Catching up on 'young guns'; reconnecting with Guyana
May 9, 2004
Guyana Prize winning writer Fred D'Aguiar was recently in Guyana working on a project for BBC Radio. He took some time out to speak to Sunday Chronicle's Ruel Johnson.
'I always try to reconnect with Guyana. Whenever Guyanese are abroad, trying to make a living and you know they get bogged down where they are. And if you're a writer and Guyana is your subject - as it has been for me in every other book - you're looking at the landscape and trying to say what made me as a writer and what exactly is it that keeps me engaged with the place, even if I'm removed from it by the way. And so coming back here is a chance to get reconnected to the place.' - Fred D'Aguiar
Sunday Chronicle: What have you been doing here in Guyana?
Fred D'Aguiar: Catching up on young guns... trying to come abreast of the creativity in Guyana. And trying to make a programme - with [producer] Julian May from BBC Radio - about Jonestown, ostensibly but using that prism to examine current creative practice in Guyana; visual and literary.
SC: How successful have you been in doing this?
FD: [Laughs] Not very. What I've understood from my visit here is that Georgetown life is very separate from the historical event of Jonestown and its location. It's seven miles outside of Port Kaituma. We went and spent a day and a half and came back. It's a long flight, you land. It's a long jeep ride, and you have to be careful - it's a rough ride - then you get to Jonestown. So to locate Jonestown there is [sic] to remove it from Georgetown concerns.
In a sense the two projects are very separate, ultimately. I'll qualify it [the programme] by saying that Jonestown is my obsession and my obsession only.
SC: Okay, let's look at another Jonestown. Michael Gilkes' Joanstown won over your Bloodlines at the last Guyana Prize Awards. Are you entering your new novel Bethany Bettany in this year's prize and do you expect more success this year?
FD: I have to ask my publisher [about entering this year's Prize]. Michael Gilkes is a worthy opponent and winner. I've known him for many years; when I was an undergraduate, he was a professor. When I did graduate studies at the University of Warwick, I think he was there for a year and we talked quite a bit. He's written a wonderful book on Wilson Harris and Caribbean literature. In Joanstown, I understand he tries to rehabilitate the nomenclature and turn it into a positive. Before you read the book you would have Jones (J-o-n-e-s) in your head and suddenly you're gone replace that with Joan (J-o-a-n) and understand that this place for him, holds the memory of love and courtship. So what I understand is that he's trying to debunk the idea of it as a site for trauma only and an American import at that. I have nuff respect for Mr. Gilkes.
SC: So from your visit here, would it affect how you would change any literary treatment of Jonestown that you might have had in mind?
FD: Yes. I read Wilson Harris' novel, Jonestown, his twenty-third novel and in a sense Wilson Harris' mission is the same from Palace [of the Peacock] to The Mask of the Beggar. In talking about Jonestown: for him it is a site in the interior, a place of instruction for Guyanese though it's not very well known because of its location, its remoteness. [Jim] Jones went there and did something in that region which he is concerned with and I think it made sense for him to write about it and try and examine it in terms of a visual mythology and recuperation of lost, past civilisations and the way in which the interior teaches us how to see when we look at something.
For me, I'm in conversation with Wilson Harris. In terms of heritage of writing from abroad about Guyana, with a certain amount of knowledge of Guyana, Wilson is a study for me, a natural predecessor. I don't know the interior... I only had my ten years, mostly in Airy Hall, Mahaicony; but my parents are Guyanese and I have a commitment to the place. So for me the subject is still of interest although qualified by hearing what Guyanese who are here are actually saying about it, I'm closer to it. It's going to be a project of mine, which I have to work out in some way... Jones might be Burnham, who knows?
FD: Well he [Jones] spent a long time in charge and the powers he accrued around him a leader. [Burnham's] military prowess and his decrees had given loads of power and in a sense Jones was like that. There was one road going in to Jonestown and that road was blocked off by Jones' bodyguards and you had to get past them, you couldn't get in to town on a sort of casual visit. In a sense, a head of state is very much like that too; he or she will have fences to stop an ordinary person getting to him. The project is going to be a sort of allegory... [laughs] but you see I've kind of given the whole thing away and I haven't even written it yet... but the idea of Jonestown is that Guyanese won't be laid low, you can't lay a nation low; you can injure it, you can kneecap it for a while; but you can never decimate it in the way Jonestown was decimated. Of course, it can only go so far as a parable, but I'm still obsessed with it and I will still do something there, because I'm interested in the period between 62 and '78.
SC: You seem to write equally well between prose and poetry. Which would you prefer to treat Jonestown in?
FD: I think probably prose. Poetry is a smaller readership and not only that - I don't mind the readership - I tried a series of poems on Jim Jones back in the mid-nineties in a book called Bill of Rights. It wasn't widely disseminated by the way; it was published in London and quietly left aside there; I didn't try to push it here or all that stuff. But this time I want it to be a prose work only because of characters - and well, the book is going to be in conversation with Jonestown by Wilson Harris.
SC: So what are you doing now? You write but do you also have to have a day job?
FD: Well, yes. Anybody who's writing and not doing anything else, well that's a luxury. It's like twenty pairs of Nike [boots] and here's your twenty-first pair. I have to teach to support my self and my family. I was at the University of Miami for seven years teaching the art of creative writing and one literature class; some Caribbean literature to give students a sense of that. And now I'm at a place called Virginia Tech to set up a Masters programme in creative writing. They asked me to come along and help them establish that because they have creative writing for undergraduates but they haven't got a graduate programme.
SC: Virginia Tech isn't too well known for its humanities programme, is it?
FD: No, not at all. Everybody coming through there is doing the mineral sciences and so on. It's well known for its earth sciences as they call them but English is a requirement for all the trainees so as a result it's the biggest department at the University, so creative writing makes a lot of sense to them and the graduate programme makes a lot of sense to them.
SC: But you have the luxury of free time to write...
FD: Yes. I teach the usual literature classes. The load is actually a two-two load; that is two courses per semester. Summers I take to recover, and write. And you have some holidays there, thrown in.
SC: And to do stuff for the BBC...
FD: Oh yes, this... Well you know I always try to reconnect with Guyana. Whenever Guyanese are abroad, trying to make a living and you know they get bogged down where they are. And if you're a writer and Guyana is your subject - as it has been for me in every other book - you're looking at the landscape and trying to say what made me as a writer and what exactly is it that keeps me engaged with the place, even if I'm removed from it by the way. And so coming back here is a chance to get reconnected to the place.
SC: What else have you done since you've been here?
FD: I went to a poetry reading the other night at a place called Upscale and met a lot of students who were reading, performing works in print with a fusion of their own poetry and songs.
SC: Were you recognised there by the way?
FD: Yes, someone there said, `D'Aguiar is here'. And no one talked when I said it was good to see the youth writing better than me, and reading; and I did a poem from my head and just sat back and enjoyed the rest of the programme.
SC: Did it give you any hope?
FD: Definitely. The thing with poetry is that you can't stop it. You can tell poets 'Go and write some more, I'm not going to publish you yet' and you can pretend that it doesn't exist, but the poets will get together and the sense of creativity that was present at Upscale, what was evident there, what was in abundance was the will to create. There were a lot of poems about love and loss and desire and lust. That's youth, you can't stop youth.
SC: So finally, the question. What does the future hold for you, any Nobel aspirations?
FD: No, no. There's only one Nobel in the Caribbean every thirty-five years or so, and by that time I'll be dead.
SC: Not according to recent history...
FD: [Laughs] Walcott and Naipaul? That probably means that it's going to be seventy years until the next one happens here. No. Obviously I want to be read. I'm concerned about literary fiction, its demise. I'm blaming the Internet... I think it has undermined people's turning to books for arguments, for philosophy. They're going to the Web. Just when the Web is making things cheaper and more accessible, books stubbornly remain expensive. But there are e-books by the way, so there are alternatives... But I still want to publish books by the way, I still want to go to a bookshop. Or even if I order one from Amazon [Amazon.com] I still want something to arrive and drop on my floor.
SC: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Mr. D'Aguiar...
FD: No prob...