No working day is ever the same for Dr. Kim Dismont Robinson and that is the way she likes it. One morning she might be in her office reading about cultural policies in different countries; another she might be in the water, dressed in a wet suit while filming a documentary on shipwrecks; and yet another she might be suited-up in protective clothing for an interview with beekeepers. She is the folklife officer for the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, responsible for documenting the folklife of Bermuda, for conducting and directing research on its culture and for generally promoting a congenial atmosphere for the arts. As she says, while technically her office is in the Lois Brown Evans building on Court Street, in reality it is the whole of Bermuda.
She carries out her work with a passionate conviction that Bermuda’s culture is vital to its health. So far, since she took up her position in 2005, she has directed 14 full-length documentaries of folklife, together with hundreds of pages of transcripts available to the public upon request. She has produced three supplemental study guides for the documentaries to be used in the schools and is in the process of producing more. In addition, she has created the Folklife Apprenticeship Programme where a tradition bearer is paired with an apprentice one-on-one for 80 hours of tuition. She has also commissioned several books related to subjects featured in the documentaries and to other Bermudian topics. For example, under her direction the department has published Bermudian Folk Remedies by Kuni Frith-Black, Mosaic by Ruth Thomas and The Spirit Baby and Other Bermudians retold by Florenz Maxwell. One Little Pawpaw by Persis Butler is a collection of handwritten songs the author composed over the years about aspects of Bermuda which, as Dr. Dismont Robinson says, no longer exist but which can now be remembered. Thanks to these works, Bermuda’s folklife is no longer in danger of falling into oblivion.
But she has also felt a mission to encourage local writers of all genres. To that end she has invited well-known Caribbean writers and poets to facilitate writing workshops right here in Bermuda. Four anthologies published by the department have resulted from these workshops: two of poetry, one of young adult fiction and one of memoir. A science fiction anthology is forthcoming. Bermuda’s aspiring writers have every reason to feel grateful since the workshops have spawned at least four “official” writing groups which meet regularly and have encouraged other individual writers to share their work on an informal basis. Dr. Dismont Robinson is herself a published author of many poems, short stories and academic articles. She has also written, and had performed, three plays, Hey Sister, Trial by Fire: Sally Bassett’s Streams of Consciousness and Emancipation: A Love Story. Hey Sister was performed during the 2006 Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society’s Famous for Fifteen Minutes Festival. Both Trial by Fire and Emancipation were performed in Bermuda as part of Emancipation commemorations. Emancipation was staged twice in Bermuda (2009 and 2013) but it was also staged in Barbados as part of the 2013 Caribbean Secondary School Drama Festival, winning many awards and being placed in the top three productions.
Her focus is single-minded in the sense she is promoting Bermuda’s folklife and culture, but of necessity her interests are eclectic since Bermuda’s food traditions, for example, are of equal importance to those, say, of its traditional architects. In the same way fishing traditions are as important as Bermudian dialect, both subjects dear to her heart.
What makes Dr. Dismont Robinson so ideally suited to the role of folklife officer? The answer is a happy confluence of family background and interests, natural talents, academic excellence, diverse experiences and above all, an energetic commitment to promoting Bermuda’s story in countless ways.
Born in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 1974 to an African-American father, Gary Robinson, and a Bermudian mother, Diane Dismont, Kim (named after the actress Kim Novak) moved with her family to Willingboro, New Jersey, when she was two. Her family were among the first African Americans to move into the neighbourhood which she remembers as a “boring cornfield filled town.” She attended both primary and secondary school there, but from the start her mother was determined to keep her Bermudian family and connections. Every summer Kim, her older brother Dane, and their Irish setter, Zowie, would go to Bermuda with their mother where they would stay with their grandparents on a peninsula in Fairylands. “I learned how to swim in Bermuda,” she remembers. “We played in the water off the dock. We’d fish and then cook the fish right there on the rocks.” She remembers getting into an old rowing boat with Dane and paddling off—on their own—to islands. Once, when she was ten, she made a boat out of an old door which won a prize in the Non-Mariners Race. These idyllic summers meant that she had close contact with her aunt Rhonda and with her cousin Jessica Dismont and that she experienced for at least part of the year the Bermudian way of life, particularly as her grandmother ran the Mazarine-by-the-Sea guest house.
Back in the US, Kim would sometimes feel different, an outsider at school, especially as the children from her schools would bond during the summers when she was in Bermuda. Then there were other factors, small but so important for children who are always quick to notice differences. Her mother dressed her in a kilt in the Bermudian way whereas the American students wore jeans. The British spelling deemed correct in Bermuda was not acceptable in the States. In addition, she was an early avid reader. “I was a quiet child,” she says, “and books opened me up to a world of the imagination to the point of it being a bit strange.” She remembers enjoying stories about animals such as Tailchaser’s Song and Watership Down. “I liked the Trixie Belden mystery stories. Trixie was the tomboy version of Nancy Drew.”
Kim was a bit of a tomboy herself which was another reason her summers in Bermuda suited her. “I was not a frilly girl,” she laughs. Comfort was and still is very important to her. “I still won’t wear heels and I stopped relaxing my hair when I was 16. Since then I’ve had it short, in dreads—always natural. You don’t have to exchange comfort for beauty,” she says firmly.
Later, her taste in books became more eclectic. She liked the classics such as Great Expectations and The Water Babies, as well as Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, and Greek and Roman mythology. She also acquired a taste for science fiction, fantasy and horror, enjoying such books as The Dark Angel trilogy and Stephen King and Anne Rice’s horror fiction. These days, though, now she herself has children, “I can’t do horror!”
One important part of her childhood spent in the US was her exposure to various African cultures, thanks to her father who was CEO of Opportunities Industrialisation Centers International (OICI). “He travelled a lot, mostly in West Africa, and when he came home he would tell us stories and bring back woodwork, textiles and jewellery so I grew up with African clothing and artwork.” He also introduced her to African food. “When I was six or seven, we had dinner guests and the menu was Ethiopian.”
A significant event happened when Kim was 10. Her father organised the first African and African-American summits in Togo, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Liberia and she got to go with him. She vividly remembers raspberry-coloured salt lakes and the fact they had to leave Liberia under cover because of a possible coup. Perhaps the seeds for her interest in Creolised Africans were sown then.
“My father’s interest in African development and culture was his life’s work. He was made an honorary chief of a village in Togo.”
Kim’s father died when she was young—just 18—but he provided her with one piece of wisdom she has never forgotten and which is now true for her: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
While Kim always loved reading, her feeling about writing was more complex because as she says, “Writing requires discipline and effort.” She recalls writing a poem about her pet hamster when she was aged seven. She must have shown promise during her high school years since she won the prize for English in her graduating year. At Rutgers University, where she studied for her B.A. in English and African Studies, she honed her academic writing skills. “I liked to start with a vague idea—the writing process sharpens my focus—it’s like using a scalpel to strip down to meaning.”
These skills, of course, were invaluable for completing her doctoral dissertation, “Probing The Wound: Re-Membering the Traumatic Landscape of Caribbean Literary Histories.” But this is fast-forwarding. Her interest in Caribbean literature began during a summer she spent as an English language instructor in St. Mark’s School, Limón, Costa Rica. “I was teaching primary school students conversational English. They were descendants of Jamaican workers who had been hired by United Fruit to come to Costa Rica and, who over the generations, had lost their ability to speak English.” In the evenings she attended classes on Caribbean literature. It was at this point Kim first read In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming, which was an epiphany for her. “My Bermudian grandparents were extremely conservative. Lamming let me see how that conservatism was tied to slavery, colonialism and classism. So much about his novel explained all my personal experience and the thread of commonality through diaspora.” It was also at this time she realised she felt far more Bermudian than American.
After finishing her first degree, she knew she wanted to take her master’s and Ph.D. and was awarded the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, requiring her to study at a university in Florida. She was awarded her M.A. in English with a cultural studies focus from the University of Florida and then for her doctoral work switched to the University of Miami because they could offer courses in Caribbean literature.
However, between degrees Kim worked in Bermuda as a journalist. She started at the now defunct Bermuda Times, edited by LaVerne Furbert. “She was a great mentor while I was there. She liked the idea I could have some freedom. So I wrote a column about Bermudian culture called “Coming in from the Cold.”
Soon afterwards the paper folded, but her experience with the Bermuda Times got her hired at The Royal Gazette where she worked under Carol Parker Trott. “I learned from her all about journalism and ethics—she taught me how to be tough without being offensive.”
Perhaps her most exciting time was when she went undercover as a recruit in the Bermuda Regiment, writing about her experiences afterwards. For that article she went on to win the Ridgway Prize for Journalistic Excellence. Eventually, she worked as the senior reporter for the Gazette before starting her Ph.D. “I did my degrees with the goal of doing something with writing. Journalism was always my backup—I could support myself while enjoying my work.”
Once she received her doctorate in 2003, she applied to Bermuda College for a lectureship, which at the time she really wanted. Despite her qualifications and experience, the college turned her down and instead she became assistant professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix. “I knew I didn’t want to be in the US, I wanted to be in the Caribbean,” she explains. “So I took that position.” Her time there was quite short but marked significant changes in her life. She met and subsequently married a fellow lecturer, Eric Douglas. However, life for Kim became difficult because her mother, to whom she was close, became very ill. Eventually, Kim took a leave of absence and returned to Bermuda to care for her. While back in Bermuda, Bermuda College offered her a post but at that juncture the position of folklife officer was advertised. “I turned the college down. It was a risk but I knew you have to take risks if you want to do something you love. The moment I saw the ad I knew the position was made for me.”
The interviewers must have agreed with her, especially as her CV was so impressive—not just because of her degrees but also because of her extensive academic presentations in colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic, her academic publications and her own creative publications.
After she accepted the position, Kim’s personal life became even more difficult. She was chief carer for her mother who was suffering from leukaemia, a disease which demanded frequent visits to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. During this time Kim wrote her plays. “I was half asleep when I wrote Hey Sister in 2005. I was pregnant and didn’t know it.” Later in 2006 her daughter was born whom she named Jasmine after six-year-old Jasmina, a character in the play.
When Kim wrote her third play Emancipation: A Love Story as part of the Emancipation commemoration for Bermuda’s 400th anniversary in 2009, her mother was dying. “As I was writing I was thinking about the exploration of being trapped in a body that fails to serve you. My mother was trapped by illness and my characters in the
play were trapped by slavery and the effects of it.” Poignantly Kim gave her character, the Man, the following lines as he was considering the possibility of having children: “If a baby comes, I cannot help but feel the birds of joy leaping in my chest—a son or a girlchild, my line intact. Maybe I will finally see her face in the laugh of my girlchild—the face of my mother, taken from me when I was so young that the only parts of her I can remember are her comforting smell and the feeling of her warm arms around me. Maybe I will see my mother’s face, and finally feel like a human being again.”
As she wrote these lines, Kim had to face the reality of losing her mother. “I remember thinking, “Maybe I will see my mother again.”
In effect during these years, Kim was a single mother because her husband continued to work in St. Croix. “One of the things I’m proudest of,” she says, “is being a single mum during those years and coming out of that with a child I’m so proud of. It was much harder work than doing my Ph.D.!”
However fraught her personal life was, Kim’s passion for her work was constant. “The folklife officer position came directly out of the 2000 Smithsonian Folklife Festival honouring Bermuda,” she explains, “so of course much of my work is related to documenting the folklife of Bermuda and to facilitating the research of Bermuda’s culture.” However, as a creative writer herself, she felt that although the community supports dance and art, not much was in place for the literary arts other than the writer-in-residence programme. “From an early point in my career at the department I knew it was very important to help Bermudian writers to tell the story of Bermuda from their imaginations. Historical records don’t tell you everything. Sometimes fiction can get you closer to truth than an historical record. Bermuda is such a close community and everyone knows each other’s business, but they don’t know what that private business means to the people involved. I want to know what it means, why it matters and how it feels.”
As previously mentioned, over the last few years she has brought in well-known Caribbean writers to conduct workshops—including poets Mervyn Moore, Kendall Hypolite and Christian Campbell, writer and poet Olive Senior, writer of young adult fiction Lynn Joseph, memoirist Rachel Manley and science fiction novelist Tobias Buckell—to facilitate writing workshops. “One very important aim of mine is to create a body of literary work teachers can draw on.” In addition Kim is passionate that “we should move a bit further on from being poor cousins to writers telling stories of their countries to being a fully realised presence at that table.”
So what are her greatest challenges?
“I have a passion for helping Bermudians develop in the arts and I pride myself on being scrupulously fair, but people who don’t understand the process can be critical. I amcommitted to quality, fairness and process and I won’t sacrifice my commitment to the quality of work just to be seen as nice.”
Another key challenge right now is juggling her personal responsibilities with those of her profession. Her first marriage having come to an end, Kim retains a close relationship with her stepdaughter Ashlee Douglas. Happily, she reconnected with Dr. JJ Soares whom she had dated fifteen years previously when they met through a mutual enjoyment of sailing. At first, as single parents, they organised play dates for Jasmine and his daughter, Giselle Soares, but their relationship soon turned to romance. “I feel so lucky,” Kim says, “he is the love of my life.” Now married, they have a one year-old daughter together, Eva Simone.
While a very busy GP, JJ shares her love of culture with a particular interest in Bermudian architecture. And, of course, they share a love for the sea, he having a passion for Seagull outboard engines which he collects. In June, Kim and JJ both took part in the Round the Island Seagull Race. Since 2013 they have lived on Bethell’s Island which has a stunning view of Ely’s Harbour. “It’s a unique experience living on an island on an island,” Kim says. “I missed the ocean so much when I was in New Jersey.” Getting to work every morning would be daunting to some. It means an early morning commute across the harbour with Jasmine and sometimes Giselle in a 17-foot Whaler type boat with a pull-start outboard engine and tying up at a dock near Somerset Bridge so that she can drive the girls to school. “I love the idea of crossing the ocean every day, and Jasmine and Giselle do too. When Eva comes, she loves to put her face into the spray.”
Shopping, too, is a challenge. But the key to managing is cooking. “I cook a lot on the weekends and freeze half of what I make. And JJ is so supportive with the kids and with my work.”
Right now Kim has a couple of specific goals she would like to achieve soon. “I’m working on a national cultural heritage policy. I am hoping it will be a tool for government and our entire society to look at ways in which culture can be an integral part of Bermudian society and can be more firmly entrenched. Inenacting the policy I’ll be more fully engaged with the culture than I am already.”
Another goal is more personal: she would like to finish her novel Damian’s Gift, part of which was published in I Wish I Could Tell You edited by Lynn Joseph, which features Simone, a name Kim has given to her daughter. Fitting her own writing into all her other responsibilities is not easy, but Kim is determined. Certainly she is living in the ideal venue. As she says, “Bethell’s Island is beautiful and idyllic and the perfect place for writing.”