Shala Alert is a Jamaican living with her husband and three children in Trinidad. She has an MPhil in literatures in English and has lectured in literature at the university level. She has also taught English to high school students. Her love of literature started very early in life, and it has never let her go. With that love came the desire to write her own stories. Shala also has a keen interest in postcolonial studies, specifically as relates to the formation of black identity, and the experience of disenfranchisement experienced by many postcolonial “subjects” in a supposedly “post”-colonial world. This is a theme that necessarily informs her stories. Shala firmly believes that the study of literature, and the arts in general, is crucial in the development of well-rounded, balanced, and moral human beings. She put her career mostly on hold over the last few years to homeschool her three small children. Reading, drawing, painting and creative writing form a big part of their home-based educational environment.
If you haven't done so already, check out Shala's award-winning story "Fishing for Fingers" and then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Fall 2020 Flash Fiction Contest! What excited you most about writing this story?
Shala: I've never successfully written flash fiction before; I tend to always want to tell longer, more detailed stories. So, having to learn how to pare down a tale to its most essential parts was probably one of the most productive learning experiences I've had since I started focusing on my creative writing about a year and a half ago. I have also seen people go through many tough experiences in our own humble Jamaican context (and there are things I've experienced, too); sometimes horrible things happen, and sometimes people are heroic and sacrificial and resilient. These are stories that perhaps have never been told, and I want to try to tell the ones that only I can tell. I was excited to try to do that with "Fishing for Fingers."
WOW: It gives my heart a little flutter to think that we each have stories that only we can tell, and what an amazing feeling it must be to find that for yourself in this story. What did you learn about yourself or your writing while crafting this piece?
Shala: I learned that I have a lot of fear regarding revealing myself: my beliefs, my worries, my heart, even my righteous anger - it's a fear of being judged. I wrote this story specifically for this competition. So, before I started, I already knew that I was going to be putting my heart out there for people to see. I was more apprehensive than I expected, and the process of working through it and then letting a piece of me go was very interesting. It was also good for me.
WOW: Oh my, yes. This is a relatable feeling for a lot of our WOW readers and writers. It’s scary to bare your heart and soul and serve it to an audience, but we’re so glad you took that risk with us! Please tell us more about postcolonial studies and how it informs your writing.
Shala: Let me preface my answer by saying that postcolonial studies is a discipline or area of academic scholarship that concerns formerly colonized cultures and ethnicities from all corners of the globe, but as I am a Caribbean person of African descent, I will skew my answer accordingly. The institution, system and practice of colonialism/colonization caused a lot of damage to cultures around the world (this is a gross understatement, really), and there are many peoples living in diverse places - including Jamaica and the Caribbean - who have lost their connection to their own pre-slavery history, ancestors, and identity, and also their ancient stories. Many African cultures are story-centered. Human beings, in general, are story-centered. It's part of how we determine our identity. Postcolonial studies explores the human cost of colonialism (and slavery) among peoples who were colonized (including what we lost, like our ancestral stories and our sense of a coherent identity), with the intent of recovering what can be recovered, recreating what can be recreated, and creating brand new identity out of our current experiences. Our Caribbean authors, poets, playwrights, artists, musicians, etc., also try to do the same thing. They tell old and new stories of us: where we came from, what our ancestors suffered, what we have suffered, and who we are now, and from our own perspective this time. In my case, as a scholar, I have studied that human cost, and as a person I have also witnessed and experienced aspects of it, firsthand. Now, as a student of the craft of writing, I hope that I can continue to contribute to this far-reaching project of identity recovery/formation, and also help to put a human face on the scholarship and statistics of suffering and heroism.
WOW: Thank you for this explanation and for continuing to bring these stories, voices, experiences, and identities to the forefront. What a worthy and necessary endeavor. I’m so glad you could share a piece of this with us. What are you reading right now, and why did you choose to read it?
Shala: I have been focusing on several writers recently. I will mention two: Olive Senior and Ursula le Guin. Olive Senior often writes about that same postcolonial distress I mentioned before, but also about Jamaica and Jamaicans, about the value and beauty and pain of everyday life, and about the choices people make and the consequences they face. The imagery she used in her poetry collection Shell is so moving and evocative. I'm trying to learn from her. Regarding Ursula le Guin, her use of the science fiction genre as a means to discuss disenfranchisement, exploitation and alienation is impressive to me. You can really confront the difficult and scary issues in speculative fiction, I think. It should be easier for readers to interact with those difficult and scary things, too.
WOW: If you could give your younger self one piece of writing advice, what would it be and why?
Shala: Don't stop writing, even if you don't like what you're writing. Just keep writing, and keep reading, and trust the process. Your writing will get better.
WOW: Wonderful advice. Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses! Happy writing!
Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She has a master's degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University. She is also a competitive swimmer, a trail adventurer, a dog lover, and a new mom. Tweets @dr_greenawalt.