Cindy McKenzie’s Force Ripe (2015) presents a poignant tale of parental neglect, community indifference, sexual abuse, isolation and ignorance of Lee and her brother, Rally. Told through the eyes of Lee, who is not yet six years old when the books begins, and ends when she is in her teens, this story of Caribbean life in Grenada is not one you have likely read before. Honest and revealing, Force Ripe takes you on the journey with Lee, and you get to witness first hand, the uncertainty that is her life and world, replete with verbal and other abuses. It is sure to make you cry. I recommend it to be included in Caribbean literature and sociology courses.
OPA: This is your first book, what have you written before and where have you been published ?
CM: Apart from a response to a letter published in Mslexia Women’s magazine and a star letter in Woman & Home Magazine- for which I won a hat box of lovely French Chocolates and allowed myself to bask (just a little bit) in the novelty of seeing my name in print – I had not been published before Force Ripe. Previous writings include bits of prose, some poetry and short stories prompted by various online Writing Courses.
OPA: Roughly speaking, how long did it take you to write?
CM: It was a long process. I can’t remember how long, but I think I completed the first draft in a few months. I started writing – what I then titled “Celestial Shades,” back in 2001. I have a “registered to myself”, two hundred and ten pages, double-sided first draft, dated June 2005. So much has happened along this journey I have travelled with this book. And what took me a few months to write, took me fourteen years to publication.
OPA: Can you share your process of writing this novel? What are some of the ranges of emotions you experienced?
CM: The process. Hm. Writers have so many theories and rules about what works, how it should be done, when it should be done. And I have tried some of them. For me, it was handwritten notes of memories, ideas and then I drafted the chapters. Next, I typed them onto the computer. I still do it this way.
I knew nothing about rules or the fundamentals of writing at the time [I began the novel.]. What I had was this story. And I was very determined to tell it my way. I learned along the way –from the first terribly written draft– which I sent to Ian Randle Publishers, to the creative writing classes taken after the first draft, to revising, dealing with critique etc. And the learning continues.
Writing Force Ripe was therapeutic for me. I had to make that journey, all the way back and step inside Lee’s head- see through her eyes, listen with her ears, feel what she felt, talk the way she talked, walk with her again, so readers could also make that journey with her. And this journey evoked every kind of emotion in me. These emotions changed with every corner I turned, and every chapter I wrote.
OPA: This is not an easy subject, what prompted you to write this novel?
CM: This story has lived in me for as long as I have lived with it. And for a long time it has been nagging me, begging to be voiced. So I listened.
OPA: Force ripe is a Caribbean term that I heard it growing up in Jamaica. How would you describe that term for non-Caribbean people, in particular as it relates to Lee, the protagonist?
CM: To Force ripe something, for example a fruit, is to ripen it prematurely, before it is fully matured and ready. In the Caribbean, the term Force Ripe is used to refer to girls who try to be mature, who act like grown ups, too early. In many instances, as was the case with Lee, the child has been forced ripe, having to grow up too quickly, not by her own doing or choosing, but because of circumstances, choices made by the adults in her life and because of neglect. Perhaps unintended, but neglect all the same. Lee was forced to do adult things, have adult experiences, look after herself way before she was ready, before she was mature enough.
OPA: Who do you see as the audience?
CM: Because of the language, and topics presented, I see Force Ripe as suitable reading for a wide audience – from the young adult, to the very senior. I believe Force Ripe has a little bit for everyone, especially our Caribbean audience, who will be able resonate with the scenes, characters, the places, the culture and the language. I want readers to want to read this book and want to share it with others. Selective parts can even be read to the very young audience.
OPA: Are you inspired by other writers from the Caribbean, especially Merle Collins, a fellow Grenadian?
CM :I am not as widely read as I would like, however, I am inspired by writers who are bold and brave enough to step outside of conformity and write the truth, write about the taboo stuff which are unspoken and frown upon. I admire those who are not afraid to use our “Nation language” and to quote you on that, “… there are just some things that don’t have the same sense of intimacy or color if not said in Nation language…. I use nation language… to say what I mean from the center of my navel… to jolt readers to listen and read more carefully, to glean from the language the Caribbean sensibilities that I am always pushing, sometimes subtly, other times more forcefully. Nation language allows me to infuse the poem with all of the smells and colors of home…” I too believe this to be true. I thoroughly enjoyed Bake Face & other Guava Stories and Merle Collins’ Callaloo poem. When I was writing this someone very close said to me, “enough bakes and cocoa tea stories.” Am glad I didn’t listen, because bakes and cocoa tea to me is like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to him! And I still Love my bakes and cocoa tea.
OPA: Are you currently writing or thinking about writing another novel?
CM: I have to. I already have a few chapters, which I had cut from Force Ripe, so I have a start. I would like to get right to it now, but life happens in between.
OPA: What are you hopes for this novel — in other words who do you want it to reach, which in my mind is different from audience, what place do you hope it will have?
CM: I would like to see Force Ripe in the schools, especially the secondary schools. It would be great to have it on the school curriculum, and not just in our local Grenadian schools, but as far as it can reach, throughout the Caribbean. I really hope it will find a place on the shelf of book stores, in-spite of the self published taboo which hangs over it. And I would love to see Force Ripe as a movie.
OPA: Your children certainly were involved in the production of the book, how does being a mother inform the writing of this book?
CM: Being a mother has made me look at the characters with different eyes, especially the main character Lee. As I wrote about Lee’s experiences, I was able to compare her with my own daughter at different stages in her life, particularly at the age of 10. Being a mother has made me look at myself and where my children would have been had I make different choices, like my own parents did.
An excerpts from Force Ripe
“The convent girls gather up the front gate and line up the steps like a firing squad when they hear the Rastaman daughter coming. Me legs tremble. Me chest get heavy with fright. So I pull meself inside me like a soldier crab. I could do it real good now. And sometimes, I does even forget to come back out (p.272)”