NPR’s Tell Me More‘s summer reading series highlights authors from the Caribbean. Host Michel Martin talks to Oonya Kempadoo, whose novel All Decent Animals, gives readers look into life in Trinidad that is both lovely and tough.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin. It is summer; and maybe you’ve already had your dash to the beach, or maybe you’re just getting ready to go. If you’re looking for something to pick up while you’re lounging at the shore, you are in luck. We are kicking off our summer reading series. We’re calling it “Island Reads.” And for the next few weeks, we will be speaking with authors of Caribbean descent.
And thank you very much because you helped us pick the selections by giving us your ideas via Facebook and Twitter. And we’re going to get started today with a trip to Trinidad. In her latest novel “All Decent Animals,” Oonya Kempadoo brings the island to life during the days and weeks leading up to Carnival – days of music and celebration with maybe a bit of debauchery, just before Lent. But the novel isn’t just about bright costumes, sun-drenched beaches and laid-back island life. It also deals with significant issues like class, race, sexuality and AIDS. And Oonya Kempadoo is with us now. Welcome.
OONYA KEMPADOO: Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a real pleasure and privilege.
MARTIN: What was the inspiration for this novel?
KEMPADOO: It was my own experience with Carnival in Trinidad. I left Guyana to go to Europe to study the arts and came back to the Caribbean to find what that art form might be, and ended up working in Carnival and the whole sort of behind-the-scenes mess that goes with it.
MARTIN: And speaking of behind-the-scenes mess, I think everybody who’s read the book already has commented on the – kind of the lushness of the description. But all of the descriptions aren’t exactly out of a tourist brochure. You describe cars crawling like shining lice. And, as we mentioned, you talk about a lot of things that tourists don’t necessarily want to talk about. Why those things, too? Is it the idea, if you’re going to tell it, tell it all? Or, what’s your idea…
MARTIN: …Behind those descriptions?
KEMPADOO: Well, I think any picture is incomplete if you’re only going to look at the bright side and the beautiful things. And the whole – one of the major themes of this is, how do you live with the ugly parts of what you love.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading a little bit for us?
KEMPADOO: Not at all. This is a scene from J’Ouvert, which is the dawn of Carnival that breaks the carnival morning into the days of celebration. Jab jab devils, crawling out from homes from ghetto halls and inky air, gather on the street corners with biscuit tins. Mothers wake their young ones. Teenagers out already and drunk, armed with black oil and whistles. J’Ouvert morning is here. Fat, finished feet change into old sneakers. Hands pull ragged t-shirts and shorts from car trunks, rippin’. Baby oil slathering. Skin greasing. Women tuck hair under caps. Men fix wigs before waves of footsteps tramp through sleeping side streets. And the bands of vagabonds, pagans and cursed are gathering at 4 a.m.. They laugh loud and share bottles of spirits. Liquor fires voices and the last few sleeping wake and stare. Independence Square is a deadly magnet, pulling trucks full of steel-pan sound systems or singers in the hoards of devils – mud, cocoa, paint-covered bodies and lost souls. Jab molassie, crude oil rhythm. A guttural, primal scream is building, coming from the pavement cracks, the bellies of rats, the white drum spittle of the mad woman, from the city itself and its demons.
MARTIN: Carnival is a character in a way, isn’t it? Just like Port-of-Spain is a character.
KEMPADOO: It is. It is. And it was challenging for me to write about Port-of-Spain as a character and Carnival as a sort of characteristic of that character because it’s that sort of fiery and flamboyant trait of Trinidad, which Trinidadians have, too, and are proud of. And it’s a beautiful part, but it’s a very sort of volatile and very busy thing, too. So I tried to use it to show the characteristics of the country of a whole and the people itself.
MARTIN: Now, as you mentioned before, you’re not from Trinidad. You’re actually from…
KEMPADOO: No. Guyana.
MARTIN: Do you feel like Trini-to-the-bone now yourself, or is it – do you still feel you have the detachment of the observer?
KEMPADOO: I feel – I claim to be Caribbean, and with that, I become an outsider wherever I live in the Caribbean, but I am a belonger at the same time. So it’s that sort of belonging, but not belonging. That type of thing gives me a sort of outside position and an onlooker point of view, which is helpful for writing.
MARTIN: You know, I was interested in that whole consciousness of being from everywhere, from nowhere, from – you know, that sense, too, but let’s hold that conversation for now.
MARTIN: There are a lot of characters in the novel. They come from a lot of different backgrounds, you know – Cambridge-educated intellectuals, taxi drivers, you know, house boys. The novel opens with the arrival of Ata, or Atalanta. Who is she, and what role do you think she plays in the novel?
KEMPADOO: Again, related to my own experience with the Caribbean. But a modern Caribbean woman, I think, who maybe connects to the Caribbean diaspora person to – of feeling at home in a society in the Caribbean today, but still a little bit displaced and searching for what is her own identity and her own sense of creativity – where is that from? So it’s, I think, a combination of that diaspora personality and a modern Caribbean person living in the region today.
MARTIN: One of our producers was noting that if this novel were set in the U.S., these people might not interact in the same way that they do in the novel.
KEMPADOO: That’s what an island…
MARTIN: Do you think that’s true?
KEMPADOO: Yeah, absolutely. And I find – I mean, I love Grenada for that reason – to the scale of the society. The size of the island brings all the classes together in a way that you can interact with daily. That’s not necessarily so easy to do in a big city with such a big population. You know, in the one bar, you would find the magistrate and the guy who was on the stand, and you know, somebody – a hotel worker. It’s a small place, so it forces the classes and the divides together.
MARTIN: And I just wanted to – for people aren’t familiar with that – Grenada being where you live now. That’s not special to the novel. That really is the way life feels, that the way it is lived, you know.
KEMPADOO: And I think, too, the middle-class, and the sort of various classes of the Caribbean, it’s not maybe what we have seen together in one story many times in a modern society. But it is any sort of modern Caribbean island or society, really.
MARTIN: You know, we often use terms in the U.S. that people don’t use for themselves. Like, we often use the term, like, Latino, right, or African-American, when people themselves don’t necessarily call themselves that. They might call themselves Jamaican, right…
MARTIN: …Or Trinidadian. So this idea, though, that Atalanta has – and I think people will attribute to you as a person who is either at home everywhere and nowhere. Do you feel that that’s a more common sensibility now?
KEMPADOO: Absolutely. Thank you for asking. No, I think that’s a discussion that’s evolving in the Caribbean now, and it increases when we have interaction with returnees to the region, which is happening quite a bit. And even though the tradition and the urge to claim a national identity is there, often when you ask, well, what’s your – you know, where’s your family from – you know, we are made up of – my parents are from Barbados – or one parent is from Barbados, the other is from Jamaica. I was born in Grenada. So we have a combined heritage and people acknowledge that now, but I think are not often comfortable claiming that broad regional identity.
MARTIN: Speaking of uncomfortable subjects – I hope I’m not giving anything away – but one of the central characters in the novel – is it OK that I’m bringing this up, Fraser?
MARTIN: Is it OK? All right ’cause I don’t want to be a spoiler and have you be mad at me. Is that – Fraser is a gay man who’s dying of AIDS, and, as we know, that can be a very taboo subject. And I was wondering why you felt the call to include this story line and this character in this novel.
KEMPADOO: Again, I think it’s a part of our societies that’s not acknowledged or dealt with publicly very easily, and yet, it is a big, you know, a vibrant part of our society, too. And particularly, maybe if something is a little bit taboo, makes we want to go there a little bit more, so. But you know, working in the arts in Trinidad, I knew many, many people who died of that illness. And to me, it was an intimate way of showing the complexity and the conflict and the hypocrisy of a society that has a different sort of reputation from the outside – you know of the homophobia associated with Caribbean identity. And just digging that up a little bit and raising questions and showing a different part and a different lifestyle, different ways of living in the Caribbean that exists.
MARTIN: One of the – your character Ata says at one point, people want convenient sweetness. And perhaps, that’s often what people want, you know, with fiction. But the reviewers have all talked about the lushness of the writing, even as difficult things are being discussed. I know that artists hate this question, but you know I’m going to ask it anyway. What would you hope people will draw from the book? Particularly, people who, you know – I’m thinking people will respond to the work differently depending on how much they know Trinidad, how much, you know – how much they know Carnival. But what would you hope people would draw from this novel?
KEMPADOO: I would hope that it creates a little bit of intrigue and curiosity about the place and the complexity, the lifestyles, the way of life in Trinidad, that it raises questions and makes you want to find out a bit more. So I hope it sort of draws you into that world, immerses you in it a little bit and makes you want to know a little bit more, or get it straight. I could never get it straight, but…
MARTIN: Well, what’s next for you? We want to know a little bit more about you. What’s next for you?
KEMPADOO: Well, I’m just here on my Fulbright Scholarship to Naugatuck Valley Community College and Capital Community College in Connecticut.
MARTIN: Congratulations on the Fulbright.
KEMPADOO: Thank you.
MARTIN: That’s quite an honor.
KEMPADOO: I’m very, very honored and happy to be here. The team seems very nice. So I’m here to work on my new project, which is a sci-fi multimedia project, and completing my nonfiction narrative that’s a story based in Grenada, also. But I’ll be teaching Caribbean literature and creative writing. So I’m really looking forward to the interaction with readers and writers and the world of literature in the U.S. because I’ve been very isolated from that, living in the Caribbean.
MARTIN: Oonya Kempadoo’s latest novel, her third, is “All Decent Animals.” She was kind enough to join us from WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. Oonya Kempadoo, thank you so much for joining us.
KEMPADOO: Thank you again for having me. It’s my pleasure.
MARTIN: And next week, in part two of our series “Island Reads,” we will speak with author Andrea Stuart about her book “Sugar in the Blood.” She was able to trace the roots of her family back to a 16th-century sugar plantation in Barbados. The book talks about slavery, empire and all that goes with that. We hope you’ll just us for that conversation with Andrea Stuart next week.
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