PAYDAY’s success led to two other films and because of that I was hired to write and direct a UK production called ‘A Caribbean Dream’.
‘A Caribbean Dream’ has been your most successful film to date – can you explain what it was like working on that project.
‘A Caribbean Dream’ was a very different experience. It was a mixture of Barbadian and UK actors and crew. It was Shakespeare in a Barbadian style so it was my first adaptation of a story.
The budgets for my films increased over the years but with ‘A Caribbean Dream’ I finally had the full funding available to have a full crew and cast. I think in the end we had over 100 people.
But honestly, just having the funding and support made a huge difference in terms of stress, because with the other movies I had about 10 roles but with ‘A Caribbean Dream’ I was just the writer and director. So I had the freedom to rely on others and their expertise which makes for a better production.
I enjoyed working on the set and I think that movie is a good example of what you can do when people invest in the industry. I truly wish that we had access to that level of funding for our original, local stories.
Was it daunting working on a movie with a much bigger budget?
Yes, I was terrified! When I was working on PAYDAY I knew nothing about film. I was just a writer. So it was a lot to go from that, and in two years being in charge of an international production.
But I am a researcher so I overprepared for it. I read all the books I could on directing and that helped, because once you have a vision, and you know that you can rely on qualified persons around you to do the job, it’s just a matter of communication after that. You don’t have to know everything!
So, it was daunting at first, but then you just needed to get the job done. I think my experience working on smaller productions was also beneficial because on those independent projects we didn’t have the luxury of failing, so I think that work ethic really helped with ‘A Caribbean Dream’.
We had challenges during filming, but because of my experience with the other films I just found solutions and that attitude really helped.
‘A Caribbean Dream’ won several awards and your other work has also won recognition – what has been your proudest achievement so far?
It’s very difficult to answer that question. I’ve been very fortunate to be recognised in Barbados and overseas so to pick one award feels like betraying the impact and the power of the others.
The one that’s coming to mind would be the Governor General’s Award for Excellence for ‘In Time of Need’. Just because it felt really good to be appreciated at home and in a competition where I kind of got my start as a serious writer.
Obviously recently getting a Scholastic book deal would be an extremely proud achievement as well.
Please tell us more about your book deal with Scholastic and what you are currently working on.
My original Scholastic book deal was for ‘Josephine Against the Sea’ (also known as ‘My Fishy Stepmom’) but then a year later they bought two more books. So I’ve just finished a middle grade horror book for kids.
Growing up I used to play a lot of pranks and tell a lot of horror stories, so it’s been pretty cool to have the opportunity to write a book for the same publisher who releases R.L. Stine’s books.
I’m also working on the sequel to ‘Josephine Against the Sea’ which is tapping into Barbadian folklore again and adventures in the Barbadian community.
You’ve produced short fiction, adult books, children’s books, screenplays and stage plays, which genre do you prefer working on?
I always tell people that short fiction is my soulmate and screenwriting is my outside lover (laughter). But then children’s books happened!
I spent quite a bit of time writing for hire and to deadlines, so I kind of forgot the joy of just telling a story until I started writing for kids. Writing for kids reminded me of the joy of writing.
Also, they are adorable. I have received fan mail from kids that means so much to me and has made me even more emotional than winning awards. There’s something special about knowing you influenced or impacted a child’s life through a book.
I still love the other genres of course but there’s something special about children loving your work.
How has your writing process / style changed over the years?
George Lamming was really the first person who taught me about voice and creating your own author voice, which you do by reading other people’s work, including work you don’t even like, because then you have to examine why you don’t like it and why it doesn’t appeal to you.
So, I think my author voice has become stronger and I’m more confident in who I am as a writer and what people can expect from me. Even though I write vastly different stories and different genres, there is still something in it that people will know that it is mine.
Writing for each genre has also improved my work. Writing stage plays helped me improve dialogue. Writing for film helped me to become more visual and also taught me how to structure a story. Writing for kids helped me to make a point very quickly while keeping it entertaining and educational at the same time.
Every time I explore a different genre I learn something and I think it changes my writing style a little bit.
I used to have a writing process where I would wake up at 5am and I would finish most of my writing at 9am and spend the rest of the day answering emails or doing research. I find that now my process changes depending on the project and the deadline.
With ‘Josephine Against the Sea’ I was writing it for a competition where the deadline was in three weeks. So I had to write that story from morning through night for three weeks straight. With the horror story I’ve found that I write better at night.
When I get writing blocks I have to just push through them and when it’s really tough I take a break and unblock through painting. Painting distracts me.
Where do you get ideas for your work from now?
I have not stopped having a Barbadian focus. I can look outside and see an interaction and that’ll spark a story idea.
I am also a huge folklore fan and I want to see more Caribbean folklore in the mass media so I’m always looking at how I can adapt our folklore into something modern to appeal to today’s audience.
I am just inspired by life and since I live in Barbados this is where I find most of my ideas. I also love the sea and the beach, and because I grew up in Oistins, the sea has always had a major impact on my work.
What advice do you have for aspiring Caribbean creatives?
I tell people all the time that a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit!
If you have a story that you feel passionate about telling then just do it. Keep going. Keep focusing on your craft and improving. Just don’t stop, because even if you don’t achieve your dream, you will get better. It’s also more likely to happen if you don’t stop.
Finding a writing community is also key. NIFCA helped me in writing my short stories in terms of having a deadline and getting feedback from professionals in the industry.
The NCF (National Cultural Foundation) has a lot of different programmes for people who want to write. There are also Facebook groups and they intersect with the poetry scene. I also do a lot of mentorship and help writers with feedback and finding an agent.
They say it’s a solitary journey but it is not and at times you need to talk to like-minded people and hear how they dealt with challenges and improved their craft.
What do you love the most about Barbados?
I like our ability to laugh at ourselves. You can be going through the most traumatic thing and a Bajan will still crack a joke.
What do you do / where do you go to relax?
Most of the time I go to Miami beach. You can find me there just sitting on the sand, staring at the sea, or reading a book.
What is your philosophy / motto / approach in life?
I have so many but the one that comes to mind is ‘embrace fear’.
I’ve realised that when you are afraid of something it means that your life is going to change in a dramatic way and in my experience it is normally for the better.
A lot of projects I have taken on, I have felt fear, and then immediately I say “yes” because it means I am going to push myself beyond my boundaries.
If you could go back in time and talk to yourself as a teenager, what would you say?
I’m not even going to be poetic I’m just going to say “you’ll be just fine.”
When I was younger, as I said, I had no idea what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be, everyone seemed to have a plan except me so I would just tell myself, “focus on what you enjoy and you’ll be just fine.”
You can find out more about Shakirah’s work on her website – https://www.shakirahbourne.com