Part II: A Classic West Indian Novel

A Conversation with Thomas Armstrong, Part II: A Classic West Indian Novel

Welcome to Part II of my conversation with Tom Armstrong, author of Of Water and Rock. Part I is available here.

11 Dec 2010, continued.

I’ve discovered that the question of ‘genre’ is one you have to struggle with, especially as a new author, if you’re trying to get a publisher interested; they want know what the box is that they’re to put your book into. What would you – not your publisher, not a reviewer, not anyone else – what would you classify the book as?

To me it’s a classic West Indian novel, and by that what I mean is it’s an expression of dispossession in a way. A lot of West Indian novels are about the experience of immigration from the West Indies to England or Canada, and for me I felt the opposite and I wanted to express it. So in that form I was writing a West Indian novel, but it’s turned on its head. It’s a person from Canada, a white middle class person from Canada, dropped into the Barbadian ethos of a largely black, rural village. I wanted to explore the flip side of that.

I thought it was very powerful how you did it, because you say, yes, the protagonist is a white Canadian dropped into this world he doesn’t know, but the reality is that it’s in his blood, because his father is Barbadian. He never knew his father, but he has all these ties to the island, in terms of both property and lineage, that no mere tourist would have. So you positioned him, you positioned Edward Hamblin across the crack between the two cultures, and I thought that was really well done.

Thank you. Because I’m married to a black woman, this is the world I live in, so I’m really expressing my world and exploring it. Because in large parts of Toronto society, Canadian society, white, I’m talking … they see white as a neutral colour. It’s actually not a colour. And for many of them, they don’t have accents; it’s everyone else that has an accent. They don’t understand how it feels to be the only black person in a room of white people. So I wanted to take my character and do the opposite, because I can remember how I felt. Barbados has taught me a lot. My wife … at the time my future wife … we went to Baxter’s Road one night. I felt I was the only white person in a sea of black faces, and I was uncomfortable with it.

I should clarify that Baxter’s Road is the famous street that has a night life of its own, mostly centred around the frying of fish (laughs) the frying and sale of fish, the most amazing fish that you could ever find anywhere.

It’s the best there is, that’s true.

And it’s very much a local scene; it’s not a touristic thing. So you would go there and you would find people who are not in ‘tourism’ mode. It’s very local.

So those are wonderful experiences that you normally wouldn’t get as a white person coming from Canada. I really valued them. I wrote the novel from an outsider’s point of view with an insider’s knowledge, and I think that’s why it works.

You mentioned to me that Mittelholzer is one of your influences, and I remember reading My Bones and My Flute for school, and there were some bits of high drama that dealt with the spirit world in a way that … it was both the spirit world and nature coming together and having a very powerful effect on people. I detect passages like that in your book as well. I was wondering if you had any kind of comment to make about that, whether there was a connection or if it was something that arose naturally, or …

No, that was intentional, because of the way I see the island. I see it in a spiritual way, I think. That’s one of the reasons a lot of West Indian lit appeals to me, because there are themes like that that run through a lot of the work, especially Mittelholzer. Shadows Move Among Them is another set in Guyana in the jungle. My Bones and My Flute is a brilliant, classic ghost story. That is an awesome story by any measure.

It certainly terrified me as a teenager (laughs). ‘They’re making us do this for English Literature?’

The bulk of the stuff I’ve actually written is supernatural.

So that’s your preferred genre.

Yes. That’s what I read in general. I read West Indian lit, supernatural lit, or Weird lit … it’s called Weird by some people. Mittelholzer to me is a titan. He’s up there with Naipaul in my mind. The island to me was a part of the novel; it was a character in the novel. I wanted it to be that way. And Doc was its voice.

I mentioned the caves.  The scene with the descent into the caves … I found that extremely powerful.

To explain for the audience, Barbados has a system of limestone caves. They have both geological and historical significance from the point of view that they are the bones of the whole country in the sense that this is largely a limestone country. But it’s also been a place of refuge for slave rebellions, or even in our modern day for prisoners who have escaped. There are rumours of people who know the cave system so well they can go from one end of the island to the other without ever coming above ground. So there’s all kinds of urban and ancient myth caught up in the concept of the caves.

So I was really happy when you had that bit in there.

I know from your writing that you’re very much into the supernatural and the influence of spirits. When you were dealing with order versus chaos, that was way up my alley. I’ve written about it myself, and it’s a fascinating part of the world, the universe itself. It’s like two competing enemies. My tendency will always be to include some element of the supernatural in my work, or to make it the overriding theme.

I wanted to discuss some themes I saw in your book. We’ve already discussed the spirituality of the country, the island itself, in a physical sense – it sounds odd to talk about spirituality in a physical sense for an island, but I think you know what I mean. It’s part of the trees, it’s part of the rock, the air, the sea, everything. And Edward Hamblin, in addition to being someone who in a way is a child of two worlds, also came across to me as a bit of a Holy Fool. There’s a constant theme of laughter in the book. Sometimes people are laughing at him instead of with him but there’s a constant theme of laughter, and laughter being used in very interesting, subversive ways. I noticed, for example, that whenever there’s a transgression of a social boundary, whenever there’s an incongruity, the reaction tends to be laughter. Sometimes it’s not that kind; sometimes it’s just a nervous reaction, but he constantly crosses boundaries. He’s on the one hand being invited by the local whites to come and have tea which is a very stush [posh] event, and then on the other hand he’s at the local market. He’s in a unique position to cover all the boundaries of society. Was that a conscious decision, to make him someone who could see the full scope of society?

Yes, that was very conscious. I wanted him to be able to tell both sides, the white and black sides. I put him in that position. I love comedic writing and I think there’s a strong tradition of that in the West Indies, especially Barbados. Frank Collymore has written some great stories.

Yes he has. (laughs)

(laughs) and I love the notion of what my nieces might call ‘abusing a white man’ …

(laughs)

… and by that we don’t mean anything bad. We mean, let’s subject this guy to something that’s truly Bajan and see how he reacts. I won’t tell you what parts are autobiographical … (laughs)

(laughs) Okay!

… but really, the rumshop scene and the bus scene were a pleasure to write, and for me it was my way of putting him at ease with the local black people, so they will open up to him and he will be receptive to them. Because I wanted him to tell both sides of the bigger story: the wealthy white side and the poor black side. He’s my connection, really. When the story started out, it was much less his story and more other people’s stories, but it became his story. I think it had to be.

He’s the centre of it in a way, because he’s able to look into all those different windows and see these different lives.

Exactly. That was intentional.

He also challenges people by his very presence. You mentioned the bit about the bus stop. The children saw him walking along the road and they start to laugh. It was really interesting reading that, because I thought to myself, perhaps the average reader will read that and think ‘why are they laughing?’, but I can see the incongruity of it. He’s clearly not quite a tourist, he’s clearly not quite a local, and he’s walking along the road! He’s not in a car! He should be in a car or a taxi or tour bus or something. So they can’t place him, and with that incongruity, what else can you do but laugh? ‘You could believe I saw a white man walking down the road at midday?’ … it would just be totally incongruous.

(laughs) I had him in a broad brimmed hat, wearing sandals … definitely out of place in that setting, incongruous as you say. But yes, that would draw laughter.

So that was interesting, and in a way it tests the society, because in a society there are things we do take for granted, as you say the example being in Canada your own skin colour becomes the default, your own accent becomes the default, and it takes an outsider to press the boundaries that you’re so comfortable with and say ‘take a good look at this, does this really make sense’. And sometimes the reaction is laughter, and sometimes the reaction is thought.

Yes, that’s one of the things that I really wanted to express in the novel, that the rules of any society are basically absurd, they’re arbitrary. And it’s actually the newcomer who sees them for what they are. I wanted to express this sense of … he didn’t understand them because they’re not understandable. You have to live in the society and then it becomes the norm, but until then you’re just … everything seems so bizarre and illogical. That’s true of Toronto and that’s true of Barbados.

Exactly.

[END of Part II. 'Part III: Margins and Boundaries' is available here.]

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