Reading, writing, religion

Mark McWatt and Marlon James talk with Annie Paul

Guyanese Mark McWatt’s Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement won first the regional (Caribbean and Canada) and then the overall 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel. Jamaican Marlon James’s John Crow’s Devil was also shortlisted for the regional prize. Both writers — who had previously never met, nor read each other’s books — participated in the University of the West Indies’ 2006 Mona Academic Conference, “Writing Life: Reflections of West Indian Writers”, at the end of last August. Annie Paul brought them together for a conversation ranging from their literary influences and what happens when characters take over a story, to the ever-contentious questions of language in Caribbean writing and the role of religion in Caribbean societies.

Annie Paul: Your books could not be more different. Mark’s aims at a kind of illusionism, at capturing an illusion of reality, and does it very convincingly — while, Marlon, you make no attempt at realism, it’s grotesque, it’s gothic, it’s all caricature. Mark, one of the reasons I enjoyed reading your book was that it has this lovely feel of books and stories I’d read in my childhood — which would have been English, mostly — and I’m guessing that your influences are English more than American.

Mark McWatt: Largely. More than American I would say, yes, but also some West Indian — Wilson Harris, for example. I’m a big Wilson Harris enthusiast.

Marlon James: I haven’t read Palace of the Peacock yet, though it’s one of my ambitions.

AP: And then you, Marlon, you seem more influenced by American writers.

MJ: Yeah, I mean, I grew up on Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice is still one of my favourite novels, one of the few novels I read and re-read — I love Austen.

And certainly I’ve always been fascinated by that generation of Caribbean writers like Jean Rhys and Louis Simpson and John Hearne — but you’re right, American fiction is sort of what made me want to write. A lot of the immigrant writers in America, like Jessica Hagedorn, Filipino and black American literature, certainly lots of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison.

But also a lot of Latin American fiction, because I wrote a novel before John Crow’s Devil — it was my attempt at being realist — and I really wrote that because I felt that was what I was supposed to write. But then I read Salman Rushdie’s Shame — he’s not Latin American, but he’s in my list of heroes — and then I read [Gabriel García Márquez’s] Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And after that I looked at what I had written and thought, This isn’t writing — that’s writing.

AP: There isn’t a tradition of it here in the English-speaking Caribbean, would you say, Mark?

MM: No, not much, but I got into Márquez through my wife, who is Colombian. I read all his stuff in English and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, as you say, Rushdie — I don’t know if it’s borrowed — has the same flavour of magical realism.

AP: Because Rushdie was directly influenced by Márquez — I think he talks about it somewhere.

MJ: You know, it’s funny, but there is a pretty huge, for want of a better term, magical realist world in oral storytelling, but I don’t know if the Caribbean writer looks upon folklore as something to draw on in that sense — to be whimsical surely, and in children’s stories and so on. And even when I see it, ’cause I do see it in some fiction, none of which I can remember, but it’s like we always make sure to keep a distance from it.
 So I don’t know — even the British books I read were all Victorian — certainly from high school straight up to UWI, the bulk of the books were Victorian.

AP: Mark, I’ve always thought of you as a poet, so I was really surprised to hear that you’d produced a book of fiction — did this move from poetry to prose happen all of a sudden, or gradually?

MM: Gradually. I was thinking I should really write a group of stories — I love stories, there’s a kind of seduction in narrative that draws you in, and I like that, and I like the kind of — I don’t know if “power” is the right word — the power it wields — that you’re able to tell a story and tell it well. But I didn’t want to write a bunch of stories and put them together. I thought I would write them with a framing narrative and make it more interesting. I was told by a lot of people that it’s not going to work —

AP: Because it’s such an outrageous frame, you don’t expect it to hold together, but it does — very well.

MM: It was a kind of discovery for me, too, because I’d never written stories before — I mean one or two little things — but sitting down and writing a story is a vastly different experience from jotting down a poem and just refining it and reworking it until you’re satisfied with it. This thing you have to take time with — and also what I never really believed before, and what many writers say, including Wilson Harris — is that there come periods in writing when the story takes over and what you thought you were writing, how you had sort of planned it and plotted it, it doesn’t work out like that at all.

AP: How far into the narrative does that happen? And then do you have to rewrite the beginning?

MM: No, no, the beginning is there, and then you’re saying, well, now I have to have the characters do this and that, and it’s as though the characters are saying, no, but I want to do this and I don’t want to do that . . . It’s like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman — the way he brings himself in and says, now I told him to go down to the beach, but instead he walked up the hill — not quite as obvious as that, but . . .

MJ: I agree. I didn’t think so before, but I came to realise that you do want your characters to sort of hijack your story and take over. You know, it’s funny, I was reading some manuscripts from some students in my class — fellow students, I wasn’t teaching them — and one thing I picked up in so many of them where they went wrong is this dogged insistence on “I am telling the story my way, you know,” and you can feel the characters being held, and I said, none of your characters comes to life — and he’s of the opinion that if he’s not personally dissatisfied with it, nothing is wrong with it. I’m like, of course you’re not dissatisfied with it, ’cause you’re an egomaniac trying to hold on to all of them, and it’s like “mission accomplished.” I realised that even with John Crow’s Devil, because the very first draft of it I wrote was satire . . . I was just laughing — look at all these backward country people, and I was laughing at everybody, and a friend of mine, the person who read the very first draft, said, “Do you really want to be laughing at everybody all the time? Is that really the best you can do for these people in your world, just sit back and laugh? Because I’m not reading them, all I’m reading is you laughing at them.”

AP: That person was a good critic.

MJ: Oh, a very good one, he’s my friend Kwesi Dixon. So I thought about this, and I realised that it wasn’t me writing satire, ’cause satire to me is a whole different thing — it was me having contempt for the characters. And I rewrote it. I said, but why is he an alcoholic? And why do they fall for this cult psychology, and why do people end up redeeming themselves? Why does the widow decide to start wearing blue clothes again, and so on? If they’re narrow — you know, if they’re in my opinion narrow-minded — how did they get that way, and why? There are whys in the story, and what makes these people people as opposed to caricatures? That was very important, and that was from the insistence of the characters — just sort of, “You’re underwriting me, rewrite me —”

AP: Who are some of your favourite authors, Mark?

MM: Contemporary authors? García Márquez for one. Wilson Harris has always been one of my favourite writers. And I kind of like Naipaul, despite all the flack that he gets.

AP: You don’t like Naipaul too much, do you Marlon?

MJ: No, no, I love his work — he just lost me last year with all his ramblings. I used to defend him — I was one of his biggest defenders. I would say, maybe he was just laying down the gauntlet for Caribbean fiction, you know, in his own twisted way. Because it must be said sometimes the standard is lowered and sometimes mediocrity is praised. You know, it’s good for Jamaica, it’s good for Jamaica — fill in the blanks. What does that mean? If you’re not competing against Norman Mailer, why bother?

AP: The whole local versus global or international thing is very interesting.

MJ: Yes, I mean I’m going to get back to the favourite books thing, but as you say the global local — Jean D’Costa — to me, her book Sprat Morrison, I read that when I was eleven, it made me want to write books, write stories, but really, I’m not one of these I-write-for-my-people-first-and-everybody-else-later thing . . .

Maybe I should put it in the context of all the stuff we were talking [at the “Writing Life” conference] about dialect and Creole, and there’s a slight objection to standard-englishising the B-word — but in the book I’m writing now, a character says “bloodclaat,” which is a Jamaican bad word. And if I spelled it “bloodclaat,” non-Jamaicans would get a sense that this is an expletive, and Jamaicans would go, yeah, that’s the word. But I changed it to “bloodcloth,” and a friend who’s Irish read it and said, what’s up with all these expletives tied to menstruation? Why is a female bodily function a bad thing? So she nailed it, which she wouldn’t have gotten had I said, let me play — let me just go — let me spell phonetically and write “bloodclaat.”

Anyway, to come back to the thing about favourite writers — writers now who I read a lot — there’s this Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, and he wrote this book My Name Is Red. When I read that, I thought it was the most incredible — I didn’t know that was possible from people.

Again I can see the Márquez and even the Rushdie influence on him. He’s writing about the Ottoman Empire, and on paper it’s just a murder mystery — what’s happening is, images have already been outlawed in the Ottoman Empire, but the Sultan hires six illustrators to draw people, and they’re doing it in secret. Because it can’t get out that the Sultan is ordering human images. And one gets murdered. And the entire story, the entire novel — this all breaks so many rules — there are around twenty characters in the novel, all writing in first person, including a horse and the painting of a horse, and he’s quick to point out, “I’m the painting of the horse. Do not confuse me with the horse that’s running outside.” And it just goes off. “We are two dervishes. We saw such and such.” Then you have the character who is revealed to be the murderer at the end, but you have a person who goes, “I will be called the murderer,” and so on. It’s just amazing what he was doing. I’m convinced he’ll win the Nobel this year. [Editor’s note: he did.] I’ve bet everybody . . .

So I love him. Then Toni Morrison, for lots of other reasons. Who else do I read? Richard Powers. In terms of overall heroes, Naipaul — and then I grew up with the Victorians, so I have to love them. Dickens for instance —

MM: That’s why I asked whether you meant contemporary —

AP: OK, who are your favourite non-contemporary writers, Mark?

MM: Well, certainly Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice — I re-read the whole canon every so often. And Dickens, not all of him, but some. I like some of the sentimental ones, like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. But I like also things from the continent, like Madame Bovary.

MJ: Shakespeare’s the reason I passed A-level lit, ’cause, trust me, I was failing everything else. You know, I grew up with a pretty nuts dad, and we still have these Shakespeare duels —

MM: Seeing who could quote more?

MJ: Yeah, I always beat him with Hamlet. We just had a big argument. I was saying, if you think you’re such a great pro, why is it that Hamlet knew Polonius was behind the curtain? When you figure out that answer, come back to me.

AP: Mark, are you working on another piece of fiction?

MM: Yes, but right now I’m trying to finish a collection of poetry — as I said, I still consider myself a poet, but I have plotted out a novel. It comes out of a character in one of the stories in Suspended Sentences.

AP: One of the good things about that book, Mark, is that it brings Guyana to life —

MM: Well, it’s funny you should say that, because, you know, having grown up in the interior of Guyana, travelling around and so on, there’s a sense in which [the Guyana landscape is] kind of confusing, and I knew that I’d become very attached to it, but there was also — I had no idea how to describe it, or a sense that it couldn’t come to life in written words. But reading Wilson Harris way back when I was a student and so on was a fascinating thing for me, because I recognised the landscape and I recognised that this was the way, maybe. And I didn’t find it that difficult, you know — people who know the Guyana landscape say that it clarifies for them a lot of the Wilson Harris imagery. So I felt excited that I could recognise that, and it supplied a kind of method of talking about the landscape. But then I realised later that you can’t really just imitate it and write the Harris kind of sentence with all the provisions and the slashes and so on. You need, for the sake of your readers, to be a little clearer than that.

AP: Well, maybe you were thinking of your readers, whereas Harris wouldn’t. Do you Marlon? Think of your readers, I mean?

MJ: In some ways, yes — certainly, as I said before, with the dialect issue — at least, I wouldn’t want the composition or structure or spelling of a word to be the thing that blocks communication. I think of them in that sense, but not in the sense of influencing what I write or how I write it, or how the story ends, or even the format that I choose. You know, I’ll tell people especially here how I’m writing my novel and it’s all in dialect, and they go, oh, no — why are you ruining it by putting it in patois? And I say, well, it’s a slave telling the story; it’s not Mary Prince who has Europeans writing for her. I know, it has been said already that if I had any sense and really wanted to break through with the second novel I’d make it as easily accessible as possible. Mind you, none of the white people that’ve read it has had a problem with it. People like my teachers and fellow students. Even with John Crow’s Devil, the editor made me take out the glossary — she said, for one thing, it draws attention to the fact that it’s different. And it’s not different — it’s just different in the sense that it may be a dialect, but it’s still language, and it’s not as hard to communicate as people might think, certainly not now.

So in that sense I don’t think you should think of an audience, to write in terms of what their expectations are.

AP: What did you both think of Merle Hodge’s suggestion at the conference that there ought to be a standardisation of Creole, a standardised orthography when writing in patois?

MJ: There always has to be a balance between expression and communication, and I think we should err on the side of communicating. Having been to places like South Florida, and not understanding sometimes when people talk, I can imagine how coarse the people in Mark Twain’s time really spoke . . . I’m sure around the time of Huckleberry Finn, if I were to hear them I wouldn’t understand them.

MM: No, I’m sure you wouldn’t, but then we understand Mark Twain’s version —

MJ: Yeah, I understand Huckleberry Finn, and I’m not convinced that there is much difference in intent between, say, Jamaican dialect and the dialect in The Colour Purple — or the dialect in As I Lay Dying or in Huckleberry Finn — I just think it’s the many different flavours of English. There are people out here, for example, who think the term “lawd a mussi” is patois, it’s African — nothing of the sort. It’s Welsh! And I didn’t realise that till I heard British people saying it. We surely can’t deny the African and Indian in dialect, and we shouldn’t, but we’re not the only country with that sort of thing, either. Any country that speaks English, it’s just part of the dynamism of the language.

I’m ambivalent about the whole standardising of patois. I mean, even in Jamaica some people say “coodeh,” other people say “look deh,” some people say “look here,” and some people say “cooyah,” and it’s all people saying, look at that thing over there. I don’t think language will allow itself to be — in standardising it for writing, you run the danger of written patois being the stalest of the lot.

AP: What do you mean?

MJ: I mean you’ll find that in 2020 we’re still writing like 2001.

AP: The thing I have a problem with is this: if a language is oral, why are we trying to pin it down and change it? It’s almost like saying we need to dignify this language by considering it a regular language, although it’s an oral language — but then when you start saying at the same time, oh, we now want to make it a written language, aren’t we privileging written languages by doing that?

MM: Yeah, it would be like what happened with the ballad. The ancient ballad was an oral form. It existed in different versions of the same ballad, all over Scotland, for example. Then some researcher goes and writes down one version, and that becomes the definitive version of the ballad. And there’s still other versions being sung and told in other parts of the country. Why give legitimacy to one by writing it down and preserving it in a kind of artificial way, and not to the others?

And that’s what would happen eventually if you prescribe that this is the way you should spell this word or this expression.

MJ: Sometimes I think people worry too much about language.

MM: Yeah, they always want to be protective of the people who they think wouldn’t get it, or deserve to see it, and don’t think it would be available to them unless we standardise it.

MJ: And all you get is — “standardised” to me is just another way of saying “preserving,” and I don’t think language allows that. I mean, certain things in language would come and certain things would go. We’re in the midst of seeing the word “ignorant” change meaning. We’ve seen in the space of ten, twenty years the word “gay” has changed meaning. So I think any attempt to standardise language is doomed from the beginning, because language refuses to be. 
I don’t know why there is this rush to enshrine patois as if patois needs our help. It really doesn’t.

AP: In Jamaica, you know, patois is constantly treated as an inferior lingo — children are scolded for speaking it.

MM: A lot of the scholarly effort to standardise it is an overreaction to that.

MJ: I think so too. Getting scolded for speaking patois instead of proper English is one extreme, but, to me, people who patronise it are as bad as people who insult it. One of the things people who speak patois seem to be saying is, I’m going to get coarse now — it’s like they’re serving notice — I’m now going to talk down to you, you know?

AP: Yeah, let me talk in a language you can understand . . .

MJ: Right, or — you know my issues with all the dialect comedians on the air? Or my Louise Bennett issue, for instance. I’m not taking away what people think she is, but one of the problems, certainly for me, because of that type of attitude, is that patois became the Stepin Fetchit language. If I’m going to write a slapstick comedy or a roots play, that’s what patois is for.

If I’m going to write a tragedy, people should be speaking standard English. So anything serious, anything complex — and they reinforce that, whether deliberately or not, that patois is the language of slapstick. And one of the things that certainly reggae changed, and certainly calypso changed, is that dialect can be —

AP: What I did notice in relation to Miss Lou, whose funeral service was just a few weeks ago, was that she was much eulogised on radio and on the talk shows, and everyone was talking about how the main reason she was so important was because she had legitimised patois and given it status, and so on. But then at the ceremony they didn’t use patois at all, they just used standard English. So that seemed contradictory to me. If patois is now legitimate, why couldn’t it have been used? Especially in honour of the person who supposedly legitimised it?

MJ: But I don’t think it’s true that she legitimised patois . . . I don’t care what anybody wants to tell me. I think, whether deliberately or not, she ghettoised it. Because she used it for comedy. If she ever stopped once and read a dead serious, grave poem, it would have disturbed the audience — there would have been just drop-dead silence.

AP: Maybe that’s why they couldn’t use it at her service, which was a serious event.

MJ: So that’s what I mean — you ghettoise it when you use it for just one purpose.

AP: Are there any questions you’d like to ask each other?

MJ: I have friends who are poets who’ve written fiction, and some people like this question and others are very patronised by it when people say: “I like when poets write fiction; it’s so lyrical.” What’s your response to that?

MM: I think the poetry does affect your writing, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. No, I’m not sure that it’s lyrical, necessarily, but . . . I think inevitably there’s a concern with language, but people are mistaken if they think that there’s a difference between this and novelists and prose writers and so on. There are some prose writers who take just as much or even more care with language than poets.

What I was going to ask you, Marlon, would be about the theme of your novel — the whole religious thing. Why is that so central and so important? It seems to me that in so many things Jamaican the focus is on religion, the folk religion of the people. And I know there’s a similar sort of focus on religion in Cuba, in Cuban literature, but it’s the Santería thing, where you get the influence of the African gods, kind of hybridised with the European.

But what you’re writing about is not that, it’s not that kind of phenomenon, it’s just the business of — when I say “just” I mean the people’s feeling about religion and the need for religious leaders, and from a satirical point of view the duplicity of some of these leaders. Why do you think it’s so central?

MJ: Actually, a lot of the African aspects come up further on in the book, because I think that is also part of the dichotomy about the contradictions in a lot of Jamaican religions, especially something like Revival, which is — you know, they read the Bible and they pray to Jesus and so on, but there are drums in church, and if a ghost shows up, the head’s gonna be chopped off. But I think it’s weird the role that religion has had in this country back then and even now.

It has this role of unquestioned authority, so it’s not even so much that the religious leader is — it’s not even so much that he’s religious as that he’s the leader.

A lot of Jamaican religion, especially charismatic, is fundamentalist, and fundamentalism is anti-intellectual, it is anti-free-thought, and you build these churches where that sort of thing is certainly discouraged. You know, it’s a proud thing when a person says, him don’t know book learning but him know the Bible, and him don’t have a PhD but him have a G-O-D. I am so sick and tired of these holy idiots . . .

MM: So it’s a kind of personal fascination of yours . . .

MJ: A huge personal fascination, because you can’t help but grow up with that culture here. We have more churches per capita than anywhere else in the world, but we kill ten people a day. On one side we have a church, and on the other side is a liquor store, you know, or a bar. There are so many messy contradictions to it. There’s the whole thing of, isn’t this the religion of the slave-masters? . . . It is a tool used to oppress — even in very simple ways: where you know you’re not supposed to read challenging things, you’re not supposed to have that mindset where you’re thinking for yourself. It is this idea that you shouldn’t pick up a book because you don’t know what’s in it until it’s too late. And then there is the whole Africanness thing that you can’t diminish either, so they’re singing Christian songs, but it’s call-and-response. It’s not that much different from singing a Revival song like “I Want to Go”, and so on.

And in some ways it’s not necessarily bad — the first party you’re going to go to is a church social, the first set of friends you’re gonna meet are at church, you know, if something happens, it’s usually the church sisters who’re going to come over and help you. So this is not all bad.

But we can’t deny that there’s a dark side to it, and a lot of that flourishes in an atmosphere of ignorance — because it’s not just a matter of not reading, but not wanting to read, or discouraging it, or glorifying this sort of evangelised idiot as some sort of virtue. You know, in the church I used to go to — which is, for want of a better term, an uptown church — there is still this sort of glorification of the holy fool. To me, the problem with evangelical Christianity is that there is no scholarship in it. On the other hand, I can reel off a list of Catholic intellectuals, so one of the reasons I was interested in writing about it is that that type of religion without an intellectual life becomes mysticism, and then there is no difference, really, between them — one of my characters is both a church sister and an obeah woman, because she really doesn’t see any difference.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2006

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. He is an artist and writer. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was published in 2005. It was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Caribbean and Canada region) for best first novel and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Mark McWatt was born in Guyana and currently lives in Barbados, where he teaches at the University of the West Indies. He has published two collections of poems and his book Suspended Sentences won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel.

Annie Paul is head of publications at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and managing editor of the journal Social and Economic Studies.