What is the first thing you wrote?
Well, the very first thing was a series of squiggles when I was three or four. “Letters” to my mother, which I delivered every day. She was always delighted and I felt like a real writer. Once I won a poetry contest at university but I am a terrible poet.
My first real piece was with Wayne Brown sometime around 1990-91. It was a story about a woman who retreats to the mountains to have a baby. I didn’t write for a long time after that brief productive period.
Who do you write for?
I write for myself.
What was the first Caribbean book you read?
I think it was a book I picked up on my grandfather’s bookshelf when I was much too young to be reading adult material. Turn Again Tiger by Samuel Selvon.
How many Caribbean writers from the 1940s and 50s could you name?
A House for Mr Biswas, Guerillas, Miguel St and other Naipauls by the time I was in my early twenties. At school we read Green Days by The River by Michael Anthony, Christopher by Geoffrey Drayton, The Lonely Londoners by Selvon. I was a voracious reader so if it was on a bookshelf at home I read it. On a slightly different note, we read Caribbean literature but we also listened to classics like Paul Keens Douglas, Brigo, Beaulah. And the bilingual lyrics of Parang were part of life. All of this created a unique Trinidadian sensibility that informed the literature but was also very much about what was recognised as belonging to us. The television jingles also captured the essence of what was happening in the society at the time. Calypso certainly did that, but Calypso, like Parang was seasonal. In retrospect, all of this contributed to a sense of language that complemented the books of the time. There was, and still is, a certain sly humour that is very Trinidadian. There was a strong sense of nationalism and a feeling that we were special. I wonder if we have lost some of that now. I consider myself fortunate to have been raised in Trinidad in the 70s and 80s. It was a special time.
How many women?
Not many, to be honest. I remember discovering Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb and loving it. Later I read Olive Senior and fell in love with her work. Then later still, there was Ramabai Espinet with The Swinging Bridge, Shani Mootoo with Cereus Blooms at Night. Now there are so many, it’s heartening. But I think we have a long way to go.
Surprisingly I did not read Rhys until much later. Wide Sargasso Sea had a profound impact on me and my work. Still does.
Which writer do you wish you knew more about?
I’d like to see the Rhys correspondence. The eternal hell of never belonging. Neither here nor there. I’d like to know more about Sonny Ladoo. He died so tragically and had only just begun to shine. Who was he speaking with? What was he thinking? How would he have developed had he lived? Geoffrey Drayton seems to have vanished. The Rhys material is accessible. The other two – I’m not so sure.
What is the earliest piece of Caribbean writing you have read?
I read the early newspapers in the archives. I do it when I am looking for new material. It’s very interesting and gives a slice of life that can be brutal. I worked on a story last year where I incorporated material I found in an 1821 newspaper. It was a piece about a dead white baby floating into the wharf. The report stated that the baby was estimated to be two or three days old when it was drowned and there was a piece of red thread tied around its ankle. I incorporated these details into a new story.
So to answer – the early Caribbean writing I read and have read is found in the archives.
Does the Caribbean’s literary past matter to you?
Absolutely. It’s only in reading what came before us that we can understand our own context and understand what we are doing. It’s a great responsibility not only to write but also to understand the canon that we come behind.
Who are our most important writers today?
If you want to write from the region, you have to read the work coming out now. And thankfully, there seems to be a literary renaissance sweeping across the region. I am happy to be alive right now to read and correspond with this current wave of Caribbean writers. The poets are on fire.
I read Kei Miller, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Jane Hippolyte, Vladimir Lucien, Vahni Capildeo, Sonia Farmer, and many more sitting on my bedside table. And for the fiction, I’ve been reading Jacob Ross, Jennifer Rahim, Olive Senior, Edwidge Danticat.
In the last few years I’ve read Keith Jardim, Lawrence Scott, Amanda Smyth, and Monique Roffey. We all come from similar backgrounds and would be considered White Creole so I read them to see what they have to say.
But I still go to the Africans when I want to study where we are going. I reach for Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Ben Okri, Coetzee. I’m surprised that more people are not familiar with Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. That book was pivotal for me. So it’s hard to say who are the most important ones today.
Labels can be limiting but there is no doubt in my mind that all the writers above are changing and engaging with the existing canon and that’s something marvelous to witness.
Different writers are important for different reasons.
For me, the Guyanese writers tap a land connection and mysticism that influences my own work.
As a writer, you need to choose writers who inspire you or speak to something that you are trying to say or do in the writing.
So the canon might be impressive but you have to pick your people.
Today I read more poetry that I ever have in my life.
Long answer. But I’m not sure I can say that some writers are “more” important that other ones. It doesn’t work like that for me.
What are you reading now?
Right now I am reading The Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector and I am re-reading an old favorite – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty.