Monday, August 29, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Colin Hosten - Home and Back Again, with V.S. Naipaul

Home and Back Again: The Immigrant Perspective
A Conversation with V.S. Naipaul

It seems deceptively trivial for essays by and about non-American writers to be anchored by themes of immigration, home, and belonging. We may not be from here, but here, especially as it might be similar to or different from there, still consumes us. To be fair, though, it’s not just us: the majority of our readers in the U.S. are, after all, American. The idea of belonging, what it means to have a place to call one’s own, is one that transcends nationality and ethnicity. We all know there’s no place like home. And perhaps that is why we turn to the non-American writer time and again to help us explore such themes in literature. Immigrants tend to have a particular eye and sensibility for parsing the vicissitudes of place. We often live in two places at once: the place where we exist physically, and the one we conjure in our mind’s eye whenever someone asks, “No, where are you from?” which itself may not be real place that exists in the known universe, but rather some contortion of the space between where we live and where we were born. You can observe this dichotomy among every stripe of immigrant in the U.S., even the Canadian, but it is especially poignant when this sense of duality is also reflected in the language. The immigrant speaks English—very articulately, at that—at work, at school, among friends and neighbors, then switches to her native tongue inside the house, with family, on the phone with relatives. A sometimes unconscious code-switch that acts like an instantaneous teleportation device.

When I left Trinidad at eighteen to go to school in Atlanta, I had only a vague, if persistent, sense that I would not be returning “home” anytime soon; yet I still found myself seeking solace in literature that echoed the sounds and expressions of my homeland. English is the official language of Trinidad in the same way that it is an official language of Wales; it’s difficult to follow along if you’re not from there. The particular flavor of the local accent and dialect is even more tricky to capture in writing, which is part of what makes V.S. Naipaul such a singular writer. He is not the only one to tell compelling stories using Trinidadian patois, but for me, he was the first, particularly striking at age eleven, when my literary explorations had thitherto revolved around foreign people living in foreign places, to read the seminal book Miguel Street and recognize in characters such as Bogart, Eddoes, and Titus Hoyt, people I might encounter around the corner.

I returned to Miguel Street many times in college, but found that sense of recognition increasingly complicated by a more sophisticated literary awareness that made it harder to separate Naipaul the writer from Naipaul the person. He has a somewhat complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature (some lay claim to Derek Walcott, who, though born in St. Lucia, lived in Trinidad, and married a Trinidadian). Yet Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth, professing fealty instead to England, where he migrated after leaving Trinidad at the age of eighteen, like I did. (We won’t even get into some of his more colorful statements regarding gender here.) They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes; perhaps you shouldn’t read their promotional interviews either. Suffice it to say that reading Naipaul now left me feeling more disconnected. I couldn’t understand how someone who wrote so beautifully could say such ugly things.

I found some of the answers I was looking for in his nonfiction, which I didn’t discover until well into adulthood. The Middle Passage in particular, his essential travelogue about Trinidad and the West Indies, reminded me of a series of essays I wrote in graduate school about my own ambivalence about where I’m from. The first essay in that series, called “Homeland,” begins with the line, “I don’t think I can ever go home again,” and charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” Perhaps, in this regard, I could find some common ground with Naipaul after all. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up the oil and natural gas industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

That’s my rationale, anyway—what about Naipaul? How does he account for the severity of the statements he has made and written about the island of his birth? In The Middle Passage, Naipaul has captured some of the finer notes of the angst, anguish, and ambivalence almost every immigrant experiences at some point in trying to reconcile the old country with the new, so why don’t we just ask him, and let him answer in his own words:

CH: You use an epigraph in The Middle Passage from James Anthony Froude, who writes, “There are no people [in the West Indies] in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.” Do you agree with some of your critics that you have been unnecessarily harsh in your depiction of the West Indies?
VSN: Nothing was created in the British West Indies, no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else.
CH: But is that all there is to it? Is there any historical context can help us understand the present?
VSN: How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt? Shall he be as academic as Sir Alan Burns, … setting West Indian brutality in the context of European brutality? … The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.
CH: You were created in the West Indies, in Trinidad. Can you find nothing in Trinidad’s history worth exploring?
VSN: Outside the Royal Victoria Institute in Port of Spain an anchor, still in good condition, stands embedded in concrete, and a sign says this might be the anchor Columbus lost during his rough passage into the Gulf of Paria. So much, one might say, for the history of Trinidad for nearly three hundred years after its discovery…. In Trinidad society never hardened around the institution of slavery as it had done in the other West Indian islands; there was no memory of bitterly suppressed revolts.
CH: You’re referring to the fact that Trinidad was colonized by the British shortly before they ended the slave trade, which accounts for the influx of “immigrant” workers from India, China, and the Middle East.
VSN: In the immigrant society, memories growing dim, there was no guiding taste. As you rose you evolved your own standards, and they were usually those of modernity.
CH: Modernity?
VSN: Trinidad considers itself, and is acknowledged by the other West Indian territories to be, modern. It has night clubs, restaurants, air conditioned bars, supermarkets, soda fountains, drive-in cinemas, and a drive-in bank. But modernity in Trinidad means a little more. It means constant alertness, a willingness to change, a readiness to accept anything which films, magazines, and comic strips appear to indicate as American…. To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines. The excellent coffee which is grown in Trinidad is used only by the very poor and a few middle-class English expatriates. Everyone else drinks Nescafe or Maxwell House or Chase and Sanborn, which is more expensive but is advertised in magazines and therefore acceptable.
CH: Does this, then, create a double standard? You are admonished for criticizing local culture, yet locals flock to foreign products whenever they can?
VSN: For a long time in Trinidad there has been a campaign against poems about daffodils—daffodils in particular—because daffodils are not flowers Trinidad schoolchildren know…. To the Trinidadian mind, however, no absurdity attaches to the presence of being American in Trinidad; and while much energy has been spent in the campaign against Wordsworth, no one has spoken out against the fantasy which Trinidadians live out every day of their lives.
CH: Which fantasy is that?
VSN: The Negro in the New World was, until recently, unwilling to look at his past. It seemed to him natural that he should be in the West Indies, that he should speak French or English or Dutch, dress in the European manner or in adaptation of it, and share the European’s religion and food. Travel-writers who didn’t know better spoke of him as a “native,” and he accepted this…. Africa was forgotten…. This was the greatest damage done to the Negro by slavery. It taught him self-contempt. It set him the ideals of white civilization and made him despise every other…. Twenty million Africans made the middle passage, and scarcely an African name remains in the New World…
“The creole slaves,” says a writer of 1805, “looked upon the newly imported Africans with scorn, and sustained in their turn that of the mulattoes, whose complexions were browner; while all were kept at a distance from the intercourse of the whites.”
CH: Should Trinidadians examine their own prejudices before becoming self-righteous about yours?
VSN: Grenada, immemorially, has been as funny a word in Trinidad as Wigan is in England…. The attitudes to immigrants are the same the world over—the stories about West Indians in England (“twenty-four to a room”) are exactly matched by the stories about Grenadians and others in Trinidad. 
Modernity in Trinidad, then, turns out to be the extreme susceptibility of people who are unsure of themselves and, having no taste or style of their own, are eager for instruction.
CH: This is not endemic to Trinidad or the West Indies, is it?
VSN: West Indians are English-speaking and when confronted with the foreigner display the language arrogance of all English-speaking people.

Naipaul’s responses bear the characteristic cleverness and authority of someone who sees himself as rational and impartial. His writing is self-aware, precise, allowing the readers to infuse their own judgments, humor, irony. He is above the moral whims of other human beings. Or is he?

CH: You’ve written than on your return to the island in 1960, as soon as the ship docked at the quay, you began to feel an “old fear” rise up.
VSN: I was distressed, not so much by the familiarity, as by the feeling of continuation. The years I had spent abroad fell away and I could not be sure which was the reality in my life: the first eighteen years in Trinidad or the later years in England.
CH: What was so distressing? What were you afraid of?
VSN: I had never examined this fear of Trinidad. I had never wished to…. I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical. The only professions were those of law and medicine, because there was no need for any other; and the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers, and members of the distributive trades. Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.
CH: And you, the writer, were not considered a hero…
VSN: Such skills were not required by a society which produced nothing, never had to prove its worth, and was never called upon to be efficient. And such people had to be cut down to size or, to use the Trinidadian expression, be made to “boil down.” Generosity—the admiration of equal for equal—was therefore unknown; it was a quality I knew only from books and found only in England.
CH: The island enjoys a burgeoning literary scene today—do you think there is newfound space and regard for writing as a vocation?
VSN: Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands. Here the West Indian writers have failed. Most have so far only reflected and flattered the prejudices of their race or colour groups…. To the initiated, one whole side of West Indian writing has little to do with literature, and much to do with the race war.
CH: Again, this seems harsh. Aren’t you implicating yourself as a writer with that indictment?
VSN: No writer can be blamed for reflecting his society. If the West Indian writer is to be blamed, it is because, by accepting and promoting the unimpressive race-and-colour values of his group, he has not only failed to diagnose the sickness of his society but has aggravated it.
CH: You’ve written extensively about race relations in Trinidad, indicating that you identify more with your Indian ancestors than with the island of your birth. How much did that factor in to you wanting to leave?
VSN: We were of various races, religious, sets, and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island. Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling; indeed, it was only our Britishness, our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity.
CH: Is that why so many Trinidadians flocked to England in the 1950s and ’60s?
VSN: Pursuing the Christian-Hellenic tradition, the West Indian… never seriously doubted the validity of the prejudices of the culture to which he aspired. In the French territories he aimed at Frenchness, in the Dutch territories at Dutchness; in the English territories he aimed at simple whiteness and modernity, Englishness being impossible.
CH: Yet you identify as English now…
VSN: With the emphasis on America, English things are regarded as old-fashioned and provincial.
CH: Well, it can come off a little stodgy compared to the warm, tropical climate in Trinidad…
VSN: Columbus… had discovered, he wrote Ferdinand and Isabella, the approaches of the terrestrial paradise.
CH: And what did you discover, on your return trip in 1960?
VSN: It seemed to me that I was seeing the landscape for the first time. I had hated the sun and the unchanging seasons. I had believed that the foliage had no variety and could never understand how the world “tropical” held romance for so many. Now I was taken by the common coconut tree, the cliché of the Caribbean…. I had never liked the sugarcane fields. Flat, treeless, and hot, they stood for everything I had hated about the tropics and the West Indies… Now, in the uneven land of Central and South Trinidad, I saw that even sugar cane could be beautiful.

His descriptions cut to the heart of a longing I have not quite been able to express since leaving my homeland. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…

CH: Absence, it seems, can make the heart grow fonder…
VSN: Everyone has to learn to see the West Indies tropics for himself.
CH: Could you ever go back, now that you’ve learned to see it for yourself?
VSN: Trinidad was and remains a materialist immigrant society, continually growing and changing, never settling into any pattern, always retaining the atmosphere of a history of enduring brutality, in the absence of a history; yet not an expanding society but a colonial society, ruled autocratically if benevolently, with the further limitations of its small size and remoteness. All this has combined to give its special character, its ebullience and irresponsibility. And more: a tolerance which is more than tolerance: an indifference to virtue as well as vice. The Land of the Calypso is not a copywriter’s phrase…. If curiosity is a characteristic of the cosmopolitan, the cosmopolitanism on which Trinidad prides itself is fraudulent.
CH: You don’t believe the island has made any genuine progress?
VSN: This sophisticated play-acting is part of that Trinidad taste for fantasy, which finds its full bacchanalian expression on the two days of Carnival.
CH: In Carnival, at least, there is a legitimate claim to a festival that sets a world standard?
VSN: It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside of Trinidad is a calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider. Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, however good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso. A hundred foolish travel-writers and a hundred “calypsonians” in all parts of the world have debased the form, which is now generally dismissed abroad as nothing more than a catchy tune with a primitive jingle in broken English… For this bastardization Trinidadians are as much to blame as anyone. Just as they take pleasure in their American modernity, so they take pleasure in living up to the ideals of the tourist brochure. They know that they are presented to the world as the land of calypso and steel band. They are determined that the world shall not be disappointed; and their talent for self-caricature is profound. The Americans expect native costumes and native dances; Trinidad will discover both. Few words are used more frequently in Trinidad than “culture.” Culture is spoken of as something quite separate from day-to-day existence… It is like a special native dish, something like a callaloo. Culture is a dance—not the dance that people do when more than three of them get together—but the one put on in native costume on stage…. Culture is, in short, a night-club turn. And nothing pleases Trinidadians so much as to see their culture being applauded by white American tourists in night-clubs.

I have to admit that some of this “culture” played a part in my leaving the island, specifically the culture of homophobia. This is where I think I can begin to understand Naipaul’s stoic stance, even as I sympathize with the reactive indignation of my fellow countrymen.

CH: You’ve written about “the need to escape” Trinidad, something I felt keenly as a gay teenager. Whenever I get nostalgic—about the food, the weather, the landscape, my family—I remember that I would not be able to live my life as a married, gay man there. It can be at once frustrating and heartbreaking, feeling that you can never really go home.
VSN: There is no set way in Trinidad of doing anything. Every house can be a folly. There is no set way of dressing or cooking or entertaining. Everyone can live with whoever he can get wherever he can afford. Ostracism is meaningless; the sanctions of any clique can be ignored. It is in this way, and not in the way of the travel brochure, that the Trinidadian is a cosmopolitan. He is adaptable; he is cynical; having no rigid social conventions of his own, he is amused by the conventions of others. He is a natural anarchist… If the Trinidadian has no standards of morality he is without the greater corruption of sanctimoniousness, and can never make pleas for intolerance in the name of piety…. Everything that makes the Trinidadian an unreliable, exploitable citizen makes him a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style.
CH: I will say I’ve seen great strides toward more inclusiveness in the past twenty years. I think legislative progress will continue to be slow and labored, but general attitudes have become much more accepting and understanding of difference.
VSN: Change must come from the top. Capital punishment and corporal punishment, incitements to brutality, must be abolished. The civil service must be rejuvenated…. The need to be efficient will change some of these attitudes. An efficient civil service is in some ways a considerate civil service.

I feel as though I understand the man on a more nuanced level now. Does his prose sting a little to those who may not want to reflect on its meaning? Sure. Is the sting of him being right, at least on some level, even more discomfiting? Absolutely.

CH: Thank you. You get your share of flak for being outspoken against Trinidad, yet there are so many citizens like you, like me, who have left the island with no intent to return. We live, as immigrants tend to, a dual life, our minds existing in a place where our feet were not born, so that we sometimes feel unanchored, unsure of even whether the life we live now exists in the same universe as the one we left behind.
VSN: Port of Spain is the noisiest city in the world. Yet it is forbidden to talk…. In a private home as soon as anyone starts to talk the radio is turned on. It must be loud, loud. If there are more than three, dancing will begin. Sweat-sweat-dance-dance-sweat. Loud, loud, louder. If the radio isn’t loud enough, a passing steel band will be invited in. Jump-jump-sweat-sweat-jump…. In the street people conduct conversations at a range of twenty yards or more; and even when they are close to you their voices have a vibrating-fork edge. You will realize this only after you have left Trinidad: the voices in British Guiana will sound unnaturally low, and for the first day or so whenever anyone talks to you, you will lean forward conspiratorially, for what is being whispered is, you feel, very secret. In the meantime, dance, dance, shout above the shuffle. If you are silent the noise will rise to a roar about you. You cannot shout loud enough. Your words seem to be issuing from behind you. You have been here only an hour, but you feel exhausted. Your head is bursting. It is only eleven; the party is just warming up. You are being rude, but you must go. 
You drive up the new Lady Young Road, and the diminishing noise makes it seem cooler. You get to the top and look out at the city glittering below you, amber and exploding blue on black, the ships in the harbour in the background, the orange flames issuing from the oil derricks far out in the Gulf of Paria. For a moment it is silent. Then, above the crickets, whose stridulation you hadn’t noticed, you begin to hear the city: the dogs, the steel bands…. All through the night the dogs will go on, in a thousand inextricably snarled barking relays, rising and falling, from street to street and back again, from one end of the city to another. And you will wonder how you stood it for eighteen years, and whether it was always like this.

Colin Hosten is an expatriate writer, because that sounds fancier than immigrant. His work has appeared most recently in The Essay Review, OUT Magazine, and Spry Literary Journal. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he currently lives with his husband in Connecticut, where he is a children’s book editor and a lecturer in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. See more at Find him on Twitter @colinhosten.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. He would love any suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Just wow. Great writing, great interview. Thank you.