Robin was interviewed by mail by John Metcalf.
The questions have been deleted to make for smoother reading.
Iwas born in 1955 in George Village, Tableland, a small agricultural district between two very old towns: Princes Town, given its name from a visit by Prince George, and Rio Claro, which I will always associate with ancient, white-washed concrete churches and noisy wooden rum shops. Most of the villagers were cane and cocoa farmers, and as a boy, I would gaze from the front yard at the bisons and donkeys on the road walking at the same slow pace, day after day. They were followed in the evenings by workers returning from the canefield a little distance away. My father was a principal at a primary school and was involved in various community organizations and so when I was younger he was away for a fair bit of time. My mother, as were most women of her generation, was a stay-at-home housewife (though lately she has grown more involved with community and religious groups).
I grew up in a relatively big house with an extended family of aunts and uncles. At one time, there were twelve of us living there and the place was additionally crowded with visitors to my grandfather, who was a Hindu priest. My grandfather was served his vegetarian meals upstairs while all the meat cooking took place downstairs. He may not have known of the downstairs transgressions; I believe that this was typical of the sixties and seventies when local Indians were moving away from the more orthodox Hindu practices described in VS Naipaul’s early novels. It was a period of accommodation and conflict and gentle hypocrisies.
None of this was apparent at the primary school I attended, as the texts, the syllabus, and the teaching methods were unchanged from the generation before. In The West Indian Reader we read stories by Charles and Mary Lamb and nursery rhymes of Viking kings and small pastoral passages of the English countryside. All of this was interesting in its own way, though most of what we studied had little relevance to the local situation. For instance, we were forced to memorize poems by Wordsworth and Robert Louis Stevenson and recreate Constable’s landscapes. Almost everyone knew the lines from the Kingsley poem, “Oh England is a pleasant place for them that’s rich or high/ but England is a cruel place for such poor folks as I.” More oddly, we were assigned calculations in pounds and pence, currency never used on the island.
There was, however, a damp and mossy cupboard at one end of the school, with the words, “Reading maketh a full man” emblazoned near the top. This was the school library and there I found, among the old ledgers and odd plastic figurines, books on Greek and Native American and Indian myths. These books, packed tightly on the upper shelf, were almost glued to each other by their varnished covers and cockroach eggs and I had to forcefully pry them apart. Not hindered by the burden of memorizing long passages for my teachers, I borrowed the books to read leisurely at home. One of my uncles, who was doing Advanced Level Latin, noticed and gave me a prose version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I believe it was the first grown-up book I read. The language was not too difficult, and for a week or so I was engrossed in the stories of long voyages and oracles and solemn oaths.
When I was ten I passed the dreaded college entrance exams, the Common Entrance, for a college in San Fernando, about twenty-five miles from George Village. During my first year at Naparima College I boarded with an old couple whose quiet house was a real change from the bustle of my grandparent’s place. It was a two-story house and the gallery abutted the street. Most evenings I sat there with a book and gazed down at the town-people, walking in brisk measured strides on the pavement. I saw couples returning perhaps from the nearby cinema and young women hurrying to the taxi stand. They never stopped to chat as in the village; I remember pretending that the town was not a real place but a ghostly area from which everyone vanished some time around eight in the night.
At first this new perspective – from the vantage of the gallery – was quite interesting but before the year was over I began to miss the more chaotic village life. Sometimes while I was in the gallery I would imagine what would be taking place in the village, all the cricket and soccer matches and the congregation of idlers gossiping about particular oddballs – the drunkards and feisty widows and men who lived alone in big gloomy houses. Just one year earlier the first television had appeared in the village; at the stroke of six we would drop our cricket bat and head to a neighbour’s house to watch that Admiral set. And in that wooden house we would watch Westerns and animal shows, and memorize bits of dialogue we could use in the playing field the following day. (Later, I noticed a similar gunslinger stance adopted by local politicians and other persons of importance.) Almost all the boys got nicknames from these shows, names that have stuck even in their adult lives.
Gradually, though, I got used to the city and fell in with college life. Naparima College was established in 1894 by missionaries from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and as a Presbyterian institution, it attracted mostly Indians, the bulk of its local converts. The school was well known locally for its drama festivals and playwrights, and when I attended it had already produced such established journalists as Trevor McDonald, and writers such as Samuel Selvon. High schools – or colleges as they are called in the Caribbean – operated as in the British system with Ordinary and Advanced Level exams set by the Oxford and Cambridge boards. There was much competition for school for scholarships, and the recipients were feted for a few months by everyone. Much has changed since my time there; the exams are now set and graded in the Caribbean and scholarships are so common they have lost some of their distinctiveness. Secondary education is now free and there are a number of vocational secondary institutions.
When I attended the college, students were still caned, though they got their revenge, joyously lampooning all authority figures: deans, prefects and teachers. Most of these teachers were quite strict, and each weekend my father got out his set square and protractor and tried to simplify baffling new subjects like geometry and algebra. Eventually he gave up. I hated maths and chemistry and Latin and tried my best to dodge those classes.
Nevertheless, my time at college was quite enjoyable. The school was situated on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Paria and there were poui and saman trees sprinkled all over the place. Students looked forward to the drama festivals and the oration contests (some of which I, miraculously, won) and the poetry recitals. Our literature texts, usually eighteenth and nineteen century British classics were taught by old teachers who recited long passages with a playful pomposity, almost as if they too had sprung from that period. I believe my idea of writing as a profession came some time during my college years. Or at least, my fascination with the lives of writers.
When I graduated from Naparima College I went to the University of the West Indies where I did a degree in English and History. Teaching is a respected profession on the island – just a rung lower than doctors and lawyers – and I had already decided on this career. Many of my older relatives were teachers. Sometimes I imagined that my life would follow the trajectory of my father’s, that I would eventually become a principal. Upon graduation, I taught at a high school in Rio Claro and soon fell in with the local habit of idling – liming we called it – with the other teachers in the rum shops every Friday evening. It was a nice life, though unsatisfactory in many ways. I was in my early twenties and surrounded by teachers close to retirement. They were all very contented. So I applied to do a Masters in literature at the University of the West Indies. This was not an entirely enjoyable programme, as the courses repeated those I had already done as an undergraduate, but my thesis on the writing of Seepersad Naipaul, the father of VS Naipaul, was a revelation. I always assumed that the earliest Caribbean writers were men of VS Naipaul’s and Austin Clarke’s generation, but I discovered a host of writers who had shone brightly and then disappeared.
These early writers wrote mostly short stories, usually about class divisions, in a style heavily influenced by writers like Dickens and Thackeray. The plots were simple but what I found astonishing was that since the thirties and forties there were writers writing of local situations. Their stories were published in little magazines like The Beacon. It was quite sad, the way these people, their stories and these magazines had disappeared without a trace. I began to understand why the subsequent generation of writers had left for England.
I have never been completely sure why I imagined I could be a writer. Sometimes, I feel it is a miracle that I eventually did, because both of my parents believed writing an unacceptable profession, and to the society at large, any sort of writing ambition was viewed at best with amused tolerance. Calypsonians were considered the true local artists, and writers were generally thought of as alcoholics, madmen, or people with too much time on their hands. In Trinidad, as in many colonial societies, nothing is more frowned upon than presumed pretentiousness, so there were several earnest writers who kept their works hidden. Worse, writers were viewed as sensitive, a trait that invited ridicule.
In the island of my youth, an avid reader was someone who ploughed through textbooks, memorized mythological passages and quoted tracts of poetry. Until I was sixteen or so, I was unfamiliar with VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon, the two top Trinidadian writers. My earliest reading memories are of mythological tales and children’s stories by Enid Blyton. These were followed by Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter books, and Caprtain WE Johns’s Biggles and Richmal Compton’s William series. I remember writing stories in a style imitative of these writers. Soon I began to read everything I could lay my hands on, and once I was finished with the primary school and the family library, I started borrowing books from neighbours and relatives. Most of these were European classics but there were also books by Indian writers like RK Narayan and self-published books of local folklore. I still remember my thrill when a worker at a local sawmill showed me a big cardboard box stuffed with Illustrated Classics, thick comic book versions of Ivanhoe and Lorna Doone and The Prisoner of Zenda and The Mill on the Floss. Later, I searched out and found in the local library many of the original versions of these books. Some were speckled with sweets and oily trails and dead ants, or had loose bindings and entire chapters torn out, but I didn’t care.
I believe that my enthusiasm for reading may have had something to do with my ineptness at both cricket and football (soccer.) All the village boys – particularly my brothers – were good at these sports. But there was another reason: books offered respite. The family house was noisy, packed, and chaotic and I usually took my books to a quiet place at the back of the building, and for a little while I would feel at peace. I was particularly fascinated with novels like Coral Island and Robinson Crusoe and their depictions of deserted islands. I felt that Trinidad could be like these places and began to play these little games where I would see familiar objects and places as a traveller or a stranger might. I believe this was my unwitting introduction to the narrative process, as it forced me to pay attention to setting and description. In my college we mostly studied hefty British classics and I modified the game somewhat: then I tried to see unfamiliar places with some intimacy and connection and I added my own descriptions to, for instance, a British solicitor or to some meadow. Sometimes I would place local characters into a foggy English countryside.
I was about sixteen or so when my aunt gave me a copy of A House for Mr Biswas. I hated it. It was too real and familiar. I could not play my game of adapting it to local situations. I could not understand all the fuss about this writer. I knew most of the island disliked him for his strident criticisms of Third World countries and for his presumed ingratitude; I felt they could better criticize him for his ordinary and mundane scenes. Most islanders preferred Selvon, who wrote straightforward stories of hardship and survival and who was generally celebrated for his use of the local vernacular. Trinidadian conversations are often minor duels spiced with boasts and threats and little innuendoes, and Selvon’s ability to convey this fascinating me.
I started listening to people, paying attention to their gestures and exaggerations. I tried to imagine their conversations as if they were characters in a Selvon story. The Trinidadian dialect, drawing from five or six languages, is rich and flavourful. Strict grammatical injunctions might have been drilled into our heads in school, but once we got out of there everyone tried to be as inventive as possible. In Trinidad everyone liked the idea of protracted conversations, and it seemed to me that the most inventive speakers were always the nastiest and bitterest.
I returned to Naipaul, his early novels like Mystic Masseur and discovered that the dialogue in these was even funnier than in Selvon. I read his collection of stories, Miguel Street, and I was astonished that he could manage to write so confidently when he was barely twenty. I now saw how he carefully used dialogue to mock and explicate, how he set up his scenes and pared his sentences of every unnecessary detail, his repetition of particular phrases, and I gradually grew to appreciate his depiction of local scenes. There was something romantic about this discovery. The writers I had long admired and whose stories I re-imagined in a local context, were all foreigners, but here was a local novelist adding little twists and shifts to make familiar situations magical. I was about eighteen or so and I wanted to do this too.
From that point on, almost everything I read was with a view to learning the writing process. I did this with American writers like Roth and Bellow and Doctorow and Updike, and with Latin American writers who were popular at the time in Trinidad. I remember being awestruck by John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces. When I was twenty-two, I wrote a novel (which has remained ever since in a cardboard box). This writing career was a little fantasy to me: I felt that I had it in me to become a writer, but could not yet see how it would happen. There was no one I could show my stories to for advice, and no local magazines published fiction. Trinidad publications were usually slim self-serving autobiographies, textbooks, and tracts on herbal remedies and other types of quackery. I began to look for some way out.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I spent all my spare time reading or thinking of writing, though. There were a number of cinemas that featured B movies and I remember sitting twice a week in the pit, the cheapest section of the building, surrounded by cigarette smoke and gazing at sepia-tinted gunslingers and gladiators. Then there were the Friday nights at the rum shops and clubs. But even there I began to notice how easily the drunkards could fit into stories. Trinidadians typically communicate in an exaggerated manner with grand nonsensical oratorical flourishes, and I felt that I could easily slip a couple of them into stories. I believe I have.
Following the completion of my undergraduate degree, I signed up for a Masters. One of the lecturers had written some notable books on West Indian literature. He was well known locally and I gave him a couple of my stories. A few months later he told me he had sent them to Peepal Tree, a British press specializing in colonial literature. When I was finished with my MA, I had still not heard from Peepal Tree and I assumed that they had thrown out the stories.
At the time, I was teaching, and I applied to the teachers’ college. (It’s possible to teach without first going to teachers’ college.) One of the courses, taught by an American professor, involved bits of fiction. This professor seemed quite interested in my writing and told me that I had to leave the island. It was quite dramatic, I know, but her sentiments about the absence of a local audience, the lack of appreciation for local fiction, and the impossibility of writing in such a disorganized place – where people dropped in without warning and stayed all day – coincided with my own views.
This was a period of some frustration. I was married by then and I felt I was settling into an ordinary and typical Trinidadian life. I began writing a column for the Sunday Guardian and even though these were generally well-received, I grew increasingly frustrated. My articles consisted of little satirical pieces and they were easy to write. But they were not fiction, and time was passing by. For most of my early years, writing was a game, a manner by which I could keep the chaotic village life at bay. At the time it was interesting and even a little intriguing, but now there were so many other obligations it seemed as if I would remain on the island and forever write minor stories about local customs: humorous and farcical sketches my drinking friends might find amusing. In Rio Claro, I had met one or two people who spoke in an exaggerated way of intended enterprises. We laughed at these people behind their backs because they were forever threatening to accomplish something impressive. I felt that if I did not make a move soon I would join this group.
In a local library, I came upon old, hardcover biographies of European writers. I tried to understand the trajectory of these writers’ lives and learned that they had often died of consumption or ended their days in sanatoriums. I suppose the mood of the time drew me to these accounts. But there were other models closer to me, a host of Caribbean writers who had migrated to England. They wrote of migrant lives with a dark humour and for a while I played with the idea of following them. This idea did not last too long, as I soon discovered that everything that could have been written about English society by an outsider had been accomplished a generation earlier. Their novels seemed similar to each other and I felt that a character from one novel could jump out and land into another and not feel out of place.
I can’t recall how I’d discovered Canadian literary magazines in the university’s library. I cannot even remember the names of the magazines, though I was immediately drawn to their stories. They seemed fresh, shy, and innocent in a way. The Caribbean short stories I knew were dense, wordy, and stuffed with cryptic references to race and class, but these Canadian stories were of relationships, separations, and growing up in the Prairies and Newfoundland. (In the Caribbean, language, or more precisely the manner of speaking and writing, can be an indicator of social status; so many writers and journalists, as I remember, wrote in a florid and ornate style. One celebrated writer managed to append the adjective, ‘moist’ to almost every single object.) I did not realize it at the time but these Canadian stories were appealing because they did not possess the kind of self-consciousness I had seen in most Caribbean stories. These local stories, hoisted onto grand themes like colonialism and racism, frequently felt bulky, unwieldy, and scripted.
It seems a simple thing, really, but it made me think of Canada as someplace I might escape to. I also liked the idea of a society still in a state of flux, where there were regular over-earnest debates on national identity. I searched out Canadian books with a Caribbean connection and could only find short stories, by Austin Clarke and Neil Bissoonath. I enjoyed these stories partly because of their dark humour. They reminded me of books by Samuel Selvon and George Lamming and Andrew Salkey and other West Indian writers in England; but Bissoondath and Clarke wrote of small communities in Toronto, and only occasionally of the Caribbean. It was tenuous, but it was a connection.
I realized that I could not simply present myself at the Canadian Embassy and say, “Let me in. I want to write.” So, I searched out universities offering post-graduate degrees in Creative Writing, and I discovered that the University of New Brunswick offered such a programme. I knew nothing of this province – in the atlas it looked very close to Maine – and I had no idea what I would find there.
Everyone I knew felt that this was craziness. My siblings had all landed in respectable professions – doctor, lawyer, geologist, etc – and here I was compounding my move to Canada with a shift to this uncertain profession. It would be nice to say that I was steadfast and fuelled with ambition as I prepared to leave, but I was frequently frightened by my decision. I tried to convince myself that my family would benefit, that we would go to these places I had glimpsed in the literary magazines and in Readers’ Digest, that we could always return, but there were times when I was on the verge of changing my mind. I pretended that the move was temporary and I told my friends that I would see them in a couple months. We eventually left in November. As I believed that winter began sometime in December, around Christmas, I packed only warm clothes.
Ihad no idea what to expect. I had, over the years, made several visits to the States, but the little I knew of Canada had been conveyed by relatives who had been to universities in Toronto and Winnipeg. Their accounts were quite unhelpful for they spoke in generalities I could have easily gleaned from geography texts or from National Geographic magazines. They described, in the exaggerated local manner, the weather and the lakes and the highways. Of the people, however – nothing. They may have well been studying on a vast, deserted, ice-covered island.
I suppose this was the place I was looking for when I arrived in New Brunswick. And I was not disappointed, for everything seemed bigger and grander than what I had been accustomed to: The St Johns River, the forests, the tracts of empty land, the sprawling farms, the farmers’ market, Odell Park, the first sprinkle of snow. I was moved to write; and in half a year I completed a collection of stories.
By comparison, my classes at UNB were disappointing. There were courses on post-colonial studies and Victorian literature, subjects, I felt had little relevance to a writing career. Much worse were the lectures on Deconstruction; for these I instantly put up a mental block, as I had done years earlier with Maths and Chemistry. Even the writing classes frequently seemed rigid and doctrinaire and joyless. Looking back, I believe my displeasure was due equally to my own impatience as it was to the nature of the courses, for there were engaging classes in Travel Literature, and narrative theories in film. These areas opened up new fields of knowledge for me.
One of the real benefits of my year in New Brunswick was the sense I developed of being part of a community of writers. In Trinidad my writing ambitions seemed pretentious and a little unreal. Writing was conducted furtively and guiltily. At UNB the students were confident and spoke knowledgeably of the literary magazines, of their own ambitions and of rejection letters. I was surprised that there were so many budding writers. I soon developed a circle of writing friends – a pretty young woman from Ireland, another with a distant Trinidadian connection, a young man with an interest in Celtic myths, and a Moroccan student who believed fiction should be mainly concerned with alleviating social ills. There were others, too, and in the café or in the pub we discussed our own writing, our aspirations, our favourite writers, or some assertion stated recently by a lecturer. We got the impression that the Creative Writing programme was viewed by the English Department as a kind of lesser and barely tolerated relative. It was funny, in a way.
There were two lecturers whose advice I found particularly helpful: Kent Thompson, a biking aficionado who supervised my thesis, and Don McKay, a poet whose office was decorated with pictures of birds. I was alarmed to learn that writers were expected to do readings and book tours to promote their books. I had this old-fashioned Caribbean view of the writer as constantly labouring in seclusion and walking away hurriedly if he or she was recognized by a stranger. These two lecturers were quite patient with my naiveté. They mentioned some of the older Canadian writers I had never heard of, and some of my new favourites.
I found the novels of the older writers, Robertson Davies, Stephen Leacock, Morley Callaghan, and Margaret Laurence, to name only a few, in the university library, and the younger writers in magazines like The Fiddlehead and Descant and Exile and Quarry. I was drawn more to the styles and outlooks of the newer writers, but in any event this exploration did not last too long; in the months prior to my arrival in New Brunswick, I imagined a grand examination of Canadian literature but more and more, I turned to writers who were born abroad and who had migrated to Canada.
I searched out novels and stories by Michael Ondaatje and Bharati Mukherjee and Rohinton Mistry. These were writers with whom I felt I might share some connection. I wanted to see how they represented Canada in their fiction, how they described the land and the people, but their novels were mostly of their homelands. Much later I would reread these novels with new appreciation, but midway in my course I detoured to some of the writers I had been read over the last couple of years – Paul Theroux and Martin Amis and JM Coetzee, among others. I believe I was searching for the writer’s place in the world rather than any revelation concerning style or language.
Around this time I got a letter from Peepal Tree saying that they were finally going to publish those stories sent years earlier by the professor in the Trinidadian university, but the pleasure I got from this news was severely diminished by my worry about not finishing the programme at UNB. I had arrived in Canada with enough money to last a year and the rather modest sum dwindled quickly. I feared that I was neglecting my family. So if the first half of the year sparkled with wonder and fascination, the second half was marked by worries. Eventually I finished my dissertation, a collection of stories, but the strain of the time left its mark both on the later stories and on my own life.
I titled my collection The Assault of Strangers. Many of the stories were propelled more by the mood of the time than fidelity to plot or structure. For instance, “Snowfall” was written soon after I learned that my youngest brother had terminal cancer, and “Bitches on all Sides” sprung from my conversations with some of the foreign students in the forestry department. Another story, “Kevin’s Log,” was written in the café after one of my travel writing classes. I was not quite sure what I wanted to say in these stories, and now, if I were forced to reread them, I might say they are infused with wonder and bafflement and pretentiousness and anxiety. John Metcalf has remarked of these stories that the rhythms of the prose are more “novelistic than story-like” and that I seem more comfortable with a distanced narrator. I have never thought of this before but I believe it is quite accurate. Most were fragments and observations rather than complete stories. Nevertheless, for the first time, I felt a sense of detachment from my subject.
In my conversations with other writers we sometimes talk about the little slices of luck that pushed along our careers. My first bit of luck was the connection between the Dean of the English Department – who was there during my dissertation’s oral defence – and Laurel Boone, the senior editor of Goose Lane Editions. The Dean suggested I contact Laurel and three days before I returned to Trinidad I sent her my manuscript. I had to wait for four or so years before I got a response from Peepal Tree, but five months after I left Canada, I got an email from Goose Lane, expressing their interest in the collection.
My second bit of luck was having Laurel Boone as my editor. She saw my most glaring shortcomings – my tendency to frequently overstate, or to get carried away, or to reference Trinidadian fêtes without any kind of context – and she patiently tried to correct these. She also explained the idea of an audience, a concept I had given very little thought to. I suppose at the time I was writing for a Trinidadian readership but Laurel tried to broaden this; to make the stories more comprehensible.
The book was published in 1995 with the title, The Interloper. It was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best New Book the following year. I was only made aware of the nomination after the eventual prize had been awarded and because I was not yet familiar with the importance of these awards I did not make much of it.
At the time I was working in a factory in Mississauga. It was horrible. Each evening I read the notices, pasted on one of the walls about the measures to be followed in the event of an accident. One night I saw a worker from Iran bent over a tap. I went to chat with him but when I realized he was crying, I moved away. Another worker said the crying Iranian had been a teacher in his homeland. That was my last night at the factory.
I was unsuited in every possible way for factory work, but I used my experiences there in my first novel, Homer in Flight.
I wrote Homer in Flight in a chilly little room in Ajax. I moved there because I’d managed to get a job with the Durham Board of Education as a supply teacher. On the days when I was not called to teach, I got out my spiral notebook and tried to ignore the couple quarrelling upstairs. Because there was no table in the room, I wrote on the bed with my back against the wall. I missed my family, I felt the teaching job was just minimally better than the factory, and I was beginning to question my move to Canada. I had recently become a landed immigrant. Yet, the minute I began to write I pushed that aside and felt a great stillness.
Homer is a comic figure whose observations are typically infused with mockery, but increasingly, as the novel progresses, his derision turns inward. He begins to rail against all his aspirations, particularly his ambition to become a writer. He realizes that his flight to Canada is not the salve he had imagined, and in his tiny apartment he constructs an interior world filled with scathing judgements. When he eventually self-publishes a book of aphorisms his only acclamation comes from another comic figure, Mr Flynt, the librarian. The book ends abruptly, and Homer is uncertain about the exact nature of his achievements.
All the anxiety I felt at the time wound up in this novel. Homer was searching for some kind of permanence and order but feels that he has been set up and realizes, during a rare moment of self-awareness that, “It was not really the strange faces, the different languages, the alien cultures which distressed him but the changes he saw within himself: the dismantling of all the comfortable assumptions with which he had lived for so long.” The title I had in mind was Dancing in the Dark, but Laurel Boone felt it was too negative and depressing. She found the book very funny, for which I was grateful.
The novel was serialized on CBC’s Between the Covers and short-listed for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Following the award ceremony, I had a conversation with a literary agent; in the following months my last bit of naiveté about the publishing industry vanished. I began to understand that the writer, far from being a central figure in the world of publishing, was but a minor player. I was told that I was only as good as my last novel and that I had to make sure that my next book fulfilled the promise of the previous one. I turned to Trinidad – with its oddball characters, its fluid mix of religion and superstition, its unexpected cruelties, its slums and mansions, its beautiful countryside.
In this new novel, eventually published as The Lagahoo’s Apprentice, I tried to capture the unpredictability of the island. I wrote the book quickly, paying little attention, at first, to structure and plot. But I knew the narrator, and from his perspective everything began to take shape. The novel deals with a Trinidadian, Stephen Sagar, domiciled in Canada, who returns to Trinidad after he is commissioned to write a biography by a powerful island politician. This gives the journalist an opportunity to retrace his own life and renew acquaintances with old friends, but once there he discovers how tarnished his memories are: his friends are unrecognizable and his experiences on the island were not as pristine as he had imagined. He re-establishes a relationship with a woman and tries to understand his life’s trajectory from a carefree young man into a cold and introspective creature.
At the time, I was interested in the reliability of memories, or rather, how recollection might be shaped by nostalgia. I knew several immigrants who carried around highly idealized memories of their homelands, but who, when pressed, could offer only clichéd descriptions of a few scenic spots. I was not passing judgement: the main character, in describing a gilded version of his homeland to his young daughter, realizes that this fantasy world was filling a void in the girl’s otherwise unhappy life. In a sense this novel was a continuation of Homer in Flight. In that novel, Homer had set out for Canada in a search for an order he felt missing in his homeland. In The Lagahoo’s Apprentice, Stephen believes he can only understand his predicament by reviewing his past, or rediscovering everything he has shunted aside.
I could not have written The Lagahoo’s Apprentice if I had remained in Trinidad. In one scene, the main character is awakened by the voices of men who seem to be engaged in some murderous act. But the voices are just of men delivering a calf. In Trinidad, I had grown too used to this abrupt combination of laughter and violence, to the unpredictable little dramas played out every day in the villages, to the mauvais langue – a type of bad-mouthing – and picong, a form of cutting braggadocio and blunt humour; I had grown too used to all of this to truly understand their fictional value, or how much they revealed of Trinidadian society.
On the island, where there are so many classifications – colour, class and caste, to name only a few – speech used to be the single easiest way to pin down a stranger. People who spoke proper English were either rich, educated abroad, or hypocrites. Those who spoke broken English were poor, simple, and possibly criminals. It’s no longer this simple, as everyone has learned that it is possible to slip in and out of identities by shifting their patterns of speech. And indeed, the protagonists of many novels from that region are men and women with fluid identities.
The dialect and the crackpot characters came back easily and quite often I had to drag myself back to the central theme to prevent the story from becoming too farcical. I wanted to explore the uneven terrain of Stephen’s immigrant life, caught as he was, as I was, between gratitude to his new country and loyalty to his old.
I titled the book The Shadow Act, but my editor at Random House felt it would seem more mysterious as The Lagahoo’s Apprentice. In the novel, the lagahoo, a shape-shifter, is a recurring figure. Because of my familiarity with the setting and the narrator and the cast of characters, the book was relatively easy to write, but thinking of Trinidad and my life there had an unintended consequence: I saw how my childhood and my education had immunized me from a real understanding of the island’s history. Apart from some dates and a couple of dry facts I really knew little of the slavery and of the indentureship system which had brought my great-grandparents from India.
Trinidadians tend to shunt aside or cut down anything that might be unflattering or painful. I remember calypsonians satirizing and trivializing the powerful and making them seem irrelevant and inconsequential. In everyday life picong did much of the same. Some of this wound up in my next novel, but in the meantime, I turned to a couple of stories I had been sporadically puttering over.
I have always tried to make each book different from its predecessor. In The Journey of Angels, the novella at the heart of the similarly named collection, the central characters are Armenians, the story is set in Brooklyn, and as I was writing it, I pictured a quiet movie set in dimly lit rooms. I was interested in exploring how a story built on atmosphere rather than plot might develop. The other stories were mostly random, written during the past year, their only binding theme that of dislocation. In this respect, they share the exile motif of Homer in Flight and The Lagahoo’s Apprentice. Before I finished the collection my mind was drifting to a novel.
The idea for the novel grew from a single image: an old man standing before a burning canefield. I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there. But in the following months, there were little clues and other narrative ideas. I decided it would be a multi-generational novel set in a village in Trinidad and that main character would be a cynical cane farmer with his own idea of independence and resistance. I would write of a society that possessed no real idea of heroism, where people who threatened the merry chaos with some sort of vision were mocked and ground down.
But when I actually began the book it was so difficult during the first couple chapters that I almost gave up on it. Then one night, about three months or so after I wrote the first sentence, I decided to change the voice, as it seemed that the slightly ironic style did not suit a novel that was old fashioned in every way. The language seemed snarky, and I saw how easy it might be for a reader to assume I was taking sides or passing judgements. The voice I settled on – detached, layered with descriptions, dense, even – immediately felt right and within a week of modifying the voice, I knew most of the plot details and the novel’s conclusion.
The novel, A Perfect Pledge, deals with the struggles of Narpat, a farmer who is fed up with the low price he and the other farmers are paid for their cane, and so decides to build his own sugar factory. He is ridiculed by the other villagers but this just makes him more determined. As his obsession grows, his children leave, one by one. All depart but his only son, Jeeves, who bears witness to his father’s madness and to his mother’s silent suffering.
I drew from my childhood memories of village life. In the Trinidad I remembered, there was never any proper sense of tragedy. Local accounts of sacrifice and disgrace were exaggerated into epic melodramas that enchanted – in a manner similar to the religious dramas, the Ramayana or Mahabharata – but lost the ability to touch. As people recited these stories, there was no notion of lessons to be drawn. The idea of a discourse took over. Jeeves senses this during the end of the novel when, in a taxi, he listens to rambling accounts of his father’s crusade.
Admiration, as I remember, was typically reserved for the smartman, the Anansi figure who used his wits (it was always a man) to out-talk and outsmart every one else. Most of the local politicians fell into this category. In the novel, The Manager, a crooked businessman who becomes a politician, is the quintessential smartman. He sweet-talks, chastises, and reproaches to get his way. His opposite is Narpat. Visionary, quirky, knowledgeable of the limitations of his society but blind to his own compulsions, he lectures and berates. As he draws closer to inevitable failure, he is given a brief opportunity to acknowledge the futility of the grand scale of his ambitions and relent.
At the novel’s end, as Jeeves gazes at the destruction of his father’s grand project, he tries to understand his own role in this tragedy. He realises vaguely that the fire represents the end of the old Trinidadian way of life but he is unwilling to abandon the legacy of his father’s pledge.
In a more personal sense, Narpat represented a very familiar type: the crusty old patriarch who operates within a set of self-imposed rules and who drives his family mad – or away. Years ago I had been immediately drawn to King Lear; I had seen him in the faces of several old timers in my own family. (Narpat is loosely based on two such persons from my childhood.)
Most reviewers of A Perfect Pledge have commented on the novel’s debt to A House for Mr Biswas; a couple have decided it lacks Biswas’s biting satire. At first I was fascinated with this comparison, but increasingly, I felt frustrated. A House for Mr Biswas is by far the best-written Caribbean novel. I cannot imagine that there will ever be another like it. [There is, of course, no question of its influence.] Both novels deal with Indian families, both trace restlessness and a quest for fulfillment. Both draw from personal narratives. But Narpat is the opposite of Biswas in every way. He is strong-willed and ruthless. He also lacks Biswas’s most notable strength: the ability to mock and satirize. The factory he struggles to build stems not so much from a desire to carve out his own space as from the aspiration to remove himself from the burdens of his history. In Trinidad, in the Caribbean, people are ambivalent about sugar cane as it provides both a means of income as well as a reminder of the brutalities of slavery and indentureship. I wanted to explore this.
I don’t believe Narpat falls squarely within the tradition of the Caribbean hero. He is unforgiving, ruthless and brutal, and his entire life is an edifice of interlocking rules. In fact, he more resembles the old Massa.
When I am in the process of writing a novel, I tend to think of it in terms of extremes – it’s either wonderful or horrible. Months after its publication, however, I edge towards a better understanding of it and I notice both its positive elements and flaws. Sometimes I am mildly embarrassed; but not so much with A Perfect Pledge, which I believe is the best book I have written so far. This could be because the memories that informed the book were so crisp, or because the theme had been drifting along in my mind for so long; or it could be because I knew the main character so well, because I was able to devote a fair amount of time – with no distractions – to the first draft; or perhaps due to the combined editorial input of Random House’s Diane Martin and Ayesha Pandey of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
I have often been asked whether I see myself as a Trinidadian or a Canadian writer. I never know how to answer this question. A central theme of most novels by writers from the Caribbean – and indeed, from the former colonies of South Asia and places in Africa – is a search for order; a search for some type of indigenous and benevolent arrangement to replace the old colonial structure. Caribbean books set abroad are different only in the sense that the oppressors are no longer located in history but in day-to-day encounters. But when I am writing a book I don’t feel an affinity for an allegiance to anyone.
Sometimes I feel that I am a Trinidadian writer when I am plotting a novel set in Trinidad and – in a coffee shop somewhere in Ajax – loitering around the Trinidadian landscape, but I shift to a Canadian writer once the novel is completed and I do readings and address questions from the audience and try to interpret what I have written to Canadians. I know this is too easy but it addresses the two central determinants of a writer’s place: imagination and interpretation. So maybe I am both. Or neither.
I don’t even know how I fit into the Canadian literary context. I have virtually no writer friends, I really cannot compare my novels with any other, and my books sell very badly. I don’t know what to make of all of this. Maybe I will have a better understanding after the publication of my next novel, set in Toronto and appraising the city from the comic book induced world of a young boy.
Tags: Issue 76