Interview with Robert E Sandiford Re Lives: Whole and Otherwise
Fictions, Whole and Otherwise: A Question & Answer with Novelist H Nigel Thomas [i]
Robert Edison Sandiford
In April 2013, author, Kola contributing editor and retired English professor, H Nigel Thomas was paid homage by Université Laval for his contribution to literature. Thomas has been praised by World Literature Today for his ability to “[balance] admirably the functions of the storyteller and the social-realist observer of human behaviour.” Robert Edison Sandiford discusses with Thomas his most recent book of short stories, immigrant dreams, artistic necessity, Anansi stories, and the darkness in Conrad.
I’M NOT YOUR BLACK SUPERWOMAN
RES: It seems as if from the very first story in Lives: Whole and Otherwise, “Graduations,” you’re pitting black perception against a white society. We have this Jamaican past against the Canadian present in the form of two sisters, Greta and Estelita. And I was wondering: Why do you begin so hardcore? Are you trying to say something about race relations?
HNT: You can argue it is sociology, if you will. The initial story was written in the 80s, … I was merely observing a large segment of Caribbean women immigrants. Most of the immigrants from the Caribbean then were women. The better-off ones came as nurses trained in Britain or in the Caribbean, but most of the others came as domestic workers. And I wanted to see in large measure what happened to those women who came without residency status and to the children they’d left at home, as well as what became of those children when they eventually came here. It’s not an issue that I have dropped. Actually, I’d already touched on it in my novel Behind the Face of Winter, and I’m examining it as well in No Safeguards the novel that’s going to be published soon, I hope. It’s an ongoing obsession. That’s primarily why I chose these two women. I obviously didn’t want two very naïve women. One sister is fairly naïve; Greta, the boy’s mother is. Estelita, the aunt, is not. I wanted to sort of play that out in the dramatic setting that I set up.
RES: This came across strongly. Throughout . . .
HNT: Race is there because of the role that black immigrants are expected to play in this society, i.e., as sources of cheap labour. I believe that’s a deep-seated belief in the society. We hear it when people talk about “nigger work”, “nigger wages”, and even the expression plan nègre (something that isn’t going to come to fruition, something poorly conceived). Blacks are here to make others rich, as it were, and that comes across especially in the story “My People! My People!,” where a politically aware character, John Ashtone, tells Adolphe Francis, “Come on, you think they bring us here to offer us justice?”
RES: Which reaction felt very real to me in that particular story. . .
HNT: Exactly. As soon as Greta’s employers discover that she isn’t here legally they halve her half wages. The husband screws her against her will because he knows he has the power to do so.
RES: Do you think that Greta, and black people by extension, always have this fear of how white people will treat them, meaning unfairly?
HNT: It’s not so much that. What I’m depicting in “Graduations” are aspects of the stories that many black women tell about their experiences here.
RES: That’s another curious thing about the collection. I think there are only two stories—correct me if I’m mistaken—that have male protagonists. All the others are women.
HNT: That’s right. It’s in part because, in the Caribbean, in the post-slavery, New-World reality, women are the ones who bear the major burdens of the race. And they are the ones, too, who shape the race. Dalton’s father is never mentioned, for example, in “Graduations”; he is of no importance. In the sort of socio-economic bracket in which Greta lived in Jamaica, it was quite likely that the man who impregnated her didn’t own the child. I don’t know if you remember much of the saga with [disgraced former Canadian Olympic sprinter] Ben Johnson. Ben Johnson’s father never bothered with him when he was in Jamaica. When Ben came here and became a superstar and became accused [of taking performance-enhancing drugs], all of a sudden you heard his father was going to hire a lawyer to sanitize his son’s reputation.
RES: We’ve got a similar ongoing story with Rihanna in Barbados. Her father seems to be an embarrassment: every now and again, he’ll come out and claim a place in her life which he didn’t seem to have before.
HNT: Children know their mothers, children depend on their mothers; children are shaped by their mothers–shaped and misshaped by their mothers. And this is the situation here. In retrospect, I realize that I didn’t give Estelita any children, but I would like to think that Estelita was the sort of woman who would not have allowed herself to fall into such a trap. There is another aunt in Jamaica who runs a whorehouse.
RES: So the suggestion is they’re not all the same, not as gullible…?
HNT: Exactly, the other ran a whorehouse. And Dalton lived on the edges of that by providing ganja for the sailors who were this aunt’s best clients. Imagine living that reality and then being sent back to high school [and in another country]…
RES: It would cause a disconnect. . . . Do you think there are those who would miss something, though, because the collection seems so weighted toward the lives of women? I can see why that person you mentioned before the tape started would’ve mentioned Alice Munro’s stories, because yours here seem very much to deal with the lives of women. I’m not asking you to write a book you had no intention of writing.
HNT: No. Interestingly enough, in my novels my protagonists are males…. The reason that these protagonists are women is that I empathize so very strongly with the realities that have been distilled into these stories. That’s really what it is. And that goes all the way back to my own mother. My father boasted that he was a provider, and he was married to my mother. They lived in the same house for twenty-something years.Apart from the vegetables that came from the land that my father worked my mother got no financial support from him. Relatives who could helped her. And I often asked, “Now why the hell does she stay with this man?” Empathy came from there.
RES: There are many other writers who would have a different spin depending on their own experiences; and they would have their own empathies. So from that point of view perhaps you are drawing on your own experience and as a high school teacher as well.
HNT: I am drawing strongly on my person knowledge as well as my knowledge of Caribbean masculinity. The exception re fathers is my novel Spirits in the Dark. Henry, the father in Spirits in the Dark, is a very honourable man. He just happens to be a West Indian man who doesn’t talk very much, who loves to give orders to his wife, but he is a very decent man who lives for his family. Jerome, the protagonist, admits that. So it’s paternal abandonment is not universal. Pedro’s father in Behind the Face of Winter is a douche bag; that’s a whole different dynamic. Someone like Adolphe Francis in “My People! My People!” is a different gentleman. So is Mr. Jones in “Spiders.” He and his wife are in conflict over his loyalty to his students and to his family, but he is a very decent human being. There are lots of scumbags in “My People! My People!.” Ashtone is a scumbag.
RES: Stylistically, I find your stories challenging. Sometimes, they’re so matter of fact they read as almost haphazard…. But it occurs to me that you may be trying to get the reader to take the characters on their own West Indian terms. Tell me a little bit about that, what your approach is here. There are those people who are going to read Lives: Whole and Otherwise and say, “I don’t get it. He’s leaving me dangling.”
HNT: That’s a reviewer’s point of view. The way I understand the short story, or certainly the way it has evolved in my understanding (I mean, I’ve taught, of course, a course on the short story, but I’ve never really gone ahead to seriously theorize about what it is). I understand the short story as a significant moment that has to be illuminated. And you could illuminate it via stream of consciousness, in which you require of the reader that he or she string the thoughts together, rearrange the patterns, etc. I expect my readers to do some of the work.
RES: What about change? There’s a briefness that permeates the collection. It almost negates change; there’s this overwhelming sense that these characters’ lives don’t change. So why should I spend time reading this?
HNT: You’re probably looking at it from what we call…the Aristotelian approach, but it has become incorporated in what is called humanist criticism. And I’ve been asked this many times—even by readers, the few readers I have in St. Vincent—a couple of them asked me this: “Why do I invest all of this time reading if I’m not going to get some reward at the end?” Denise Bukowski [the literary agent], who once tried to place Behind the Face of Winter, had a big argument with me about that. But I do not write to make my readers feel good.
RES: About the need to enlighten the readers, educate them, teach them about themselves, you mean.
The Norbert Factor
HNT: There is enlightenment in the stories, but it is an enlightenment that simply familiarizes you with the character. It takes you into a world away from, perhaps, your own world. “Norbert,” for example, I think is the bleakest story in the collection because Rhona finds herself where she cannot actually decide to leave Norbert. The story does not explicitly say that she has two children because I expect my readers to be intelligent enough to understand. Norbert is…
RES: … a big child.
HNT: She says, “It’s like I gave birth to him,” and her friend says, “What are you talking about? He’s the father of your child.” So there’s a dilemma. She does not know what to do, and the story ends on that dilemma. I think that’s probably what you’re referring to, that’s what’s going to puzzle my readers.
RES: It is what will puzzle readers. Because we begin with this dilemma and even if—and most readers would accept this—even if the shift is miniscule or negative, it should be there at the end; there has been a change in the character’s situation.
HNT: Well, Rhona knows that she has to leave Norbert, and then I think her mind fogs up…. My thing is, I think, she’s moving the way the waves move on the shore; the tide doesn’t go all out at once. It goes a little further out as it moves out. I think that’s probably the image I could use. But I don’t know.
RES: Well, I’m jousting with you a little bit. In reading the way her brain fogs up, I thought that was very realistic. We don’t just go one time. Sometimes, it could be “Should I?” Then, all of a sudden, “No, I’ve got to stay with this person.”
HNT: But she’s on her way to see the social worker, who is going to put reality fairly and squarely on the table for her. Her friend Vita tells her what’s going to happen. They’re not going to allow him anywhere near your child [if she stays with him]…. So they’re going to make the decision for her.
RES: But this is not her decision to make?
HNT: She would rather that it not be the decision, but it will be. So in a sense I think the ending is there. But the story wasn’t really about that; it’s a story about immigration in its broadest, broadest sense. Remember that Norbert’s problems begin with immigration.
RES: I disagree.
HNT: Yes! His mother goes to Curaçao, comes back with him pregnant, and leaves him. He doesn’t get the nurturing that a child ought to get from his parents.
RES: I would view that as the by-product, not as the direct result of that.
HNT: I’ve read the story in public, and it’s created a lot of discussion.
RES: But you worked very hard in the story to make him almost seem sub-human; there’s something wrong with him…
HNT: And Rhona feels sorry for him.
RES: And this is what I want to challenge you on. I’m not clear why Rhona was or is attracted to Norbert. The first comments from her on him are negative: “that brute,” “inappropriate” and “silly Joe.” What was the attraction?
HNT: Tell me something: Do you know why people fall in love?
RES: No, but I’m looking at it from the point of view of a short story.
HNT: She is asking herself the question. She is interrogating herself all along, indirectly, how she became so involved with Norbert. It’s like she felt…it’s probably more a sense of…. She felt she had to protect him. She felt she had to be loyal to him. She felt she had to oppose her parents. She felt she had a mission, to rescue this fellow.
RES: What’s more important to you as a writer? It seems more the story than how it’s told at times. There are some inelegant transitions, where I would say, “Nigel, you don’t need that to get into her thoughts; just go into it.” But your comments about Norbert’s relationship with baby Chino and West Indian men I found astute, very astute. Do you think we, not meaning West Indians, but people in general, often lie to ourselves about the true nature of our situation? Fear of embarrassment, perhaps, might come into it. Rhona might say, “I know this is bad, I know I should really ditch Norbert, but I’ve been with him for so long; what will others think?” Is it this fear of embarrassment or failure before society?
HNT: Apart from the dramatic element, the story also points out how different Rhona and Norbert are and maybe why they probably shouldn’t even be together. Why her parents were right….
RES: You have a strong man in there—the father. I still remember his words: “It’s not the ceremony that’s important, it’s the marriage. We can’t afford to come….” That’s a fantastic line, and it puts the story into context. This is the most controversial story, perhaps, in the collection. It deals with the immigration issue, it deals with generations, it deals with child abuse; it deals with many nasty things that are in our society.
HNT: I think Rhona’s character is extremely, extremely important. I would not have wanted anything in this story that would not have shown her as compassionate, and it’s almost as if she forgets about herself.
RES: Tell me about that? What is it about relationships between West Indian men and women that works and doesn’t’ work? It seems as if the pressures, the greatest pressures that Rhona receives, are from her mother. I think the father kind of realized if you keep saying, “Don’t,” she’s going to grow more toward Norbert. But sometimes the worst advice the women in your stories are getting is from other women. And that is something that Jamaica Kincaid has written about, to name only one Caribbean author.
HNT: Fiction doesn’t just spring up out of the ground; it comes out of [other] literature or society. People do things like this. I know lots of Vincentian women, some of them went to school with me, who had boyfriends in the Caribbean who were running around with four other women while they were with them. The women come here, they send for that man. What the hell do they expect?
RES: And then there are women who would’ve told them, “You should’ve left the man’s ass, left it there a long time ago. You had the opportunity.”
Why I Write
HNT: There is for me an unfathomable mystery about human beings. It fascinates me and it’s one of the reasons I write. I don’t want to analyze it because I can’t analyze it; I just want to depict it.
RES: That’s a good point with which to continue into the next story on my mind, “Maude.” Your stories sometimes read like parables, morality tales, updated urban Anansi stories.
HNT: You are probably right about that. These stories were written for a black audience. They are my attempts to make sense of our experiences here.
RES: Do you think white audiences are ready for that, though? Thomas Armstrong’s novel Of Water and Rock received a lot of stiff reception from white readers: “How can all your black characters be so good?” they chastised him.
HNT: Well, with my characters, you could never accuse me of that.
RES: No, ’cause you’re on the opposite side.
HNT: But you can see why Armstrong, a white man, would have hesitated to create negative black characters. There are two characters in “Maude” who have Jewish resonance…I’ve been assailed by Jewish readers for “reinforcing the stereotype of the greedy Jew.” Two of my Jewish readers have told me this. They forget that there are other Jewish characters portrayed in a positive light….
RES: Is the racism of our community and the disillusion of our immigrants…is it so blatant? This is why I was asking you how white readers would take some of this. You mentioned Jewish readers, but still it seems as if in many instances the problems that these black characters have to face have to do with a sort of fundamental racism that exists within Canadian society.
HNT: I remember so vividly Pierre Trudeau on television talking about the benefits of immigration. And among other things, he said we [the Canadian people] bring West Indian women here to work in our homes, and my mouth, literally, fell open.
RES: He made a mistake maybe in the way he phrased it?
HNT: No. It was just the only thing he could think of: that’s a norm, that’s a root, that’s a foundation. We are there to fill servile roles.
RES: From Pierre Trudeau’s time, it hasn’t changed?
HNT: I don’t know if it has changed; it probably has. Let me give you an example. When I arrived here in ’68, I saw a job advertised. Among the jobs I looked for there was one advertised for a shipping clerk. I applied for the job, and I didn’t get the job, but three weeks later the same employer phoned me and asked me if I would like to work on a truck loading and unloading. You see what I mean? On the very first week I was here, I went to an employment agency, and as soon as I got into the door and I was about to talk to the receptionist a male voice called from the back of the office and said, “Tell that young man we don’t place janitors here.” He didn’t hear me speak, he didn’t know what my CV was.
RES: Is this why these stories, as I was saying before, seem to end not quite finished? There’s unfinished business. They leave you dangling deliberately. Is it because in our society black people cannot truly be whole, they cannot truly maximize their potential?
HNT: I don’t think any human being can do that. The reality of our lives doesn’t pan out that way. I think the Christian concept of human imperfection probably comes out of this…. I see wholeness as a state to aspire to. We will never be able to realize a lot of what we want to accomplish. Black people in their own environment, with all the necessary support, would still as individual human beings never achieve fully what they want.
RES: But this would apply to other human beings as well?
HNT: Granted. You take a human being, any human being, and put him in a society where there are obstacles arrayed against him because of his race, because of his physical deformities, because of whatever, it impedes his quest for self-realization. We are living in a hostile environment.
RES: You mean the world itself.
RES: You’re going back to the political meaning.
HNT: Yes. We come here expecting a better life, no question about it. We, to some extent, get it, some of us, but the price is heavy. The price is huge, and I wanted this to come through in the collection. “Bankruptcy” is the story par excellence for that. If you don’t rock the boat, you’re likely to move on. I once heard Austin Clarke say that he joined the Progressive Conservative party hoping that he would be able to change the structure from within. He said, if anything happened, it changed him, and he was lucky to get out still feeling whole.
RES: Wouldn’t you agree that he was naive, especially coming from the Caribbean?
HNT: No, that’s a narrative that Austin concocted for the public. Austin knew the benefits to be derived from hobnobbing with those people. But he couldn’t say that.
RES: “Mrs. Philbertson.” That’s an oddly paved story to me. It’s more of a character study than most of your stories.
HNT: It’s a character study, unquestionably.
RES: What to make of such a person who converts for convenience? This might tie in to what you just said about Austin. Is she a product of her time? Should we have any kind of sympathy for a woman like that or a person like that in our society?
HNT: You have to have sympathy for all human beings, because in a sense we don’t choose our destinies; they are shaped by that inner thing we call the psyche more than its interplay with the world outside of us.
RES: “Mrs. Philbertson” talks about parents’ decisions and choices. She had a white mother, black Bajan father….
HNT: Exactly. And you’re not told that outright, but she is raised to hate blackness. She used to fancy she was white and…
RES: The soft moulding comes out…
HNT: I reference Toni Morrison’s Pecola [from her novel The Bluest Eye] partly to show how ignorant she is.
RES: Now “‘Sweet’ Bonny Boat” is a story about a single woman living alone, a teacher. And this story seems to me more about people and less about issues. In “Percy’s Illness,” mental illness plays a key role in the story’s development, and church is a place to run from reality, not for succor. I get that impression in your stories; I could be mistaken. Is this only for blacks, and are we talking about all churches?
HNT: I mean everybody, and all fundamentalist religions.
RES: Why do they get singled out in these stories?
HNT: Because I know fundamentalist Christianity thoroughly. I was a fundamentalist Christian myself at one point. The church I belonged to was called the Bible Missionary Church, and it evolved from the Nazarenes. It was a breakaway movement from the Nazarenes. There’s a scene in, I think, my novel Return to Arcadia, where a preacher comes to the village, and all the young girls, they’re sitting there, and at one point the preacher says they should give their lives to Jesus Christ, he’d become their husband, their father, their this, their that. The scene’s presented as a joke, but really it’s what fundamentalists offer. You turn over responsibility for your life to God, as it were. And indirectly to the preacher, who is God’s representative. It is he and maybe the elders from the church who are going to give you the directives for living your life. Leviticus does that, Deuteronomy as well. Any Jew that deviated from the Levitical law was stoned to death and so on. Religion has always done that.
RES: And this is what you would find offensive: that fundamentalist religion doesn’t encourage people to take responsibility for their own actions, their own future. Has nothing changed, then, since the first West Indian immigrants to Canada?
HNT: There has been change. And the attention to change is actually in my novel Behind the Face of Winter. You see it when those youngsters come to Pedro’s mother’s funeral. These are the youngsters who have been to some extent his friends and antagonists in high school, and they’re all there. Gwendolyn is a social worker, her husband is a master mechanic. There has been progress. In fact, if there is a failure in the group, it’s Pedro, because he doesn’t have a job. He says the only thing he can do is to study, so he’s going back to university to get a PhD…. The girl whom everybody thought was going to be a whore is a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree. They’re all there at his mother’s funeral…. These stories in Lives: Whole and Otherwise pre-date Behind the Face of Winter in their ethos.
RES: So are you suggesting to me that you may have been a more hopeful writer, or were you writing what you saw happening then, since they pre-date what’s going on?
HNT: Lives: Whole and Otherwise is more 70s, 80s reality.
RES: Although they don’t necessarily feel that way….
HNT: The issues are still very much present.
THE LONELINESS OF THE CANADIAN OUTCAST
RES: Possibly the strangest story in this collection is “Suitcases.,” which has a male protagonist. Despite my lack of faith in the voices of, say, Baldwin, who’s the Bajan drunk, and Mariette, who’s the fat white girl, I trust their character, thoughts, everything about them. But it’s Perry who galvanizes the story for me.
HNT: That’s intended.
RES: Why is this story in this collection? What does it say for you about the loneliness of the outcast in our country, Canada?
HNT: They’re three outcasts there.
RES: They’re types, but what is it about them that Perry brings together in his one person?
HNT: I don’t know.
RES: This story is anomalous in the collection. I very much like it. The way Perry gets up and says that’s the way life is, deal with it.
HNT: Remember, it’s a story about immigrants; and remember an immigrant is an outsider.
RES: But it’s about more than that….
HNT: This is the other dimension: the story moves beyond just that. An immigrant is an outsider to other outsiders. What is triumphing is Perry’s humanity.
RES: This is perhaps almost the most hopeful story, too. It speaks about people who probably shouldn’t be together or shouldn’t be living together, and he just says, “You know what? You are going to live together.”
HNT: He isn’t necessarily a good person. He said that while his lover was dying he was away with a new boyfriend.
RES: But that’s what I like about him…he has no illusions, it seems. I’d asked you about that before: people seem honest with themselves in these stories.
HNT: The book…let me tie something together for you. The book is dedicated to two gay men. Both of whom are dead—Jimmy Cross, who intervened a couple of minutes after I had swallowed poison and saved my life, and his brother John, whose body was found naked and covered with cigarette burns in a parking lot. There were three brothers, and all of them were gay. In fact, I don’t know if Robby, the third brother, is still alive. John’s story still haunts me. It shows up here, and again in the manuscript I just sent off…. But I know somebody else, a black fellow, to whom it has happened; not quite in that way, he’s alive still. And a third who was tortured; the torturers shoved a Coke bottle up his ass and left him in the apartment.
RES: This happens in our Canada. This happens in our very accepting, very mild society.
HNT: There was a woman who was staying at my place for a couple of weeks. We have been friends since university days. She now lives in PEI. Her brother-in-law—she said I’d met him, but I don’t remember—he was murdered by a homophobe. There’s Reverend Ealing, a real person, Anglican priest, who was murdered and who is actually referenced in Return to Arcadia. I can give you a long list of gay men who have been killed.
RES: Does this story drive home the point—does this collection, to a certain extent—that we’re all at risk outcasts? Not just black women, or young people who have lost their way.
HNT: I don’t know that many people would consider themselves to be outcasts. I don’t know that many immigrants would see themselves that way. For psychological reasons, they would not probably even want to.
KICKING CARNIVAL CULTURE
RES: The last story in the collection, “Spiders,” is also a curious story. It made me think that these stories may be case studies.
HNT: I think “Spiders” might evoke that. But I would say more character studies than case studies…But character is fate…
RES: Mr. Jones, though, he’s trying to change things. Again he seems like a good man.
HNT: He wants a just society, so to speak, a moral society.
RES: Of particular interest to me, here especially in light of what I’ve been writing and working on, has to do with what happens when Caribbean people turn their backs on their own folklore. What happens when they forget? Or when they remember too much? That’s another great line there: “They remember too much, they forget the folklore.”
HNT: Look at what West Indians or even black people bring to predominantly white societies, and see it in terms of the behaviours that they allow themselves to display. It’s about what’s threatening and least threatening, what’s acceptable to the dominant society and what’s not.
RES: We’re not talking two different things, because this is the whole question. What they bring and what they are allowed to put on the table are to me two entirely different things. But what happens? What you’re saying is that people forget who they are. Because you didn’t say history, although folklore can be considered part of one’s history. And you put it in opposition to the carnival mentality. Like I said, it is of great interest to me because what I’m dealing with is folklore, and one of my characters actually says that—he’s tired of all this carnival culture that just seems to be brought over with black people, what they are only allowed to express.
HNT: It is “allowed to express.” In Behind the Face of Winter, I had a whole piece in which I attacked the carnival culture, but I think it was removed…. My take was you better secure the territory before you begin playing in it. And it is something that I think blacks never understood. I have this suspicion that most groups from Eastern Europe and elsewhere understand that, and Asians understand that when they move to a new society the very first thing that they have to do is pool their resources to give themselves some form of economic and perhaps even cultural independence. They understand that. And when you look at perhaps a Thai restaurant it’s rarely one person who has just saved his money and opened that restaurant, it’s a whole collective. And they will work in it for cents an hour just to make sure that it survives. Eventually, they may become comfortable, and they may be able to build, buy houses, etc. But until such time they may all be sleeping on mattresses upstairs. That is what is absent in our culture. We do not know how to create our spaces, spaces we control; economic spaces that provide us with a certain independence. Other cultures understand that. Why is this so? I can speculate that it’s because we don’t trust one another; there is a culture of mistrust that we are imbued with. And I see [local] carnival primarily as a waste, a colossal waste. In fact, I don’t even go to watch it. I understand…I understand where it comes from, I understand the artistry that it gives a voice to, but this is spectacle that is ephemeral. Carnival in Canada is undergirded by nothing.
RES: Is it that we don’t have the essence of carnival, truly?
HNT: It’s undergirded by nothing here, but Earl Lovelace said in later years, or implied in later years, that in Trinidad it’s undergirded by nothing other than a commercial ethos. And that’s Aldrick’s tragedy in The Dragon Can’t Dance. Carnival was, according to Lovelace, and he might be stretching it a little, it was to give voice to the African that’s buried within us. I love Lovelace, as you know; you can see his influence in Spirits in the Dark. Apart from that, he writes extensively about the Spiritual Baptist religion and the enlightenment process and this whole business of darkness, the world in which we [West Indians] found ourselves, and so on. I don’t know.
RES: But you bring in the folklore in “Spiders.” It’s used effectively to bring these kids, North American kids, back to themselves.
HNT: Yes! But it’s not a West Indian—it’s a Ghanaian—who effects it. West Indians resist him; they call him primitive, and they go off on Christianity….
RES: I think you were being a bit unfair, though, because there are many in my age group, we would’ve been raised directly or indirectly on the Anansi stories. I’ve spent years working on an animated series based on the Anansi stories.
HNT: Are you talking about all West Indians or are you talking about your parents’ household?
RES: No, I’m talking about not just my parents’ household. The person I’m working with, she was born and raised in Toronto, Bajan father, Guyanese mother. Her Guyanese mother raised her essentially on the Anansi stories. I got the Anansi stories indirectly: I can’t remember anybody telling me a story, but I knew I heard them. So it’s not just my household only, there are other households.
HNT: Granted there are families where this is possible, especially when a father is present . . .the tellers are usually the fathers– he could tell his children Anansi stories. But people come from the West Indies already biased against those stories. If you were raised a Methodist, the church would have tried to drill that stuff out of your head.
RES: I’m not denying it. It’s just that Kwame, the lead student in “Spiders,” seems so strong…. And the fact that the African is embracing it, is the main proponent of it, is not surprising, because most of the stories go back to Africa.
HNT: Kwame has just arrived from Ghana…
RES: There’s something that’s going on in that last story…you’re being mischievous, as mischievous as Anansi. You’re being subversive, here, saying, “The Bible is pure Anansi stories, so you shouldn’t laugh at Kwame, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
HNT: Yes. Mr. Jones is to some extent myself. I suppose. I mean, not that I ever did that in my classroom, but I certainly got my students to deal with proverbs and their inherent beliefs.
RES: Are you saying we need to get back to more of this in our communities?
HNT: I’m divided on that issue. If you can extract from the folklore or the mythology the wisdom it’s intended to convey, then fine. If, however, you see the mythology as sacred and requiring an army to force people to live according to its dictates: for example, the Islamic claim that God literally wrote the Koran and handed it to Mohammed, and therefore anyone who violates it should be put to death, that for me would be mythology, too.
RES: Maybe it’s the way Mr. Jones does it in his class and how you deal with it in this collection. You’re looking at characters, and you’re looking at how their own behaviour leads to the things that happen to them. Again, character is fate.
HNT: It is fate. How character emerges in the living, the real human being is a fascinating issue. How much of it is inherited, how much of it is shaped. But it’s always an interface between the environment and our innate, psychological disposition.
HNT: Much as I would not like the educator to be present in my fiction, he is there.
RES: He is there.
QUARRELLING WITH CONRAD
HNT: I should say that I never actually studied creative writing per se. I studied literature. You see what other writers do and you know what you want to do and you find a way of doing it.
RES: Formally, I’ve never studied Creative Writing, either, maybe one class one semester, that’s about it, so I understand what you mean.
HNT: The technical things I’ve taught; and I’ve given workshops, but there’s probably a couple things less rigorous about how I teach now. You and I have a writer that we admire in common—Grace Paley. I don’t write like Grace Paley; I would want my readers to get a little bit more meat. But I am also a Hemmingwayan—not quite, but very close.
RES: What about Fitzgerald?
HNT: I’m not fond of Fitzgerald’s prose. There’s something about it that’s too… technical…I’m talking about at the sentence level. He’s not D.H. Lawrence. I don’t think anybody should write like D.H. Lawrence nowadays. His sensibility is not a Victorian sensibility, but his poetics, his writing style, are Victorian. But I find that somehow Fitzgerald is modern, and yet he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Conrad, it depends on which story, it depends on which text, I like.
RES: I haven’t read them all, but I know The Secret Agent…and there’s Heart of Darkness.
HNT: Well, Heart of Darkness, I quarrelled with what he does for setting, and I had this quarrel with professors. It’s interesting: a white student told a colleague—who taught it—that it was a racist book. And the professor was shocked.
RES: Why was he shocked? Was the professor white?
HNT: Yes, he’s white. He was shocked. And then he came and asked me, and I said, “Yes, look at what the heart of darkness represents, look at how natives are depicted.”
RES: For all that is admirable in it, you cannot ignore that, either.
HNT: In Typhoon, he nonchalantly mentions the “coolies” that are below deck during the storm. Their humanity is of no worth. But I like how Conrad writes. There are some of his books, like Typhoon, for example, in which the sentences are torture. But when he stays close to quick snapshot descriptions and dialogue you can’t fault him. Even in a story like the “The Secret Sharer,” in which you’re seeing this man who comes on board and that he’s hiding away, etc; it’s well written. Conrad said that he found it very difficult to revise, because when he wrote he was driven by a certain kind of energy that shaped what he put on the page, and when he was revising that energy was no longer there, and he had problems with revision.
RES: I can relate to that, actually. You were there in that time, in that moment, and then you have to come back and put yourself back in it.
HNT: And sometimes I look at stuff that I have revised and realize that the original had more life in it; that the revision drained the life out. And I like my sentences to be crisp, and sometimes I think I turn the crank a little too much.
RES: I should wrap up here and thank you for this interview.
HNT: Well, I should say thanks for reading my stories with such attention and to want my opinions on them.
1This is a modified version of the interview published in Kola Vol. 24 no 1 (Fall 2013)
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