Wednesday, July 18, 2007

[Interview] H. Nigel Thomas

Canadian author H. Nigel Thomas was a teacher in St. Vincent, his home island, before moving to Montreal where he taught English and French in high school and elementary school. For the past 18 years, he has been working as professor of U.S. Literature at Université Laval in Quebec City.

His books include Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets & Novelists (TSAR Publications, 2006) which features interviews with 15 African Canadian writers and From Folklore to Fiction: Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel which appeared in Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, Number 118 (Greenwood Press, 1988).

He has written three novels: Return to Arcadia (forthcoming, TSAR Publications, Fall 2007); Behind the Face of Winter ( TSAR Publications, 2001) and Spirits in the Dark (House of Anansi Press, 1993 and Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, 1994) which was a finalist for the 1994 QSPELL/Hugh MacClennan Fiction Award.

In addition to these five books, Nigel Thomas is also the author of Moving Through Darkness (Afo Enterprises, 2000), a poetry volume, and How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow? (Afo Enterprises, 1996), a collection of critically acclaimed short stories set in the Caribbean which explore interpersonal relationships.

In a recent interview, Nigel Thomas spoke about his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Quite late. In my adolescence, I wrote sketches and directed them principally to raise money for the indigent fund of the Methodist Church to which I belonged. These were short plays. People paid to see them performed. No social welfare system existed in St. Vincent then. The churches that people belonged to aided those who were in need. This was the purpose of the indigent fund. The money thus collected went into the indigent fund.

One of the sketches I thought was significant, but I never saw myself as a writer then, nor did I wish to be a writer then.

I began writing poetry at age 28 and found that I had to do so every day for a period of over four years.

What would you say you were trying to achieve through the poetry?

Wordsworth defines poetry as emotions recollected in tranquillity. What caused the intense emotions that required shaping into poetry, I do not know. Perhaps it was the deep sense of exile that I felt. There certainly was a deeply felt angst that poetry relieved.

I wrote about one's place in the universe, about identity, about injustice, about the lessons inherent in nature. I recall a few lines from a poem written in the second year: "Would I have thought that at 29/ My life would be an autumn Vine?" . . . "But we must roll our stones/ And roll them all alone/ And find in art the solace that dogs do in their bones." I think that was the sort of tone found in those early poems. I've published few of them.

"What was I trying to achieve?" Finding language, metre, symbols and metaphors to embody what I was feeling. Robert Graves refers to this as the pearl the oyster creates to coat the grain of sand in its flesh.

I was already in my mid-thirties when I turned to fiction, largely because plots filled my head and I could not fall asleep. In a manner of speaking, it was easier to write than fall asleep.

How would you describe the genre in which you do most of your writing?

Now most of my writing is prose fiction. It seems to lend itself better to the issues my psyche predisposes me to explore.

Which issues are these? And why do you think they are this dominant?

They are no different from the ones that interested me when I began writing poetry. It's only the form that's different. My last novel, Behind the Face of Winter, follows a youngster from about age five in the Caribbean through high school and university in Canada. I wanted to show via fiction some of what I know about the Black immigrant experience as it affects Black children in high school in Montreal (I taught in the school system in Montreal for 12 years). My next novel, Return to Arcadia, forthcoming in autumn, explores a mixed-race man's quest for sanity as he tries to cast off the burdens bequeathed by his colonial heritage.

Underlying the premise of everything I write is the notion that life is constant negotiation. We may do it passively sometimes by absenting ourselves from active confrontation and consequently deprive ourselves of the fruits of such confrontation (conversely we may avoid the resulting wounds), or we may jump into the fray. What underlies such choices make for interesting speculation and hence fiction.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

I vaguely recall that in the early eighties I despaired over what I was not reading in works produced by West Indian writers. Earl Lovelace was the exception. Something told me I had to begin writing that sort of work -- works that focused on African Diasporic identities.

You see, we in the Caribbean had been brought up in a culture of self-hate. It was necessary to explore, (not merely through history -- history does not engage us with the same emotional depth) through characters, the impact of this on our psyches and to imply ways by which we might exorcise it. Prose fiction was the ideal genre for this. The theatre would have been even better, but I’m predisposed to being solitary, and the sort of atmosphere in which plays are born is anathema to what I am.

How are you defining this "culture of self-hate"?

Africa in the Caribbean in which I grew up symbolized savagery. The word Zulu in my village had the same virulence as cannibal. As my protagonist in Spirits in the Dark notes, to call someone African was to challenge him or her to a fight.

Clearly, if we despised Africa and Africans we hated ourselves. It's tantamount to disowning one's mother. This came about via Christianity, which equated Blackness with sin and savagery. But it's also true that we were ashamed of slavery. My father believed that we were the descendants of Ham (Noah's cursed son). The implication, then, is that God had ordained us for servitude. Spirits in the Dark puts such self-hate onto the threshing floor.

I have continued the theme to a lesser extent in Behind the Face of Winter to show in part the evolution that has taken place. I continue the theme as well in Return to Arcadia.

How and why is it that people in the Caribbean accept this teaching?

We were too weak to challenge it. We were a hostage society. Opinions that differed from the colonizers' were severely punished. Promotions meant parroting the colonizer's beliefs and expressing a preference for his culture.

Why is it important to exorcise it?

The reason is self evident. Hatred of one's self is profoundly debilitating. It goes to the core of one's self-worth. Who should do the exorcising? Educators, artists, the purveyors of the various media -- everyone with the power to influence public opinion.

How does self-hate manifest itself in the Caribbean?

Today, there is very little overt verbal expression of such self-hate. We have come a long way, thanks to Bob Marley, Chalkdust, etc. (musicians); and to writers like George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, Louise Bennett, etc. We are also able to read works that hitherto had been proscribed. West Indian history came into the curriculum my last year in high school. I had no Caribbean authors on my high school curriculum. Today the exact opposite is true.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

African American writers primarily: the greats: Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Toni Morrison; and two unknowns: Toni Cade Bambara and Leon Forrest; African writers: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Alex LaGuma; North American First Nations Writers: Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, James Welch and N. Scott Momaday. The only Caribbean writer who influenced me -- and it was a profound influence -- was Earl Lovelace.

Some showed me how to shape a novel. Others showed me how powerful a banal notion could become once it's transformed into fiction. I also saw the tremendous amount of knowledge I gained from their books, hence I came to believe that fiction could be intellectually enlightening.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

An important dictum for writers is: write about what you know. It doesn’t mean adhering slavishly to facts but rather employing facts as tools for further imaginary exploration. In other words, facts are the screwdrivers to tighten or unscrew the imagination as well as the containers to fill with whatever the imagination produces. For example, it is difficult to find in any of my fiction my own personal experiences. The settings, however much reconstructed, are real and the obsessions that get explored are my own.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To listen to my muse and resist the pressures of the marketplace. I write largely because reality’s surface is for me hardly more than a mask. What’s worth knowing is beneath it. I’m not saying that I discover anything. All I do is try to uncover. I think that the biggest beneficiary of my writing is myself. Self-knowledge is something I’ve gained from my writing much as we discover our fears in our dreams.

Who would you say is your target audience?

In all honesty, it would be anyone who reads my writing. I think, however, that since I’m of Caribbean origin and write out of that sensibility, West Indians and Diasporic Africans are likely to be the readers best able to appreciate the issues I explore.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finding metaphors that my audience and I share. I am not a consumer of popular culture, so I’m cut off from the source where the overwhelming majority of today’s population find its psychic nourishment and cultural references.

To you, what is popular culture? And, in what ways are you cut off from it?

Popular music: rap, hip-hop, dancehall, etc.; televisions programmes; fashion shows, etc. I'm cut off in the sense that I gain far more nourishment from other sources. It's a question of how I'm predisposed to spending my time. I would have to consume a great deal of popular culture to get a small measure of intellectual food. I prefer to go to the sources where an abundance is more likely.

Do you write everyday?

Now that I am no longer bogged down by university teaching, I spend a few hours each day. When I was a university professor I wrote chiefly in late spring and summer. I chose to retire early so that I would have time to write.

What will your next book be about?

Return to Arcadia will be about the process of attaining psychological wholeness after enduring a sullying childhood. I've worked on it in spurts over a seven-year period, almost exclusively during the summer months.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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