Patois canticles

Oonya Kempadoo talks to Stephen Narain about rendering Caribbean speech in prose, writing Port of Spain as a literary character, and tackling the complexity of contemporary Caribbean life in fiction

Oonya Kempadoo. Photograph by Thomas Langdon, courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A trim yet dense tale of London’s Windrush-era strivers, Samuel Selvon’s book The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956, functions less as a novel with a teleological arc and more as a modernist picaresque, following the city’s newest West Indian arrivals as they find love, lose jobs, and crash one another’s flats. Londoners’ choral voice — pioneering in its use of nation language in both dialogue and exposition — is raw and raucous and thrillingly unrestrained. An entire stream-of-consciousness riff on Hyde Park in early summer is messy and jazzy and perfect in its imperfection. Selvon’s mercurial antiheroes — Galahad, Tolroy, and “a fellar call Half Past Twelve” — are not polished. Why should the prose be? Despite all Selvon owes to Coltrane and calypso, however, a careful craftsman guides his boldest improvisations. Londoners’ narrator strategically stitches unlikely anecdotes, searching for “patterns,” for “sequences,” and, ultimately, for the meaning in the lives of these motley “tests” exiled in a city as grim and unforgiving as postwar London.

Selvon’s savvy narrator, suggests critic Susheila Nasta, constructs an urban, diasporan Caribbean community, imagined neither solely through demography nor through narrative, but through the English language’s very mutability. Nasta writes:

In using a creolised voice for the language of the narration and the dialogue, a voice which transports the calypsonian “ballads” of the errant island “boys” to the diamond pavements of Caribbean London, Selvon not only envisioned a new way of reading and writing the city, but also exploded some of the narrow and hyphenated categories by which black working-class voices had hitherto been defined. Closing the gap between the teller of the tale and the tale itself, Selvon thus finds a means to not only reinvent London but to reshape its spaces, giving his previously voiceless characters a place to live in it.

Selvon’s influence on the development of the contemporary London novel — a form “reinvented” and “reshaped” by Britain’s successive waves of immigrants — is staggering. Londoners’ chatty narrator chants beneath books as varied as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist, likens Selvon’s performative prose to a “carnival,” with “the high brought low and the low raised up high.” Selvon’s facility for shape-shifting, his faith in ambivalence, his ease with ambiguities, positioned him as an unlikely chronicler of a mid-twentieth-century London rediscovering its voice after two wars left it all but speechless. For Kunzru, Selvon was a British writer as much as he was a Trinidadian one, depicting “a city and a country in transition, a Britain making its way out of the post-imperial twilight towards a future lit by a brighter sun.”

Who, I wonder, is imagining the twenty-first-century Caribbean city in transition? One might turn to Christian Campbell’s poetry collection Running the Dusk to discover Nassau’s children — eyebrows raised at Atlantis — squawking “on a swing, flying, / Bahamian children in the night.” One might turn to Kei Miller’s collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion to navigate Kingston’s problem with urban design, more generally. But for an illumination of what might be the Anglophone Caribbean’s most “peacock” city, one might do well to turn to Oonya Kempadoo’s most recent novel, All Decent Animals, published in 2013.

Animals charts the relationships that Ata, a small-island artist, builds with Port of Spain’s eclectic population of conflicted souls. Fraser, a Cambridge-educated architect (and closeted gay man), is slowly dying of AIDS. Pierre, a French United Nations development worker, grows increasingly wary of Trinidad and Tobago’s implementation of aid programmes crafted in Geneva boardrooms. And Sam, a taxicab driver, by turns cheery and deluded, reads like Selvon’s prose incarnate. As Ata moves from swanky graphic design offices to chaotic Carnival mas camps to the tranquil seaside village of Blanchisseuse, she is alternately charmed and repelled by the country’s contrivances, by its “teenagers dressed like big people, rich homes flashing TV style — everybody rushing, buying food, driving and eating and drinking, picong talk flying.”

Like Londoners, Animals maps the consciousness of a nation defining itself in opposition to cookie-cutter colonial structures at the same time that it speeds headfirst into a modern vision still under construction. Yet Kempadoo is even more liberal than Selvon in painting her Woolfian watercolour of voices. To arrive at the consciousness of a country, one must first enter the consciousness of its people, Animals suggests. The novel’s narrator — protean, unnamed — delights in particularising human souls. As for sequences, patterns, and meanings: the reader is left on his own.

Kempadoo’s trust in her reader, built through a signature balance of sensual lyricism and narrative restraint, has made her one of the region’s most revered literary voices. Her novels look around well-trodden questions of Caribbean postcoloniality. Her representations of Caribbean working-class speech never slip into minstrelsy. She’s out to capture today’s Caribbean rhythms, unmuted by lullaby-like nostalgia or tone-deaf cliché. Buxton Spice, Kempadoo’s debut novel, published in 1999, follows the political and sexual awakening of Lula, a mixed-race Guyanese girl searching for her place in a country scarred by racial violence. Kempadoo’s 2003 follow-up, Tide Running, is set in contemporary Tobago, and offers a meticulous meditation on class, race, and desire on an island caught between Derek Walcott’s “sigh of History” and the new worship of American idols. We can assume that Kempadoo’s penchant for writing socially engaged fiction has a hereditary link. While she may very well be the literary daughter of Selvon, she is the real daughter of Selvon’s contemporary Peter Kempadoo, whose novel Guyana Boy — published in 1960 and reissued by Peepal Tree Press in 2002 — is an intimate, clear-eyed portrait of Indo-Guyanese rural life. Like his daughter, Peter Kempadoo channels the spirits of dignified misfits to dismantle the rigid hierarchies governing former plantation societies, all while honouring the polyglot traditions their descendants have elected to preserve.

Though Kempadoo’s writing — and activism — reveals a deep commitment to the Caribbean’s physical environment, her personal life suggests ease with cultural border-crossing. Born in Sussex, England, in 1966, Kempadoo was raised in Golden Grove, Demerara, from the age of four. At seventeen, she left Guyana to study visual art at the University of Amsterdam, but soon returned to the Caribbean. She started writing fiction in 1997. A former resident of St Lucia and Tobago, Kempadoo is currently based in Grenada, where she is involved in various social development projects, including the recent establishment of an independent library in St George’s. A 2011 fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme, Kempadoo was also a 2013–2014 Fulbright Scholar at two Connecticut community colleges, where she taught courses in creative writing and Caribbean literature.

This interview — edited and condensed for clarity — took place over the telephone in late September 2013, shortly after I heard Kempadoo read from All Decent Animals at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn. Channelling Sam’s voice, Kempadoo managed not only to summon Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and Samuel Selvon, but she also proceeded, implicitly, to resurrect Samuel Johnson as well. “[Sam] like pediastrianising this part of town,” she read in her raspy, earthy voice. “That’s right, pedestrianising — footing it — in the ‘heart of Po’t of Spain.’” Our laughter came from recognition. We know Sam. He’s our uncle, our grandfather. He’s Oliver Samuels. He’s Porkpie Grant. Caribbeanness, in Sam’s language, is not an overwrought performance; it is a natural state of affairs. Such tonal mastery ties Kempadoo to the current generation of Caribbean literary giants — Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, Marlon James — who moonlight as the region’s beloved, albeit irreverent, lexicographers. These postmodern griots, in their divergent styles, answer Selvon’s aesthetic challenge in Londoners, designing more honest grammars, engineering new syntaxes of experience, and singing patois canticles to the messy nationalisms — and spiritual epiphanies — that distinguish life in the twenty-first-century Caribbean.

— Stephen Narain

Stephen Narain: In All Decent Animals, Tide Running, and Buxton Spice, the voices are what stuck with me the most, so a lot of my questions are going to be on voice and on Sam Selvon in particular — because I can feel his rhythm very much in your novels.

Oonya Kempadoo: That’s a big compliment to me!

SN: Can you talk about Selvon’s influence on the voice of Sammy, the taxicab driver in Animals, but also on your writing more generally?

OK: From childhood, Selvon was my earliest influence on how to write Caribbean vernacular. Reading him gave me the courage in Buxton Spice to break out of the dialogue and to use vernacular in the sentence structure of the narration and change that up and be free with it. In writing Animals, I was not comfortable doing this at first. I was feeling like I was translating from my head to the page when I was writing the other characters and the main voice. And then Sammy popped up, and immediately his voice gave me the ease and comfort of being able to write how I was thinking — and to me that’s what Selvon does. Yet, writing this way raises a question: when do you start translating and editing? Do you start it in your head before you put words on the page, or do you go with it and then edit from there? I wrote a little bit about this for my publisher, because the creole language and how the rhythm of it works, if you stay really true to how it’s spoken, it becomes difficult to read. There has to be some sort of compromise, and I think Selvon got that compromise really well.

SN: The thing about Caribbean speech is that it’s always changing. It’s alive — it’s not bound by any rules or grammar or syntax, in the sense that it’s constantly being influenced by different forces, whether it be American rap music or soca or reggae or whatever sort of improvisation just happens when people are having a conversation. In terms of finding that balance, like you said, between the speech as it’s spoken and the printed word — the move from the oral to the scribal which Selvon and you do so masterfully, and Robert Antoni as well — what are the rules, if we can use that word, you use to guide that translation?

OK: The spelling of the actual words is very important. This is how I read Selvon’s work: he didn’t — I don’t want to say misspell — but he didn’t spell the word differently from the Standard English spelling of the word. The way words are placed in his sentences gives you the intonation and the rhythm of the language, so it makes it easier to read because you’re not reading half-words or newly spelled words to capture pronunciation. The emphasis is not on the pronunciation of the words themselves, but rather on the rhythm. That’s a technique I find helpful.

SN: That’s something Susheila Nasta, one of the greatest Selvon critics, focuses on when she describes Selvon’s ability to render the language of his characters in Londoners. She argues that Selvon was able to imagine a black British community in London, and she goes on to say that this representation interrupted the narrative of modern London in a way that was organic. It wasn’t forced. Selvon wasn’t imposing any kind of theory. The language did all the work it needed to. Animals is set in Port of Spain, the Caribbean’s metropolis in so many ways. It’s a city coming into itself, transitioning from a “postcolonial” space to its own independent thing. How do you think representing the contemporary language of a city plays a part in helping us rethink the idea of community?

OK: In Londoners, the cast of characters and the simplicity of the language have a lot to do with how we identify with the work. Character and voice fuelled my challenge — and my interest — in setting Animals in an urban Caribbean setting and in imagining the complex lives of Ata and Fraser. That’s not to say that Sammy is any less complex, but his voice is a more traditionally recognised Caribbean voice; he is a more traditionally recognised Caribbean character.

SN: At your reading in Brooklyn last week, you suggested that Sammy was able to say things about Port of Spain society which the other characters could not say in the same way. I wanted you to elaborate on this idea: that Sammy’s perceptions are different because of his language, because of how he speaks.

OK: That’s right. It comes back to the vocabulary of the working-class character Selvon embodies. We understand that character’s perspective and accept his descriptions more easily, I think. He’s now recognisable and therefore acceptable, and he seems more authentic. But that’s not to say that the other characters’ points of view and their descriptions or their observations of the country are any less authentic. The more global Caribbean citizens and their languages and their voices — while they’re still authentic and Trinidadian and Caribbean — we don’t connect with them as much as we would to Sammy’s voice, a character that we know now through Caribbean literature for, what, forty years?

SN: What’s always intriguing to me is the conversations writers have with each other across time and space. Your work is in conversation with Selvon’s. I hope one day, when I get my act together, that my work can be in conversation with yours. Writers open doors for one another. Obviously, this phenomenon crosses many different traditions, but particularly in the Caribbean, where language is often bound up with questions of power and authenticity — because of our very, very complicated history — we often hear Caribbean writers use phrases like: “This writer gave me permission to do such and such.” This statement goes a step beyond inspiration. Selvon trains us to recognise that the language we were told as children through our education —

OK: And only heard —

SN: Right! And only heard — that it was somehow lesser, right? There was the language of the schoolyard, and there was the language of the school, and they were these different things. We’ve talked a lot about Selvon. But who were the other writers, whether they be from Guyana or Trinidad or Grenada, who gave you that “permission” — and if they didn’t give you permission, at least the inspiration — to write your voice?

OK: When I learned of Selvon’s work, I also was reading Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. So keenness of observation and the skill of being able to portray everyday characters in a village setting — and just reflecting bigger themes and more complex issues through individual characters — are what really put something in the back of my head at the time of reading Selvon, Naipaul, and Steinbeck together as a teenager. I turned to these writers when I started Buxton Spice. Still, the language on the page is so different to me than my enjoyment of the spoken word. The way some Indian writers, for instance, have achieved that sort of “I’m-carrying-you-on-this-journey” through their writing style. And Scottish writers, Irish writers, how they handle their vernacular —

SN: Yes! Irvine Welsh —

OK: Oh, gosh, what’s his name? Who wrote How Late It Was, How Late. James?

SN: Kelman, yes.

OK: Patrick McCabe. Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid. But Anthony Winkler for me —

SN: I love him.

OK: He’s just great, because not only does he get the language, but he captures the humour of the Caribbean in a way that is lost in so much of our other literature. Winkler, for me — it really, really was just a relief to discover his work and to find his humour over and over again.

SN: His writing makes me think of my mother, who is this lovely Lutheran schoolteacher from New Amsterdam, Guyana, right?

OK: Okay.

SN: And one of the things that always intrigues me about her is this kind of politeness which we often associate — not to stereotype — with the West Indian schoolteacher of a certain generation. And then there was the private relationship at home, and you’d hear things that you’d never imagine this schoolteacher would say! To me, this is such a massive part of Caribbean culture: we speak in many different voices, and it’s often not a conscious kind of thing.

OK: And some of those voices are not meant to be public —

SN: Right!

OK: Which is what the printed page does: the private language becomes public.

SN: Right, exactly — and that way, our work as writers provides insight, welcomed or not, into the culture, which is incredibly useful because it complicates these notions we might ordinarily settle for, you know? The polite history. The surface history represented in the academy, this theory or whatnot. The language of the novelist constantly interrupts the culture, and I think that’s a positive thing for us to do.

OK: That’s what I enjoy about it. Writing novels does feel like a way you can break the public/private divide, because when you’re writing and you’re actually working with the language and the voice, you forget about all the rest of it: all the responsibilities or how the work might be received, what it might actually be implying, what it’s “saying.” This happens when the writing process really is stuck to the characters’ voices and to the rhythms of their language — staying true to them. But I think sometimes I get carried away with the voice!

SN: True?

OK: You know? The flow of it, the lyricism of it. That’s where I start. Engaging with voices is definitely a way to open up and expose areas in the culture we don’t necessarily want to look at. The people that come up in my work tend to do that for me.

SN: It takes a certain level of bravery to engage with consciousness in that open way, because in the Caribbean there’s a high premium placed on propriety. To actually challenge that through language, even through music — dancehall, reggae, soca —

OK: Bacchanal —

SN: Exactly. Challenging propriety is more accepted in music —

OK: But not in a book!

SN: Right, less so in literature. It’s funny to me, though, thinking of Antoni’s Divina Trace, for example, how one form can guide the other. It’s useful that we have these reggae artists willing to comment on the society in a bold way, because they have helped writers collapse boundaries between music and writing, which I think is generative.

OK: Yes, well, this phenomenon has always added to the picture of this hypocritical Caribbean society to me, because while criticism is acceptable in one form, it isn’t as acceptable in others. Even in print media: the discrepancy between what you’d hear on the radio and what you’d see in the newspaper is vast.

SN: I read an article a few months ago where the Guyanese government banned a calypso. I had to ask: why would the government feel it necessary to censor a song like that? What aspects of the music did the government feel would negatively influence Guyanese people?

OK: Right. Well, I can understand some censorship of what goes over the airwaves because of exposure to children. I know of one song from Antigua which received a lot of objection, because it was very violent and could be read as instigating rape. People were saying it shouldn’t even be allowed on the radio. I could understand that level of outcry, particularly if the lyrics are going to affect children.

SN: Right, it is a complicated issue. To change gears just a little, I wanted to read one of Sammy’s lines because I love his voice so much — it’s from the same passage you read in Brooklyn. In that passage, Sammy is observing Port of Spain in the late afternoon. You write:

But for now, as he stepping into the open boulevard, under the high sparse old poui and flamboyant trees, the sun ain’t too hot and the traffic flowing and the corn-soup lady setting up, and he just get two extra turns to make for the day. “Wine Miss Tiny, roll back Miss Tiny.”

I’ll spare you my singing. At the reading, you actually sang those two lines from the famous Byron Lee and the Dragonaires song. You have a beautiful voice, by the way! What struck me about the novel, thinking about blurring boundaries, is the influence of music, particularly soca, not just on the content — Ata works in Carnival arts — but on the actual form. How do you think soca, calypso, reggae — even American forms like jazz — may have played a part in the writing?

OK: Musical lyrics are often overlooked, but they stay with us, and they become part of our voices, really. In a novel, a line of a song can provide a perspective and bring back a memory of a particular period so much more quickly than a descriptive paragraph could. And soca lyrics are so well done. You have social commentary. You have a whole range of emotional, human issues covered in condensed form. Not including them as part of these characters’ lives and voices would be a shame. This, in part, is what made Sammy interesting to me: his love for the old calypsos involves a whole interplay between the history of Trinidad and the lyrics of the music. What becomes his mission in the book is to connect calypso’s references to the historical people and places referenced in Port of Spain’s street names. Music was a big part of Tide Running, as well. You know? We live with music, and it’s already written in our minds — the words are done so masterfully that to include them helps the character and the reader to put a rhythm to the whole story, to create a kind of soundtrack.

SN: That point segues into my next question, about something you mentioned in Brooklyn regarding how Caribbean writing fits into the international literary landscape. Something you said which was so bright is that Caribbeanness — whatever that is — is, like the language: organic, evolving, mutable, and that this is wholly sufficient. The language should define Caribbeanness, in a sense. Writers, particularly those of us living in the diaspora, need not be so concerned about externalised (or market-driven!) niches or categorisations. We ought to just allow the language — attentiveness to language and to our characters’ mindsets — to do the legwork in terms of engaging with macro questions about what Caribbean literature represents and what Caribbeanness even means. At the Bocas Lit Fest back in April [2013], there were actually two major panels taking on these broader concerns. One of them questioned this notion of a “national literature.” Can you talk a little bit about your response to that discussion?

OK: Absolutely. Trying to define national identity and Caribbeanness in a deliberate way need not be necessarily the best way to go about it, because I think literature in any part of the world, in any form, is about the way individual characters and voices resonate, and about the bigger themes which make readers connect with these individuals. These resonances should cross boundaries. They should cross cultural and regional boundaries. Many of us, true, feel very loyal to one particular country in the Caribbean. Some of our identities feel very clear — that’s in tension with the desire for our literature to not be put in a box and a category. It’s a fine dance, I think. Encouraging ourselves to think more regionally and globally about how our work is received, about how our work communicates with other cultures and with other people, while still being authentic to the voice, setting, and characters of individual books — that’s compelling. In doing so, we naturally move with our evolving creolisation. We’d naturally represent an evolving Caribbean. As you say, Caribbeanness is always changing. I mean, I couldn’t stand up and say: “I write representing Grenada” or “I write representing Guyana.” Still, some writers do feel very strongly that their source is from a country.

SN: Yes, that’s right. You have roots in Guyana and Grenada. You lived in Trinidad. I think about pan-Caribbean aesthetics, which I know very well because my parents are from Guyana, southernmost in the Caribbean, and I grew up in the Bahamas —

OK: Northernmost in the Caribbean.

SN: And to me, pan-Caribbeanness was an absolutely normal thing, because the city, Freeport, where I grew up was incorporated in the 1950s, so it’s an incredibly young place — at least this manifestation of Freeport. We had friends, many of whom were expatriates from Barbados, from St Vincent, from Guyana, from Trinidad —

OK: All over.

SN: And we built this kind of community, and it was effortless. Of course, as a child you don’t think in these sociological terms, right? “Oh, I am building an imagined pan-Caribbean space.” This never went through my mind when I was five. But that was exactly what was happening! Thinking about Federation — the West Indies Federation — an ideal which obviously decomposed rather quickly, can you talk a little bit about pan-Caribbeanness as a concept?

OK: In reality, there is at least one generation, if not two, of people who have this mixture like you and me. You’re born in one country, and you grow up in another one, you live some years in another one. So I think the interaction is there. There are clear links through heritage, at least among the English-speaking Caribbean countries — that’s what I can speak for. While I feel connected to the English Caribbean countries, you don’t actually get to know what’s going on in that other island or to meet artists living on other islands that easily, unless it’s at a festival in one place or the next. Actually, the Caribbean diaspora in the United States, in Britain, and in Canada is really where you get this pan-Caribbean sensibility. I felt it in Toronto, and now I see it here in America. Pan-Caribbeanness is not experienced the same way in the region when you live there. Some islands have it more than others — Barbados, for instance. Maybe around the Cave Hill campus of UWI, you’ll have that pan-Caribbean community. Or in places like St Martin, where people come for work from all over the Caribbean, you will hear about five different languages spoken. But it’s not often that you actually live with it. And then there’s the sort of government-level ideal of Caribbean unity, but then that also comes with the politics of each country defending its own turf — and hate at the immigration borders.

SN: That point leads into what I wanted us to discuss about politics and globalisation and development. In Animals, we meet the working-class character of Sammy, but we also have a view into middle-class, particularly upper-middle-class, Port of Spain life, and that was a side of Port of Spain which was sensitively rendered. I didn’t feel a satire in your descriptions of that world, because the narration remains so close to the characters’ mindsets that the writing feels fresh, alive, unromanticised, which I thought was brilliant. Pierre, in particular — who is a French expat working at the United Nations Development Programme — perceives Port of Spain in this very suspicious way. He has this line: “Pseudo city life is what Port of Spainians love and excel in, hurriedly erecting Miami-style town houses and air-conditioned condo towers, gated ‘communities.’” “Communities” in quotation marks. There’s this tension Pierre sees and that many characters struggle with between tradition (the actual roots of Carnival) and modernisation (the fact that Carnival is now going to happen in this newfangled, fancy space in Port of Spain). The Savannah is changing, the actual architecture. This change forms a very beautiful anxiety in the book.

OK: Well, I think that’s what really drew me to write about it, and to find those characters who can voice this anxiety in their lives, because the contradiction between tradition and development is something every emerging Caribbean society faces. You’re torn between wanting to protect and sustain traditional art forms, languages, and cultures, but at the same time you want to be world-class. This conflict affects us not only as individuals, but also as professionals, as artists. You witness this tension very visually in any Caribbean island in the middle-class rush to move away from the traditional Caribbean in any form, whether it be the style of the house or the language, the music. It’s this rush away from our roots, which are connected to the land and to quite a brutal history.

This idea is now being more rigorously questioned in some places, because of the whole question of food security and what economies need to survive, because tourism, with the global financial crisis, is in jeopardy. But Trinidad is a particular case, because of its oil wealth, which creates this sort of schizoid type of wealth versus poverty in the society. Loyalty to foreign things was something which I noticed when I passed through Trinidad as a child, and I think, for Trinidadians, this is difficult to live with. This philosophy creates a chaotic sense of development and leads to corruption and to a race to advance more of this commerce-driven lifestyle. Material gain. Development is also very complex in Trinidad — more so than in the other islands, I think — because of the multiracialness of the society, because of the different sort of work ethics attached or perceived to be attached to different groups, which is something you notice in Guyana, as well, in the tensions among the Indo-, Afro-, and Chinese populations.

SN: Right.

OK: These tensions are really what drew me to set Animals in an urban, complex Caribbean space with contemporary Trinidadian characters. But it was difficult. Pierre, for me, like Sammy, gave me a way of saying things that the middle-class Caribbean characters couldn’t say, because they’re caught within these competing loyalties. Yet, though you can’t say certain things, you can be critical in other ways, like during the scene at the party at Fraser’s house —

SN: Yes, at the beginning of the novel.

OK: In our own way, in a social setting, we can joke, and we can talk, and we can be very particular about our own society’s corruption, the decline of social values, and all the rest of it. But how does it translate? How does the critic actually begin living differently? Acting differently?

SN: The language describing Trinidad often involves complexity — the multiracial demographics, the transition from a postcolonial to a post-independent state. Such discussions rightfully colour the city of Port of Spain and the island of Trinidad as this messy place. Ata is a wonderful creation because — as an artist and as someone who has lived in many different spaces — she is able to perceive the island with a fair bit of distance. She’s not a native Trinidadian. She calls the island “a prancy peacock island.” I love that phrase! Undergirding all Ata’s cynicism, however, is a love for the city. I felt that. She’s equally enamoured and annoyed by the chaos.

OK: You know, chaos is attractive. In the midst of chaos, you often find great creativity. It’s the creativity, manifested in the form of Carnival, which really draws her into the belly of the city. That’s how she really engages with it — when she starts working in the mas camp. Often, I think, in the most prolific sources of something fantastic happening with talent and vision — as with the Carnival scene there, one artist in the novel is actually based on Peter Minshall — it’s magnetic because you recognise the importance of it. You recognise what the vision means beyond where it’s happening, beyond Trinidad, how it pushes the boundaries of artistic form more broadly. This culture brings Ata to Port of Spain and creates a love for not just the form of Carnival and its artistry, but also for the city itself. The city becomes a person. You know, if somebody is flamboyant and very social and beautiful, but then they’re really unreliable and, you know, they shit you up, you still love them! But it creates this kind of love/hate relationship.

SN: That’s exactly right. What I find so brilliant about this book is that Port of Spain is a character in its own novel. It’s an earnest city. Any city that can have a festival like Carnival is a place that privileges joy, and I think you show this love in this novel many times over.

OK: I hope the novel shows, too, that the spontaneity of Trinidadians — their love for liming and for having a good time — is a playful thing that creates a rhythm for the country. Liming disrupts the monotonous, boring routine. You can’t describe Port of Spain and be logical and sequential about it, really, because it’s broken up all the time by people who want to have a lime.

SN: Yet, beneath all that humour and fun, this novel shows us there’s a darker side to the city, especially with regards to its cultural hypocrisies. I wanted to talk a little bit about Fraser. Fraser is a closeted gay man. For me, the emotional centre of this book is guided by his decline — he is dying from AIDS. He is an incredibly complex character: he is the type of man who cruises the streets for gay sex, but he’s also designing the plans for a church. He has all these deep, deep layers. What I appreciate so much about the writing in his voice is that it’s not sentimental, it’s not fetishising his lifestyle, and the narrator isn’t judging his decisions. Again, I think the representation was so successfully achieved because we’re close to his mind. There’s a close-third-person perspective — a razor-sharp close-third-person at times — particularly when the body is involved, and we see that human beings are really animals, decent or not. In Fraser, we witness the process of death. The final scenes, for me, are some of the most affecting passages in the book. It was difficult to read them. Can you talk about how you wrote Fraser’s character?

OK: I’d rather not. It was difficult enough writing Fraser — very difficult, depressing, and disturbingly necessary at the same time.

SN: At the end of last week’s reading at MoCADA, you mentioned that one role of the Caribbean artist is to engage with contemporary social issues in a way which departs from the nostalgic, flowery language we identify in a certain breed of twentieth-century Caribbean novel. I wonder if you can talk more about the engagement between the artist and society.

OK: Absolutely. Because the earlier writers have set the landscape and done the portraits of Caribbean society with its historical issues and linkages using, to a certain level, a romantic and nostalgic image of Caribbeanness, I don’t feel obliged to do that: to represent more of the beautiful things at the expense of avoiding life’s darker side. If anything, our literary predecessors paved the way to take on unexplored areas in our literature: HIV/AIDS, sexuality, corruption. The lack of representation is what drives you to write about certain issues, because we’ve simply not seen them in the literature. Behind every writer’s calling, there’s a certain amount of “You-write-what-you-want-to-read.” In Buxton Spice, for instance, I wanted to read more honest portrayals of contemporary coming-of-age. The desire to honestly match the literature with what’s really going on in society, I think is compelling. Maybe, too, this shift is affected by the region’s relationship with the diaspora, which is becoming stronger. There’s much more communication now between the diaspora and the Caribbean space. This may have lessened the need to romanticise the writing.

SN: And do you think the changing media landscape, the fact that so many people are on Twitter, on Facebook, and that the platform for discussing Caribbean issues is just so radically different from a generation ago —

OK: And accessible from wherever you are, whether you’re in the region or not. These discussions are accessible now in a way that many more people can participate in and share work and have critical exchanges. These platforms weren’t there before, you know? Expanding into different genres is also something which I think has changed and is changing Caribbean writers — you’re seeing many more forms. There was a detective series I read in Dominica!

SN: That’s fantastic.

OK: I don’t know if it’s a series, but it was a collection, and I hope the author, Christborne Shillingford, goes on writing others. Then there’s speculative fiction —

SN: Yes, Karen Lord —

OK: Yes. Expanding into different genres connects us to literature as a whole, to universal themes, yet we can still remain true to the language we speak, to our unique lyricism. Finding this balance is the challenge I face with my current work-in-progress. I’m really stuck. I’m going back and forth. The project is partly narrated through transcriptions from recordings. It’s a nonfiction narrative. If you directly transcribe the voice to the page, it becomes very difficult to read. Where do you draw the line? How much do I push that boundary? If I don’t push it enough, what am I subscribing to? And if I be as true to the voice as I want to be, how am I limiting the work?


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2015

Stephen Narain was raised in the Bahamas and holds Guyanese and American passports. A 2013 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is at work on his first book.