Jade Colbert interviews Jamaican author Lorna Goodison for The Varsity, the student newspaper of the University of Toronto.
Lorna Goodison is one of the best writers from the Caribbean and a star of world literature, yet writing was a calling the award-winning poet and author took up only reluctantly.
“I came to poetry as something I was given,” she said when The Varsity recently sat down to tea with her. “I never ever wanted to be a poet, just no matter what I did, I was writing. So I always thought of it as something that was given me to help me. I used to see it as something that was an intrusion. I resented it. But when I came to my senses I realized that it really helped me to make sense of life, to shape my experiences.”
She admits that writing can still be difficult — “Because it’s such hard work for me, I really will spend a long time trying not to write, and then I have to write” — but also claims that if she did not see herself getting better as a writer, she would put down her writing implements.
Lorna Goodison was born in 1947 in Kingston, Jamaica. Before she built up the courage to show her writing to anyone, she intended to be a painter. After studying at the Jamaica School of Art and then New York’s Art Students League, she returned to Jamaica, where she worked in advertising and public relations. As she mentions in this interview, at first she was shy about her writing; recognizing herself as a writer took time.
First known as a poet, Goodison is the author of eight book of poetry, including I Am Becoming My Mother, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her 2007 memoir, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People won the B.C. Award for Non-fiction, and was also a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize and the Trillium Book Award.
Her most recent work, By Love Possessed, is a collection of stories that have been substantially revised since first appearing elsewhere. The book has received critical acclaim, in particular for Goodison’s ventriloquism: her stories slip so completely into the voices of her characters, they seem without maker. Goodison also has a talent for marking the inflections of the Jamaican dialect on the page without the results feeling forced.
While she denies having specific aims for her writing, her authorial values do shine through when discussing what she admires in Alice Munro’s work: “Write about very ordinary people, not a very important place, not significant in the eyes of certain people.”
The choice to tell the stories of ordinary, often lower-class Jamaicans is a refrain for the author (who notes that Dickens wrote about the lower class, though some people forget this). “I’ve always known that there are people who just live incredibly interior lives,” she states simply. As with Munro’s work, By Love Possessed is rooted in place; as with Munro’s small towns, we have the sense finishing Goodison’s book that we might not have met these people except through her.
A former U of T professor (she still has a home in Cabbagetown), Goodison now teaches at the University of Michigan. She divides her time between Toronto, Ann Arbor, and Halfmoon Bay, BC. The Varsity met with Lorna Goodison in February.
The Varsity: I think most of the world knows you primarily as a poet. Have you always been a short story writer?
Lorna Goodison: In the 1970s I remember writing a story and winning a prize in one of our local newspapers, the Daily News Prize. So some people knew that I wrote every now and again short stories. The first collection, which is called Baby Mother and the King of Swords, I started writing those stories somewhere in the 1980s when I was at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. They have a writers’ program where they bring writers from all over the world for about five, six months, and they throw them together in Iowa City and we do readings together. I was very taken at the time with meeting a lot of writers from Eastern European countries who were writing very short, very intense short stories. Later on we started calling them “flash fiction,” but they didn’t call them that. It was just a style they had where you had these very short pieces. And because I’m a poet and I never had any intention of going long, I thought, “Good, I’ll write some stories that are really short.” So the stories in the first collection were really short, and they’re all stories from my imagination — none of them are people I really knew in real life. So that’s the first one. And then it took me another 10-something years to write the second one. So I do write short stories, but not very often. It takes me a long time.
The Varsity: Is it a different process for you, writing a short story than writing a poem? Or do you have the sense that you approach the short story as a poet?
Lorna Goodison: I don’t think about the writing process all that much, except to say that I think with short stories I apply what I call — [laughs] I tell my students to use what I call “The Yogourt Principle.” Like you have to have a little yogourt culture to make yogourt? Very often with a short story, what will happen is I see something or I hear some person. You know, like, there’s one about a kid who sells roses on the street.
The Varsity: Henry.
Lorna Goodison: So I actually heard somebody on the street call a kid Henry. “Henry!” And then I just was looking at him and then you just begin to build something on that. So usually it requires a little piece of reality for me to build it.
The Varsity: What is the gestation period for you? If you’re talking about flash fiction for that first collection, was it the same later?
Lorna Goodison: No. [laughs] No. By that time, even in the collection Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah, the second one, there’s a fairly long story that’s almost a novella, which we didn’t include. So I did try to go longer after that.
The Varsity: Are you somebody who writes every day?
Lorna Goodison: No. I’m a very poor example. Nobody should do what I do. Sometimes I will go for a long time without writing. But it’s not good for me, because I get very out of balance. Because it’s such hard work for me, I really will spend a long time trying not to write, and then I have to write.
The Varsity: So is writing difficult for you? You’ve been doing this —
Lorna Goodison: For a very long time?
The Varsity: — for some time.
Lorna Goodison: [laughs] It’s not easy because I don’t make it easy. You have to work. I would say the thing I dislike most about writing is how hard you have to work to make it look like it was really easy.
The Varsity: So tell me then about revisiting these stories for this collection.
Lorna Goodison: Well, after my memoir came out, my editor, who is the best editor ever, Ellen Seligman, she said, you know, “Let me look at all your fiction.” So we looked at all this, because she hadn’t read them before she saw the memoir. She looked at them, and she said, “I really like these stories, but I have a bit of a problem, in that the minute I got really invested in a character, the story ended.” I guess because they were flash fiction! [laughs] Well, it was then my job to go away and rethink the story and rethink. Is there more in the story? Is there more to this character? Is there more in this situation?
To be a good editor is a real gift. I think it’s a gift as much as being a writer. Ellen, for example, is amazing at her ways of seeing. She sees a story — she’s kind of like one of the great football players. I teach a lot of football players in Michigan, and what I found out about really good athletes, you know, they just have a different kind of intelligence. A really intelligent ball player, apparently, has an overview of the field in his head all the time. Their spatial knowledge is just phenomenal. They just know all the time what’s going on around them. Could you do that? I could not do that. How many people do you know who have that gift? I’ve seen guys that come in and you think, “Oh, God.” Then you see them on the field, and you think, “He’s a genius!”
People who do different things, the really good ones acquire these particular set of skills. I think Ellen has those skills. She knows the story as a reader, as a writer, as an editor. So she sees things that I didn’t, and she’s usually right.
The Varsity: She’s saying “That ball is going there.”
Lorna Goodison: Yeah! “And if you’re wise, you should be right there as well.” Just one example: In this first story, this woman meets up with this guy and he’s asked her to take his wife shopping, which seemed alright to me, and then Ellen says, “No, he would have asked her for at least one small favour before.” You know? Because he’s a user. He really is going to get everything from everybody. And he wouldn’t have jumped right into something like this. He would have tested her out with something small first. I thought that was brilliant because I hadn’t thought about it.
The Varsity: He’s working on her.
Lorna Goodison: Yeah! He’s working on her. He could have used anybody’s real estate agent, which is easy enough, but he’s not sure if she’s going to have anything at all to do with him. But she does it! And the minute she does that, he starts to ask her for favour after favour after favour.
The Varsity: “Arrange my mother’s funeral.”
Lorna Goodison: Yeah! Bigger and bigger things. But there are people like that, you know? They know how to play you, and you have to know how they will play.
The Varsity: What is your relationship to your characters? Where do they come from?
Lorna Goodison: I have no idea. I always say, you know, one of the nice things about my life now, because I’m very grateful for all and any attention these stories have been given or my writing has been given, but I used to get punished a lot as a child for daydreaming in school. I had very little interest in what was being taught. [laughs] I spent a lot of my time in my imagination. I think it’s nice that I’m being rewarded for what I used to get punished for.
The Varsity: Is there much of you in your characters? Or do you prefer to imagine somebody entirely different from yourself?
Lorna Goodison: There was a wonderful Jamaican poet called Dennis Scott who sadly died some years ago. He was a marvellous poet and good friend of mine, and I remember him once saying when you begin, when writers first begin, they see through their own eyes, and then, as you develop, you begin to see through windows. I think that’s what happens with most writers. When you begin, the characters you create are fairly close to you. As you grow and you’re more confident as a writer, you create people who go out there in the world. I find it very challenging, and I’m very happy when I can create a character who has nothing to do with me, it’s just a whole person pulled from my imagination.
The Varsity: Are you a more confident writer now?
Lorna Goodison: Okay, let me answer that question this way: Writing started off for me as a very private thing, something I did for myself. I wouldn’t show it to people, and sometimes I used to throw them away, tear them up. But at some point I remember speaking to writing and saying, well, alright, I’m going to go along with this being a writer business, but on condition that I grow and improve. I need to see myself improving as I go along. Let me just say this: If I didn’t think I was becoming better, I would stop. And I would recommend that to anybody. Whatever it is you’re doing, if you’re not getting better at it, then that’s not what you should be doing. So if I never thought I was becoming a better writer, I would throw away my writing implements.
The Varsity: Do you have specific aims with your writing?
Lorna Goodison: Mm-mm [in the negative]. Sometimes, though, I have found I like to make people laugh, or if I touch their humanity on some level. A lot of people wrote to me after Harvey River. One woman told me she was reading it on the train in New York and she was screaming out, laughing out loud. [laughs] I just thought that was wonderful.
The Varsity: Are you self-conscious of yourself as a Jamaican writer? Or self-conscious in how you represent Jamaica?
Lorna Goodison: Somebody was very smart yesterday, and she was saying that she thinks that I’m trying to kind of point Jamaicans to their core values. Maybe that’s what I’m doing, but I hope that I’m not doing it in a didactic, preachy way.
I set out to write what I know to be true. It might not be true now, but it certainly used to be. I know when I was growing up, there were all sorts of stories of people like this, of giving some young child up. They would just go to someone in the street and the person more often than not would have taken the baby.
The Varsity: I’ve read elsewhere that you’re interested in Keats’s views on writing.
Lorna Goodison: Yes.
The Varsity: Do you remember when you first came across his poems?
Lorna Goodison: There were a couple of things. When I was at school, they were very big on the Romantic poets in the Jamaican school system. I remember being given, for example, in an exam—I think it was my O- or A-level exams—“Ode to Autumn.” I remember just being totally blown away by it. I’d never seen the poem before, which was kind of weird. I don’t know why they would just give you a poem like that for an exam. But remember I told you earlier I was always being punished for daydreaming? I remember reading this poem and then seeing Autumn personified as this drowsy woman gazing out across the water, and I just though, I can fully identify with that, being somebody who just couldn’t stop daydreaming.
And then there was a long time when I wasn’t really paying attention to those poems, I suppose. But in the last 20 years I’ve gone back to them, and Keats is a poet of consolation. You draw an enormous amount of strength from him, I do at least, because so much of the poems are about potential, and sometimes you can’t actualize the potential, but you know the potential is there. And imagination. And also because he was so young, and because he had seen so much. He was a poet of enormous experience, and I love that in a voice. I’m not very fond of a voice that speaks out of some abstract place. This guy was talking from seeing much death. I mean, “Ode to a Nightengale” — which I can say whole for you now, if you want — you know, it was written not long after he had nursed his brother Tom, who died from TB. So the poem is palpable, his great grief and experience is just palpable, and I love that sensuous quality of his work.
Also, my cousin Joan about whom I wrote a lot about — I have a collection of poetry called Controlling the Silver, and a lot of them are elegies to her — when she died, she left me her collection of John Keats.
The Varsity: You talk about that voice that Keats achieves. Voice is something that is very important to your work as well.
Lorna Goodison: One of the reasons it takes me so long to write a story is that I have to perfect the voice. I really am one of these people who gets really crazed if I read something and I think, “Nobody would ever say that!” So the voice has to ring true to me. Sometimes it takes me a really long time to just to be able to get that character’s voice and the nuances and the cadences and what they would say. When I’m finished with a story, I can read it and I can read the voice confidently because I worked on everything that character says.
It’s almost as if I have to be the character for a while. I guess that’s Keats again, that’s Negative Capability, you know? I mean, I didn’t set out to do it that way, but that is just how I do it.
For the original interview go to http://thevarsity.ca/articles/44976