John was born and raised in Antigua and is a former development specialist of the African Development Foundation, the World Council of Churches’ Program to Combat Racism, and Global Rights (formerly the International Human Rights Law Group), where she worked in support of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is known especially for her work in the United Nations and at local and national levels to raise awareness about the denial of inheritance rights to women.
Marie-Elena John made history in 1986 as the first Black woman valedictorian of New York's City College (CCNY). She later earned a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University, specializing in culture and development in Africa. She lives in Antigua and Washington, D.C with her husband, and their two children, Trey and Elyse.
Her literary debut, Unburnable, was named "Best Debut of 2006" by Black Issues Book Review, was short-listed for the 2007 Hurston-Wright Legacy Awards in the Debut Fiction Category, was nominated for the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was identified by the Modern Language Association as a new title of note in Caribbean literature. She was also selected by Book Expo America as one of ten "emerging voices" for 2006, chosen from among the debut novelists reviewed by Publishers Weekly for the 2005-06 period.
Unburnable, which moves back and forth between modern times and the past, is primarily a historical novel centred on the hanging of a family matriarch, and fuses Caribbean history, African heritage, and African-American sensibilities. Marie-Elena John parlays her knowledge of the African diaspora, including the United States and the Caribbean island of Dominica, into a work that shifts from modern to colonial and pre-colonial times, exploring the intersection of history, African mythology and African-Caribbean culture. Important themes include the African origins of Carnival and masquerades, African religion, the practice of Obeah, syncretic Catholicism, Caribbean folklore, the Maroons and resistance to slavery. In this respect, Unburnable is both a contemporary Caribbean novel as well as a neo-slave narrative. Unburnable also notably includes the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, the Kalinago (also called the Carib Indians). It has been compared to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and to Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.
- "Nigeria: Widows From the East". allAfrica.com, 10 September 2001.
- John, Marie-Elena. "Women's Inheritance Rights in Africa" (letter), BRC-News, 6 July 1999.
- West Africa: Women's Rights. Africa Policy E-Journal. 14 July 1999. Document reposted by APIC.
- Moore, Keith. "She's the Class of the Class". The New York Daily News, 30 May 1986, p. 4.
- The Hurston/Wright Foundation
- International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award
- Publishers Weekly BEA Show Daily, "Emerging Writers, Part 2", Saturday May 20, 2006, p. 8. See also Emerging Voices, Session 1:00-2:15 pm. Online program for Book Expo America 2006.
- Harris, Ena. "Dominica as Spiritual Landscape: Representations of Nature and Ritual in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Marie-Elena John's Unburnable". Trajectories of Freedom: Caribbean Societies Past and Present. Abstracts. Biennial Conference 2007, University of the West Indies, Cavehill. (Abstract by Dr. Ena Harris of Bard College, NJ, USA).
- Yanique, Tiphanie. "Unburnable". (Review). LiterateNubian, 2006.
- Marie-Elena John - official site
- Global Rights - human rights advocacy group
- Bryce, Jane. "Unforgettable fire" (review). Caribbean Review of Books, August 2006.
- Doig, Denise M. "Unburnable" (review). Black Issues Book Review, May–June, 2006.
- Nicholas Laughlin, Interview with Marie-Elena John at Antilles, the Caribbean Review of Books blog, May 2007.