Indelible Identity – Confronting the truth in secrets
“I remember that friends of my grandfather would come to the house and would refer to mixed-race children in the village and talk about how they were born,” says 51-year-old St Vincent-born writer H Nigel Thomas about the inspiration for his novel, Return to Arcadia. “They would also talk about how a person fought off a planter and which planter raped this particular person and paid that person to keep quiet.”
Released last November, Return to Arcadia chronicles the journey of 51-year-old Joshua Éclair who emerges from amnesia in a hospital in Montreal, Éclair must face what makes him want to erase his identity. In the painful process that follows he is forced to confront his past and learn to forgive those people who kept secrets, abused his trust, and tried to end his life. The novel is set in the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella and other places Éclair has travelled.
As a youngster Éclair could not live openly as a homosexual for fear of public condemnation. Thomas himself went through a conflicting time in his life that parallels that of the protagonist.
“For a while I suddenly had to reflect on my reality as a gay man and how I was going to cope,” he says. “In St Vincent I had a hard time as an adolescent dealing with my sexuality because there was no outlet for it. There would have been universal abuse if I had allowed myself to be known as a gay person. I came to Canada (at the age of 21) with somewhat more freedom, but homophobia among blacks in Montreal was just as vicious as it would have been in St Vincent.”
Armed with a desire to educate black kids, Thomas kept his sexual orientation hidden from their parents.
“I wanted to be useful to the black community,” he says. “I tutored black children on a volunteer basis and if those parents knew that I was gay, they would not have wanted me to have any contact with their children. That was part of the conflict.”
Thomas eventually came out to the people of St Vincent and faced immediate backlash.
“When I announced to St Vincentians in December of 1994 that I am gay, all hell broke loose in my family and my native village,” he says. “My half brother who went back to St Vincent one week after it appeared in the press (that I was gay) said that he was mobbed and even people whom he knew were gay attacked me for coming out.”
Today Thomas does not make regular visits to his homeland, a place still rife with homophobia.
“I go back once a year,” he says. “I don’t take on homophobia in the press in St Vincent. I would not go back there to live because I don’t think that I would be able to deal with the kind of ostracism that I would be subjected to.”
Thomas’s first novel, Spirits in the Dark, was published in 1993 and it was shortlisted for the 1994 Quebec Writers’ Federation Hugh MacLennan Fiction Award. He has also written poetry (Moving through Darkness, in 200) as well as short fiction and criticism.
In 1976 Thomas started a 12-year career teaching English and French at the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. He also worked as a professor of American Literature at Université Laval until he decided to take early retirement from teaching in 2006.
Thomas’s books have garnered some negative reaction among those taught to view his sexual orientation as a sin.
“West Indians who live here in Montreal are angry with me because I create gay characters,” he says. “The problem is that a significant number of blacks here who go to church, go to fundamentalist churches where they are preached to constantly about the horrors of homosexuality. They take the bible and use it as a blunt instrument.”
“I have been fortunate in that my novels have been taught in various places. To a more educated and sophisticated audience I don’t think that my books are an issue. To the more general reader with a basic education it seems to pose a problem.”