An Interview with Earl Lovelace
June 2003

Kelly Hewson

A Best Book winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize 1997 for his novel, Salt, Earl Lovelace was a guest-of-honour at the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2003 held in Calgary, Alberta this May, which is where our conversation started. He arrived in Canada on the heels of a book launch in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad for a collection of his essays, Growing in the Dark, edited by Funso Aiyejina (2003), a collection which demonstrates the impressive extent of Mr. Lovelace’s 40-year engagement with the cultural and political issues of his place. The author of four other novels — While Gods are Falling (1965), The Schoolmaster (1968), The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), The Wine of Astonishment (1982) — as well as A Brief Conversion and Other Stories (1988), he has also written several plays, some of which are collected in Jestina’s Calypso and Other Plays (1984). In the midst of giving addresses to graduating classes of all ages, readings and lectures at various local and international functions, participating in the production of his plays, teaching creative writing and literature at Pacific Lutheran University, and preparing his talks as Distinguished Speaker at The University of West Indies’ campuses, Earl Lovelace is working on his sixth novel.

In June, I had the privilege of conversing with him at his home in Port-of-Spain. What follows are excerpts from the stream of ideas, reflections, opinions which flowed there.

KH: This is picking up on a conversation we began in Calgary and it sprung from one of the regional winning writer’s choices of Hemingway as a writer to emulate. We got talking about style and the politics, if you like, of style. You posited the intriguing formulation that while you read and were appreciative of Hemingway early on, you have more recently come to the conclusion that Hemingway’s style consolidates the world whereas Faulkner’s style changes the world. Could you elaborate?

EL: Hemingway writes what I’d call the language of silence. He doesn’t describe in detail what he’s talking about. For instance, he says the sun was hot. Well, when you imagine what he means by this — the sun can only be as hot as you imagine the sun to be hot. You are left with no changed view of the heat of the sun. Another writer could say sun was hot as something, and so will expand your idea of what it is to have, to feel, a hot sun. In that way, Hemingway consolidates world in that he doesn’t change the view of world.

One has an approach as a writer; it is not absolutely conscious. Style doesn’t take you beyond what you know. What you know, in fact, is often what is known. So, to use a concrete example, people might have a certain view of this sentence: “The negro was in a corner checking his muscles.” Consider the use of the word “negro” here and his presentation as someone without a brain or feelings. You continue to see “the negro” this way unless someone points out that this man is so, that he is more complex. So we change from what has been consolidated. This is what we struggle to change — what others have seen or represented.

KH: Your style — and I’ve taken these from book cover blurbs — has been variously described as “lyrical,” “a poetic wonder,” “reflecting Trinidadian speech habits,” and though I don’t know enough about Trinidadian speech habits to affirm the latter, I fully endorse the former descriptors. In particular, I admire the world you can create in a single sentence. I am just flipping through your collection of short stories and have landed on this example from “The Fire-Eater’s Journey”:

Life was Bazaar Day, with the Roman Catholic school hung with palm leaves and old man’s beard and frilly paper and balloons, and Joey Lewis band getting ready to play, the musicians picking up their instruments with a torturous slowness, and fellars, thirsty to dance, standing around in a deceptive nonchalance, not even looking at the girls who didn’t get to go nowhere except to church and school except on this one day when the church who was organizing the Bazaar said it was okay, each man alert for the split-second bang of the piano to launch himself across the room to where the girls sit stewing in the perfumed heat of long-sleeved dresses and can-cans, each man’s heart beating with the hope that he would get there on time to be the first to stretch out his hand to that girl that he dying whole day to dance with, and same time hoping that the tune would be a bolero or one of those calypsos with plenty of bounce in it, with the space within the music to bring her in and sway with her and hold her gentle and let her go and spin her and make her smile and look up into his face so he could ask her name and tell her his and in that way lay claim to the next dance, and, if she was game, the next.

While the grammar books we work from usually define a sentence as a unit of thought, “sentence” is grounded in “sentience,” in the notion of feeling, so another way one could understand a sentence is as a thinking through feeling. How do you think of a sentence?

EL: I’m thinking of a sentence as a simultaneity of thoughts. You can’t write down every letter at the same time, but the whole process suggests order. Part of writing a sentence is how you order the sentence most efficiently. If you enter a room, you see the room all at once. When you go to write about the room, you establish some kind of order — from left to right, down to up. You organize a direction. That is the way things appear in my mind. But I don’t mean to say there is this wrestling with the writing; there should be a surrender to it. It makes up its own mind sometimes.

So in a sentence, we seeing everything, yes, as well as rhythm. Part of it too is that more than a unit of thought, a sentence is a unit of song, it’s part of a melody. So I would add to your definition: a sentence is both sense and song.

KH: This is a question about voice and voices, of how to make them come alive, giving space to many and slipping freely among them, even inserting an “I,” for instance, in the conclusion of Salt, as well as mention of your kin and friends. One scholar calls this a kind of “narrative possession” or “ventriloquism” and links it to your development of a “bacchanal aesthetic.” What do you say?

EL: These voices seem to mirror those voices that appear in a Shango ceremony — one is possessed by these voices and that is one explanation. I come at it from a different perspective. The fact is when you write a novel all the voices are the individual’s voices. You want to give the illusion that you’re not omnipresent or omnipotent, so you have to take a perspective. How can you present yourself as a narrator as well as these voices of so many people you might believe to be speaking for? How do you inhabit and speak for them as well as help them to speak? That was the attempt I was making in Salt.

The starting point is that one person is doing all this talking. What I’m trying to get at is that the writer writing a novel seeks to persuade the reader that there are characters who are speaking who are not he himself. I want to see what the possibility is for a writer saying I am speaking, but I am speaking through these people. I am the one speaking. I am taking the responsibility — I am taking it anyway — and in one instance I am pretending it is not me, and in another I am saying it is me.

KH: What do you say to readers who are confused by the voices slipping?

EL: It’s fine that people are coming a little confused; that’s all right too. One is writing for the best possible reader and therefore it might be more difficult for less practised reader. It seems that you have to write for best reader otherwise you’re just condescending. You want to communicate at the highest level of your understanding. But there’s risk involved in writing to the best reader because you also want to be understood. You don’t feel you have the leisure to be misunderstood, to be engaged in authoritarian mystifying. You want to take the reader where you think you are, so the writer has to be clear on his or her feeling.

It’s a risk, yes, but the task still is to write for the best possible reader, the mind who can figure out these connections you have made. The writer is also a reader; the writer reads what he has written; perhaps it is he who is the best possible reader.

KH: This interview will appear in a new online, open access journal called “Postcolonial Text.” There were weeks of debate about this title, just as there have been years of debate about the term “postcolonial.” What, if anything, does the term “postcolonial” mean to you?

EL: The last element is “colonial” which implies a movement away from colonialism. But why originate the story, so to speak, in colonialism? That is only part of the story — look again at how language is used to redefine the whole situation. The origins of my story lie in the emancipation from enslavement and a violent movement into a new world I was thrown into, without any support, figuring out how to make my way in it. Colonialism is not my story. It is only part of the story. My stories were told in song and dance and they held in them elements of a forward direction. My force and momentum was created by your resistance. There is a need for a new starting point with postcolonialism, an intellectual starting point with no organizing centre that justifies failures.

“Postcolonial” is a term I never really liked because I felt it was never going to let go of people. The fact of colonialism produced a struggle against colonialism. While colonialism went on there was a concrete struggle at work.

If one takes view that colonialism was a limiting thing at best and that anticolonialism was seeking to liberate people to a greater fullness, greater respect for self, if it is that what you’re aiming at struggling against colonialism, then what should be produced is something else: not postcolonialism, but say, nationalism.

There is the sense that we have gone nowhere when we hear this term. Postcolonialism is like standing at the station not knowing what train you’re catching. You just see them coming, stopping and going back. Some are even going past the station not even bothering to pick up the people!

We have to ask what is postcolonialism. What is its use? How does postcolonialism as an idea involve me in some way as people who have been struggling against colonialism? Is it another means for the very colonialism to maintain control of the discussion as a successor to colonialism, and that would be determined by how this term is used? Seeing that it has been given, what to do with it now? You can’t put it back in the box — what is it going to do?

The postcolonial critic runs no risk in being anticolonial. Colonialism has been unmasked, its shortcomings pointed out. So what are critics presenting us with now that we have catalogued the errors of the past?

The whole thing has to be looked at afresh. We need to clear the ground for a new beginning. There is the sense that once free from colonialism, I now become a finished project. None of us is the finished project. We are all unfinished projects. We need to envisage a communal project: what is it to be truly human. We were always involved in that but colonialism got in our way.

What is the writer to do? One thing the writer, the individual, could be said to do is to point forward to the future while the group one could see as the repository of the past. The critic, situated in the present, has to call forth both positions. She has to be alert, aware. She has to think what is possible, what can be achieved. She has to do what we all have to do — the best we can by understanding some of the issues, by embracing risk and courage and truthfulness. Postcolonial critics have their hands full.

KH: Gunter Grass once said there was no way the German language would ever be cleansed of its historical sin and more recently in J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, set in the South African terrain where a keenly, differently felt past is erupting in the present, his narrator observes that the language of English is “tired, friable,” not up to the task of repairing all the damage done in that country. Do have a vision of how language can be transformed to reflect realities?

EL: I think language will always bear the experience of the group. This is not a big problem: it should. It is not something that should be untainted. Language doesn’t act, it describes. Language is always yesterday. Language incorporates things as historical events, concepts, values. It is not the language that cleanses. Language can’t be cleansed until people cleansed.

Language can’t be cleansed until society cleansed.

For instance, the notion of blonde hair and blue eyes. If we are to be cleansed of blonde hair and blue eyes as an ideal of beauty, when language presents us with these understandings, it also presents us with the questions about these things. We need to examine the ideas that language presents: what is being said and why it is being said so that a more human idea about what we are can be arrived at.

KH: Throughout your work your focus is on the various peoples who populate this place, and these ongoing gestures of inclusivity are, well, key, it seems, in the envisioning or imagining of a new community, new nation, new world . . . would you care to comment?

EL: One doesn’t have to think too far to understand that. You are dealing with people who have been excluded and who have been misrepresented and you want to show them as you see them, present them as you see them.

I also have the view that people who have established this region have never been an elite — they came enslaved, stripped of name and rank; others indentured, making a long trip for a few pennies. I am not sure that whoever else came did so as a big elite. So the people who have struggled and achieved here are really ordinary people, and so there is a wonderful opportunity to uphold this in the writing.

KH: Many of us in our many places of origin experience a tension that often casts itself as a decision between staying put or going elsewhere, and some of us have the luxury of choice: whether or not to act on that tension and make a move. While you have moved within your place, and take regular forays out of it, you are here. What has your staying meant?

EL: I suppose it can be looked at in terms of what was gained and what might have been lost.

My staying meant, first of all, the opportunity to discover the islands, to, as I say in an essay somewhere, to discover with some intimacy the darkness/light of the religious and cultural forms that had been suppressed during colonialism. It is this discovery I think that fed my perspective. It is hard to imagine what I would have made of myself if I had left at fifteen. I had lots of feelings. I didn’t know very much. I had always loved the steel band. I would go for hours as a teenager, listening to the bands, listening as if I was waiting for something, I don’t know what and I had been drawn almost naturally to the underdog, the ordinary people, but I really did not know them at close quarters (except my family, but then family was always striving, always seeking to get out of some hole). Regarding religion, they, my family, were Methodist; otherwise, they were pretty conservative if you can use that term as it relates to people who do not have too many choices, whose real focus is to keep their children on the “right” track, encourage their education and teach them good manners.

But when I went to the countryside to work at 19 or so, I was away from family, from Port-of-Spain friends. There was no one around whom I had been to school with. I was free. There was no real middle class to tempt me. I got to know the people working, making a living in the forests and on agriculture. I went to wakes, heard and sung the songs, got to know the stickfighters. I actually stood behind the drummers and chanted, I went to the club and took part in the gambling. I was involved in the Village Councils, to some degree in the politics. I suppose it was lonely, you really had no one to share your writings with, so that became almost a secret part of me. People knew me as a fella playing cricket, football, feting, going to the gambling club, dancing. No one knew me as a writer. There were, however, a few opportunities to read in Port-of-Spain. Derek Walcott was there. I used to go and look on at The Theatre Workshop where Derek was the Director. I knew the actors, but I wasn’t part of that. So until I won the prize [BP Independence Literary Award for his first novel, While Gods are Falling] I was pretty much an unknown. And there were a few fellars who wrote and with whom I discussed writing (in Port of Spain) but even they were largely obscure figures.

But the real advantage to staying was getting to know the place and the people intimately. And this helped me to develop a love and respect for ordinary people and to want, although I did not necessarily think so, to tell their stories, to establish their validity and their values . . . I suppose in a kind of way I became one of them. I did not see myself as an ambitious individual trying to get along in the world, to join some elite. In many ways these people are elite enough for me.

But one of the things that my staying has meant is that it established the idea that you didn’t have to go away to be a writer and that I think in some way helped to reduce the feeling of secondclassness which people can settle into as a way of life.

I remember someone writing the other day about writers, a friend of mine, and he had written something about Naipaul and Selvon being our writers or something like that and I met him and I said to him “man, how could you do that? I am here.” And sometime later he wrote an article in which he mentioned me as the best of our local writers. The Local Writer. So really, part of the experience here has been that people don’t see you in relation to other writers on the international scene, so they really cannot rank you and it is important for us to rank people.

But increasingly people come up to me and congratulate me not about being a writer as such but about a book of mine that they like. And gradually they are coming to see that right here, one of them, who has grown up among them, is achieving at a certain level of excellence. This is very good for the self confidence for the people — like in Matura — they know somebody, one of them who can rank with the world. Of course, out there in the metropolitan centres, things might have been different. More might have been made of me, but which me? Without the experiences here, I would have been a different me.

KH: Funso Aiyejina took on the project of selecting from among your many essays, speeches, columns, eulogies, sports pieces to produce Growing in the Dark. I very much appreciate both your efforts in providing us with this collection; reading it keeps one in perpetual admiration of your unshakeable commitment to your country, despite its regular irritants. Many themes recur and there is not the space to delve into them here, but if I may pick up on one — the idea of reparations which you have clearly been devoting much thought to for the past 30 or so years. Several essays outline your thinking on reparations so I won’t ask you to rehearse those arguments again, but perhaps you could comment on a particularly poignant line from Salt where Alford George recognizes “the loss of not having had that loss to lose.” Could you give us some sense of how loss can be managed?

EL: That is sad but that is what it is to be human in time — of not having the Africa to lose. We seem to have lost the ability to feel loss. It has been bypassed somehow and communicating loss is a problem. You can turn that around too and put that in the lap of the coloniser — not having the innocence to lose.

What I’m saying is nobody is devil, nobody is angel. Human beings have done the most foolish, atrocious acts that you can think of — but they have done and they’re doing mustn’t make you think that they are not human. That is the trap. They must be held to account. So that is why a lot of people say that they have been so demonised that they have, with power, said, “ok so I’m a demon.” With no accounting, with power now, they are demon, they can do anything.

“I ain’t holding myself to account” they say. Now that is a terrible state to be in, when you can’t hold your own self to account. But your self will be held to account, right?

KH: How does your writing feature in this project of reparation?

EL: Well I think first of all we have to define what we’re talking about when we talk about repair, repairing in the sense of helping to give me back my sense of possibility, of confidence, right, of finding a way in which you understand that you have not been singled out by fate for this disaster of enslavement, but that these things happen in human affairs, and you have, in this round, been victim. So you have to gain a larger understanding of how that fits you into some kind of cosmic perspective, if you want, or cosmic place where you can say well yea, man, this happened to me but I can go on. And so, in a certain sense, I would say writing does that by one, affirming people’s humanity and also by acknowledging everybody as human, even those people who were the ones inflicting the wounds just as the ones wounded. That we’re all human. That is helping to repair by giving you a larger perspective — by seeing yourselves not only as victims but seeing yourselves as persons who happened to be at this place in a certain time as well as looking at the other people who might have seen themselves as victors because they had the power to inflict wounds and see that they are also incomplete and have also lost something of themselves in the process of inflicting these wounds on a whole body of people. I think that in that sense, and I’m sure there are many other senses, you could see that in the work I have been doing.

We don’t need to become kings and queens. We not human because we kings and queens, we human because we human. We should be respected. All human beings achieve something. All everywhere. They must have in order to have survived. When people set up a hierarchy of civilisation and say this one did this and this one did that, that is very interesting and perhaps even useful because we know where certain things came from and we know the circumstances that produced things, but that in itself, I don’t know that that makes us human. We are human beings, regardless of what people say we produced or didn’t produce and it was ordinary human beings coming to encounter this landscape. This is how my own work might function in this project of repair.

KH: By repairing, in your view, what is being concluded and what is beginning?

EL: I understand what you’re saying and it is a useful way of posing it because the answers could be useful as well. I don’t think we can ever can come to the final conclusion of repair. The process of being human is ongoing — and this is a part episode that we’re dealing with that we’re trying to identify and separate from the rest of the problems of being and life. It sounds like we who were colonised have a great problem and those who have colonised us have none. And the thing is as human beings we know that even in the colonising enterprise, those colonisers have lost something of themselves just as those colonised had something forced out of themselves. So the repair is for everybody.

KH: Would it be fair to attribute to you the opinion that this generation of Trinidadian intellectuals, as perhaps a consequence of the absence the galvanising force of the drive to Independence which characterised your generation, are alienated from their place and that this alienation produces some distressing symptoms?

EL: The first part is too general and conclusive; what one could see is them wrestling with that absence. This generation of intellectuals is in a less favourable position, perhaps, because they have no large world movement which shapes them, to which they can belong. They therefore are called upon to be more courageous, original; hence, depending on their own character, they can be drawn in any direction to validate them.

Whereas there was a developing of a Caribbean aesthetic being carried forward for us, now there isn’t a country carrying it forward. What can happen is the intellectual in the place finds validation outside. I don’t want to cast blame. Rather I want to understand the situation they are in as a challenge, as something they have to wrestle with.

KH: This brings me to a question of identity in relationship to place. What are some of the ways to encourage the importance of place as an anchor, if you like, for one’s identity?

EL: I think the place must account for it being the place; the place must produce reflections of itself. It must be a vantage point from which you can look at the world. The place is not just a place in the world where everything from outside comes and you consume. I mean that is rendering the place and the people themselves impotent. It seems to me that the place itself must organise itself in a number of ways, including helping people see themselves in this place. But help the people see themselves doing more than dancing. Seeing them at work, in love, see them doing all kinds of human things. So they have a range of possibilities to see and they can say oh that’s me, oh that’s not me. I don’t like that me. As a means of critiquing our existence and contributing to it. Place has to take responsibility for being a place. How do we make a living, dealing with poverty, education, culture, how you dealing with the spirit of the people? How we dealing with our viability? That brings us to another question: How do you get a place to do that? Fine for us to say what it is the place should do.

KH: You have been raising alarms about the dangers of globalisation for years, and one of the dangers seems to be the diminishment of the local character of one’s place. Is the local disappearing?

EL: Something has to be there before it disappears. Let us look for it. Where is it? Where has it been? How do we make our presence felt? One of our presences is our enjoyment. We need to emphasise more than this. We need to emphasise the intellectual presence in the local.

There needs to more recognition of the heroes of the place, something to connect people. I’m thinking about “Toro Toro,” about the power of that song. This down and out fella was asking me for a cigarette and just before I handed it to him, he had to excuse himself to bolt: he heard the song and went running helter skelter to dance to it. The power that song had to connect people. ...  And then there’s the youth barricaded from Carnival. With no band to identify with, to have a collective experience with, to form a community around, however tangentially, they get alienated.

In a sense, limited artistic space is the problem. When the space is not full the space is nervous. And what should be the vehicle for healing, for self affirmation, culture, is only an escape.

KH: Part of this “mission” — to honour the achievements of this place — is to take hold of the image-making machinery. You stress throughout your thinking that Trinidadians are not seeing reflections of themselves in the media. Do have some projects in mind that might help them represent themselves to themselves?

EL: People have to be in a position to present their own images. For too long, people have been defined by others and these images, over which they have no control, are being presented, re-presented and consolidated. There’s no control over self — self is being portrayed as more criminal, for instance.

One thing I talk to my students about: what do you know of black people through images presented of blackness? And the answers are drug pushers, prostitutes, Aids carriers/victims, rabblerousers. We seeing this imagery through popular culture. We get that from images presented — there’s an insistence on violence. Given those images, I say to my students, it is clear to me why people would run from you! And white people who don’t know black people, who ain’t meet them, would have to be scared. Black people not belonging to that group will also be scared. So the thing is the images are presented to everybody and they support themselves — the more they are shown the more they become true. It is not to say that there are not black people supporting those images. It is that they are too broad. Everybody have a right to their own wickedness.

If somebody is presenting images of me that are bad or that I don’t like, my job is automatically to repair that damage, to present images that reflect me with the resources I have at my disposal. That is as much as I can do; I can’t do anymore. If you have more means and more reach, you will help to maintain your position. I will be slower at correcting your position and convincing you of mine.

If what we are saying about diversity, globalisation, about repairing the relationships we have, this is not only a project for me, it is a project for us. The project of repairing the images is not a black peoples’s project; it is a project for everybody and it is in that sense part of reparation would be the handing over of the image making to me. Let me make error with myself for the time being. Then, at a certain point everybody would be able to pass judgment.