A Running Tide: Talking to Oonya Kempadoo

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An interview with UWI Today. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

When you read Oonya Kempadoo’s description of the “snuffling and bubbling” Tobago sea, swelling his chest, stretching his arms to the mountains and scratching his white fingernails along the rocks, in Tide Running, you can feel the water lapping at your feet as it creeps on to the shore. You can smell the fresh sea water. You can hear your nanny, your bredda, cousin, tanty and neighbour in the language of the narrative. She’s talking about home, a home that she knows inside and out, from the upsides and the downsides.

Kempadoo is a true Caribbean daughter, “pan-Caribbean,” she says, and she has an extraordinary talent for describing those places in which her heart lies. She was born in the UK to Guyanese parents, grew up in Guyana and has lived in various Caribbean islands throughout her life, including Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia and Grenada.

While Guyana is her homeland, Kempadoo considers Trinidad and Tobago her second home, having lived here for nine years in which she began her career and took her first writer’s steps. Today, she lives in Grenada and has regularly visited our islands, sometimes for as long as a year here and there. She was happy to return when The UWI’s Department of Literary, Communications and Cultural Studies invited her to join its Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programme, as the 2018 Writer-in-Residence.

Here, Kempadoo talks with Serah Acham about her love of reading, writing as a career and an academic pursuit, access to Caribbean literature and what she’s doing to increase that access in Grenada.

What does it mean to you to be The UWI’s Writer in Residence this year?

I was very happy to receive the invitation because, for all the years that I have lived and worked in the arts in Trinidad, I have not connected with UWI. So, to connect with the academic Caribbean in Trinidad is an honour. I’m very happy to have the opportunity to interact with Trinidadian students and see how I can help in any way. Trinidad has been very influential in me beginning to write and in my writing … This for me is really special because, after Guyana, Trinidad is my home and I feel a part [of it] and I know enough about the culture, the language, the complex politics and all of the drama that goes with Trinidad.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I didn’t know that. I started, really, to try it and see if I could do it as a project. I was writing since I was a child. We were home schooled (in Guyana) and, every day, writing or some form of creative work, whether it was painting or poetry, was encouraged by my mother … I never aspired to be a writer. I thought I would become a visual artist and that was what I went to art school to do. From that, I thought: I’m not quite comfortable spending four years studying western art. I want to come back to the Caribbean and find out what that art form is. Luckily, I came back to Trinidad and came straight into Carnival arts. I was working with [Peter] Minshall then. From the visual and performing arts, I tried writing … [I began] really, through my love of reading. I’ve always loved reading … So, wanting to see if I can write like the stuff I read was my first challenge. I had the time and support to do that [then], so I approached it as a project first. I told myself, if I write, I have three stories in my head – three novels that I think I could write. If I don’t get published by the third one, then I will go back to my art. Getting the first one published was very encouraging, and I still have only three published novels, but I know I will be writing for a long time.

For creatives, it can be difficult to find the time to devote to work that may not immediately – or ever – supply a pay check. How have you been able to accomplish that? What’s your advice to writers who’d like to become successful at their craft, but need to focus on other work for money?

It’s an eternal challenge. If you really stop and think about it, you would go towards something more commercial. I was working in graphic art and advertising. Because that work was slow – I was freelancing – I tried writing as a project. Now, [being] successfully published, even if you get good reviews, doesn’t necessarily mean that the sales add up. Unless it’s a best seller, basically, you’re not going to make a lot of money – enough to sit down and write the next book without doing other work. Continuing to freelance, doing research [and] consulting work has allowed me to earn on projects and then write in between.

But it’s very stressful because it’s not secure and if you’re not constantly seeking the next job or the next contract, you start to fall out of the loop … That’s why many writers go into teaching, because you have a secure income and it supposedly gives you the time to write … A lot of successful writers are teachers or professors. I chose not to go that route, but it makes it that much more fragile. Hence the grey hairs and I stay slim!

I found, over the years, [that] because I continued to want to write, or do some form of creative work, it’s a choice any artist has to face. Why do you need to do this thing? How do you find a way in your life to do it that doesn’t compromise you to the point where you’re starving? And some artists do make that choice. It’s a really personal, but artistic, challenge that goes deeper than what you’re writing, as to why you’re writing.

Why do you need to write?

When you find something that you do better than anything else and it doesn’t feel like work – it’s better than work – that’s, to me, your gift, something that you can use to add meaning to your life. It’s the best tool that you can use to make an impact, to communicate, to contribute to where you’re living. And, if you realise that skill or tool, why not?

How important is literature to a society and to the individual?

To me, apart from non-fiction, literature documents our journeys, our connections to the invisible, mixed with our past, our culture, our heritage. It’s [such] a wonderful form of art that, like I can’t imagine the world without paintings and visual art, I can’t imagine the world without literature. We naturally tell stories, whether in song or in praise, and that’s where it came from. We have a need to communicate with others, [to] entertain each other, [to] tell significant tales, [give] warnings, provoke significant thoughts, project ideas … It really does more than just increase the skill of literacy. It makes us see how human … spiritual … creative we are. It reflects us in all the magnificent ways that we exist. And what reading does, that’s so different from TV, film [or] visual art, is that when you read, you create the scene in your head. Each person reads the same thing and you each have a different visualisation … [and] voice in your head while you read it. And that’s based on your own experience … whatever you’ve seen, whatever you can imagine. So, the individuality of literature and how that’s appreciated by individuals, for me, is a fantastic thing and that’s why I still love reading. I’ve always enjoyed sharing that joy with others … so I’ve always collected books and, through collecting books, I’ve started a little library in Grenada, with a Pentecostal church and a youth collection.

Can you share more about that?

There’s no national library, so with the Mount Zion Full Gospel Revival, and Groundation Grenada, [which is] a social action collective and LGBTQ activist organization, we started The Grenada Community library. That serves as the public library in St. George’s in Grenada. Seeing people coming together seeking books, sharing great experiences about books, for me, is my biggest joy right now.

Do a lot of people come into the library?

Yes. We now have close to 3000 members, which is against what we assume – that young people are not interested in reading. It shows that there is still a demand for physical books and I think what the young people – it’s 70 per cent teens and children – really enjoy about the library is the contact with other people who like books … the community. We just received a wonderful West Indian collection. We’re going to launch it in March.

Now, writers have the opportunity to pursue their craft as an academic qualification with the MFA degree. Some argue that a degree is not necessary to become a successful writer. What are your thoughts on that?

I feel a little kind of hypocritical, almost, accepting this residency. I’m just going on record saying that, and I hope to have this discussion with my students. It’s for a reason to do with tertiary education and the disproportionate value of that compared to [the issue of], how do we prepare as a sustainable state or island? What is our future? Yes, you can learn the craft of writing. You can be trained and you can nurture that in the environment, with the structure and the rigour of the study of writing. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be a writer at all, but it helps some and if you have that opportunity, if that is accessible to you, then fine.

If it’s not I don’t think that you’re less of a writer because you did not have that training. And all the countries where this is not available still can and do produce fine writing. So it’s, I think, a mixed blessing. But the whole education system and structure is such a part of our hiring system. Therefore if the actual degree will help you, in terms of making a living as a writer, then fine.

Is having an MFA degree helpful?

Yes, if you want to teach. Many [writing-related] teaching positions are asking for a PhD in writing. So the qualification, the level of it, is increasing as we have more and more tertiary educated people on the market. Actually, the MFA growth has changed and impacted some of the publishing structure as well. Publishers now scout directly from MFA programmes.

Would you recommend an MFA to aspiring writers who can access it?

I think if you can afford it and, particularly, if you intend to support yourself by teaching or in a position that values that MFA, yes. I would like to be able to ignore the significance of certificates, argue that artists should not have to comply with that system of education … [But] if the work itself speaks, then that voice should be heard. I am a strong advocate for people who are disadvantaged in any way and don’t have that opportunity, and there are many who are very creative. So I don’t think it makes you a better writer but it definitely gives you an advantage.

For some people, it helps, because of the structure [and] the discipline … the discussion, community and support to exercise how you’re processing stuff, how you can edit, how you can make something better, what works what doesn’t work. I did not seek that support while I was writing. I remember going to my first workshop, which was [with] Wayne Brown, in Jamaica. He was doing some workshops with some students there. I was visiting as a guest writer and I thought … it’s nice to have the community, the support and the exercise that helps with the discipline.

How important are events like Campus Literature Week and Bocas?

I think they’ve done a huge amount for Caribbean literature and for readers, in terms of the awareness of literature and the joy of reading. I see Bocas as significant and relevant. For many young people, to meet a writer, to connect a book to a person, a possibility of something that they can do, is really important – in the islands, particularly, because books have often been foreign … disconnected from people we know or something that you could aspire to. So the festivals, the literary events, readings [or] anything that brings more people into contact with books and the appreciation of literature, I support and I really enjoy. I’ve gone to quite a few festivals throughout the Caribbean and just for local people to realise that we have writers, locally, regionally [and] internationally, and [make] the connection [that it’s] a possibility or just something that is just more accessible, is a tremendous contribution.

Can we look forward to a new novel in the near future?

I do have a non-fiction narrative that I’ve been working on for a while. I keep putting it down and picking it up again, because it is, not just challenging in the content itself – it’s a woman’s story of abuse – but in terms of supporting myself as a writer and what I choose to work on next related to income, and how much time it will take. So I’m more focused on [my] multimedia project than writing another novel right now, but that will come.

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