The Caribbean needs its writers
Grenada-born author Jacob Ross gives us his thoughts on the state of the region’s literature. Plus, read on to discover one of the new stories from his latest collection – a ZiNG exclusive!
Jacob Ross is a busy man. Grenada-born and now UK-based, Ross is the author of a critically acclaimed novel. He’s a teacher of creative writing. He’s an editor at premier Caribbean literature publisher Peepal Tree Press. And he’s just written his first crime thriller, The Bone Readers – it’s the first of a quartet and he’s already scheming the sequels.
In May 2017 Ross will be releasing Tell No-one About This, a collection of short stories. It will contain the best of his previously published short stories, some specially reworked, as well as new tales – one of which you can read over the page.
We caught up with Ross to find out the stories behind his stories, and why he’s excited by the current state of Caribbean writing.
Q Your latest novel, The Bone Readers, is a crime thriller. What inspired it?
My previous novel was literary – deliberately so, because that’s my natural inclination. The Bone Readers began as a short story and would have probably remained one, had Jeremy Poynting [founder of Peepal Tree Press] not seen the potential.
I was attracted to the idea because I discovered there is little genre fiction, especially crime fiction, being done anywhere in the Caribbean. And yet crime is an important preoccupation in our part of the world – as it is in all modern societies. The crime fiction genre is also a powerful medium for showing up the ‘darker’ side of our natures, what – even in the ‘paradise’ we live in – atrocities we are capable of as humans.
Q In Tell No-one About This you have reworked some of your old stories. Why did you want to change them?
I wrote my first collection of short stories more than three decades ago. I have since become a literary editor and a tutor of narrative craft. What struck me when revisiting the earlier stories was that they came from a place of sincerity and a quiet sense of outrage. They largely explored what it was like for children and young people growing up in the social and political climate in Grenada during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve been thinking that these stories were a quite useful record of that period in our history for those who came after. I think stories do a better job of giving people a deeper, more emotionally engaged sense of events, places and period than any history book. In my early years of writing, I knew nothing about craft. I wrote instinctively. Now I have the opportunity to bring my experience as an editor to them.
Q How does it feel, revisiting these stories?
Many of the stories feel new to me – almost as if they were written by someone else. Some were amateurish, even embarrassing; others surprised me because, even with a ruthless editor’s scrutiny, they were surprisingly well done and complete. What really struck me was that so many of them were about concerns and themes that still preoccupy me, and which I have explored more fully in my recent fiction, ie the many pressures and oppressions of women and girls in our society, the impact of ir/responsible fathering on children. Male sexual arrogance – that sort of thing.
Q We are delighted to be printing one of your new stories, ‘Is Easy’. Can you tell us what inspired it?
I wrote ‘Is Easy’ while I was working on a longer, more demanding story. It popped out of my head. I say ‘popped out’ because it arrived fully formed and was completed in less than 15 minutes. This happens very occasionally (I can take anything up to a year to complete a story) and this sudden arrival of a story always feels like an unexpected gift. ‘Is Easy’ is short and tender and bittersweet, and very human at the same time. Regardless of who we are, or where we are in life, haven’t we all been taken out of ourselves by a brief moment of fantasising about someone or something – of a nebulous kind of longing? And I do think the story captures that. I’m still mystified by how it came.
Q The language in ‘Is Easy’ is poetic – do you think there’s a natural lyricism in the Caribbean?
Lyricism is a feature of the languages of the Caribbean: it’s even there in the way we nickname people. ‘Hop-and-Drop’ describes the way a person walks, for example; ‘Magga-Bone’ tells us a person is bone-thin and probably not well fed. It is there in the proverbs and aphorisms we’ve all grown up with: ‘What sweet in goat mouth, sour in he behind.’
That aspect of the language is as natural as air because we’re so steeped in it. I’m never surprised when a Caribbean poet wins a major international prize for his or her work because the facility for transforming the world through metaphor is very much a part of who we are.
Q With a short story, how do you know when it’s finished?
A Many writers will tell you that they find the short story more demanding than the novel. We have so few words in which to say so much. Every sentence must count; every word should earn its place. There should be no excess, and no showing off. And therein lies the pleasure and the challenge. I usually know when the story is done. It’s more a feeling than a decision. Something tells you that you’ve come to a point of rest, and that can be very different from the way you intended to end the story.
Q How has the Caribbean influenced your writing? You’ve lived away – why do you continue to set your stories there?
To invoke an old saying: I left the Caribbean, but the Caribbean never left me. That’s probably due to the fact that I came to England as a fully formed adult with a university education behind me, and experience as a teacher and later, Director of Culture in Grenada. I had already absorbed a great deal of the society – its people, landscape, cultural and social values; its vulnerabilities and illusions, its beauty and its strengths. I feel viscerally connected to the Caribbean – almost despite myself.
Most of my family live in Grenada, and I do return at least once a year. And it is true that most of my fiction is still set there because I believe that our societies need their writers. Serious fiction, in my view, is an invitation to begin conversations with ourselves about issues that matter to us as Caribbean people. We need those conversations because that is how we become more self-aware and grow. For that reason, the Caribbean needs its writers.
Q What do you think of the current state of Caribbean literature?
It is a very exciting time for Caribbean writing. Marlon James winning the 2015 Booker Prize with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is only the tip of something much more seismic – in terms of writing – that is happening in the Caribbean. And I, along with others at Peepal Tree Press, find ourselves in the fortunate position of experiencing this firsthand, since many of these writers turn to Peepal Tree Press with their manuscripts.
What’s changing – and very noticeably so – in Caribbean literature is that the writing is more inward-looking, more forensic – one might even say brutal – in its examination of modern Caribbean society. Also, the current generation of writers doesn’t have the same reservations about writing in the Caribbean Creole language, and they seem less concerned with over-explaining their reality to a non-Caribbean readership. The language is more unapologetic, and the literature is taking a harder look at the underbelly of our societies.
Q You have written in many different genres – which do you find most satisfying?
Probably the crime thriller – The Bone Readers. It is the book I most enjoyed writing. Even I found some scenes amusing because I didn’t expect a character to respond or behave in a certain way. Writing is also discovering things about your character and their circumstances. In that sense, writing The Bone Readers was a delight.
Q What advice would you give to any of our readers who think they’d like to be a writer?
Writing is not just putting pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard; it is also an attitude. Read widely and deeply; it is very much a part of writing. Observe people and respect their humanity. Be open-minded – nothing is simply black and white. Understand that there is value in what you have to say. Be unafraid to say it. Be prepared to rewrite. Persist.
Jacob Ross: Top Reads
• Song for Simone and A Way to Catch the Dust – his first two books of short stories
• Tell No-one About This – new book of short stories, published May 2017
• Pynter Bender – first novel, about a blind boy raised by women on a pre-independence Caribbean island still struggling with the legacy of slavery. Shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Regional Prize
• The Bone Readers – crime thriller, first part of the ‘Camaho Quartet’
For more, see www.peepaltreepress.com
Is Easy, by Jacob Ross
His head is in the air, and he seems unaware of the gesturing, calling women hunched over rows of stalls that line the street on either side. Busy walkers swirl around him on the sidewalk. A woman considers the man from under lowered lashes. A black leather bag hangs from his shoulder. The cloth bag in his right hand says CARICOM, in red. The other words are hidden by its cotton folds.
He’s neither tall nor short. The skin of his arms and face are the colour and sheen of nutmeg shells. His hair looks freshly cut. This is a fella that she could press a nice shirt for, hang his trousers on a line to dry, watch him step out of their doorway every morning and walk down the steps of a perfect little concrete house with baskets of flowers hanging off the veranda.
He would come home every night, tired from work but satisfied, and if he’s pressed down by the day, there would be food for him, a soft chair to rest his back against. She would not fuss around him but move quietly until he stirs and talks to her about his day. When they’ve had enough of talking they will retire to a clean bed.
She’s so forgotten herself that, for a moment, she does not realise that the man has materialised beside her.
He wants to know how to get to the house they call The Rectory.
Before she answers she dares a quick glance at his face. Just as she imagined him from across the street, his face is smooth, clean shaven and cared-for.
‘Is easy,’ she says, raising a finger at the sharply climbing road behind him. ‘Up Market Hill. De steps on Lucas Street make de climbin shorter, but if you tek it, de sweat break outta you. So, easiest is hardest. Top of de hill, turn lef, Anglican Church goin be right behin you. Cyahn miss it – it big an ugly like it got no right mongst dem pretty lil pink house up dere.
‘In front ov you, de court house. Look lik a weddin cake dat some wicked man kick down an mash-up. Used to be pretty befo. Used to be really nice – yunno?
‘Walk a likkle, till you come to a road. It nice an smooth an well-take-care-of. Right at de end of dat likkle road, you see a pretty concrete house, not big, not small. It got a yellow veranda wit’ a few basket ov flowers hangin down. An you reach.’
He’s pulled his brows together and she is worried that she did not make herself clear. But then he mutters thanks, smiles and turns to look at the climbing road. He smells of faraway, foreign things. He takes a step, then turns abruptly, his brows still pulled together.
‘You always talk like that?’
A flush of embarrassment heats her skin. She does not know how to take his question, feels herself retreating. ‘Is how everybody round here talk,’ she says. She knows his question should rile her, but there is just a feeble stirring in her stomach which she knows will never reach her voice.
‘How I talk?’ She looks away.
‘Nice.’ he says. ‘Real nice.’ Then he leaves.
She sees that he is following her words exactly. Once or twice he looks up, checks for the signposts that she gave, and keeps on climbing.
At the top of the hill he turns. Her eyes follow his rising hand. She does not lift hers in return but gathers her skirt around her knees and sits before her tray of fruits and spices.