Dr. Leanne Haynes interviews Trinidadian writer Sharon Millar about her recent success, the visual inspiration for her prize-winning short story, ‘The Whale House,’ and the Caribbean literary canon. Here are excerpts with a link to the exclusive interview ‘The Story Arc’ below:
Sharon Millar is a graduate of the Lesley University MFA program and is a past student of the late Wayne Brown. She is the winner of the Small Axe 2012 short fiction competition and the co-winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Prior to this, her work has appeared on several shortlists. She has been published in a wide range of Caribbean publications as well as Granta Online. Her fiction is strongly rooted in landscape and she draws her stories from both place and history. Cemeteries, the rain forest, and old buildings are all sources of inspiration. She lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad with her husband and daughter.
[. . .] LH: You have mentioned that you work visually i.e. you use visuals to stimulate your written output. Can you tell me more about this process? Are there any visuals that directly link to your prizewinning story, The Whale House?
SM: The topography and physical landscape of the small islands that lie off the north coast of Trinidad is different to the mainland. This has always fascinated me. I spent a day at Chacachacare, the abandoned leper colony with all its ruined building. Here I was taken with stairs, and paths, and a great sense of loss and decay. It was some of these images that I took that prompted “The Whale House.”
I took pictures of the old doctor’s house and images of the doors and windows the old nuns’ residence. I also was triggered by the community of women and their sense of ritual when I attended the Hindu River Festival of Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath 2009. I was very moved by the ritual surrounding water. I could see several generations of women gathering in and around the river. The sense of community was palpable and it made me start thinking of the ways in which women live a separate life to men, the secrets they keep, and how water works to heal. After the story had won, I came across the work of Kristian Schmidt, http://kristianschmidt.wix.com/whalesharks. His work really resonated with me because it captured an essence of the story that I had not even been aware I was creating at the time. If I had to say what images best capture my feeling of the story, it would have to be this series.
I am a very visual writer and my pivot point is usually landscape. I mentioned my blog earlier. Initially I set it up to write every day without knowing what I wanted to write about. The formula that worked best for me was to use a visual and try and come at it from a different angle. My style at that time was to shoot with a very shallow depth of field and have just one small area of the image in focus. The fiction works like that as well. One sharp focus and then I move on from there.
[. . .] LH: It is immediately clear at the beginning of ‘The Whale House’ that your home island landscapes of Trinidad play a crucial role in anchoring the material. At the beginning of the story, the landscape is dramatic and dark to match the mood and situation. Was it your aim to try to move past the stereotypical view of the Caribbean as picturesque and idyllic?
SM: I don’t think I was consciously doing this when I began writing the story. And because my Trinidad has never been picturesque and idyllic (who ever sees their home in these terms?), it was not something that I even thought about. But it is a question that I have been asked and I am aware of a certain responsibility in the writing to push against the tropical stereotype. Caribbean stereotyping in literature diminishes all of us who live in the region. Naturally because we are small and the metropolis is large, the Caribbean is often portrayed from the perspective of the outsider’s gaze. Where it becomes more dangerous is when we don’t know how to write ourselves into being and unconsciously mimic the metropolis stance. So in that way, I suppose I did write against the stereotype but the motive was rooted in the maintenance of a certain truth and integrity that I attempted to adhere to in the story.
For full interview, see http://arcthemagazine.com/arc/2013/07/the-story-arc-an-interview-with-sharon-millar/