ROBERT ANTONI by Lawrence Scott
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 metropolis 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, ionized 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.
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?
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
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-1could 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
LS Yes, this is why I think the whole book is a carnival: the constant masking and the
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
RA AII 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, some- thing 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 meta-fictional 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
LS But writing is prominent, though. Laurence is a poet, playwright, and 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
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 Garcla Marquez.
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 Garcia Marquez 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
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 naturainess, 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" medi- cine, 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
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
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 boiscano 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
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
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.