Earl Lovelace: Written in the rhythm of the Caribbean

Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace talks to Lauren de Beer of Business Day about his new novel and his likely next project, an autobiography.

THE Caribbean is most feted for its calypso, carnival and cricket, but it has also produced a trifecta of award-winning writers, most notably Nobel Prize recipients Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul. Making up the trinity is Earl Lovelace, whose book, Salt, was awarded the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and whose literature has been influential in shaping the world’s perceptions of his home country.

His novel, The Wine of Astonishment, for example, is the story of the spiritual Baptist community that was outlawed by colonial authorities. It has been adopted as “their” book and is also taught in schools for the common entrance exam.

The Trinidadian, now in his mid-70s, was one of the few scribes to have stayed in his homeland when others moved away to continue their writing.

“In a way, I have been writing about trying to keep step with the place, what has been happening at least in my lifetime and even before — factors which influence where we go and what we are becoming,” he says.

There was a whole generation of writers in the 1950s and 1960s that left the Caribbean; writers, he says, who were part of the anti colonial struggle, who spoke on behalf of a Caribbean and on behalf of a people and they dealt with certain themes.

“They demonstrated we were part of the larger world in a way. From outside you can be seen as a colony, as a small place.”

Central to most of Lovelace’s previous books is the theme of struggle and his latest novel, Is Just a Movie (Faber and Faber), is no different. In Trinidad, the 1970s black power rebellion is over and the story follows the trials and machinations of a number of characters dealing with day-to-day living in a post- independence society.

The narrator is King Kala, a disillusioned singer-musician, and the main protagonists his sidekicks Sonnyboy (a fighting, thieving, all-round “badjohn”) and VS Rooplal, a tailor turned gambler. Lovelace weaves their narratives together around the themes of friendship, politics, identity and betrayal.

It’s also a kaleidoscopic celebration of the Caribbean culture and the lives of ordinary people whose smallest actions can have an enormous effect. It’s written in a rhythmic patois that takes no time getting used to and in which the sounds of the carnival and its riot of colours are superbly brought to life.

The book was long time in the making — almost 15 years — which Lovelace puts down to “some challenging aspects. There were certain things I wanted in the book. You want something, and then you have to wrestle with it and then the book decides to write itself.”

He also comments on his computer problems — “I changed my computer. I had a PC and my son said I should get a Mac. He sung that song for a little while and I eventually got it. The Mac is fine if you know what you’re doing, but it is a whole different way of ‘seeing’. I think that had lot to do with me freezing and not knowing exactly where I was. That was a contributing factor.”

He sips at his glass of red wine thoughtfully, then bursts into laugher, something he does regularly.

He returns to the theme of rebellion and his awareness of how it has influenced his writing. “Rebellion isn’t something that began in the 1970s — people have always been rebelling, struggling in wars of liberation. One of the things I was talking about in the book is about a person being seen not as a rebel or as a revolutionary, but as a delinquent. We have viewed the rebel as a delinquent instead of seeing him in political terms, in terms of social deviance. I think a lot of societies encounter this partly because the revolution has not gone forward as well as they thought it would. When I came to SA last, I went to Soweto and I saw some of the housing. People were in these cardboard estates and I always thought afterwards, how did SA deal with that? It’s a difficult situation because it’s almost convenient to see these people as delinquents because society has not been able to deal with solving some of the problems they have been rebelling against.”

He says he spends a fair amount of his time thinking about things and trying to render these thoughts in his fiction. He says his books are close to his thinking about issues and trying to bring some clarity to them. “I try to help people to see themselves more as human. If we understand that we’re human and that we’re also not very smart, we will try to do a little better in the world.”

Poetry plays a significant role in Caribbean life and Is Just a Movie showcases the author as a dab hand at the medium. Having written poetry for several years, he now transposes it into his books.

“I don’t write poetry as such any more, I put it into the fiction. It was useful — as a writer, dealing with poetry is very important, because of the weight of the word and the rhythm. These are things I hope have carried over in my writing.”

With a career spanning 45 years, Lovelace has been living his passion. It’s a vocation for which he says he was destined. Having worked as a proofreader then briefly in forestry, was writing something he always wanted to do?

“Writing was the only thing I could do,” he replies, then bursts out laughing. “It was both the only thing I could do and the best thing I could do.”

He explains that he failed a college exhibition — the opportunity students in the Caribbean have to get a scholarship to go to high school — twice. “Once I’d failed that, it was a terrible thing at the time. But it was the best thing to happen to me because I had to fend for myself and be in Trinidad as a person and not as a scholarship winner, not as a bright boy.”

Five novels and numerous plays, poems and essays later, Lovelace shows no sign of putting down his pen — or declaring war on his Mac, for that matter.

Asked what his future plans are, Lovelace takes another sip of wine, giggles infectiously and says he’s keen to write his autobiography.

“I have a number of things I’m thinking of writing; I have a novel brewing, as well as the autobiography. I’m thinking about how to present it, because it’s not going to be about me anyhow,” he says cryptically.

“I think it will be more successful if I take on an alter ego, make me a fictional character, because then I could see myself better and laugh at myself.

“I think I haven’t seen an autobiography where people laugh at themselves. We take ourselves a little bit too seriously.”

He sits back, takes another sip: “I think I’ll have some more wine; the wine was quite helpful.” And he laughs.

For the original report go to http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/Content.aspx?id=155640

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