Announcing the arrival of the Indian novel-writing tradition
(Extract of an interview with Peter Kempadoo, Georgetown, Guyana, January, 2011. Kempadoo was born in 1926 to James Kempadoo, aka Lauchmonen, and Priscilla Alemeloo Tambran, both Tamils. He was born into a Christian home still steeped in Tamil traditions, the two sets of customs enriching his cosmopolitan outlook. He is a trained teacher, trained male nurse, editor, publisher, broadcaster and folklorist, among other callings. Kempadoo is the author of two novels, with a third to be published soon.)
PP: ‘Guiana Boy’, published in 1960, is the first novel written and published by a Guyanese of Indian descent.
PK: I didn’t realise that.
PP: That is the record.
PK: Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
PP: That honour goes to you. Tell us about that first novel, which is semi-autobiographical.
PK: I never had any leaning to writing. But at that time, I was working in London, at the BBC, broadcasting alongside other West Indian broadcasters, and many of them were talking about Sam Selvon. Just about then, it came to me to say something about Guyana; to write something about Guyana. And so I started writing, without any guidelines or so. It was spontaneous.
The reviews, recorded within that very book, were outstandingly good. I was so baffled and delighted, of course.
I must explain at that time, I was director of research at the Gallup Poll, which put me in contact with thousands of people all over the country.
PP: Are you saying that from the Poll, you were able to get a feel of how people were thinking at the time?
PK: It may have had some bearing on what I was writing. I was just writing and writing from my experiences in life, fleshing it out…
PP: So you started writing without any guidelines, without a target audience…I am raising these points because they would be useful when we talk about the art of writing.
PK: The art of writing. Fortunately, or I should say, unfortunately, I started out at a cleared-out mule stable called Port Mourant High School (Berbice, British Guiana) where one book will serve the whole class of forty or fifty. There was no literature to talk about; we were all very poor, going barefooted to school. But at that time, I started hearing about American literature; that is after we went through English Literature, which was the traditional way.
PP: Our literary tradition was tied to the English literary tradition. Please go on… you were saying that you were being introduced to American literature.
PK: Not formally. Yes, we were hearing about Steinbeck and the others. And that opened a new vision… unlike the writing of Dickens and others in England. You could now write of your experiences at the grassroots level without fear. I thought this was brilliant, so I read up a lot on American literature … Steinbeck and Hemingway. And I sat down and wrote that novel within a matter of weeks.
PP: Congratulations! Your other novel, ‘Old Thom’s Harvest’…
PK: I did that later.
PP: That is also set in Guyana, on the Corentyne Coast…
PK: Yes, but it was more of a contemporary flavour. In fact, I think we are getting ahead of ourselves. ‘All in a Saturday Night’ is actually my first novel; but I didn’t get to go back and edit it for publication, and that is coming out soon.
It is a novel – unity of time – where a lifetime of experiences is covered in one evening of conversation.
PP: Whet the appetite a bit more.
PK: It is set in the early 1950s, when the politicians were returning and finding their voice. ‘Saturday Night’ was special in those days; you prepared for it in a big way: Lots of people meeting, conversation would flow…But let’s wait for the book.
PP: No problem. Let’s look again at ‘Old Thom’s Harvest’; I am intrigued with the subject: Miscegenation, interracial marriages…
PK: I was born in Port Mourant, a sugar estate, where the population was ninety eight per cent East Indian, but my mother’s parents come from Rose Hall, which was ninety eight per cent African. So you became aware, especially when I went shrimping with my grandparents, of the differences between estate life and village life. And that, I felt, was interesting.
PP: At the beginning of this interview, you said you were sort of an accidental writer, but we are learning now that you have three novels to your name, more novels than some the better known writers.
And that’s not all: You also have a string of writers to your linage. Let’s take a peek at some of those writers.
PK: This was something that grew out of the situation. We were living in England now for about five years, and the children were at the point where they could attend school, and I didn’t feel right about my children. We were living in Sussex… That was in the early ‘60s, when you couldn’t see too many of us… black people, there. So despite a good salary, house in the country, seven-and-a-half acres of woodlands, car and all that, I decided to go back to the Caribbean. So I just packed up and came to the Caribbean. Here, we decided to teach the children at home, and my wife, who was a brilliant Guyana scholar runner-up, started teaching the children at home, which created the climate which eventually led to eight writers in the family; eight published writers.
PP: I know of Oonya Kempadoo of ‘Buxton Spice’ fame.
PK: Manghanita wrote when she was eleven-and-a-half ‘Letters of Thanks’. Let me tell you how that happened. At the time, I was in contact with W. J. Gages, a Canadian publishing house, and had at my disposal mountains of up-to-date educational material, of which my wife made optimum use.
More importantly, at that time, Marjorie Sykes, a brilliant English writer, produced a book to help children write – creative writing. And the rest is history…
PP: Thank you for what you have done – initiating the Indian novel-writing tradition in Guyana. And thank you for continuing to support the novel-writing tradition of Guyana with your three novels, published over a period of five decades.
· A UNESCO-sponsored one-week creative writing workshop is set for August 2011; limited places available on a ‘first-come-first-serve’ basis. Facilitators will include local and international teachers/writers. Please contact me for more information.
· Upscale Restaurant is devoting a session of its ‘Open Mic’ Tuesday night poetry to celebrate Indian Arrival Day on May 3, 2011. All are invited.
(To respond to this author, either call him on (592) 226-0065 or send him an email: email@example.com)