Roundtable

H. Nigel Thomas

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Dreaming the Caribbean Body

(Poet, Amatoritsero Ede, in conversation with H. Nigel Thomas, Novelist, Poet, and Short Story Writer)

Amatoritsero Ede: It is a pleasure to have this chat with you; especially because it has been a long time in coming. To begin, please give our readers a sense of your literary background and influences.

H. Nigel Thomas: Thanks, Ama, for paying attention to my work. My first influence was my maternal grandfather, John Dickson. At the age of three I went to live in his household. He was then 73, and he was always reading. I wanted to read too, and he taught me how. Soon I too was reading. As soon as I was able to take books from the library, somewhere around age 8, I did. By the time I was ten, I was fascinated by the images and rhythms of the hymns we sang in the Methodist Church I attended. Even so school assignments were the only writing I did then. Around age 19 I wrote and directed short plays to raise money for the Methodist Church. I never considered such writing to be serious, and never saved any copies of the plays. Around 19 too, I began to pay attention to style in the books I read. I specifically remember re-reading and underling some of James Baldwin’s sentences and comparing them with Richard Wright’s. I cannot tell you why I was so struck by their beauty, because even though I had passed English literature at the G.C.E O level, writing style wasn’t among the topics we’d covered.

I immigrated to Canada at age 21, and my first priorities were food and shelter. To obtain those I took a course in psychiatric nursing. While working part time in the field, I attended university intending to study botany, later I thought it would be sociology, but it ended up being English. At age 28—I had already completed an MA— I became aware one Sunday while taking a solitary walk on Mount Royal that the thoughts investing my head were poems. That’s how the serious phase of my creative writing began. From that Sunday on, for 7 years, I wrote poetry every day. I found it bizarre. Fiction came later, when I was 34. Characters and their stories began to fill my head while I was in bed and sometimes kept me awake until 4 a.m. I had no choice but to get up and record what I was experiencing. I never considered most of those stories publishable, but they were my apprenticeship in fiction writing. Some of them are in my short story collection How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow?: And Other Stories. The title story has been widely anthologized. Another of the stories morphed into what became my first novel, Spirits in the Dark. At the time, 1981-82, I was pursuing a doctorate at Université de Montréal, and the late writer Hugh Hood was one of the professors in the English Department. I knew him only because the department was small, and he was a very gregarious man who was exceptionally generous with his time. Today, I doubt I would have pursued creative writing as assiduously if I hadn’t met him. He met me in the department office one afternoon and began a conversation about the use of ritual in African novels. (His field was English Romanticism). We chatted away, and at the end of the conversation he asked me if I did any creative writing. I said yes. He offered to look at some of it. When he did he said it was good. A year later, when the earlier version of Spirits in the Dark was written, I asked him to critique it for me. He did and suggested I offer it for publication. I didn’t. I wasn’t comfortable with it. A few months after he’d read it, he was the guest editor for Rubicon (a literary journal publishing out of McGill at the time; it’s now extinct) and asked me to send the section which is now published in a few anthologies with the title “At the Market.”

Fast forward to 1991. By then I was assistant professor of English at Université Laval. I returned to the unpublished manuscript with a better understanding of what I wanted to do. In the interim I had read all the novels of Trinidadian writer, Earl Lovelace, had even interviewed him and written a paper on him (my field was African American and Euro-American literature), and had come to the conclusion that the hitherto unexplored aspects of Caribbean reality were what I wanted to pursue. Two works—Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters gave me the confidence to discard all but 50 pages of the earlier manuscript of Spirits in the Dark and start over. Heinemann rejected the manuscript initially, claiming that because of its homosexual content, it would certainly not sell in the Caribbean. Penguin expressed a strong interest in it but eventually said no because of the ongoing recession in 1991. They said If I didn’t find a publisher within a year I should re-submit the manuscript. I again got in touch with Hugh Hood. He read the manuscript and told me that upon completing the last sentence, he called his publisher and told him, he’d just read a manuscript that they should publish. Next day I got a call from the publisher, and the rest is history (including Heinemann’s recanting). Not all of it pleasant. I know now that I should have got an agent, but then I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing industry. My PhD thesis was published in 1988 through a process which now seems to me like a fairy tale. I’d submitted it to the publisher in 1987 as a prelude to revising it, and a month later, I received a contract and glowing reports from the assessors. It fooled me into trusting publishers.

A.E.: Although, the representation of homosexuality in literature is old, I am not sure that it is common in contemporary Caribbean-Canadian literature. But you have had an abiding interest in the subject from your first novel, Spirits in the Dark (1993) to the ongoing tetralogy, the first of which has been recently published as No Safeguards (Guernica, 2015). Why the sustained focus on the subject as represented in characters from Jerome Quashee in the first to Jay and Paul in your most recent novel?

H.N.T.: As I’ve said earlier, the aspects of Caribbean reality that Caribbean novelists have overlooked were what seized my imagination. One of the flaws I found in the early version of Spirits in the Dark was that I had imposed heterosexuality on a character who was essentially gay. I had to do some soul-searching about why I had done so, and I understood that it was because I did not want to draw attention to my own homosexuality. By then I knew that writers subserve their characters, not the other way around. Because of the way I write—characters come to me and ask me to explore them—I don’t choose to write about homosexuality. But neither can I deny that it would be challenging for me to create a novel-length heterosexual protagonist. I have one in a speculative fiction manuscript that I’ve been sitting on for several years precisely because I’m not convinced that the protagonist is a plausible, three-dimensional heterosexual. It is equally true that much of what I explore by way of fiction is reality that mystifies me. Human cruelty baffles me. Women and gays everywhere have been victims of it, but that cruelty is even more ruthless in the Caribbean. There, heteronormativity and patriarchy are omnipresent, and behaviours that deviate from them are punished—brutally in the case of homosexuality. My bookishness, use of standard English (something imposed in my grandfather’s household), and high-pitched voice marked me in St Vincent as being gay, and I was constantly mocked and ridiculed from the time I was five until I left at age 21. I have felt the need to depict human cruelty in order to understand why it’s so casually and universally practised.

Having said the foregoing, I would like to emphasize that it’s issues of identity that predominate in my first three novels. That’s especially true of Spirits in the Dark and Return to Arcadia. When Jerome invites the congregation to burn their Bibles, he is asking them to renounce colonialism. His psychic sojourn culminates with a vision of Africa in which he is guided by an ancestor – his deceased grandmother. In all of this Jerome’s sexuality is secondary; it becomes an issue only because all aspects of himself must be laid bare. In Behind the Face of Winter, Pedro’s homosexuality is hardly ever mentioned. In fact, until his mother mentions it on her deathbed, most readers will not have noticed it. Initially the quest to know who his father is consumes him (Caribbean children, even those with resident fathers, spend their lives trying to “find” their fathers); later it is surmounting the obstacles of racism; and eventually it is giving his life a purpose. In all of this, his sexual orientation is of no importance. I have told my publisher that it’s erroneous to call Behind the Face of Winter a gay novel. In the case of Return to Arcadia, the dominant theme is the pathology that colonialism has engendered. Joshua’s form of sexual gratification, masochism, is symptomatic of that pathology. In all three novels the protagonists seek their fathers. Jerome is the only one who finds him, and it is only during his psychic sojourn.

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