“We are on the verge of listening”

Earl Lovelace talks to B.C. Pires about his long-awaited new novel Is Just a Movie, and acknowledging the importance of rebellion

Earl Lovelace. Photograph by Stefan Falke

Earl Lovelace. Photograph by Stefan Falke

Born in Toco, in north-east Trinidad, in 1935, Earl Lovelace is the author of the novels While Gods Are Falling (1965), The Schoolmaster (1968), The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), The Wine of Astonishment (1983), and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize–winning Salt (1997), as well as volumes of short fiction, plays, and essays. His long-awaited sixth novel, Is Just a Movie, was published in early 2011. The scholar Funso Aiyejina suggests that Lovelace’s books “speak of, to, and for those who are not usually the subjects in their own history . . . his vision, no matter how unique, echoes, clarifies, problematises, and extends folk preoccupations, wisdom, and philosophy.”

Soon after the launch of Is Just a Movie, Lovelace spoke to B.C. Pires over lunch about his fiction’s exploration of the nature, causes, and effects of rebellion, and the state of contemporary Trinidad.

B.C. Pires: When you refer to your new book, do you shorten the title to, say, Movie? Or is it always Is Just a Movie?

Earl Lovelace: Is Just a Movie. Is very difficult to shorten the title.

BC: But you might say Dragon for The Dragon Can’t Dance.

EL: I realise that. You could talk about Wine, Dragon, Schoolmaster, and so on, but this one, Is Just a Movie, just happened that way. I was looking for a long time for another title, and many possible ones came up, but eventually I thought Is Just a Movie would be useful.

BC: It’s a lovely title; I really like how it jumps into its Trinidadian-ness: Is Just a Movie.

EL: Yeah, yeah. And of course [at the launch in Port of Spain] I read the part that speaks directly to that [where the characters are extras in a movie shot in Trinidad, who insist on “dying” spectacularly]. Is Just a Movie is a serious statement.

BC: It’s probably the deepest of your titles so far.

EL: Well, I don’t know if it is. I think it would be all right. [Chuckles]

BC: No, I don’t think you’re doing it justice. As much as I love the title of The Dragon Can’t Dance, this title is just so Trinidadian and so immediate. But let that go.

I’ve heard you say before that your characters are all you, all aspects of yourself, are not based on others — but, with this book, you invited the model for one of the protagonists to the launch.

EL: I know it was said [the character of] Sonnyboy was modelled on Gabby, who is also known as Easyboy, from Matura. His real name is Hollis Pierre. He was a boxer and a badjohn and I know him well, he lived near me in Matura. But I think I was really talking not about the particular character like that — although he could represent . . . Well, one or two things I borrowed. If you go through Matura, you’ll see Gabby has signs up with quotations he’s written, things he’s arrived at, “Honesty is the best policy,” or whatever — I borrowed that from him; but the character is individual and speaks to [and for] a whole group of people. One of the things really at the heart of this book is the idea that, unless we acknowledge that some people here have been engaged in rebellion — that that has been their work, so to speak — we don’t understand them and don’t understand the society. I don’t know if I’ve put that well.

BC: Let me see if I understand by suggesting that, if we don’t understand these people, we fail to understand not just the place but the history and the opportunity of the place.

EL: Yeah. This relates even back to Dragon, in a way. You had Aldrick, who was seen as a kind of revolutionary, and perhaps he was, but he was also seen as a kind of idler, seen like doing nothing, seen as playing mas, which, at the time of the writing of the book, was seen as nothing — it’s only recently we’ve come to see it in a slightly more informed way, if you want. But at the end of the book, what happens? The place doesn’t change. Aldrick comes to some kind of understanding and he goes back to painting signs.

If you look at [V.S. Naipaul’s titular protagonist of the novel A House for] Mr Biswas, Mr Biswas is also a rebel, in a way; but he has an individual requirement: he wants a house. Aldrick doesn’t want a house; he wants the place to change. We see somebody getting a house and there’s a certain sense that this person’s realised himself, he get his house. And we kinda comfortable with that. But, at the end of Dragon, Aldrick doesn’t get what he wants. We know his questions: whether he can be a dragon and man; whether he can be this or that. What is important to him is that this place must change.

And now I jump back to Is Just a Movie, where, unless we acknowledge that people have been rebelling, unless we see that, we can’t see them. We see them as delinquents and not as revolutionaries; and I use the word “revolutionaries” with great caution, because they’re not quite; but they’re certainly people rebelling against a certain set of circumstances and rebelling on behalf of something.

BC: I follow that, but aren’t you immediately going to be asked whether you are glorifying a group of people who are rebelling/giving up/idling, and you are giving them more spirit than they can validly or legitimately lay claim to?

EL: I want to give them more spirit! The more they understand themselves what they are doing, the better they begin to engage what they have to do. I don’t think rebellion is the end of the day, but certainly to acknowledge that this is what they have been doing is very important. And that they have a good reason for doing it! Unfortunately the society has never come to grips with who we are, how we arrived here, and give some kind of good understanding to say, “This is where we are; let we see what we could do about it!” They do like if everybody arrive here in the same way, same circumstances, and some people lazy and some people industrious. Some people smart and some people stupid. You know?

BC: Are you saying the people who have been engaged in rebellion constitute part of an unacknowledged social contract? That they are part and parcel of defining the place, but we don’t see them that way?

EL: I think you can say that. Definitely. In essence, a lot of Blackpeople have been like that. People don’t just get up one morning and feel to rebel; people have always had good reason to rebel. I mean, we have moved from enslavement into colonialism. If we look at the history, it is the rebellion of people who hastened and brought about emancipation; people are saying they will not accept that and they have no apology to make to anybody in the world at any time. Although they might not have been seen in a formal sense as revolutionaries, they have contributed to our emancipation, and we need to acknowledge that. We can’t just do like if it didn’t happen, or if the circumstances were not what they were, as if these people were delinquent, because it is convenient for us to see them in that way. We have to understand the circumstances.

We have to look at Laventille and conditions people have there, and ask, “How did they get there? How did this start? How has it changed? What has changed?” These are real questions we must ask ourselves. In fact, this is what gives us the potential for a new world. It’s not that these things are so terrible: they happen! And I think we could deal with them! But — and this is what I am saying — we have to acknowledge them! In acknowledging that people have a right to rebel against bullshit, we begin!

BC: Do you think you’re being heard?

EL: [Laughing out loud] Actually I don’t think I’m being heard! But I don’t think there is any one set of people not hearing. I think we, generally, as a society, in our education as well, we have some right answers. Let me back up a bit and say I think that I wish I could say I was being heard. [Chuckles] But I think I will be heard, you know, though perhaps not at the moment. I think we are on the verge of listening.

BC: It seems more like we’re on the verge of collapse.

EL: No, no, no, no. Certain things have to collapse for certain new things to happen. I think we’ve been really a good society, in the sense that we’ve gone along with the ideas presented to us about nation, government, prime ministers, and all this bullshit! We’ve kept faith with that. And I think now we’re beginning to see that the thing itself has not kept faith with us, whether you talk about democracy as an idea in which we think, “Well, let me see how these people have allowed or helped us to speak as a community or communities?” Because we’ve had a lot of ideas of how things should run, a great deal of centralisation, the whole idea of community leaders has been eroded and mash-up, because they don’t have any use any more.

The whole business of county council elections being mash-up, you don’t have people at the ordinary level having the power they used to have. I remember in Matura, people there built the community centre themselves. They had a few people who were seen as leaders in the village. If you wanted water, there was somebody you could go and talk to directly.

BC: If the society did recognise these people you say are engaged in rebellion on its behalf, what happens next? What should they do?

EL: Well, I think we’d be in a position to make demands. First, we’d say, “I understand why you’ve been rebelling; let us see what is possible now.” How can you involve these people in their own and our liberation?

BC: This was a central theme of Salt: it’s one thing to keep people enslaved, but how do you set them free?

EL: Right, right, right. And now it’s a question we ourselves face. It’s not a question for anybody else. We are the ones to answer it.

BC: “We” meaning the whole society?

EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the society mustn’t look for shortcuts, little stupid ways out. Face the real question.

BC: Else we back in the shit in no time?

EL: Absolutely! Because this acknowledgement needs to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, we’re really in a bad way. If people are acknowledged, we can set ourselves certain tasks as a society. One is to involve the people themselves. But, as a society, what objectives do we want? What do we want? [Laughs loudly] I would like a society in which anybody at any time could walk the road without any possibility of anybody interfering with them. There are so many beautiful things we can posit and hopefully achieve. In terms of education, we can achieve a whole lot. We can help the same people in the same rebellion zones where you left them — what the fuck you expect them to do? I would like to know!

BC: In fact, in the circumstances, they’ve done very well?

EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They have not educated the people. It’s not that they haven’t educated themselves — well, part of it is them and part of it is all of us, in a way, but part of it is the whole place. Inasmuch as the society talks about education [not a lot is done]. [When I was] growing up, there used to be, in terms of security firms, people at T&TEC [the electricity company]. Now there is a great proliferation of security firms. Everywhere is security. Now you telling me that these young black men and women, principally, this is what they do? Nothing? There are other things they could do to make them believe they are part of something. So, the point I was making from the beginning, you need to acknowledge that people have been rebelling against shit, against something, and unless you do that, you leave them to drift and they look for a harbour.

BC: If we don’t acknowledge, what do you see happening?

EL: Many, many things. First, I don’t see how people going to change. As far as the novel is concerned, Sonnyboy is left to look for another harbour, and that is the risk we run. We will have to find a way out, a way to speak for us. I think there are a number of questions raised about how we function and how we have been functioning. Sometimes I look at us and think, “Most of us are better than this!” I also think we are very reluctant. Change challenges us in profound ways.

BC: You are optimistic that we will begin to look at one another, perhaps beginning with these people who have been engaged in rebellion on our behalf?

EL: I am saying that is what we should be doing, and that acknowledgement is a good step, as a beginning. The whole idea that we have resisted is very, very important to us. We’ve had ways presented us by which we supposedly succeed, whether through education, dress, employment, a whole number of things, colour, class, a whole heap of bullshit.

Part of the business of becoming as people is to see how we can become ourselves. That involves the whole business of dress. What has happened is that they have decided to make the whole place so cold now [with air-conditioning] that you have to put on a jacket. It’s crazy, crazy people here, you know. We don’t make the jacket, all the things we surround ourselves with, we do not make. I could understand straw hat! At least we giving somebody a sale. Before you could have halfway trap me; now I know jacket-and-tie is ridiculous. I will not go somewhere if you want me to wear a jacket. I don’t own one and I don’t propose to own one. At least not in this climate. I’m cool with it now, because I know it’s ridiculous. Don’t penalise the people who didn’t and cannot sign in.

We have crime going on in Laventille. People say it’s “drug-related”; but a lot of other people are “drug-related” who we don’t know nothing about. But we have not thought to present to people another idea of what life is. This has moved people to move in a certain kind of way — this is a mental thing, and there is no mental approach. We look for police and this and that. Yeah, you might kill a few, capture a few, but the problem still remains, even if you knock out all of them — which would be bad for you, yourself, as a society — but you would knock them out to save who? To save what? What do you hold sacred that you are upholding and these people violating?

BC: You write so well on behalf of these people engaged in rebellion on our behalf; are you ever read by them?

EL: Well at [recently deceased writer] Keith [Smith]’s funeral I met a young fella who Keith had given a copy of Dragon to, and it had transformed his whole life, so it’s nice to know that there is that kind of potential in this work. But it’s not so much those people who these books have to reach; these books have to reach the people who are teaching them; because of their usefulness.

BC: But they took Dragon off the school curriculum because it contains the word “fuck”; they want the opposite of what you want.

EL: I understand what you’re saying. It’s a very serious situation, because a kind of middle class has failed the people — no, not “the people,” failed “us.” I want to believe they tried, but something is wrong with what they see as success and progress. But I think a younger generation is coming up, more at ease, with greater confidence, likely to have more of a “self” and look more at themselves.

We have to be careful not to throw away everything. Certain forms we’ve developed which we don’t even understand. Something like Carnival, which they nearly mash-up, move out the Savannah, move off the stage, all these symbolic things, the notion of [the steelband competition] Panorama, all these steelbands coming together — there are many wonderful things people have created here, but various official quarters have messed up things. They had rope in a Carnival band, surrounding the band, and these VIP sections in the band . . .

BC: It’s the antithesis of Carnival.

EL: Totally! Absolutely! It was really frightening, the most frightening event I’ve seen in this country, more than the corruption or anything else.

BC: I was told about a mobile, enclosed air-conditioned glass lounge — see-through, so people could gape at them — and I thought, “The French Creoles are back on the truck.”

EL: It’s complete bullshit. They ain’t have nothing to do. It ain’t even interesting! If they used to have some wild parties inside there, I would say at least they had something going on! Still, we have to be patient with ourselves. We have to understand why we do so much shit, but one of the big challenges is, how do we call it? How do we say, “Look, fella, you doing shit.” And get them to hear you ain’t vexed with them particularly, but it don’t make sense. If you talk about the lack of spirit, these people lack spirit. I remember the days when people had nothing. I see a fella with a beer in he hand and he kinda own the street, just with a beer.

BC: He got more out of that beer and that sidewalk than they do from the air-conditioned mobile lounge?

EL: Yes! You could see the power in the fella! You look at them and . . . [Shakes head] But there’s still a lot that is very positive in the very Carnival itself. The music is terrible, but Carnival is still an occasion when we reaffirm what we are about. Don’t underestimate that. And I think it remains an occasion when we try to show each other our better selves.

BC: This book has been a long time in the making; what took so long?

EL: [Chuckles] Well, I’ve been trying to think about that myself. There are a number of things. When I look back at the drafts, the book finish long ago! One of the principal things was, in the middle of the thing, I change my computer. I didn’t realise that had such an impact on my whole being and everything. I had a PC and I change to this Mac. Is not that I not happy with it, or want to talk too much about it, because [eldest son] Walt was the one who encourage me to switch . . .

BC: And I woulda encourage you, too . . .

EL: Good. Very strong. But I was accustomed to the PC. I also think I was trying to wrestle the book into a shape I wanted it, and the book was refusing. I hear people talk about that but I never kinda . . . [Shakes head] No, it really wanted to go its own way. In a way, this was new. It probably might have happened before but I was probably able to manhandle the others. [Laughs aloud] But this one definitely beat me!

BC: What has the reception been like so far?

EL: I met a lot of people who liked it, but I don’t know. I think it’s a book that requires re-reading. People say what they say and I listen, and generally it’s been pleasant things, but I don’t particularly take it on.

BC: It’s between you and the work?

EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I try to think, have I communicated what I wanted? To some degree, I have, I think. But we will see.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2011

B.C. Pires began writing the newspaper column “Thank God It’s Friday” in the Trinidad Express in 1988. It currently appears in the Trinidad Guardian and online at www.BCRaw.com, along with his weekly Barbados Nation column, “BC’s B’dos”, and other features. Thank God It’s Friday: A Collection of Some of the Best Columns was published in 2005. He lives in Barbados, but just barely.