Swan Books interview

Swan Books interview


Desirée Reynolds is a British-based Caribbean writer and author of the acclaimed debut novel Seduce (Peepal Tree Press) – written in “literary patois”. She and fellow writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN’s editor) met in April 2015 at a symposium on “Configuring Madness in Caribbean Literature”, held at the University of Liège in Belgium. That meeting led to many discussions about writing, including the following interview / conversation.

AM: Many ‘Caribbean’ writers live outside the region, which sometimes sparks questions about identity. Do you consider yourself a Caribbean writer, a British writer, both, or beyond such definitions?
With this question come issues of ‘authenticity’. For the wonderer and wondee, it is ultimately a frustrating and fruitless debate, because who actually gets to decide and based on what? There are so many writers who do not live in the Caribbean, should we time them? If they are away for x amount of time, their Caribbean status is revoked? You can claim if you have one Caribbean parent? Two? If you’re married to one? It’s a circle and a cycle that shows up our need for justification, which illustrates the geographical violence of colonialism and subsequent migration leading to the development of ideals like ’diaspora’, an effort of belonging.  We want to be claimed, but have no power as to who. A woman asked me why it was I felt that I should write this book? Why me? Implying did I have the right? I could only say because I wanted to. My parents hated London and sent me to Jamaica, where I had my first birthday, so we could move to Brooklyn. Plans changed and by the time I came back to London, I didn’t know them, I thanked them politely for my dinner, took up my wicker basket and told them I had to go home…DR: I find that a very interesting question and one that I’ve debated with friends from the ‘Caribbean diaspora’. It’s a well-worn discussion, filled with notions of home and belonging and loss. I have finally concluded that I’m a Caribbean British writer. Not pretty semantically but it is the best description of my work so far. I heard the term, ‘Anglo-Caribbean’ recently and I didn’t like it. Whilst everyone has a right to name their own names, names and categories are forced upon you, whether you like it or not. There’s strength in what I choose to align myself with. I’m looking back at a road filled with other people’s hard work, blood, sweat and tears, how can I choose to deny that, when it’s given me everything? What is a Caribbean writer? One that was born there? One that still lives there? One whose parents bring them up to believe that it is their home, wherever else in the world that they might be? That’s home. But then you get back there and everyone there tells you how much you’re not from there, it’s not your home and we are not the same people. You don’t have the talk, your references are different, you haven’t had to live in the same way, which is all very true. Cultural output in this country is still horrifically white, male and hetero. You’re not welcome here either. So, a niche has to be carved and re-carved, being a writer that sits between notions of worlds, you have that right to name your name and your identity isn’t just about food or music or who you love, but where you’re home, even if you’re carrying that home on your back.

AM: That’s a thought-provoking response. I think that in the end, we just have to do what we do. That’s my philosophy anyway. What made you want to become a writer?

DR: I like that quote from Toni Morrison, who says, she wrote the book she wanted to read. That fits perfectly for me. I wanted to see myself, my family, my language, my street, in these things called books that I loved. It wasn’t only where am I, but where are we? Without wanting to sound like a cliché, my childhood was difficult. Twelfth Night, The Bluest Eye, Pickwick Papers, The Wife Of Bath, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Conan The Barbarian, and The X-Men, these stories were my best friends.

AM: What was the inspiration for Seduce?

DR: The stories I heard from young, when eavesdropping on Big People talk. I come from a long line of fiercely independent and strong women, it was them. I wanted to show who they could be, how they were, what made them cry of laugh or cuss, not in a sociological way but in a way that was as beautiful as they were. I hope I’ve done that.

AM: You made certain choices about the language and the setting in the novel. Can you explain these?

DR: I never wanted to write a book. It was never my ambition, still isn’t in a way, and if you set that as a goal, it will be a struggle. My ambition and hope is to be the best writer I can be, my first allegiance isn’t to any childish notions of fame or money,(you learn that second part well quick, there ain’t none), but to the story. I owe it to the story, to do my best by it, to fight it, cuss it, abandon it only to come back pleading. I owe the story. So, the choice to write Seduce as it came out, ended up not being a choice at all. How I told it, made the story work far better, than the twenty thousand words I had before, which didn’t work at all, didn’t flow, wasn’t happy with itself. I discussed this with my editor, Jeremy Poynting at Peepal Tree, and he knew what the story needed and luckily he had faith enough in me that I could pull it off.  I can’t say if I’ve pulled it off or not, I’m my own worst critic, I hope so. Telling the story in nation language, as I say, wasn’t really a choice in terms of the story but it was risky. Would readers get it? How do I spell that word? Can this be a sentence structure? All valid questions, but the story dictated how it was going to be.

What I wanted to do, as Robert Antoni puts it, is to ‘activate the reader’. I love that idea. Obviously, reading isn’t passive, but I wanted the reader to think, damn, there’s a lot in here and I need to take time to ingest it all. That then leads to discussions about who we write for, ourselves, an idea of a perfect reader, our mums? All of the above, I suppose.  Also, nation language is so pervasive in British culture, that I automatically think people must know that phrase or word anyway, example, gwaan. You can hear nation language being spoken by white kids in the north, Asian kids, people whose ancestry isn’t connected to the Caribbean at all. I don’t say people can or can’t use those words or phrases, language is a living thing, but I do say, this is where it came from first. I set the novel on a indeterminate Caribbean island, because Chattel slavery and colonialism has ensured that part of the Caribbean, rests in an imagined Caribbean and I wanted to explore that, because it is as real, to the diaspora, as the Caribbean is.

Hmmm, I don’t like to think that anything is inescapable, but the Caribbean is a migrant population, from the first Indians to slaves to indentured labour to settlers to slave owners to hotel owners. We have been moved and continue to move. With that movement can come an unconnectedness, a set drift from those things that ground you, language, religion, place, etc. Colonial survival is entrenched in that movement. A lie about a Motherland, in order to keep you in place, a lie about God/s, the  maintenance of the lie of our unattractiveness, our slovenly ways, closer to the earth and over-sexualised behaviour, means that in your daily life, you’re fighting with these notions 24/7. That’s a huge emotional burden. More so for the ones that came before us, because they felt they had to literally fight every stereotype, whilst being pleasant enough so as not to frighten anyone. Cos we’re not that either. Whilst we, second, third and fourth generations don’t really care about notions of our otherness, they do not haunt us or provide any framework we feel we have to operate in, what you think of me is your business. Writing is mine.  But, there is an emotional/psychological cost. Put that with the stereotype of our being more prone to madness anyway and we have the recipe for a ‘theme’. I Think madness and alienation is a part of the human story, but given the circumstances that brought about the birth of The Caribbean, perhaps they are inescapable after all.AM: The book taps into the themes of madness and alienation. Are these inescapable in ‘Caribbean literature’, or Caribbean diaspora lit?

AM: You write in other genres as well – journalism, short stories, poetry. Do you have a different way of approaching each?

DR: Yes. I started out as a journalist at The Gleaner, London, Brixton, Acre lane. I was at one time carnival correspondent! I think very definitely the approach is different because the intention is different. What you plan to do with it, dictates how you tell it. I doubt if my poetry will ever see the light of day.

AM: How do you see the future of books and writing?

DR: I’m a purist. I like books. I was given a reader and I do appreciate the carrying of nuff books on one device, I get a lot of trains, but I don’t like the sad decline of bookshops and libraries. You can’t browse the internet in that same way and pick up a book you’ve never heard of, just cos you like the cover or what it says in the blurb. The internet is taking away our choices. Writing is a part of who we are, we have a need to document the human condition. Letter writing was in decline and out came emails and texts, the rise of Flash fiction, we are still writing and I think we always will, even if the spellings are different.

AM: Can you tell us about your next project?

DR: I’m writing a short story collection at the moment, with a central character that is a thread throughout. Fingers crossed and with a good tail wind, I hope it’ll be out next year. I’m in ‘Closure’, an anthology of Black British short stories, edited by Jacob Ross and published by Peepal Tree Press. I’ve recently edited a collection of young people’s writing. And I would like to turn Seduce into an audio book. I’m doing a PhD and I’m already researching and writing the next novel, which will be based on the Haitian revolution.