A Thoughtful Writer

GODFREY STEELE interviews the writer of Is Just a Movie in the second of a series on Communication and Society

I spoke with Earl Lovelace on Wednesday February 23 2011 at his home in Cascade. Three weeks earlier he had launched his latest novel Is Just a Movie at the Carlton Savannah in Port of Spain. I wanted to speak with him about his writing, and explore his thoughts on communicating with his readers.

GS: How long have you been working on Is Just a Movie?
EL: A long time. I was trying to shape the work in a certain way, but the book was taking a shape of its own. It took a while too, because I had a new typewriter and was adjusting to working with a Mac instead of a PC. The ideas in the book are ideas that I have been thinking about for some time.

How have you found the means to express those ideas?
Fiction has its own conventions regarding how the writer moves ideas into the story. Character, plot, voice, etc. All this seems obvious. I suppose there is something else you are leading to. How do we who have been involoved in the experience of the struggles in enslavement, colonialism and now independence see ourselves? To what degree do we understand the different roles we have played, and how are we seen? These are some of the ideas.

I have been following your work for some time since I was an undergraduate English student, and have read your novels and seen your plays. How does your work as a novelist differ from your work written for the stage?
For me, the novel aims at being more universal and literary. A play is more immediate and local.

What are these universal qualities?
Universal in the sense that its themes can apply to people anywhere and its concerns are not necessarily topical.

I am thinking of a passage near the end of “Starring Sonnyboy” in Part One. On page 13, the narrator tells us: “I didn’t know Sonnyboy all that well. I knew him as a badjohn, a man who had problems with the law…But later when I hear his story, I was glad that my presence there that day had enabled him to save face before his grandmother and his brethren and allow him, for the first time, to enter into the custody of the police not as a common criminal but as the freedom fighter he knew himself to be.” There seems to be a familiar theme, maybe a universal one about the individual’s struggle to be seen as who he really is, to be understood, and to be seen as more than a badjohn. Is this what you were trying to communicate?

Earl Lovelace

The general struggle by the individual for visibility is one thing. What I wanted to explore and communicate was the acknowledgement or lack of it of what we may loosely call the freedom fighter in our history. We see this person as a freedom fighter at one moment of history, and later we find it inconvenient to recognise him/her as such. I can think of the experience of freedom fighters in Zimbabwe.

Well I am thinking of a passage on page 4, “I looked around to see those who had dreamed with me steaming into safe harbours.” What were you thinking of when you wrote about harbours? This seems to be a recurrent idea in the novel.
A harbour would be a place of rest, where ships find shelter from the open seas before they set out again. They are not really permanent resting places, but you may be enticed to overstay your time in them because you find them so comfortable. More specifically, it suggests that while the narrator is aware of the ongoing journey/adventure, his fellow travellers have settled for safe harbours.

I am aware of a spiritual quality in your work such as in Wine of Astonishment, The Dragon Can’t Dance and Salt. I am not talking about a narrow view of spirituality in terms of a specific church or religion or institution. There seems to be a stronger spiritual presence particularly in the language of the novel. Is this so?
If by spiritual you mean a sense of being human, of being aware of something more than the flesh, something that moves you, that you can’t touch, something related to a higher human calling that makes you not just about individual advancement. Something that urges you on to make meaning beyond cynicism, to find reason to go again, to quieten the cynicism.

What do you mean by cynicism?
I am thinking of cynicism as upholding the idea that we are not capable of being better humans, that we will always choose the less noble alternative, as accepting that certain ills are par for the course. The heart of the book is about Sonnyboy wanting to be seen as a freedom fighter in a place where people insist on seeing him as a badjohn.

I want to return to what you said earlier about communicating. What do you try to communicate? What do you hope people will get out of your work?
There are certain themes that the novels explicated. Well Wine was about the liberation of a people who had been denied their personhood. Dragon was about the difficulty of being dragon and man. Salt dealt with reparation and the effects of colonialism. But we must accept that the works say much more than their themes. One of the things I am trying to communicate is that as ordinary people, we are allround better and more beautiful than we have been made out to be; that we can do better, we can change things.

Okay, well let’s look at pages 8-9. I want to focus on what I call a spiritual quality in the language: “His grandmother, whose pride in him had ballooned almost to bursting over the months of his involvement with Black Power, thrilled that he was going to be arrested for championing a cause more noble than the personal misdeeds that usually landed him in trouble, cooked for him a pot of rice and pigeon peas with ochro and saltfish, enough to offer the crowd that had gathered in her yard to witness the occasion of Sonnyboy’s arrest, to eat”. The syntax reminds me of that in the Crimond or Lord’s Prayer used by Anglicans which is not sung in the traditional word order. Is there anything in the language that you were striving for, that was reminiscent of something sacred?
Well, I don’t know. I am writing a whole work with its rhythms and movements. Now when you read this passage back to me I hear another thing: the five loaves and two fishes. I get a sense of the prodigal son returning. These are not things I thought about consciously when I was writing. But they are there.

I am looking at the sense of thanksgiving which has echoes not only in the Christian church but in Shango and Shouters as well. In fact with the ordinary need to give thanks.
As far as the rhythm is concerned, I am striving to get it right without it being too monotonous or predictable.

I was getting that sense out of it and here you are actually saying the things that I was thinking of. And so one of the things I am interested in Is, if that is not something that you deliberately set out to communicate, how do you account for it in your work?
How do I account in my work for something I didn’t deliberately put there? I suppose you will agree that if writing is putting something in the work, reading is also putting something. Reading is also a creative process in which the reader brings himself or herself, his /her own experience, so that he/she is able to see certain patterns and these patterns evoke significances. So what one finds as a reader (and the writer is also a reader) is not necessarily what the writer consciously put there, but what the reader makes of what the writer has done, and this is so because writing is not just putting words as denotative symbols, but words are connotative and the reader is the one who puts things together again and again, so that at one reading a reader sees something that she/he didn’t see on the first reading. Who put it there?

I remember when I was a sixth former at school our teacher invited Michael Anthony to come and talk to us and as young boys studying literature we had all kinds of academic ideas about what the writer was doing and all of that. And one of the first things Michael Anthony said to us was, “I don’t know about all of these things. Maybe your teachers have mentioned these things and maybe they have some worth or value, but I wasn’t really conscious of these things. I am telling a story and I want to tell a story (“The Year in San Fernando”) the best way I know how and therefore if you see these, fine, but these are not things I am working to convey in any deliberate fashion”.

Would such a statement hold true for you as a writer?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the story in itself evokes relative to what you bring to it. But, no, if what you are suggesting is that the writer is not aware of the muliple levels on which words and their arrangement work in a story or if you believe the writer is seeing only one dimension of the story. Here again, you have to remember that the writer is also a reader and there is a great deal of editing and re-editing. In this regard, I think of myself as a thoughtful writer as somebody who wants to show a number of things. I wouldn’t say that these things just happen. Of course there are some things you deliberately set out to do. So we see the grandmother is now inviting the crowd to eat. It seems a very normal action, but there is the connotation of a thanksgiving, she is giving thanks that her grandson has been redeemed. He is not a criminal but a revolutionary. I am glad that you bring these things up because when I look at the work there are so many things I put in there to serve the linear story but that evoke other stories.
I think of the word evocative. It evokes certain responses in the reader and like any good piece of work it does not appeal to you on one level. You mentioned linear but there are many dimensions to the work and that is a superior quality. What I am trying to understand through you with your help is how this thing works and what the process is but something happens when the writer puts his work out and people respond to it, but do we really understand this thing at all. I am not sure.
Do we understand what?

How this works?
Do we need to understand how it works?

Maybe not, maybe not, but I am aware of it and you are saying to me that you are not aware of it. And you are saying you didn’t say these words and you can see that that is there. Maybe my mind is interested in understanding how it works and I am not coming to it as a creative person. I am coming to it as a person who is trying to understand the work, through you, with your help.
But, aren’t you bringing something? And is it not that the more you bring or the quality of what you bring (your mind and experience) will determine what you get out of the text. This Carnival (2011) I was listening to Panorama and I heard a number of bands and then I heard All Stars and it evoked something and it took me back many years ago to my youth when they released their bomb tunes on Park Street. All Stars gave a rousing presentation, and I was trying to find out what did All Stars do that these other bands didn’t do. They all played well, but there was a certain thing that All Stars (although they did not come first according to the judges) did on that Sunday that was, if you want, spiritual. Now, what was it? Was it the enthusiasm of the players? Was it something in the composition, in the arrangement, in the tuning of the pans ? Or was it the years of listening I had brought to that Panorama?

I want to ask you whether Is Just a Movie is also another attempt to do something that you did in Dragon? There was a scene in Dragon in which the guys are standing at the wall when the police jeep comes up and the guys don’t know what to do next. And there is an image in Is Just a Movie which picks up the notion of people having started the revolution eventually surrendering (just after the mistake the MC makes in King Kala’s name) and you mention Black Power in passing but you come back to the main theme
(“I don’t remember exactly what song I was going to sing… I became the poet of the revolution. Then the state of emergency was declared. The heroes made their triumphant surrender.” page 4).
In Dragon when the fellars manage to hold their poses on the wall we see the wall as contested territory. They return to the wall and move only sullenly when the police come. In Is Just a Movie the surrender by the fellars lifts them into prominence so that everyone rushes to be detained since being arrested has become a badge of revolutionary importance. In Dragon there is something almost private between the police and the fellars. The battle continues each day. In Is Just a Movie the surrender brings them national attention and respect, though, now there is nowhere to go.

I want to go back to this idea of the sense of spirituality, not in the narrow or limited way in which people often refer to it. I think you said if you use a term like that it, if you accept a term like that, it is in the context of a journey of some kind, and of a sense of the individual going beyond himself, something bigger than himself. Your expression was “not being about individual advancement but appealing to a higher human calling”.
Well, I don’t want to sound too pious.

You mentioned earlier if you mean by spiritual you mean a sense of mission, being human, being concerned, a higher human calling. It didn’t come over as being pious or self-righteous or anything like that to me. I want to go back to it just to explore this some more, but let me allow you to say what you wanted to say.
No, you go ahead.

I found in the language a kind of rhythm. I don’t have the words for it yet which is why I am talking to you about it. I found in the language certain vibes reminded me of something that seems contradictory. There’s a way you could read it in a way that reminds you of the way prayers and incantations are said in the Christian churches but there is also to me a resistance toward being labelled that way in another reading as well. But it seems to me to be a vehicle that you explore because the reader can probably relate to it, in that the reader may be familiar with certain passages. Let me allow the work to speak for itself:
On pages 8-9, we read, “His grandmother, whose pride in him had ballooned almost to bursting over the months of his involvement with Black Power, thrilled that he was going to be arrested for championing a cause more noble than the personal … to eat.” I am responding to the phrase “she cooked for him a pot of rice” then you have the phrase “to eat”.
Later the passage continues (page 9):
They began to speculate that the authorities doing the arresting had him lower on the list for martyrdom than he had led them to believe he merited… Faced by the prospect of being marooned in the freedom of oblivion, Sonnyboy decide to take matters into his own hands. On a brilliant Sunday afternoon… and others were on their way to the blue sunshine of the beach, he laced up his boots, put on his black headband, his red dashiki and with the halo of his hair like an open umbrella over his face, set out for the police station.

Would you like to comment on what you were striving for in the rhythm of the language in these two passages?
I am happy to see you responding to the music of the language. Rhythm is something I pay a lot of attention to and I feel very rewarded when the language is lifted above the everyday to something more -shall we say – poetic, when what results from the rhythm is not adornment but a depth.

What were you hoping to achieve in Is Just a Movie?
I feel that we hadn’t looked at 1970. I wanted to go back. I don’t know if as a society we have learnt anything from 1970. I wanted to look at it [1970 Black Power] from a greater distance. A number of characters had been involved in 1970. They were concerned with the construction of a new society, yet each one headed for a safe harbour. Why? I hope Is Just a Movie exposes us to ourselves a little more.

Is this a comment on 1970?
1970 can help only if we learn from it. In brushing it aside we have encouraged ourselves to see- with the eyes of the colonisers- our resistance as delinquency and therefore no reason for us to change the society from the very philosophy that made us a colonial society. At the end of our struggles all our politicians have come up with is the idea of pursuing developed country status. All that means is that we will be discounting our experience and imagination and following the former colonial rulers.
Today the politics is increasingly about the politicians. I believe that Manning’s failed leadership suggests that this kind of politics is not acceptable. This ends an era. We have to gather the threads of our experience and begin.

Do you mean begin again?
Yes begin again. We have to take up the threads of our beginning. Take the steelband, for example. It has managed to develop despite the challenges of organizing and surviving and producing year after year. What have we learned from the steelband about leadership and management?

Do you feel that the writer is limited in what he can do, in what he can communicate?
The writer has to be involved in calling the people to their involvement, showing them their value and power as humans; but the writer is not alone. There are others. He has to work with others. He cannot do it alone. But I get the sense that the writer has been ignored because we do not seem to understand his/her value to the development of a people. But, the more we recognise that we require ourselves as a people, and value our experience and imagination, the more we will value the writer.

Are people more aware now, more prepared to speak about things that they might not have spoken about before now?
People are becoming more aware, more conscious, less and less accepting of the system than in the early days of independence. But in order to break out of the colonial order, we have to challenge the ideas in which it is rooted. I am thinking that we need to have more respect for our experience and imagination and understand that what is important to others might not be important to us.

You mentioned cynicism earlier. Do you think it makes a difference to others what you do?
I am optimistic. I can see that this cannot last. There will be other phases?

How would you describe the current phase?
I think it is a phase of asking, “What do we want? What kind of society do we want?” A society for everybody. I think we are at a stage of breaking down old structures and finding our way but that will be delayed until we have a greater sense of who we are.

What has been the response to Is Just a Movie?
The British response has been good, enthusiastic.

And locally?
I have only seen one review. I anticipate that readers will be challenged by this novel because it does not prescribe, it requires the readers to piece together the events and responses over the last forty years and decide what is to be done and what they want to do .

I am glad that you mentioned this because I am trying to explore communication outside of the traditional ways of seeing and talking about communication. Outside of traditional views of communication as sending messages from one person to the next or one to many as in the popular view of communication as only mass communication.
I think that people talk about communicating as getting a message from one person to the next as trying to sell something or an idea, transferring ideas but what you are talking about is interesting. I think we don’t always make the connection between communication and community, communication and communal. In that sense, I see communication as the interaction with each other, of not just getting them to see what they do not know, but helping to confirm in people what they know.

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