When Abby talked to me about interviewing a journalist for this blog, I was a little intimidated. Melissa Noel is not just any journalist you see, she is literally a voice for Caribbean people in the Diaspora. She speaks for me, and the other four million like me, who have feet in two homes across the regions. How could I possibly lead a sensible, engaging conversation with the recipient of a Caribbean Tourism Organization award for Best Feature By a Diaspora Journalist in US or Caribbean Media? She is also a White House Correspondents’ Association journalism awardee (an honor which was presented to her by the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama). Melissa Noel has been named a 30 Under 30 Caribbean American Emerging Leader by the Institute For Caribbean Studies in Washington D.C; receiving the 2016 Global Media Award For Excellence in Reporting from the International Labour Organization/ International Federation of Journalists and the Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke Shining Star Award for Journalism. So, me, a humble blogger, had to interview The Interviewer, and I could not be more nervous than when she opted to talk over the phone, instead of write back and forth via email.
“I LOVE Bene Caribe!” she starts, excitedly. Then we both get giggly, going off on a tangent about Caribbean fashion designers and how much we love colour. She lists other brands from across the region, like Jamaican Jae Jolly, and Bajan, Pink Lemonade that she has worn, and we gush over how special our Caribbean fashion aesthetic is. I turn my notebook pages from the questions I had prepared for her, and get to a blank one. I was expecting a stuffy, overly proper, verbose character, but Melissa Noel is a sweetheart. She is a passionate, empathetic, humble woman, and I feel so happy to have gotten the opportunity to speak with her this morning.
I ask her about her Guyanese upbringing, as she is often, if not always, referred to as a “Guyanese American journalist”. She assures me this is intentional.
“I would not be who I am without my Guyanese upbringing. I will always make that a point. I wear it as a badge of honor.”
She elaborates on the topic of respect, and wanting to acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifices her parents made in moving the family to the US when she was a young girl. These early years, and the influence of her Caribbean values and experiences, gave her a unique lens for her storytelling. Being a daughter of immigrants has possibly been the most important driving force in her work. She laughs, remembering how angry her father got when the teachers put her and her sister into English classes meant for students who knew it as a second language. They were picked on, for what they ate and how they spoke, and she had to learn to cope with what it meant to have your feet planted in both worlds.
I ask her how she chose journalism and she tells me of the most wonderful memories of her childhood in New Jersey. Her grandmother would have her go to Joe’s Caribbean Market for the newspapers, a shop owned by a Chinese-Jamaican family. When she returned, they would then read it together. She saw how it made her grandmother so happy to be connected to what was going on back home. This inspired her to be this; one of the people who helped establish these links; maintaining communications between those who leave the Caribbean to live abroad in the diaspora. Her focused work in Caribbean issues and stories is necessary; allowing people to maintain their sense of home, even when they’re not physically there anymore.
“What are the topics that keep coming up in your reporting?”
She lists three: Cultural Appropriation, Mental health and Immigration to the US. Caribbean fashion and music are just two of the places where our culture has been used in America by a different name. Melissa scowls at the term “Tropical House”; better known as Soca. Mental health issues remain at the top of the list, as something many of us in our communities really don’t talk about. Domestic violence is prevalent and swept under a rug. She focuses a special light on immigration, explaining that the conversation about immigrants usually surrounds one group of people. Black Caribbean immigrants especially, are left out of the conversations regarding this status.
Her decision to freelance came out of her frustrations with the seemingly lazy reporting of Caribbean issues in the media. “We have more than four million Caribbean people in the US, and it is almost as though this demographic doesn’t matter.” Countries’ names are often and carelessly mispronounced. Graphics would bear incorrect stats and spelling. You would only hear stories about scandals and natural disasters. There weren’t any specific Caribbean correspondent jobs in the US, so she had to create the role for herself; a job she says that gives her the chance to raise the same types of social issues shaped by Calypso.
Make no mistake in thinking that the transition to becoming an independent reporter was easy. For a couple years she had to invest much of her own resources to get herself seen and heard. She thanks the aunties and friends who lent her their couches on occasion. She does not feel lucky, understanding that her success has emerged out of sacrifice, risk and dedication.
“I’m doing this out of passion for my roots.” She affirms. ” I want to make sure that Caribbean stories have a voice, and are treated with love, care, attention and respect.”
I am so happy to have been given the opportunity to get to speak with this inspiring woman. I relate to her on a personal level, with her passion for story-telling and her commitment to highlighting the Caribbean in an uplifting way.
We hope you’re inspired as well. Connect with Melissa on instagran @live_from_melissa, and show her some Bene Caribe love. We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to share her amazing story and thank Melissa for letting us be able to!