Brandon McIvor discusses belonging and identity

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Tevin Gall (Loop T&T) features Japan-based, Trinidad-born writer Brandon McIvor.

While studying English literature and creative writing in the US, Trinidad-born author Brandon McIvor uncovered a passion for writing about back home, handling themes of identity, displacement and connectedness to one’s homeland and its culture.

His short stories, with their relatable characters, offer an intimate look at the immigrant experience and have drawn much attention, leading him to be shortlisted twice for the Small Axe Literary Prize–in 2016 and 2018–and for the coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2020. (Read his Commonwealth Prize submission, “Finger, Spinster, Serial Killer” here.)

The Diego Martin native spoke about his curious trajectory as a writer of Caribbean stories, trained in New York and currently based in Ehime, Japan.

“My sister,” he said, referring to Where There Are Monsters author, Breanne McIvor (herself a shortlisted finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize), “used to tell me a lot of stories. The siblings are only a few years apart, and after a childhood of storytelling and Breanne taking up literature and writing at university, McIvor became somewhat inspired. “It was as easy as looking up to her, seeing her journey and saying, ‘I like this as well.’”

After school, McIvor returned home and joined forces with his sister to hone their craft. “We started a little writing circle; we would go to these open mic nights and perform things [and] workshop each other’s [writing].” Among the group were authors Andre Bagoo and Caroline Mackenzie, who both also went on to be shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

A desire for a change of pace led McIvor to Japan, where he worked as an English teaching assistant as part of the JET Programme, which sources native speakers from around the world to give lessons to students at primary and secondary school levels. One year quickly turned to six, and now the 30-year-old calls Japan home.

McIvor addressed how living abroad brings him back home where his writing is concerned, explaining that many writers who live abroad make their home country the subject of their work. He recalled some advice given to him in a writing class some years ago to “write what you know about.”

He spoke of his perspective and that of other artists creating about home from abroad as a unique one. “You’re a Trinidadian but you’ve been living abroad…so you have this identity issue, where you have one foot in this world and one in another.”

Although many Caribbean writers deal with identity, each treatment of the theme is a creature of its very own, seen through the lens of different realities. It is in this variety that

McIvor learnt to carve out a voice of his own to respond to the gaps he felt were present in Caribbean literature. “Sometimes you’re reading a story and there’s a hole,” he said. “You tell yourself that this type [of story] doesn’t exist, so I’ll create it myself.”

It can be argued that personal identity is constant, but so is the desire to adapt to the place in which one finds oneself, and it can be tricky to work out where one ultimately stands while negotiating a new identity.

“The more you try to establish yourself as a New Yorker, the more you lose something as well [and] you don’t want to lose yourself as a Trinidadian,” he said. He spoke of noticing aspects of his accent changing gradually, or the fear that the Trinbagonian slang he used might become outdated if he remained out of touch for too long.

“You’re fighting for these two identities to get validation in the place where you are and to hold onto what you had in the first place, where your home is,” McIvor explained.

This battle is the basis of McIvor’s short story “Rum Shelf”, which won him the first runner-up prize at the 2021 Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival’s Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean. (Another Trinbagonian, Akhim Alexis copped the first prize.) The plot centres on two men: Marlon, who has “dreams of climbing the ladder from working in a supermarket in Arima to a bigger job in Arima and then to New York” and Rocco, whose notions of success and contentment are less lofty, and involve him tasting the top shelf liquor at a bar they frequent.

“You can think of the two aspects of the character as the two sides to a heart that you might have yourself,” McIvor said. “Wanting to…achieve things and [being] content with what you have, the special things around you.”

As the two men “rely on each other as an emotional anchor”, the story explores the immigrant experience and what it means to be rooted in one’s home country. McIvor was able to draw some of Marlon’s experience from his own as a Trinbagonian trying to at once retain his identity and assimilate into New York life.

He acknowledges that the feeling of being a foreigner in an ethnically homogenous country like Japan is entirely different from that of being a non-native in New York.

“If you’re in a place like New York, you can blend in,” he said. “In Japan, it’s very obvious that I’m a foreigner.” He referred to the sensation of being a foreigner in Japan as a “continuum”, linked to how connected one feels to the culture, and how long one has lived there and immersed oneself in it.

“The short answer is I don’t feel Japanese, but I do feel like Japan is my home,” he said. “I would consider myself as more of a Trinidadian living in Japan, which is a separate identity.”

The author has been successfully navigating these matters of identity, acceptance and comfort, not only in his writing, but in his personal life. McIvor is as settled as ever in Ehime, where he recently got married and bought a home. He continues to divide his time between writing and teaching English.

McIvor has in the works, a handful of short stories and is currently also writing his first full-length novel.

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