Karen Lord: author of a very Barbadian book

Redemption to Indigo is like no other West Indian writing. Robert Edison Sandiford talked to author Karen Lord

Karen Lord at Green Readings 2009, Barbados. Photograph by Dr Adrian L Charles

Kamau Brathwaite calls Redemption in Indigo “beyond the boundary of what we conventionally/conveniently think of as ‘Bajan’, as ‘West Indian writing’”. Nalo Hopkinson says it’s “the impish love child of Tutuola and Garcia Marquez”. Yet it seems to me that this novel is a very Caribbean – a very Barbadian – book in its telling, setting, symbols, and outlook.

I honestly don’t feel equipped to locate the novel. Perhaps I’m too close to it. Perhaps readers, writers and critics are too quick to categorise…not that categorising isn’t helpful, but it can oversimplify things at times.

You’ve said elsewhere that writing was to be the hobby, the life of an academic researcher your true vocation; but that was happily upended when you won first place in the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Endowment competition, Barbados’ most prestigious and lucrative prize for unpublished work.  

The first writing workshop I ever attended was run by Margaret Brito, about eight years ago. I horrified her by declaring blithely that I had no interest in producing literature, that I just wanted to tell stories. Winning the award was both exciting and frightening. I think I avoided the idea of “producing literature” because that sounded like a lot of extra work that needed to be backed up by serious study of English literature. I feared the scrutiny of the “real” writers and critics.

Why speculative fiction, then?

It’s always been my preferred genre as a reader because it tells more than the story that’s on the surface. As to why fantasy, I always write for myself first and foremost. Finding other readers out there who share my taste is a bonus.

The genre seems to have special appeal to a younger generation of Caribbean writers, but in Barbados there has been something of an evolution, if not tradition. Matthew Clarke and Jason Waithe have produced engaging graphic-novel work, and the paintings of Arthur Atkinson and Patrick Foster come to mind in visual arts. Award-winning writer James Carmichael is still a familiar name when discussing contemporary speculative fiction. In his only “conventional” novel, Timothy Callender gave us the mythical How Music Came to the Ainchan People. And some of Kamau’s work may be viewed in this light. Then we’ve got our version of the Anansi stories, our own folktales, legends and myths. Has any of this influenced your writing, particularly of Redemption in Indigo?

Definitely the folktales, legends and myths – the stories and histories my mother told me.  Paul Keens-Douglas on Rediffusion talking about jumbies, duppies and spirits. Edgar Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute for CXC English Lit.

My content comes from every place and every age. Speculative fiction needs a rich and varied pot to draw from. I don’t think any Caribbean writer has influenced my style, but I have to give grateful acknowledgement to many years of listening to Caribbean speakers: storytellers, priests, calypsonians, and poets. And my father, Rudy Lord, is a man frequently called upon to deliver a speech, a eulogy, or a vote of thanks. I listened to him all my life!

Is this why Redemption in Indigo – with its narrator-storyteller’s asides and old-fashioned emphasis on morals – doesn’t seem to be pushing what’s further possible with the Barbadian or Caribbean novel as much as reminding the reader of the genre’s pliability across cultures? A stick used for stirring cornmeal into coucou stands in for a magic wand; there’s reference to Barbados’ indigenous martial art, stickfighting, aka “stick science”; and your narrator challenges the reader to “think” about the real implications of a walking, talking, drinking spider.  

I really couldn’t say. I may have unconsciously been writing to make the book accessible to those who are not heavily into speculative fiction. There’s also the fact that the original folktale has no fantasy elements in it whatsoever. I added all of that as I expanded the story, but I wasn’t inspired to stray too far from the roots.

What does Caribbean speculative fiction offer in terms of content, theme, feeling, and intellectual enquiry that, maybe, other forms of it in the United States, the UK or elsewhere don’t?

Location, language, worldview. It won’t be set in the same places, it won’t be told in the same voice, and it won’t seek the same outcomes. The Caribbean is a beautiful paradox: insular and cosmopolitan, ancient and modern, radical and conservative, accommodating and unforgiving.

You again took the top “Colly” [award] for 2009 with a science-fiction novel-in-stories, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and an excerpt from the follow-up to Redemption in Indigo was published in Bim: Arts for the 21st Century last year. What’s next for you?

I hope to get The Best of All Possible Worlds published, to complete the sequel to Redemption in Indigo and get that published, and then do the necessary promotional work on both. I may try to expand into other areas like screenplays or short stories. However, at the end of the day, if it all doesn’t bring in enough money to live on, I’ll probably shift writing back into the “hobby” column and return to 9-to-5 work.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I read a news report recently that said growing up with a large library of books makes a huge difference to a child’s educational development regardless of whether or not the parents are highly educated. So I want to encourage people to support libraries, book-buying, book-giving, storytelling, literature as art, literature as entertainment, literature as culture and history – everything. Books facilitate critical thinking and a wide scope. If you can’t deal with printed words on a page, get audio books or listen to a storyteller. Literacy is about more than being able to sign your name.

  • Margaret Mariela Consuela Brit

    Hi Karen: I’m surprised that you thought that you horrified me when you attended my workshop. I actually do not recall this. I do remember there were many ways in which your manuscript at that time could be improved – as to be expected, it was just in the early draft stage – and I pointed out a lot of these issues to you. It’s also common for writers to have differences of opinion, but this does not mean you need to make it an occasion for mis-representing someone in the media, and I’m saddened you’ve chosen to do it like this. .