I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Abrons Art Center
Feb 1, 6:30pm
Robert Antoni and I are talking to each other because Trinidad is our home; its literature is our literature. His new novel, Carnival, is about “home.” Where is our home? His characters are pulled between the metropoles of New York, London, Nice, and “the island,” a fictionalized Trinidad, where they return to perform the liturgy of Carnival, the rituals of homing. They return with the hope of finding home in the “Car … nee … val” and in the interior of the island, the tropical rainforest. This pilgrimage is not simple. Their desire for the pure and the idealized eludes them as they find and lose each other over and over in the flux and complications of race and sexuality. There are love stories here, brutally undermined by the complications of the past, ironized through humor and pathos.
Robert and I met once in London and talked tentatively and briefly. But we have met more importantly in the books that we have written. Divina Trace, his first novel, mesmerized the literary world when it was published in 1992, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book; it is a veritable laboratory for the alchemy he works in his experimentation with Caribbean Creole. Blessed Is the Fruit and My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales followed, exploring the same territory of the island, the reconstructions of family and the past, continuing Antoni’s interest in pathology and identity. “Pathology is identity,” he says in conversation, on the phone from Barcelona to me in London.
Lawrence Scott Your previous books have a tale-telling form. Carnival seems different; it’s more realist in its characterization, plot, and structure, and it’s not as elaborate as the other books. The wonderful Antoni language is there, but it’s pared down, with fewer digressions. What is the relation between this book and the other novels?
Robert Antoni Carnival represents an enormous departure for me. First of all, it’s much more contemporary, much less about mythmaking. Second, it’s not written in Caribbean dialect, as are all my other books. The language of Carnival is standard English, with the vernacular bubbling up through it. This was difficult to come to terms with. Mine is very much an oral literature given a written form, and what has always thrilled me about the writing process is that spoken, or heard, language, to invent registers of Caribbean speech to suit the dictates of the story being told.
LS Though the ancestors of these characters seem to be of the previous books.
RA The characters of Carnival do feel like the offspring of the characters of my other books. The particular kind of slightly antiquated Caribbean language that William, Carnival‘s narrator, speaks is somehow reminiscent of Johnny, the main narrator of Divina Trace, who has a second life in My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales. Johnny, however, is a fictional relative on my father’s side (mostly Corsican and Venezuelan), and William comes from my mother’s (primarily French and English). I should tell you that this book is really the first book I’ve ever edited, in the sense of cutting. The other novels accrued in the workshop; they got bigger and bigger. In this one I actually cut about a hundred pages.
LS I felt that, actually.
RA I tried to see how much I could take out while still maintaining the integrity of the story, and the first to go was the material about the family history. Again, that material, like the larger history, sort of permeates from below. But I not only edited out material concerning the characters’ backgrounds; I cut back a lot of information concerning the history of Carnival itself. The latter was deeply problematic for me: I’ve participated in so many Trinidadian Carnivals, and the festival is so much a part of me, that I felt that I had enormous ground to cover. It was difficult, occasionally painful, pruning all that background information—I could have gone on forever about the Steel Band—but I didn’t want the book to become some sort of travelogue or tourist guide.
LS The Carnival functions in a very specific way. It’s part of the world the characters inhabit. The central section of the book is devoted to the Trinidad Carnival. It’s not named specifically, but that’s interesting, too, the way appearance and reality play out in the book. This is carnivalesque in itself.
RA Until now I’ve set all of my fiction on the invented island of Corpus Christi, for a couple of reasons. Though I have a long family history on both sides in Trinidad, and though I visit frequently and at one point spent a year living in the Asa Wright Bird Sanctuary, in the rainforest, I didn’t grow up in Trinidad; I was raised in the Bahamas. So I don’t really know it, especially contemporary Trinidad, intimately enough to represent the island in the photo-realist way, which does not interest me much in any case. That’s been done sufficiently already. And I wanted to free myself up to reinvent Trinidad. However, Carnival feels very much closer to contemporary Trinidad.
LS The characters are at a particular carnival just as those in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises are at a particular fiesta. How does the Hemingway influence your novel? In your book, Carnival is more than just a carnival, it has an over-arching meaning for the whole book.
RA Very appropriately, I can quote something that I came across yesterday, looking back through your novel, Witchbroom. You state that there is the “reversal” that happens in Carnival, “the collapsing of opposites.” Later you say that there is no “hierarchy in carnival, no color, no class, no race, no gender, all may cross over and inhabit the other.” That is what I am doing in my depiction of the festival, but also in the fabric of the novel itself: for all of my characters race crosses over, gender crosses over. But the theme of Carnival works on another, formal level. Form is something of a playful obsession in all of my novels, and it’s always my starting point. This time I have stolen my form: I have transposed The Sun Also Rises (which he originally titled Fiesta) to the West Indies, and I am playfully parodying Hemingway’s form—carnivalizing it, cross-dressing it as the other. My thievery extends to the skeletal: I even utilize the same number of chapters and sections as Hemingway.
LS It’s the fluidity with which people move in and out of relationships that is so exciting in your novel. In the first section, which begins in New York, this carnivalizing is already happening.
LS What is this New York world? Much is suggested. Bar None is one world in the day and another world in the night. When Laurence and William meet there after tennis, it’s daytime. Then, it’s a quiet Greenwich Village bar. But at night, it’s a kind of gay leather bar. We think we know where we are and then we are somewhere else. What brings these characters together?
RA In Hemingway’s novel a group of American and English friends living in Paris go together to the fiesta in Spain. In Carnival I wanted to take a group of West Indian friends, living around the world, back home for the West Indian festival. So my narrator, William, lives in Manhattan, where he meets Laurence, who has been living in London, and Rachel lives in France. They return to find that, of course, home is no longer home. Their hopes for a sort of idealized homeland don’t mesh at all with what they get back to. But this sense of displacement, or misplacement, begins in New York. William, Laurence and Rachel don’t really fit in anywhere, and yet they do; they always remain both outsiders and insiders, wherever they happen to find themselves.
LS This is central to the book. Homing, discovering home, this tension between home and the “foreign” as it’s called in the novel.
RA It’s central to all of our lives. To you as a Trinidadian living for years now in London, to me living in New York and Barcelona. I’m a stranger wherever I go, but I can also feel at home. For me this is certainly true of Trinidad, where I immediately feel at home, but because I’ve spent so much time abroad, I don’t quite fit in. It’s a contemporary phenomenon, I think, particularly for many West Indians, as the society is so displaced. I have always believed that this is a very fertile place for a writer to inhabit.
LS The search for home is in the language of the novel. Home is resurrected in New York. The language that Laurence, William, and Rachel speak is full of little Trinidadian signature words and references. The dialect is a way the characters bond and remember home together. Homing is the deep philosophical ground of the novel. This idea is extended further when, in the last section of the novel, William, Laurence, and Rachel go into Trinidad’s rainforest. A powerful image there is of the turtles that come up onto the beach at Madamas. They are instinctually homing creatures. Migration, instinctual and also forced migration, which is the title of the thesis that Laurence’s mother has written, underpins these connecting points all through the book.
RA Home and homelessness. Remember, there’s that scene in the beginning of the novel where William and Laurence (who have fallen in love with New York and adopted it as their own) stumble across an African American panhandler selling his wares on the street. Laurence tries to give him, perhaps condescendingly, an exorbitant sum of money. The panhandler, hearing Laurence’s English accent, and William’s West Indian accent, throws the bills back at them and tells them to “fuck off back to wherever they came from!” At the end of the novel, in the rainforest of Madamas, where William and Laurence begin to feel briefly like they have finally arrived “home,” the police officer tells them to “go on back to wherever they came from, England or America or wherever the fuck it is!” In the midst of all that is the tremendous, exquisite leatherback turtle, who travels for hundreds of miles, and places herself in great danger, under great exertion, to climb up onto the beach in Madamas to lay her eggs, to ensure the continuance of her clan. Then, of course, the boys from the village destroy the eggs, prefiguring the atrocities inflicted by the policemen and villagers on the Earth People’s tribesman, Eddoes.
LS I’m very fond of epigraphs, and your epigraph is “We are all a lost tribe,” which is a quote from Peter Minshall, the very well-known innovative mas man and carnival designer. Is this lostness of the tribe connected with what you are exploring about home and homelessness?
RA My characters are struggling to affirm a lineage that somehow connects them, and that has been broken by their personal migrations. It’s the most real thing they know, this connectedness; Laurence, William, and Rachel are strikingly different in terms of race and class, yet despite and beyond all of this, they really are members of a lost tribe. This is what they are searching for—after the Carnival, when they journey together into the rainforest—this idealized sense of true connection. They believe that this essential yet ambiguous thing—this “Caribbeanness,” if you like—that unites them is so profound that it will transgress the societal ills that, historically, have divided them.
LS It’s a kind of pilgrimage, the return to the Carnival, with the ritual, in the language, in the clothes that people wear. And then, of course, there’s the ritual of arrival at Piarco Airport and the wonderful humorous scene with the Naipaulian character, the immigration officer.
RA He’s lifted directly from Naipaul! (laughter)
LS When they leave the airport, they stop by the roadside to eat a doubles, that Indian delicacy that is the fast food of Trinidad. As you arrive, you must have one. They must then go to the steel band festival Panorama with its own set of rituals of food and dress. It is like a visit to a shrine. Making the Stations of the Cross. (laughter) It’s a very liturgical book.
RA As all of our books are!
LS The characters idealize their sense of home, but in fact that idea is flawed.
RA It’s discovered to be that way. Desire is always somehow thwarted. They can’t get back to that tribe, back to that idea they are groping for. They can’t get away from the racial prejudice they are trying to escape by going abroad.
LS They encounter the historical repercussions of African enslavement, but also personal sexual trauma. We come to discover this progressively. The whole book is shot through with the dreamt and remembered moments of Rachel’s and William’s past. These are some of the most moving and powerfully written parts of the novel. The trauma of that past and what it’s done to each of them is lived through wherever they go.
RA William and Rachel are trying to put this trauma of having been raped by the three coked-up rastas behind them, and obviously they can never do so: this is their cross to carry. It’s both the inherited guilt for the sins of their forefathers and their very real personal trauma; both of which, to my mind at least, are directly related, the one growing out of the other. But this is further complicated by the fact that in their veins they carry the blood of the African and East Indian slaves sinned against, as well as the white slave owners’; just as Laurence, in an alternate way, is the product of the same mixed blood, of both ancestral victim and victimizer. It is all of their cross, which they have no choice but to learn to carry. I think that is what each of them comes to accept by the end of the novel: this trauma is essentially who they are; it’s not something that they can put behind them.
LS The question of resolution is interesting. There isn’t a resolution.
RA No, if anything the trauma becomes more prevalent.
LS You explore the idea of pathology and identity, both personal and historical trauma and identity.
RA The scar that never heals. We learn to live with it.
LS At the end of the novel Rachel says, “We could have been so good together.” William replies: “Isn’t it happy to think so.”
RA Because of course it’s impossible.
LS There will be different readings depending on whether you’re “in the know” about some of the personal and historical references to Trinidad. What do you think?
RA I wanted to blend fact with fiction as part of the illusionary aspect of the Carnival theme. I chose to use the real names of famous or well-known people, and foremost among them was the costume designer Peter Minshall, and the calypsonian David Rudder. It’s another aspect of the Carnival motif, putting a mask on reality, dressing it up as fiction.
LS Yes, this is why I think the whole book is a carnival: the constant masking and the unmasking.
RA Then there are lots of red herrings: you think that some character is going to turn out to be such and such a character from Hemingway, and of course it’s someone else. It’s all disguise and playfulness.
LS You are playing around with the plot and characters of The Sun Also Rises, but there are other aspects of the Hemingway that are pretty fundamental: for example, his exploration of machismo and the way that’s challenged or undermined in your book. The use of the homoerotic, the way sexuality unravels, is there right from the beginning. But again, is what you’re seeing what there is? All the time there’s a sort of ambivalence and fluidity around sexuality.
RA And race. In all of my novels sexuality becomes a metaphor for race. No character is ever clearly one thing or another. Maybe this would be a good time for me to tell you how I got started on this novel; my idea of impurity. Because I never thought I would write about Carnival; it never seemed to hold any literary value for me. It was just something that I did every year, to get in touch with my Trinidadian self. But I went to speak to a Caribbean literature class at Yale, and afterward the instructor and I ended up in a bar talking. She had just written an essay on The Sun Also Rises, and in it she focused on a phrase taken from the book, which was “purity of line.” She meant language, but also race, coupled with the idea of a “search for truth” that she felt Hemingway had embarked upon—the familiar modernist notion of getting back to the essence of things. And I immediately thought that my project as a writer, from the very beginning, has been exactly the opposite: that what I am interested in is “impurity,” in terms of both language and race. From the beginning I have been interested in the “slipperiness” of language, the places where language becomes inventive and ambiguous, and in crossing-over between languages. Race is also always ambiguous for my characters. Furthermore, there are certainly no overriding truths to be discerned in any of my novels, no center, there are simply only the stories, smaller truths, personal truths. That discussion after the class at Yale got me started on this project; it gave me an idea of how to find some sort of literary value in the festival.
LS Yes, I mean, we don’t know people’s race, especially in the second section, on the island.
RA All of my main characters, particularly Rachel, are of mixed race, and yet they are seen to belong to one race or another depending on where they happen to find themselves. When Rachel is in New York she’s considered black because of her skin color—what many in the West Indies would label “brown”—but when she’s in the rainforest, at the farthest reaches of Caribbean society, she’s considered white because of her English accent and her obvious class difference. Even Laurence, who is mixed too but of a darker complexion, speaks with an English accent and is referred to by the policeman in Madamas as a “white” man. Then in Minshall’s band the reversal is made quite literal: Minshall literally “paints” his mas players with the skin color of their other.
LS But of course this has been the condition of the Caribbean for a long time. Trinidad has this quality, with its Lebanese, or Syrians as we call them, its Chinese, its Indians. “No, no, no, his grandfather was a Negro,” I can hear my mother’s voice in the ’50s. When William is looking at Rachel coming out of the sea, physical characteristics identify her as black: her legs, her backside, “bamsie.” But then, for the policeman, she’s “white pussy.” William doesn’t want himself defined as he deals with his “condition.” Who is he? His race, sexuality?
RA Isn’t that what we are, Lawrence? I think of myself as a Caribbean, nothing more nor less. I feel I’m the mixture of all of those ingredients that are thrown into the pot in Trinidad: African and East Indian, in addition to the European—and for me that includes Spanish, French, English, Italian, German and on and on. We’re the proud mongrels, or, as I call them in the novel, the perfect “potcakes”—it’s actually a Bahamian word.
LS But that idea has an idealized aspect at Carnival time. There’s a sense that after Carnival people will return to their racial tribes within the large tribe, which creates clashes and problems in society as it’s lived out day to day; how politicians manipulate the race issue between Africans and Indians. But then there is the Derek Walcott line, “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” It’s there in all the literature, it’s what we’ve been coping with, and I think in many ways, particularly in Trinidad, there is an important example for the world today of how races and religions quite literally mix together.
RA I think of the Caribbean as the first true melting pot, the place where the old and new worlds intersect in the most exaggerated, and frequently volatile, way. Trinidad especially is creolization at its utmost—creolization as an ongoing process that can be seen in the culture, the language, and Carnival itself. Carnival is, for me, historically and right down to the present moment, the perfect enactment of the process—the performance—of creolization. Of course—and much has been done with this—Trinidad’s Carnival is also the societal purge. “Licensed excess,” Freud called it. The release from all of those volatile tensions that allows us to live in relative harmony for the rest of the year. And considering the profound racial mix that we have in Trinidad, the drastic class and religious differences, it does have a relatively peaceful past, at least in comparison to some of the other islands. Interestingly, though, as I’m sure you’re well aware yourself, our Carnival has in its history periods of great violence and racial clashes, especially in the early days of the Steel Bands, but it has evolved into quite the opposite. In a sense, I think it is the creolization that has tamed it, turned it “inside out,” which is another of the prevalent themes in Carnival: everybody keeps putting their shirts on backwards!
LS We were talking about Hemingway earlier and about the writing. Your books are very much about the craft of writing.
RA In this book, like Hemingway’s, the narrator is a writer, or a would-be novelist, which is something that usually makes me squeamish as a reader, something I’ve always wanted to avoid. But when I got locked into the Hemingway thing there was no way around it. For this reason I think Carnival is far less metafictional than my other books, less the game of laying bare my own techniques, about how the novel itself was made. Since writing is already a focus on a contextual, superficial level, this time I felt reluctant to take on some of my former more writerly conceits. In Carnival it’s subtler, more deeply buried.
LS But writing is prominent, though. Laurence is a poet, playwright, novelist. William is the aspiring novelist with all the angst about making it with publishers. There’s this moment in Trinidad during the Carnival, where William goes up to the Hilton and meets with Laurence and a West Indian writer. There’s a reference to another black writer.
RA Derek Walcott. But of course, the famous writer who they meet with is Naipaul, and then my fictional Naipaul makes the absurd suggestion that William put a picture of his black friend on the cover in order to be taken seriously as a Caribbean novelist, in order to gain legitimacy. I thought I would give a few readers a chuckle with that. Here’s a Trinidadian writer of East Indian origins who went to England and did everything possible to make himself into a white Englishman, including speaking disparagingly about Trinidad and East Indians whenever he had the chance. I suppose I’m taking a soft punch here—or maybe not so soft!
LS Yes, and then writing The Enigma of Arrival, a homing novel if ever there was one. You are a writer of tales, a literary writer, a writer’s writer. There are many echoes of Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace and V.S. Naipaul, in our conversation and in the novel. In your previous novels there is a sense of Gabriel García Márquez.
RA It’s all part of a literary inheritance that is specifically ours. I think we can talk about ourselves, you and me, as representing a second generation of West Indian writers—and there’s probably a third generation already in the making behind us. George Lamming, in The Pleasures of Exile, published in 1960, said that the West Indian novel was two decades old; so that gives it a lifespan of 65 years, or about two generations. Lamming, Walcott, Brathwaite, Naipaul and others talked about having to invent everything from scratch in order to write the West Indian novel or poem, but I’ve never felt that way. I felt that I came to writing with a Caribbean literature already intact that I could respond to. The other thing that I believe you and I have in common is that we’ll go wherever we need to invent our literary heritage. If it’s García Márquez or Faulkner, Jean Rhys or Toni Morrison, Joyce or Hemingway or whoever, it’s all part of our private territory, the literary landscape we’ve claimed.
LS I think Walcott went there too.
RA I think he and his generation went mainly, though not exclusively, to England to look for models.
LS Earl Lovelace went to Faulkner and Hemingway. And we mustn’t forget Sam Selvon. And, of course, Wilson Harris. We haven’t talked about Harris.
RA Well, he’s there in Carnival, in the jungle for sure.
LS Entering the rainforest I thought of him, the sense of the interior as home, but also in what we’ve been saying about masking and unmasking in the Carnival. Remember, he’s also got a trilogy of novels called Carnival.
RA I was thinking very much of Harris at that point.
LS I want to return to the very sad love story of Rachel and William. Hamlet is mentioned at the beginning of your book, Hamlet and Laertes and the mad sister. And who fucks who and the whole thing of sons and fathers, fathers’ betrayals.
RA Well, I started out a Shakespearean scholar, and I’ll never shake it off completely. But in Carnival there’s also Laurence’s mother, in some ways another red herring: we expect to hear from Mother Earth, that somehow she is going to help make the characters whole, cure them of their traumas, and we get Laurence’s mother instead.
LS That’s a very important point. I hadn’t connected with that. She is a strong intellectual woman, the schoolteacher, such an important Caribbean figure.
RA But sure, the fathers and sons business is also part of the Hemingway thing. It’s also one of my, or maybe our, larger obsessions: patrimony. The idea that the family patriarch, metaphorically and literally, fucks everybody. And it’s in his image and by his example that we get to fucking each other, all of us, madly—but only within the tribe!
LS The pathology that underlies these relationships is connected to the theme of desire, desire and dread. The pathology of the family, how what has happened creates this lostness in people, the lost tribe.
RA Home, identity, race: they’re all clothing that we pack in our suitcases, that we carry with us. These things become a kind of fiction or invention—a necessary invention that allows us to survive. On the other hand, this fluidity also contributes to our sense of lostness and misplacement, to the extent that identity becomes not only an obsession but a kind of pathology. Interestingly enough, Roland Littlewood, the English psychoanalyst and cultural anthropologist who wrote on the Earth People—a friend to whom I am much indebted—titled his book Pathology and Identity: The Work of Mother Earth in Trinidad. Littlewood was really the one who got me thinking about identity in these terms: as something tribal and something also pathological.
LS Let us return to the rainforest. We have the quite detailed entry to the camping spot, the beauty of the rainforest, the power, the naturalness, very much in contrast to New York City. The Earth People and the beautiful world that they inhabit are flawed and violent. Some of the most violent parts of the book, sexual and political, take place there.
RA This is something that I used to do ritually after my visits to Trinidad for Carnival: camp out on the Madamas Beach for a few days, to cool down and get the alcohol out of my system. I met Mother Earth on one occasion and I met members of the Earth People on others, and again I never believed I would do anything with them in my writing. But in this book they became essential: my characters go to the farthest stretches of the island, at the greatest remove from society, with a secret hope of beginning anew, and for them the Earth People somehow represent this possibility. It’s an illusion, of course, and what they discover in the rainforest is not this fantasized world of possibilities, but just the opposite—more deeply ingrained racism and violence.
LS Mother Earth is sick in some ways, isn’t she, she’s ill?
RA When I saw her she was very ill. She suffered from a thyroid condition, which went untreated for years due to her mistrust of anything but “bush” medicine, and from which she died several years ago.
LS That’s real but it’s also sort of—
RA She’s interestingly absent from the book, as you mention. The main characters each secretly believe that they are going to get to her and that perhaps she will provide some sort of magical connection to the landscape that is unmarred by society, history—that is some sort of refuge. But in a sense she’s the one who knew that no such refuge exists. I think the real Mother Earth was very clear that the ills of society and racial prejudice will never disappear until society destroys itself; an apocalyptic vision. It was a real vision, not imaginary, not misled in any way.
LS So within the design of the book we must think back to the Minshall story; the story of his Carnival band, River; the theme of how the natural world is being polluted.
RA The mas band becomes a theatrical playing out of the Earth People’s philosophy and mythology.
LS Yes, yes. That’s the way to look at it. So did you play mas in River?
RA Of course. And I’m borrowing elements from several of his bands over the years, which Trinidadians and mas players will immediately recognize, the Minshall-type band with a thousand members in costume, the big trucks blasting their soca and the diesel fumes …
LS The Minshall Mas Camp, the detail of how the costumes are put together and paraded. This seems to me a memorializing, recording part of the book.
RA I admire Minshall enormously, and I wanted to capture a moment when his genius really flourished. Under his hand Carnival just exploded and became wonderful and extraordinary, a theatrical and profoundly revolutionary thing, actually. I play mas in Minshall’s band practically every year, and he’s a close friend. My novel is certainly a memorializing of him in a small way, I think.
LS Sexuality is quite an explosive issue in the Caribbean at the moment, with all the homophobia expressed by Jamaican rap artists and the strength of traditional and fundamentalist religion. Your book catches you unawares in that whole area: it explores homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality. It does this in an unusually liberating and Caribbean way. I’m thinking of Laurence and William in the forest, the aspect of their relationship creeps up on the reader.
RA And creeps up on the characters as well.
LS There are two or three places in the book where you get a sense of the agrarian world beyond the urban world of the Carnival. “At our backs the cedars and bois-cano(laughter) were enormous, running right up to the tops of the mountains. Cane fields spread out in the low-lying, marshy fields in front. Where the green-gray land met the iridescent black bar of the sea.” This landscape of cane fields and cocoa was the economy of the island. The tribe is tainted with the blood money of the ancestors. Their history is written on the landscape.
RA It’s all there in the background—the history, the ancestors—but it’s carefully buried. I did not want that history to be too overt, too overwhelming; it’s so well known to us, has been covered so extensively in fiction and elsewhere. The scene that you just read is the beginning of the journey back into time for the narrator, and of my characters’ journey back home. It’s a reclaiming of the landscape, but the landscape also carries with it a history, which my characters are also striving both to reclaim and to escape. This sort of dual movement occurs at all times in the novel: home and away from home, back into history and away from history. There’s a reclaiming of the family and an attempt to escape the family, reclaiming the tribe and escaping the tribe.
LS The novel is violent. It’s like the violence of the place, the way those traumatic eruptions, the trauma of Rachel and William, come into the book and the gradual unfolding of the way race and violence enter through those episodes. Are you, like Neil Bissoondath, talking about a “casual brutality”? I don’t myself see you making simple sociological, racial points. What would you say you were doing?
RA I think this violence is an essential part of who we are, and it can’t be denied or smoothed over. It’s a very real part of our inheritance. The violence of our history is not casual, and it has deeply reaching repercussions that are far from finished with. At the present moment there’s the epidemic violence of all the kidnappings in Trinidad, which many claim are the work of radical fundamentalist Muslims. Violence is a worldwide phenomenon today, and Trinidad—the balmy Caribbean—is no exception, not now and not historically. There’s nothing soft and casual about the making of Caribbeans; we are from the beginning of time made brutally, yet out of the most gorgeous elements.
LS And it’s that truth that undercuts any temptation into idealization or nostalgia.
RA Which is, of course, where the characters are constantly going and can’t.
LS This is a great part of the beauty of the book, that you don’t allow yourself to settle easily into notions of purity. But, at the same time, without making simple sociological explanations.
RA Well, there isn’t anything simple about our past, is there? Or our present. There is nothing, metaphorically speaking, written clearly in black and white for us to read. It’s infinitely complex. To try to simplify that history, to attempt to make it in any way palatable, especially in the context of fiction, is in my opinion ludicrous and shameful. All we can do is try to be faithful to that complexity.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Linda Boersma, Julie Mehretu, Alexi Worth, Pearl Abraham and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jim O’Rourke, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Coleman, Brad Cloepfil and Stuart Horodner, and Bruce Mau and Kathryn Simon.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.