The excitement of writing: Oonya Kempadoo

Simon Lee meets writer Oonya Kempadoo

Oonya with son. Photograph courtesy Oonya KempadooPhotograph by Jim RudinPhotograph by Jim RudinPhotograph courtesy Oonya KempadooWorking at home in Grenada. Photograph by Jim RudinYoung Oonya (right) and friends. Photograph courtesy Oonya Kempadoo

Even in polo shirt and shorts, she looks more like a model than a writer. Tall and svelte, with a face that mirrors her mixed Caribbean ancestry (Amerindian, African, Indian, European, Chinese), Oonya Kempadoo has both the name and photogenic presence that might have taken her to the catwalks and glossy pages of the world. Except she doesn’t like having her photo taken, and anyway, she’s already a literary star.

In the next few months her latest novel All Decent Animals will be launched by the English publisher Picador, who also now publish the work of another Caribbean-born star, Nobel laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul. While Naipaul has spent most of his literary career outside of the region, Kempadoo has made the conscious decision to remain, making her something of an anomaly among the new generation of Caribbean writers, most of whom are metropolitan based.

Her third novel, set in Trinidad and London, deals, among other things, with how illness and death impact on relationships, “how these change one’s perspective of a character and the difficulty of truthfulness.” Yet, if this sounds too dark for prospective readers, there’s always Kempadoo’s bubbling sense of humour and a vibrancy of both imagery and Creole English that even the most cynical of metropolitan critics find irresistible.

 

In All Decent Animals, Kempadoo also examines Trinidad’s obsession with carnival, “a parallel for Trinidad’s tragi-comic situation, with its mix of creativity and wastage”, as well as “the ‘jokey’ politics”, none of which she expects will endear her to the islanders.

Some Trinidadians have not forgiven Naipaul for the incisive insights he gave into island society in The Middle Passage, and Kempadoo already jokes about not being able to revisit Trinidad once the book comes out. In her short literary career she’s grown accustomed to the defensive parochialism and hypocrisy of some islanders. Her work is rapidly reaching beyond the sterile self-congratulating celebration of past identity that passes for official culture, towards a provocative oversight of the modern Caribbean in all its complexity.

What is amazing is that Kempadoo only began writing seriously in 1997. In 1998, Buxton Spice, her first novel, attracted a bidding frenzy among London literary agents and publishers while still a manuscript. On publication it became an instant success, receiving the kind of reviews on both sides of the Atlantic that herald the arrival of fresh new talent: “a brilliant achievement, precise, moving, poetic . . . The prose is moist, natural, raucously alive, each sentence fantastically rhythmic and right . . .  This first novel makes Kempadoo a name to watch.”

Buxton Spice charts the emerging sexuality of narrator Lula and her girlfriends in a Guyanese village during the Forbes Burnham dictatorship.  Kempadoo’s uninhibited and humorous treatment of childhood and pre-pubescent sexuality is undoubtedly erotic, but not in the studied fashion of Nabokov’s Lolita. It works because it is presented from a child’s point of view.

But the eroticism is only one of the features that kept Buxton Spice on the London best-seller list throughout 1999, took the author on European reading tours, and led to French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew translations. The language, landscape and lifestyle of the greater Caribbean (to which Guyana historically and culturally belongs) is celebrated in the novel with the kind of exuberance that hasn’t been seen in anglophone writing from the region since the novels of Sam Selvon in the late 1950s.

The juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the menace of a brutal political dictatorship also raises the book out of the tropical childhood genre. Kempadoo was initially bemused by her success. “I thought I would have to try my hand at three books before getting one published”, she says, “I can’t even think of myself as a writer. It’s not something you think of earning your living from.”

In the notoriously hard and quirky world of publishing, which drove Nobel prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez to the brink of suicide (after 15 years of writing, 100 Years of Solitude was his fifth and as far as he was concerned parting shot at success: “Either this book will be my big breakthrough or I’ll blow my brains out”), Kempadoo is a refreshing voice and success story. A lot of that, and luck, has to do with her personal style and sense of humour, which does not allow her to take herself too seriously.

 

I caught up with her one morning on the patio of her house, high above St George’s harbour in Grenada. Despite her time on the literary circuit, she’s uncomfortable with the idea of addressing writers’ workshops and still insists: “I don’t want to get too involved in the intellectual side of writing.” Although she’s “always read”, Kempadoo makes it clear: “I had no formal training in literature”. As for being a Caribbean writer, her response is: “I’m interested in the humorous and sensual side of people wherever they are.”

Kempadoo talks with the same mixture of enthusiasm and mischief that characterises her writing. Looking back at her second novel Tide Running, which is set in Tobago and whose human drama focuses on an interracial love triangle, she comments: “For me now it’s unsatisfactory. If I did it again it would be different.” She then proceeds to make the kind of throwaway statement that would have “serious” writers tearing out their hair: “I don’t work and work at it, you lose the spark and it becomes a different story. Go on to the next one. The more you do it, the more you learn.”

If this sounds casual and her success infuriatingly easy, when Kempadoo talks of her past it becomes apparent she’s been practising her craft for years. “Looking back I was always writing little bits since I was a child, which was really encouraged by my Mum,” she recalls.

Oonya was born in England, to Guyanese parents, in 1966. When the family returned to Guyana in 1970 it was her teacher mother who laid the foundations of her writing career: “She (mother) ran an alternative school downstairs in our house to keep us at home to avoid the Common Entrance stupidness. She devised her own curriculum using books from America and the UK.” Besides PE sessions of yoga on the seawall and practical maths in the garden, “she emphasised creative writing.”

Kempadoo soon discovered “the sense of freedom in expressing your own view of the world”, while her mother’s use of Caribbean literature in the classroom revealed “the link between literature and the environment and my own powers of observation.”

Kempadoo remembers comparing characters in V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street with those in her home village “when I was nine or ten.” By the time she was 15 she had written sketches of “the most notable characters” in Buxton Spice. At 17 she went to Holland to study art, but found herself “missing the vibrancy and climate of the Caribbean” and returned “to decide from this end which field to work in.” Another deciding factor in her return was “the challenge of what’s possible in a new society.”

Settling in St Lucia in 1985 crystallised Kempadoo’s love of the Caribbean sea and landscapes. “Trees and landscape are necessary for me. When I saw the blue sea in St Lucia and put it together (with the landscape) I thought, why would you give that up and go and live in a city?” As if to add emphasis, a cruise ship down in the harbour sounds its horn, drawing the eye over the red fish-scale roofs and church towers of elegant St George’s to the sea beyond and the green hills of the south coast.

A country girl, Kempadoo finds city anonymity and lack of communication “disturbing”. For her, the microcosm of island and village life offers far more possibility of interacting with individuals and a wider range of people than in a city, and “it’s more humane.”

As with other Caribbean writers — from Wilson Harris to Aimé Cesaire and Derek Walcott — the sea and land play a major role in Kempadoo’s writing. In Tide Running, the sea assumes the importance of a major character and is the central motif, unifying plot and themes.

In St Lucia, along with teaching, Kempadoo began developing her “commercial art skills” of screen-printing and painting T-shirts. Her 1987 marriage to a Lucian did not survive, and she left for Trinidad with their son in 1991.  She’d passed through Trinidad as a 12-year-old and had told herself: “This is a place for adults, running they mouth; TV, fast cars, nightlife. As a country girl I decided I’d come back as an adult.”

In Trinidad, where the population is as mixed as she is, Kempadoo worked as a freelance graphics and fabric designer, painted banners and T- shirts and worked with Peter Minshall, the doyen of carnival designers. During this period she also met her second husband, an Englishman, and developed a highly creative picture workbook for kids, which she piloted to the delight of pupils at the community school of the north coast fishing village of Matelot.

 

It was when Kempadoo went to live in Tobago in 1996 that she “took up writing”. At this stage she had no plans to make money from it: “It wasn’t the objective. I’d always thought I had to do something with my hands, craft or art.” But she still had the raw material in her teenage notebooks, the habit of observation learnt with her mother and the urge to capture some of the vibrancy of Caribbean language and lifestyle: “I love how the different Caribbean peoples have taken English and made it work for them, often changing it beyond recognition.”

Within three months she’d completed the first draft of Buxton Spice, which she readily admits is “semi-autobiographical, although I’m not telling you which parts.” The editing and re-arranging took much longer, but with her husband’s help she was able to negotiate the labyrinth of London literary agents and publishers and emerge as one of 1998’s literary sensations.

The writing of Tide Running, based on her Tobago experience but written when she moved to Grenada in 1998, presented Kempadoo with new challenges. For her it’s “far less autobiographical” than Buxton Spice, although two of the main characters in the interracial love triangle are a Caribbean woman and her older English husband.

The process of writing her second book also brought her the realisation: “I’m only coming to terms with what I’m trying to do.” While she was writing, Kempadoo says: “I was looking at the dynamics between characters and thought that, in literary terms (the book) was light, but having written it, I find it’s darker.”

The love triangle with the young Tobagonian Cliff continues Kempadoo’s unflinching exposition of Caribbean sexuality which, along with the issue of race, is something she’s committed to dealing with, even at the risk of being ostracized by small-island societies. “Generally, Caribbean people are either seriously concerned with slave history or ethnic and gender worries. The rest just like to party and lime. Hence the reason for me being as honest as possible even if it makes me more of an alien here.”

Kempadoo’s take on sex is: “You can’t just look at the nice side, there’s the kinky side too”. Which accounts for some of the erotic scenes in Buxton Spice, and for the issues of sexploitation in tourist destinations, the age difference and racial power play raised in Tide Running.

She’s all too aware that the obverse of the Caribbean “up front approach” to sex —  where it’s a “natural response”, and sexual interaction is encoded in body, spoken language and the lyrics of calypso and dancehall — is the dark area of abuse and incest.

This may be a side of paradise not exposed in tourist brochures. Nevertheless it is part of the reality of the modern Caribbean which Kempadoo wants to address.  While she has no ideological axes to grind and rejects any label, including that of feminist, she thinks Tide Running “could be something new” for women “who are going to get fed up reading about women’s problem and issues, including sex”, and that “now women will want to read more about men’s roles and emotions and what drives them.”

But there’s much more to Tide than sex. Cliff, the young Tobagonian, is representative of a whole generation of young men throughout the islands: raised on fast food, cable TV and dancehall lyrics; often functionally illiterate, undereducated and unemployed. Bombarded with images of American consumer society, soaking up dub macho and gangsta fantasies, yet constrained by the harsh economic realities of societies caught between the world of 19th century plantations and the internet age, the Cliffs of the islands are explosions waiting to happen.

“The Caribbean is changing very quickly, there are no more slow lazy days in paradise,” says Kempadoo, who also mentions the legacy of the slavery era with its massacres and stud farms, “the dark forces of history”, which manifest themselves in contemporary society.

Yet Cliff, for all his confusion, is perfectly attuned to the moods of the sea, which he seems to understand better than any of the people in his life. “The sea,” explains Kempadoo, “is used to reflect Cliff’s sensitivity, making the point that although characters like his may not be able to express emotion, it’s not to say they don’t feel.” She’s fascinated by the connection between “people’s disposition and the landscape”, arguing that in the Caribbean “the visual beauty and visual stimulation must have an effect on mindset and approach.”

The discovery that the image she had of Tide before writing it and how the book turned out  — “completely different” — doesn’t seem to disconcert her. In fact, rather than reworking it, she’s exploring the possibilities of adapting it for film, possibly with a soundtrack by her favourite dancehall singer Buju Banton.

It will be interesting to see the critical response to All Decent Animals, especially in the light of Tide reviews, some of which placed Kempadoo in the first rank of Caribbean writers, along with Derek Walcott and Jean Rhys (unfathomably omitting Wilson Harris, Naipaul, Sam Selvon, to mention a few).

Although she’s uncomfortable with the label of Caribbean writer, there is no doubt Kempadoo is a significant new voice from the region, and even more importantly one who continues to live and work and engage with the rapidly changing face of paradise in all its permutations. Luckily, she claims: “I’m excited about the prospect of writing for years.”