Overseas writers win studio turn

Angella Emurwon and Janet Morrisson at the winners' ceremony in London Angella Emurwon and Janet Morrisson at the winners' ceremony in London

Angella Emurwon ripped up her first novel, penned at the age of 12 in a school exercise book.

'I thought it was a silly story that was like every other story I'd read so I destroyed it,' explains the Ugandan writer.

Petulant perhaps, but it set Emurwon on a course which has seen her write and direct her own plays and, this month, win first prize in the 'English as a second language' category of the International Playwriting Competition run by the World Service and British Council.

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I wanted Ugandan people to read my book or play and say, I know this person, they live down my street”

End Quote Angella Emurwon Playwright

'I decided I wanted to write for Ugandans,' she tells Ariel during her trip to London to see her winning script, Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, recorded at Broadcasting House.

'A lot of Ugandan writing propagates the tourist view of the country, but I wanted Ugandan people to read my book or play and say, I know this person, they live down my street.'

Authentic voice

Speaking in faultless English ('it's not my first language but my father was very strict about how it was spoken'), she cautions that there is a danger of dilution when you work in another tongue.

'Expressions can't be translated directly and retain their richness,' she says, 'but they still have to be authentic to people from my community - not gentrified.'

Sunflowers centres on two children from contrasting backgrounds - Yakobo, who has never been away from home before taking an ill-advised trip to Kampala, and street urchin Tonnie, a girl who masquerades as a boy.

Angella Emurwon at the BBC Angella Emurwon says BBC has improved her play

A rites-of-passage story, it sees the pair share adventures and discover that good things can be hidden behind unwelcome exteriors, like sunflowers behind a dirty fence.

Enid Blyton

The image harks back to Emurwon's childhood in Mombasa, Kenya. 'There was a sunflower garden by my house; it was planted in cycle - one day there'd be nothing there, the next full-grown sunflowers. It made me happy.'

As a child she always had her head in a book - West African and Ugandan authors as well as Enid Blyton. 'It got me in a lot of trouble, reading instead of doing my chores.'

Now living in Kampala, Uganda's capital, she writes and directs stage plays, earning her break when she bagged third place in the 2010 BBC African Performance playwriting competition. After the BBC came to Uganda to record her play, a small theatre company asked her to adapt and direct it for the National Theatre of Uganda. 'That was new to me and really scary,' she admits.

But she's entrusted Sunflowers to the BBC. 'It's like somebody reading your diaries - you feel naked,' Emurwon says, 'but I've had the benefit of working with people who have been in the business longer than me. I've seen how good the play has become through the editing process. I'm a much better writer for it.'

'The real prize'

Janet Veronica Morrison, a Jamaican who won top honours in the 'English as a first language group' for her play The Fisherman, also values the BBC expertise, considering this contact 'the real prize'.

'Helen [Perry, director] is a smart and savvy young woman,' says the writer whose play centres on a teenage girl who goes missing from a sleepy Jamaican fishing village and her family's quest to find her.

The judges describe it as 'a real thriller', but for Morrisson it's a reflection of the growing sex trade in the Caribbean over the last decade and what she perceives as a disinclination by the authorities to address the problem.

Janet Morrisson Janet Morrisson in the studio at Broadcasting House

'You get the feeling that it's not regarded as a priority issue; I don't feel there is the political will to deal with it - the economic conundrum we find ourselves in is the focus,' she says. 'In Jamaica we are very sensitive to issues that might affect our international profile and damage tourism.'

Strip club

Her drama is set in Negril - a laid-back tourist town with seven miles of white sand, which Morrisson often visits with her husband. Last time they were there, somebody mentioned a strip club in the hills. Just before that she read about a sex market - where girls were being traded - that had been discovered elsewhere on the island.

'I realised that the whole sex industry is no longer just in the seedy parts; it is infiltrating tourist towns.'

But despite its gritty theme, the author denies that the play is harrowing. She says she wanted to tap into the spirit of the Jamaican people - 'It's not all bad. We're an energetic and wonderfully productive society'.

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I'd like it to be expanded into a good film. It has drama, comedy, action; there's no love story, but I could put one in.”

End Quote Janet Morrisson

Her drama includes some funny characters, with parts drawn from her own experience. 'The girl in the play has an irrepressible personality at first. It's not a downer but it is a serious drama.'

With a cinematic plot, Ariel suggests? 'That is where my head is,' Morrison concedes. 'I'd like it to be expanded into a good film. It has drama, comedy, action; there's no love story, but I could put one in,' she offers with a laugh.

Morrison was born in Spanish Town, just outside of Kingston, but her family moved to Grenada when she was four, because her father was appointed its administrator. 'It made me a very Caribbean person,' she muses.

The family returned to Jamaica - the Caribbean's largest English-speaking country - when Morrison was 10.

She studied radio and tv arts in Canada and has worked in communications for the last 30 years. The mother of six is currently vice president of a creative advertising agency.

'I've always written,' she confides, 'I just haven't sent my work off to agents.'

She entered the BBC competition - now in its 23rd year and open to anyone resident outside Britain - on a whim. She took a week off to pen her script, her ambition piqued when she spotted that one of her young copywriters had been shortlisted for a short story prize.

'That was my motivation,' she admits. 'If he can do it so can I. Maybe for me it's only just begun.'

  • Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, World Service, March 30
  • The Fishermen, World Service, April 13 and 14


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