THE year is 1995. Sixteen-year-old Danielle McClean is on top of the world, having received the President's Medal after placing first in the CXC examinations. The sky is the limit. She has plans of studying abroad and then returning to Trinidad to family and friends and the familiar sights and sounds of Caribbean living. But life is strange, we could never really be certain what the future has in store for us. Back then she could never have imagined that she would leave Trinidad to start a new life, a career and a family in the United States and return years later as a children's author.
On her latest trip to Trinidad to promote her first novel The Protector's Pledge, Woman met with McClean - a wife, mother of two, translator, interpreter and substitute teacher, who, by the way also has a law degree. We discuss her undying passion for languages (McClean speaks both Spanish and French), how living and studying abroad helped mould her thinking and perspectives and why it is important to do what you love and not settle for less.
A love for languages was sown in McClean when she was only a child.
“My father was a lawyer so he used to quote things in Latin, so having a foreign language on my ear was a little normal, not that I could understand what was being said at the time but it was an introduction to something other than English and Creole. We did travel as well. I do remember going on vacation and befriending a Dutch girl. I spoke no Dutch she spoke no English but somehow we communicated. At an early age I just loved the idea of being able to communicate with someone who didn't speak English so I think the seed was sown at that early age and it stuck and grew from then on,” says McClean.
Not long after being awarded the President's Medal, McClean left for New York where she majored in Hispanic Studies and French at Vassar College. After completing her first degree she was at a juncture in her life and not exactly sure what she should do next. Her father persuaded her to study law, thinking that the combination of law and languages was an ideal one. In London, England she received a diploma in law, then a post graduate diploma in legal practice from BPP University's Law School. She worked as an intern and assistant to the legal adviser at the Association of Caribbean States following which she pursued and completed the Master's programme in Spanish translation at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While pursuing her Masters, McClean spent a semester in Madrid, Spain and another in Paris, France. “I've been exposed to different people, places and cultures. The perspectives I had before leaving Trinidad to go abroad have changed. It made me more conscious of the fact that regardless of whatever citizenship we may bear, we are all citizens of the world. It gave me a world view - we are all connected.”
Today, McClean is not a practising lawyer but her knowledge of law has helped tremendously in the translation and interpretation field when on occasion she must communicate between lawyers and their clients.
“I love what I do. I believe life is too short and it is a blessing to enjoy what you do. With interpreting you get the chance to communicate on behalf of people sometimes during very difficult situations. You get to meet people you otherwise would not,” she says.
But before her curiosity in languages took root, McClean had a love for reading. Her parents saw this and encouraged it by keeping a library at home, so books were a constant staple in her childhood, It's not surprising that when this fan of the Harry Potter series decided to pen her first novel, it would feature folklore characters popularised in T&T and the wider Caribbean. In The Protector's Pledge - the first book in the Secrets of Oscuros series, we meet JV who embarks upon an adventure which includes characters which he thought only existed in books. He discovers a shocking family secret that will change his life forever.
“I wanted to encompass as much of T&T culture into something my children could read, understand and hopefully love.. I wanted to plant that seed, so to speak,” she says.
The book features Papa Bois and other folklore characters, but McClean also introduces social issues like environmental protection and wildlife conservation. The Protector's Pledge is meant to be both educational and entertaining, but McClean also intended for it to be a connection between her young children and their Caribbean culture.
“My culture has always been very important to me, wherever I've been, whether it's New York, London, Paris or Madrid, I took my culture with me. It's an important part of who I am. Although my children were born in the United States, they come from a long line of Trinidadians. It is half of who they are- their father is Bahamian, so we try to expose them to T&T culture as well as Bahamian culture so that they feel connected,” says McClean.
“I grew up knowing about Papa Bois, the Soucouyant and other folklore, I thought that by writing a children's book, it would expose my children to the local culture. I love the Harry Potter series, there are witches and werewolves and I thought in the Caribbean we have so many wonderful characters with stories behind them which are so intriguing, so that if children could get passion and zeal for characters that are just as exciting as the more popular ones, then that's great!”
Life didn't turn out the way she had once imagined it would, but that's life and McClean is happy she went in the direction it took her because today she feels both happy and fulfilled. She encourages people, young ones in particular to seize opportunities as they come along and start living their best life now.
“Life has a funny way of taking you in directions you may never have anticipated, don't overlook opportunities; don't sell yourself short,” McClean advises. “If you're passionate about something, don't talk yourself out of it, even if you think it may be a long stretch. Happy people are people who do what they love. Follow your dreams and be open to where life takes you.”