Long before Jacob Ross began to spin the prose sagas of his motherland, he was a poet. It was the paradisiacal tropical landscapes of the Caribbean Islands- and particularly his own motherland Grenada- that sang to him, cajoling him to be the chronicler of these virgin lands, first sighted by Columbus in that bright twilight of the 15th century.
Jacob’s father had unfortunately become blind when the writer was still quite tender of age, and young Jacob became his willing escort and interpreter. He preferred the company of the gentle, learned older man and the pleasant, yellowed dryness of books to playing marbles, cricket or football with the other boys. Nonetheless he observed so keenly and retained memories and images so prodigiously that they would well up in later life to become the enduringly beautiful novels and short stories which would make him referred to as possibly “the chief prose stylist of the Caribbean Sea”.
Jacob was in Colombo last week to train a select group of writers, in a special workshop that is part of a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Gratiaen Prize. Organized by the Gratiaen Trust and Commonwealth Writers, the four-day event saw Jacob disseminating know-how of the craft to 13 writers- using his experience not only as a writing tutor and writer, but also as a judge of such prestigious prizes as the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize and the Olive Cook, Scott Moncrieff and Tom-Gallon Literary Awards.
Harking back to his childhood in Grenada, the overtures to the evocative novels he was to produce- his first responses to the primeval beauty of the world around him- were the descriptions of his surroundings that he would faithfully relate to his curious, listening father. He strove to give his parent as three dimensional pictures as he possibly could, weaving in the textures, the colours and the shapes of what undulated all around them.
But his sharp eye would, at the same time, register the other side of Paradise: the poverty, the sharp, sad preference shown to boys over girls by parents, curfews, living under dictatorship and in fear of the very police that was meant to protect them…
A voracious appetite for reading bit into him very early. Grenada had its own Creole which was strongly influenced by English, the country’s official langauge, but also with the tincture of the African, European, and native Indian heritage of the nation. He would savour this sharply pungent Creole alongside the formal, elegant, metered beauty of Chaucer and Shakespeare- imparted at school. Both languages blend in his raconteuring- whether in his bildungsroman Pynter Bender, or in The Bone Readers, the 2016 crime novel that digs into the “sordid underbelly” of the Caribbean’s darker localities.
The writers who really sparked young Jacob’s imagination, however, were the Anglo-Caribbeans. The Nobel prize winning poet Derek Walcott, of St. Lucia, was Jacob’s chief mentor. He taught Jacob how beautiful their Creole could be in poetry, enrapturing him with a sense of its cadences. Walcott’s plays too were woven with beautiful dialogues which was Shakespeare in Creole. Jacob’s own aspirations had been to be a poet, and only a ‘fluke of history’ steered him to different waters. He discovered that each Caribbean island had had its novelist, save Grenada, and this seemed to him a void that had to be filled.
That was the beginning of the end of Jacob’s poetry writing, but the poet himself never disappeared, animating each novel and short story he was to write. Jacob himself has been astounded by people talking of the ‘amazing lyricism’ even in the noir whodunnit (The Bone Readers)- amidst all its raw grittiness. This semi poetic mode of his style is an unconscious part of him, stemming from his eye for the metaphor, the sharp, clearly defined and unusual image, and an unusual way of seeing things and saying things.
Jacob was incessantly fed by Caribbean novelists, including George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul and Michael Anthony. Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners was to teach him that “we can write in Caribbean Creole and still be understood and accepted by a British audience.” Selvon in his novels created a new language that was a merging of English with the Creole element, and this was very illuminating for Jacob.
Jacob, ever the ravenous reader, has evolved a way of reading “through the continents”, and he has now read all significant works to come out of Latin America, North America and Africa. He is in the process of assimilating India. D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy would teach him how to construct a novel; the African Americans like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston would impart a lot as they shared the same heritage as the Caribbeans, and all these writers would give him “a sense of the necessity for a ‘responding’ or a ‘counternarrative’ ”. Reading their stories, he felt they were “mine; but also not mine.” This would inject the most electrifying stimulation to take up the pen to chronicle his own singular experiences.
Jacob slips in here his most seminal advice, which should penetrate into the community of Sri Lankan writers working in English. “The greatest mistake you can make is write your story with an eye on people outside there; writing it for them rather than for your people. First of all the story should have a validity and a truth for your countrymen- then beyond that whoever is interested is fine- but when you are speaking you are not speaking to the English- you are not speaking to a big publisher abroad. You are speaking to your people; about your people.”
After his education in Grenada, Jacob would attend the University of Grenoble. France was to be a culture shock to jolt him profoundly, especially with its very clearly marked racial divisions. But at Grenoble he was also to learn structural linguistics which would enable him to vivisect and gain a clear view of creative writing- and the teaching of ‘narrative craft’- which is the term he prefers over ‘teaching creative writing’.
France was to be followed by Jacob being appointed Director of Cultural Affairs back home in Grenada, a short-lived stint because of the calamitous 1983, when, following the bloody coup against the then President Maurice Bishop, the US armed forces invaded the small island.
Jacob was to escape to London as an exile, but he was assumed to have been a casualty of the violence, and a British publishing house had on the bills a collection of his short stories gathered from manuscripts he had handed to friends. The rather dramatic “death of a young Caribbean writer of great promise” was meant to flash from the blurb. Turning up at the publisher’s alive and well, he would never forget the disappointment he was to cause there. Thankfully, a posthumous collection was not to be Jacob’s first work.
During his first year in Britain, Jacob had been packing boxes in a supermarket before his friends found him a job as an editor in a magazine that focused on art by immigrants in Britain. This would lead to Jacob being placed editor of Artrage, the leading intercultural arts magazine in Britain.
It was after seven years teaching at Goldsmiths, University of London, that Jacob realized he was turning his back ever more firmly on what he had always known to be his vocation. So in order to find time to write, he became a freelance teacher of narrative craft.
Jacob finds that the lessons in structuralism he imbibed makes writing easy; a less mystifying process. The organic approach to writing, where you let the ideas grow in their free course, may seem more appealing in a bourgeois way, but Jacob finds the structured approach much less time consuming and hugely more effective; “you first sit down, and map out the novel. It’s great to be able to think the architecture of the novel and write to that architecture.” He constantly also has to fight the middle class idea of coupling writing inevitably with a ‘muse’, as many still believe that ‘writing can’t be taught’. Jacob points out that, just as in any other art like dancing or piano, the strategies for developing or enhancing creativity in writing can indeed be very successfully taught.
It sometimes amuses him that his debut book Song for Simone, written in the first flush of youth with no conscious skills at all, is still his nation’s favourite book. Obviously this is because it surfaced spontaneously from the brightest years of childhood; stories about children surviving in a hostile world of adults. Perhaps another reason is that that world of the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s does not exist anymore.
Pynter Bender, his bildungsroman, he says, was a love song for his country; “an ode to all her beauty, all her transgressions, all her trauma, all her sublimeness”- while recording the emergence of the island from a feudal society into the 21 century. The Bone Readers, the crime novel that won the Jhalak Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour Prize 2017, also addresses many issues facing modern Caribbean society, including sexualization of society, paedophilia and homophobia.
But the one work he would choose over all others is Tell No One About This (2017), which binds together in one tightly edited volume the most significant of his short stories. Island tales from a writer aged 19 and maturing upto 61, the book narrates 40 years of history of Grenada: the human story of the last fraction of the youngest civilization in the world.
Through all his work, Jacob has never ceased to speak for the underdog, whether it is the coloured population of Britain, poverty stricken Caribbeans, the children, the women of his generation- sadly marginalized- or all the ‘Calibans’ whose voices were never given a chance.
Today, apart from his editorial duties which includes being associate editor of Peepal Press, Jacob tours and lectures on narrative craft extensively across the world. He is delighted with Sri Lanka, ‘so reminiscent of home’, and seems to find it symbolic that the sweetest mango you find in the Caribbean is also called ‘Ceylon’. His readers are keeping their fingers crossed, meanwhile, as he has promised that The Bone Readers would be the first crime novel in his ‘Camaho Quartet’, featuring the young protagonist Michael ‘Digger’ Digson, who shows the promise to become a coloured (and literarily much more elevated) peer for Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.