Oonya Kempadoo: “I keep writing even when I’m trying not to”

Guyanese writer Oonya Kempadoo on the long gestation of her third novel, and her passion for social development work

Photograph by Greg Bal

Growing up in Guyana, I did live in a village like the one [my first novel] Buxton Spice is set in, and the political background was a huge influence on how I viewed the world: the daily life around me, the characters.

And I guess because of the way we were home-schooled with a sort of international curriculum, I did grow up scrutinising the world, trying to see what shouldn’t be seen. I’m really grateful for the novel way in which we were educated, and the sort of international perspective instilled by my parents, which gives me a feeling that I can live anywhere, go anywhere, do whatever I want to do. I also think it instilled in me an obligation to contribute to society wherever I am. It was almost a sort of a hippie socialist way to be brought up.

Communication around sexuality is a huge area that we skirt around in the Caribbean, but I didn’t write to make a statement about that in my writing. It may have to do with wanting to stay true to the child’s voice and stay true to some of my own background, being brought up encouraged to discuss and debate and talk about things in a very liberal and experiential way. I think sex has been explored more in fiction since Buxton Spice was published, but it has been dealt with in more politically correct language. At that time, I wanted to read more work from the Caribbean that dealt with contemporary Caribbean issues and unromanticised life.

My second novel, Tide Running, was published in 2001, and I was working on All Decent Animals back then. I put it down because I felt this was a bigger novel than I could write as a third novel. But I think mostly I took writing a little bit for granted. Maybe I didn’t have enough respect for it, and I wanted to contribute in a more direct way to Caribbean development through social development consultancy. So I started working on development projects.

I was also still trying to balance the pressure of dealing with a parallel career to earn an income from, at the same time as writing — because each career takes a certain amount of commitment to do well. It got to the point in my consultancy work where I felt I needed to choose between writing and social development research work. And I had to choose writing, even though it made my life more difficult.

Eventually, in 2010, I put down all other work and came back to finish All Decent Animals. Of course, I am very, very intrepid about what it’s like for other people! I have accepted that I will continue to write, because I keep writing even when I’m trying not to. So I continue to strive to find creative ways to bring fiction writing to social development.

With my new projects, I want to tap into schools and environmental agencies and projects, and also explore the ways in which Caribbean Creole English is dealt with in the schools and with adult literacy. That is really what I want to work towards: becoming more involved in education and social development policy-making, because those forums don’t usually involve artists. I do think that as a society, even though my work is valued in the tertiary system as a text, writers are often seen as artists. And artists are often connected with entertainment, and seen as not scientific and not affecting evidence-based decisions.

Ti Marie, my next book, is sort of halfway done. It’s not a hugely long book. I hope to be able to complete it in August, because I just got word that I’ve been awarded a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence in the United States later this year. I’ll be working with two community colleges with a big ethnic minority population, working parents, etc. I don’t know how much writing time I will actually have, but I will be able to do some networking and research, which is the first phase.

But I can’t multitask — not with fiction writing, no. It takes such a huge head-space just to get back into the characters, to get back into the language. I still write the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and then typing is the first edit. I want to be as true as I can to the character, the setting, the detail; with sights, sounds, touch, tastes.

Which book was most difficult to write? Each new piece of work is something unto itself, so there is no answer to that question. I think that’s the challenge of writing: you’re expanding and pushing boundaries as you go along. You really are pushing yourself and your imagination to new places.

But with All Decent Animals, what was even more challenging for me than with the other novels was that I’ve attempted to portray Port of Spain as a parallel character. It’s a bit like my relationship with Trinidad, where you love a lot of it and you hate some parts of it, and a lot of it is like a tragicomedy. It’s not a conventionally structured novel. So it was quite difficult, and at one point I couldn’t decide if I was writing about Port of Spain or if I was writing about the story of these human characters! ’Cause Port of Spain gets you like that.