Nobodyism and Ezekel Alan: Are some of us ‘Missing’ as a noun?

An interview with Ezekel Alan, author of Disposable People…

DPGrenada

I’ve been sitting on this astonishing interview I did with the mysterious new Jamaican writer, Ezekel Alan, for about two months now (for more information on Alan read Susumba.com‘s interview with him). I had hoped to continue it but time won’t permit so I’m just posting it and stating my intention to follow up with a Part 2 soon. Alan is the author of Disposable People, a novel that first came to attention when it won the Caribbean region award for best first novel in the Commonwealth Book Awards this year. Disposable People was self-published. It’s a book that animates poverty for those of us accustomed to averting our gaze from it, and does so in an imaginative, engaging yet hardcore way. His concept of ‘Nobodyism’ strikes me as the opposite of Rex Nettleford’s ‘Smaddyism’ (Somebodyism).

It would be cool if my readers could suggest questions they’d like me to ask him for Part 2….

AP: Disposable People is a narrative about the soul-wrenching economies of ‘Bare life’ and contemporary poverty isn’t it? As told by someone who has escaped its bony embrace into a life of privilege and policy-making. Did the little boy locked out of his home every time a primal urge took his parents haunt you into writing this book? Is the story as autobiographical as it seems?

Indeed there is some catharsis and exorcism at play – as we have seen with many other writers {Ayn Rand comes to mind}, there is an often an urge to tell a bit of your own story with your first book; this is perhaps because there is such a reservoir of information right there to draw on. In my case, this was both the outcome of that effort to wrestle with demons, and my love for writing. The past was, in a sense, fodder for writing rather than the object of it.

That said, I wanted to make this story noteworthy. Tales of poverty and abuse are as common as teenage sex in our ghettoes; I wanted to find a way to make this story feel new and real.  This is partly the reason for the bluntness and the seemingly absurd elements of the story.

But let me also say that I remember going into Riverton City once back in the days and standing there watching some kids who were playing in a body of water that was stagnant and stink. You could see both hogs and plastic bags of faeces floating in it. But these kids were playing and laughing.  That is life. The life of the poor is wretched, but it also has its joys. As a poor child you don’t stand around all day contemplating the short, nasty, brutish nature of your life, you live it, with all its pains and joys. This is what I tried to capture – both the suffering and the joys – in almost the same way we lived it.

AP: In many ways this book reminds one of a new genre of no-holds-barred novel writing by former NGO personnel, activists, policy-makers and diplomats. I’m thinking of books like Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Q and A by Vikas Swarup from which the movie Slumdog Millionaire was made, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and so on, There’s also a zaniness which has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut. Who were some of your literary influences?

I’ve read and loved all of those books/writers . (I would love to one day join their ranks – they have such incredible skill with the pen.) I particularly like Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is another inspiring masterpiece. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also another inspiration, I love his surrealism. Junot Diaz is now one of my favourite contemporary Caribbean writers. I grew up on a diet of Roger Mais, Naipaul, and such, but now I find I am completely enthralled by the richness of Diaz’s prose; he’s brilliant (and I suspect rich).

AP: There is a preoccupation with the scatological or excremental imagery in DP. Eg references to shit are plentiful, to people too poor even to produce shit as in “When I lived in Jamaica my ass was often tight and constipated.” Is this because you feel that the acute discomfort of poverty is something you have to force your readers to face in the same way that confronting them with unpleasant images of worms, faeces, cow dung, diarrhoea and so on would make them squeamish? Is this the best allegory for the ‘short, nasty lives’ you’re trying to depict?

Maybe it’s all because the pit toilet was too close to my house – the stench of it was there, every day, for almost twenty years of my life. Indeed, the story was meant to be as blunt and raw as the real experiences were – flies swarming your food; giant mosquitoes biting you like dogs; the daily gambling and dominoes; the sounds of a cousin screwing and accidentally kicking down a part of her flimsy wooden wall (which generated an awful lot of excitement for the rest of us who rushed to watch and laugh.) That was the reality of it, but it is a reality far removed from the lives of many people. I wanted readers to see that life the way it was, and to want to laugh and cry at all its extremities.

By the way, I am still constipated. Some friends of mine back home have said I should try eating muesli every morning, others have recommended some of the “good Jamaican stuff” to loosen me up. I hope to report back on what works.

AP: I like your attempts to pin down the kind of racism that exists in societies such as Jamaica…there’s a tendency to overlook or elide brown identity with everyone claiming ‘blackness’ but you differentiate between the abjectness of being black and the privilege of being brown, with money being the crucial factor in determining brownness, the size of one’s bank account, one’s accent. Could you elaborate on the hypocrisies of race relations in Jamaica and perhaps the Caribbean as you know it?

I grew up with Michael Manley being white and always right, in the eyes of many of the older folks in our village. “Black man cyan run dis country!” was a frequent expression during election and domino arguments. I think much of this has changed since the 70s and early 80s, and I would say Jamaica is now a very different place. Maybe some racism is still there, but it isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, and cash now buys colour. The novel, in some sense, is therefore less about racism than it is about ‘nobodyism’. Kenny’s mama dies (this isn’t giving away too much) because she was nobody and they couldn’t afford proper medical care. The story about the old woman coming up to Kenny to ask for directions when Kenny thought she was coming to beg money is also apropos – this wasn’t about race, but identity; some people in our society are identified as nobody worthy of our time, worthy of our attention, worthy of marrying our daughters, worthy of a second thought. One of my favourite bits of the book is when Kenny writes the poem about Georgie and asks if his old friend Georgie is ‘missing’ not as verb (his mother’s love and tenderness) but as a noun – a person unseen and unheard. I felt that was how we lived our lives there on the outskirts of society; missing as a noun.

Roland Watson-Grant and his debut novel, Sketcher

An interview with Jamaican writer, Roland Watson-Grant, about his debut as a novelist.

582304_309184419202450_938270534_n

Before April this year I didn’t know who Roland Watson-Grant was. But we were on a panel together during the Kingston Book Festival and that’s when I found out that he was only Jamaica’s latest novelist, whose book, Sketcher, was about to be launched in England. Subsequently he sent me an advance copy which I was foolish enough to leave in Grenada with a friend, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, except for the excellent first chapter which the publisher, Alma Books, has made available online (see excerpt below).

Roland Watson-Grant

I was intrigued by Roland’s unusual trajectory (where had he suddenly appeared from? and how did he snag a UK publisher with his first book?). Yes, yes, I know Peepal Tree is also a UK publisher but Alma Books is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Peepal Tree Alma isn’t dedicated to publishing Caribbean authors, on the contrary, according to their website:

Alma Books publishes from fifteen to twenty titles a year, mostly contemporary literary fiction, taking around sixty per cent of its titles from English-language originals, while the rest are translations from other languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese. Alma Books also publishes two or three non-fiction titles each year.

They’ve also just won the Independent Publisher of the Year award in the UK. So dive into the excerpt from Sketcher immediately below and then my interview with Roland Watson-Grant.

Simple answers. I was only eight, but when my turn came to ask, she had to make it complicated. She said: “Skid, I’m so tired a y’all asking me where he is. Why don’t you all get on that CB radio and holler out your dad’s name and tell him to get himself home.”

So we did. Now, we had a CB radio, and in the Eighties that was a big deal. You had to have a CB nickname and all that fancy stuff. And we called our dad “T-Rex” on the radio. And my pops, he was one of the biggest godfathers of Citizen Band radio technology in the South. People knew him, cos he fixed CB radios and boosted their frequencies, and he invented all these sky-scrapin’ antennae things that could prob’ly pick up as far as China. So when we all got on the radio and switched to Channel 19 and started pressing the hell out of the key on the microphone and jumpin’ up and chantin’ “Breaker, Breaker, T-Rex, you copy? Come on home, T-Rex”, all the truckers and all the cops and the hunters and the shrimp fishermen and people as far as frickin’ California and prob’ly Mexico could hear us. And man, they all started in on the joke, whether they knew T-Rex or not, cos that’s one of the things that CB radio people do.

Well, within fifteen minutes we could hear the Ford Transit engine revvin’ into the swamp and the tires grindin’ and the door slammin’, and the great big ol’ T-Rex came crashin’ into the house with his claws all out and his teeth sharp. He looked across the room and growled at me, cos he said my voice was the loudest on Channel 19. Me? And he made me get back on the CB radio and announce that “T-Rex made it home tonight”, and then I had to speak like I was an AM radio announcer, with a big, dumb radio voice and everything. I had to tell ’em what time it was, and do the weather report and tell ’em to “stay tuned for more news”.

To read more click here.

Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico
Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico

The Interview:

Roland where did a writer like you pop out from, fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus? Have you deliberately secreted yourself away from the literary world of Jamaica, small as it is? You know with most other recent writers there’s a loose arc they tend to follow; first publication in Wayne Brown’s writing supplement in the Observer, then appearances at various festivals, participation in Calabash-sponsored events, by the time their first book is published they’re practically household names. You escaped this arc. Tell us about your coming into being as a writer.

It’s the stuff of dreams really. You could say I’ve been “writing in the wings” as an advertising creative director/copywriter since I was 21 years old. Literature was my first love though. When I got into advertising through a voicetape I recorded in a bathroom, I went to UWI the following year. My mother wanted me to become a Professor of English but I didn’t stay that course and decided to stick with Advertising instead (a classmate has called me a sell-out ever since.) My overseas advertising training came from being hired by McCann-Erickson in 2002, which led to more creative discipline and an interest in writing for wider appeal. In 2011 I entered a UK short story competition. When one of my stories won an international prize, I was invited to read at the prize giving ceremony in England that same Fall. A London-based publisher was in the audience and the reading led to a book deal.

Stuff of dreams. As for Greek gods, I feel more like Prometheus, dedicated to progress but bound to be burned by the same fire I want to share. But that’s another story.

I remember a conversation with you in which we were discussing the place you grew up in, in Jamaica, and how it was the inspiration for the Louisiana swampland where Sketcher is set. Did I imagine this? If not, how did it go again?

I grew up in New Haven, Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s. You won’t see the name appear on Google Earth. It was a swamp when we got there. Wilderness: fish swimming by the side of the ‘roads’, mosquitoes and crocs in the Duhaney River. Reading helped us escape. Olive Senior, William Golding, Salinger, Claude McKay, Hardy Boys. When I read Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” I started enjoying living in a swamp. We raised chickens, others raised goats and dug wells. We had a “Home Sweet Home” lamp– a real rural existence in the city. A whole different life was happening among the zinc roofs you still see when you fly over from Ferry. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.

the-house-that-haunts-the-pages-of-sketcher

The house that haunts the pages of Sketcher is the house Watson-Grant grew up in. “I grew up in New Haven, Kingston Jamaica in the 1980s. It was a swamp when we got there. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.”

Did you do a course in creative writing somewhere or are you that rare being–a natural writer–who’s able to produce the most lyrically poignant first novel without painful contractions or cramps? Did this novel go through many iterations? Did you work with an editor?

Apart from writing everyday in advertising, I kept journals for a number of years in New Haven, just to practice atmospherics and observe emotions. My mother encouraged it and that was very beneficial. Then I got incredible insights from my tutors, teachers and Professors from Kingston College to University. I always wanted to but never attempted a novel until my publisher/editor Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books said I should consider expanding the story. He’s a genius, really. Erudite. Working with him was a great opportunity. We got through the novel in a year. His feedback was and continues to be priceless.

Tell us about your experience with Alma Books. Were you represented by an agent? Did you try to be published in Jamaica or did you always know you wanted a publisher outside the region, a semi-mainstream publisher as it were?

Simon Kerr from the University of Hull in England was responsible for putting all the winning entries into an anthology. He invited industry people to the ceremony hear us read. As I mentioned, Alma Books was in the audience and I got handed a business card and a task to do a draft in a month and submit it for review. Published in Jamaica? I used to write letters to the Gleaner editor in fourth form. So I guess I was ‘published’ in a sense. (I was proud of those letters!) But literary-fiction wise, I entered the Commonwealth Prizes. I went with similar themes about growing up in New Haven, but it wasn’t my time yet, I guess. I wasn’t deterred because I really wanted to see my work (which has the Caribbean at its core) judged in a wide context, win or lose. I’ve always been the David vs. Goliath type of guy. 

I’ve gotten incredible support locally though since appearing “out of nowhere”. I wait for the opportunity to name all those people.

I’d like you to expand on Prometheus and your dedication to progress but fear of being burned?

Well, fear is a strong word. But I accept that Sketcher is not your everyday Caribbean novel. It’s about a second generation Caribbean kid growing up in a Louisiana swamp slowly finding out about his heritage by observing seemingly magical occurrences. This is a new approach to talking about cultural identity. And I accept with every new endeavour that takes a different route, there will be controversy. Jamaicans can be very insular. People all over the world imitate our culture but we ourselves are not comfortable behaving like citizens of a wider world. We ignore the fact that Jamaican culture is also made of many others apart from West African: Chinese, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Jewish, English et cetera. In turn, many in positions of influence expect artistes to create art and literature with a kind of Jamaica tourist-brochure agenda. This is the message we send to our literary and visual artistes and also to our children. The ironic result is that out of boredom future generations will ignore Maas Joe, bankra baskets, shet pans, burlap bags, brown paper and bandana (which we should know we got from India). We should declare these things as PART of the amalgam that is our heritage, but who dares suggest to the next generation that sentimental, nostalgic, or even our contemporary local culture is ALL the Jamaican culture is or ever will be? Every culture is in flux. When you don’t allow different expressions of it you end up with cookie cutter artistes who follow a formula like slaves, wondering why they can’t be the next Bob Marley. Screw the formula. Let’s do something new. That’s what Bob did. Big up Bob.

Are you a social media fiend?

Not really. I spend hours on the internet though. Alma Books got me into social media and rightly so. I recognize the communication power of social media and I try to use it as a tool. I respect it as I would fire. A novel like Sketcher with multi-cultural layers might not have been possible without that power or the overall abilities of the internet.

Boy I think you have single-handedly upped the profile of advertising agencies as creative incubators. Am I correct you not only ‘did voices’ or voiced ads for businesses but you also became a copywriter and got into advertising because you sent a voice recording to an ad agency?

Yes. While I was a teacher at my alma Mater, Kingston College, I made a voice tape after my students dared me to do so. I hated the recording. But the Creative Director at Dunlop Corbin at the time saw the writing potential in the scripts I sent in with the tape and they hired me almost immediately. So she opened up the opportunity for a 21 year old to write commercials for big clients even before I did a single voiceover.

How did this preoccupation with ‘doing voices’ come about? Did you listen to ads as a child and think ‘Oh, I can do that better?’

Haha. We used to listen to the news and imitate Charles Lewin and Dennis Hall and recite commercials. My family listened to a radio series on RJR called Mortimer Simmonds and soon we made up and recorded our own stories. We didn’t have a TV. Years later when my brother Seymour, and friends Kevin Day and Horatio Grant wrote and created the Mother’s Patty TV commercial with singing and dancing patties, we could trace it back to those days. It was the natural trajectory.

You also referred to joining McCann-Erickson and getting the chance to go abroad into a more creative atmosphere, this released your creative juices you said. What is the problem with the local advertising industry? What was the crucial difference that enabled you to write fiction abroad?

Well, I don’t want to pontificate and make prescriptions for local advertising, but I will say what I learnt at McCann. 1.Deadlines are crucial. 2. You’re a creative being and a salesman. And most importantly: The IDEA is key. Get your IDEA straight and you can execute it in a thousand ways. But the IDEA must always be singular and original. We have lovely graphics and software and agendas, but what’s your IDEA? Any society that encourages NEW IDEAS will prosper. I recently did an interview where I suggested we call for a Ministry of Imagination in Jamaica. I remember a Creative Director in New York once told us to stand in Times Square and try to recall all the ads we saw on the screens. We couldn’t keep up. He said: “Good, now go do something that people will remember”.  You can’t do anything ordinary after that.

SWAMP CHARACTERS (circa 1974): Watson-Grant’s three elder brothers and the blueprints for a trio of personalities from the novel. The tiniest one in the jumpsuit is the template for the Sketcher himself.

How autobiographical is Sketcher? Do you come from a family of several siblings? Did CB Radio play a key role in your life? Can you also draw? And although your Mom is disappointed that you decided not to be a literary professor she must be pleased at your debut as a fiction writer?

My mother is thrilled. My biggest fan. She can recite the short story version by now I’m sure. I would say the feelings, the atmosphere and some familial occurrences are autobiographical. But Skid Beaumont the main character is a completely different animal from me. Bookseller Magazine says he’s “part Scout Finch, part Bart Simpson”. I couldn’t top that when I was nine going on sixteen. 

My father was a CB expert in real life. That was the internet those days. He would make antennas and study the weather so he could use atmospheric conditions to talk to people in the Southern United States who couldn’t believe he was in Jamaica.

Did you locate your novel in Louisiana from the get go or was that a suggestion that came from Alessandro Gallenzi, your publisher and editor? In the short story that won the competition what was the location of the story?

Yes, from the short story version Sketcher was always in Louisiana. But in my mind the characters had a Caribbean background and sensibility. This would heighten the plight of them trying to fit into another society. In Sketcher the novel they are still trying. Alessandro never got involved in things like that. He would pull me back and tell me to rewrite chapters only if I started influencing the characters too much with my own politics and thoughts. And he once told me to literally draw a map so I wouldn’t get lost in the swamps when I was writing. I’ve always loved the “bizarre” beauty of New Orleans and how much the magic feels like our own folk belief systems of obeah and the like. There are conversations happening between cultures that we fail to eavesdrop on. For example, hoodoo and folk beliefs in Jamaica are family. So is New Orleans food and Caribbean dishes. In a documentary Cyril Neville, a New Orleans musician calls New Orleans, “the northernmost city in the Caribbean”. He plays lots of reggae and soca. My point is: people borrow from us yet we remain largely insular and frankly, a bit ignorant of how the constantly evolving Jamaican culture really fits into the wider world.

Finally have you read Erna Brodber’s novel Louisiana which is also about these connections? What about Garfield Ellis? Ellis was also inspired as a writer by Mark Twain. Have you read his novel For Nothing At All?

Wow. I have great respect for Erma Brodber but I must admit I haven’t read that. I have shared the stage with Ellis but I haven’t read his either and didn’t know he was inspired by Twain. Olive Senior and William Golding are my biggest influences though. I will look for Brodber’s book right now. That’s refreshing to know. Here’s what Chris Blackwell said in Louisiana one time at Loyola University Chris Blackwell on the Connection between New Orleans Music and Reggae – YouTube