News: Kereen Getten on When Life Gives You Mangoes and the Power of Storytelling

Kereen Getten grew up in Jamaica where she would climb fruit trees in the family garden and eat as much mango, guinep and pear as she could without being caught. She now lives in Birmingham with her family and writes stories about her childhood experiences.  When Life Gives You Mangoes is her debut novel. Her extract for this novel awarded her as Highly Commended in the 2017 FAB Prize.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to write a book about home. About the small fishing village where I was born and the memories I had, the game we played, the adventures we went on. But I also love mysteries and thought it would be interesting to take a beautiful backdrop like Jamaica and add some mystery to it as that’s what I love to write.

What are your hopes for When Life Gives You Mangoes? Who did you write it for?

My hope is that young black children see themselves in this book. To see someone who looks you in a book tells you, you matter, your stories matter. Particularly kids in the Caribbean who really don’t get many stories written about them. I hope I make them proud.

To see someone who looks you in a book tells you, you matter, your stories matter.

What has the writing and publishing process been like for you? What highlights have you had so far and what lessons have you learnt from it?

The publishing process has been a learning curve for me. I started off writing adult novels, and I submitted three adult novels, each of which were me learning about myself and what worked and what didn’t. The last two novels got some interest (full requests) but didn’t go any further. Then I the wrote a YA novel which got me my agent, and When Life Gives You Mangoes, which got me published. A highlight for me was being Highly Commended by the FAB Prize with an early chapter of When Life Gives You Mangoes. It gave me confidence at a time when I was lacking it big time. Another highlight was having my book in my hand for the first time. Nothing can prepare you for that. It’s overwhelming. I have learnt to believe in my voice, that I have a story to tell and my stories matter.

What does great storytelling mean to you?

For me, great storytelling is when a writer draws you in with the first word, and every word after that swallows you whole until you come out the other end breathless, and desperate to go back. It’s writing characters that you don’t have to love but you want to root for. Characters that make you believe that you are the only one who knows their secret. It’s worlds that are so real you want to buy a ticket and visit. It’s about stories that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

What is the best piece of advice you have received about writing?

An author once told me to write, publish, repeat and keep doing it over and over. Set up a blog, write for social media, write short stories, anywhere and everywhere. I took that advice and despite being terrified, I did just that. I set up a blog and wrote poetry and short stories on my Instagram for a year.

Do you have any daily or regular practices you use to refine your skills?

No, I just write. I try to write every day. Most of the time what I write makes no sense but I keep everything in case it comes in handy later on.

What was the first book that made you feel seen?

THUG by Angie Thomas. It completely blew me away. Not just the story but Angie. She was completely unapologetic about her story, and it gave me the confidence to continue telling mine.

What are you reading now?

I’ve really been struggling with focus during the pandemic, but I am currently reading The Girl With The Hazel Eyes by Caribbean author Callie Browning.

What is your favourite quote from a book?

Goodness, that’s so tough! I really love paragraphs that take my breath away and make me read it again. The most recent of these is from Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue: ‘But the first time I saw you. Rio. I took that down to the gardens. I pressed it into the leaves of a silver maple and recited it to the Waterloo Vase. It didn’t fit in any rooms.’ I think I actually took a photo of that entire page it was just filled with such beautiful prose.

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