I had the chance to sit with Yohance Henley who, among many other things, is a writer, storyteller and father from St. Thomas, USVI. Henley grew up as a self-described “project baby,” raised in various public housing communities on St. Thomas. He studied in public schools and at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he graduated in 2016 with a degree in Communications. It’s safe to say that he is a product of the Virgin Islands, through and through.
If you’d asked Henley’s elementary school teachers, they may not have predicted he’d become a writer. He was enrolled in remedial reading classes as a child, a detail about his own life that he didn’t know until after he’d published a book and a former teacher congratulated him on overcoming the obstacle.
Now a published author and accomplished storyteller, Henley credits two mentors for his success. One is the late Janice “Auntie Janice” Tutein, may she rest in peace. He only met her once, but he remembers her warmth, lovingness and acceptance. Auntie Janice was a master storyteller on St. Croix.
The other mentor was Glen “Kwabena” Davis. Kwabena hails from St. Thomas. He wears many hats, among them Director of Cultural Education, a post from which he recently retired. Among children Kwabena was a mysterious figure. He was known to tell stories which were both captivating and scary, according to Henley.
After Kwabena visited Henley’s school one day, Henley became interested in professional storytelling himself. He joined Kwabena’s team, and his work with younger schoolchildren opened his eyes to the power of oral tradition.
One of Henley’s acts used to be asking the audience to suggest attributes for a story and he would, on the spot, weave a story together in front of them. A publisher from the Governor’s Reading Challenge was impressed by his work and asked Henley to write a book for the challenge. However, the monetary agreement was not satisfactory. Still he agreed, at the urging of his wife, because of the invaluable knowledge he could gain. After the ordeal, he decided that as appreciative as he was for the opportunity, he would never give away his rights again. This sparked his interest in self-publishing. He used all the skills he’d picked up along the way and was able to streamline his self-publishing process and marketing. Two of his friends, K’Jani (KJ) Hall and Shaquielle Emptage, would help him tremendously along the way.
Sukumtash Folktales is the product of this new drive to do things himself. In addition to publishing his books under Sukumtash, the trio plan to animate all of his Anansi stories and publish them on YouTube. There are several other animation ventures,including one by Mr. Emptage and another inspired by Henley’s daughter. Henley will be the narrator for all of these and will maintain his accent while using Standard English to ensure that his work can reach an international audience while still representing his home.
Henley recently published a book, Anansi and the Mongoose. In it, Anansi tricks Mongoose into picking fruit for his fruit stand without paying Mongoose. Eventually, Mongoose outsmarts Anansi and the script is flipped. When asked what inspired this story, he told me that it was based on his real-life experiences with publishing and a dispute with a family member who, like Anansi did for Mongoose, taught him almost everything he knew about his one of his crafts. This Anansi story is an intimate look into Henley’s personal life through the lens of the infamous spider. “You can’t write what you don’t know,” he explains.
When asked if he had advice for anyone who wants to get to where he is, Henley has two suggestions. To become a storyteller, get in contact with Khalarni Rivers at the Division of Cultural Education or with Kwabena himself. For writing, he explained that KJ Designs, who he works with, has services for self-publication and marketing.
Ultimately, his goal is to form a coalition of local authors which can strengthen the written arts community and elevate local art to a place of prominence. This group would help authors earn what they deserve when they decide to commercialize their work.
Henley is a passionate, hard-working, and talented young Virgin Islander with dreams of revolutionizing local publishing and collaboration. He can change the landscape for culture bearers in the territory and we should all keep an eye out for what he will bring in the future.
In Henley’s Anansi and the Mongoose story, Mongoose teaches Anansi a humbling lesson on settling disputes peacefully. Henley acknowledges his responsibility as an artist to the people who consume his work. He is a dedicated Virgin Islander and a model of what artistry in our territory can and should be.
You can purchase a copy of Henley’s book, Anansi and Mongoose here.