Tuesday, June 21, 2011

That's What Sisters Do: A Tribute to Dionne Benjamin Smith

Writers have obsessions. One of mine is sisterhood. The root of this of course is probably the fact that I didn't have a blood sister and always wished I did. Over the years the universe provided me instead with good friends who have loved and put up with me as sisters do, who have celebrated my achievements with me, cheered me on through the fallow times, challenged me when my vision was cloudy, generously gave of their wisdom, talent and friendship, who have remained true through it all. Among the dearest of these are the "sisters" I gained in the days when WomanSpeak was first being conceived and created. This writing is about one of them, WomanSpeak co-creator Dionne Benjamin-Smith, the artist and designer who took our imaginings and words and turned them into real and lovely books we could hold in our hands.

I have been terribly remiss up to now in that I've never properly, ie, publicly, acknowledged and thanked Dionne for her all the inspired and visionary work she did to bring our journal into being. I wish now that I would have credited her as co-editor in each book because she was nothing less. The simple fact is that without Dionne Benjamin Smith there wouldn't have been a single WSJ, much less five. The cover she designed for the very first WSJ, with its central image of a leaping female figure in a stark, edgy style, is still one of the coolest book covers I've ever seen. She designed, co-edited and contributed artwork to all five journals. It was her artistry and special design ability that brought our books to life. When Helen Klonaris went back to school after the fourth book she handed over the editorship to me and for the next five years or so it was Dionne who continued to work with me on the fifth manuscript. We both had enormous time constraints. She was growing her young business and I was at home growing a young son. And there was the continuing problem of no money. Dionne gave her time and talent for free through all those years. The time came when we were both burned out. There were so many obstacles, the main one being no funding. (These were the days before print on demand publishing existed, when making a book was enormously expensive.) Dionne and I agreed we would have to shelve the fifth manuscript until another day. That new day came in 2010 when at last there was time, funding and inspiration enough to bring the fifth collection to print at last. I was able to take the manuscript that Dionne had done so much work on and with Dionne's blessing hand it over to Julia Ames who put the finishing touches on it and at last a new book was born.

Dionne's contribution to the making of the WomanSpeak Journals was and continues to be an enormous one. In the beginning she was the one with the seemingly magical power to take the raw stuff that Helen and I brought to her and transform it into real, honest to goodness books that were beautiful, little works of art in and of themselves, but with historical and political significance as well, books that were changing our lives as we made them, and birthing a new literary tradition to boot. It was her art in the early books that made it clear that WSJ was going to be a journal unlike any other, her art that so perfectly gave form and shape to our collective vision, her art that raised a few eyebrows (much to my delight) and compelled many more to buy our books. These days Dionne continues to be a sister supporter of WomanSpeak. I still call on her every day for technical help, she sill patiently walks me through. I still depend on the unending support she gives as a sister in the creative arts. I will never forget how she kept the faith through those years when we worked on the book alone. I honor her because she truly doesn't care a fig about public recognition, only about doing all she can to nurture and support our efforts to provide a space for the work of a new generation of women writers and artists in the Bahamas and across the Caribbean. (The fact is that her own art is stunning, her paintings and woodcuts are daring, wrought with social commentary, full of ancient spirit and newborn vision. Her work has been exhibited in The Bahamas, the United States, Germany and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her print work has been discussed and featured in critical art journals including Small Axe, and in essays by noted art curators and historians. Her fabulous digital art and design work is showcased these days in the online marketing and promotions she and husband artist Jolyon Smith produce through their Bahamian Arts and Culture Marketing Service. O yes, she's a successful entrepreneur too.)

I want the women writers and artists of today and of future generations to know about the work Dionne Benjamin Smith did to create a sacred space for our voices as co-creator of WomanSpeak. I value her voice, so quietly powerful, and I feel blessed and honoured that I've been able to collaborate with her for all these years. She will be credited as co-creator in all future books. If our little book ever grows into a noted Caribbean journal of new women's writing and art I want those young women writers of the future to remember Dionne as a founding mother of the movement.

But it is the sisterhood I share with her that I treasure the most. I know that everything she did for and with us over the years was out of genuine love, the kind blood sisters have. How else could she have put up with me? Why have I taken so long to publicly acknowledge and thank her for co-creating the WSJ with us? I have always known that it was her art and design that made our books possible and special. I have always known how lucky I am to be Dionne's sister in the arts, and her friend too. But I never said so until now. Again, why has she put up with me?

Because that's what sisters do.


Sam Duncombe said...

What a wonderful tribute.

Dionne Benjamin-Smith said...

Thank you my sister. Words can't express.....I am overwhelmed still.

Lynn Sweeting said...

love you dionne!

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