A Conversation with Thomas Armstrong, Part III: Margins and Boundaries
Welcome to Part III of my conversation with Tom Armstrong, author of Of Water and Rock. Part I is available here, and Part II here.
Warning: although I tried to avoid spoiling the story, in this section we do discuss the themes of the novel in greater detail, something which might be better appreciated by those who have already read it.
11 Dec 2010, continued.
There were three other characters who struck me – well there was one character who definitely struck me: Sissy. In a way, she is another kind of centre of the novel. But I’m not going to talk about her too much because that’s going to involve far too many spoilers. I’ll just say that she’s a fascinating character. I understand that she’s based on your mother-in-law?
And she is really the heart and soul of the book in many ways. But the three characters that I’m thinking about are Doc, Ginger and RJ: Doc of course being the highly intelligent person whose learning has driven him mad in true Shakespearean style; Ginger being the … well … people never seem to know exactly what she is. Is she an obeah woman? Is she a person of ‘loose virtue’? But she’s on the margins of society in her own way. And then RJ, who is a flamboyant, crossdressing man who is very much accepted by Sissy, his aunt, but also in his own way on the margins of society.
I was fascinated by this triad, because in a way you have a sense of mind, spirit and body – Doc with his mental issues putting him on the margins there, and the contrast between his obvious remaining intelligence and the sharpness he still has and then his complete inability to actually function because he still has these delusions. And then Ginger, who … whatever she’s doing, it’s clearly not Church of England (laughs), it’s not Anglicanism. She does have some kind of power, some sort of knowledge of the spirit world that isn’t quite the norm. And then RJ, who as you say, as for any man that dresses as a woman, ‘this is a brave man’. This is a society that’s supposed to be rejecting him and he’s dressing a certain way and he’s not caring about it, and he’s challenging this whole sense of … it’s not just the issue of the homosexuality, but the crossdressing, the ‘is he a man, is he a woman’ thing as well, that is particularly challenging to the society.
And the fascinating thing about all three of them is that … neither of them like each other (laughs). They’ve all got their own prejudices going in the other way where RJ is like ‘Doc is no use,’ and Doc is like ‘stay away from Ginger, she’s no good’, and they’ve all got this little cycle going on, and I thought that was brilliant, because it goes to show that we all have our margins, don’t we. Being on someone’s margin doesn’t mean we’re automatically accepting of everyone on our margins.
Exactly. It made them more interesting. It was like a triangle of people who were all odd, but were intolerant of other oddness. I’m good with my own oddness but not your oddness (laughs).
And there was Sissy in the centre of them, accepting all of them for what they were, which was fascinating. This was a message that you seemed to have throughout the book, that people could … disapprove but accept, in a way? I don’t know if I’ve expressed that well.
I know what you mean.
There’s a level of tolerance which isn’t a full acceptance of everything you are and everything you do, but is an acceptance of ‘you are a human being and this is your space as well, to be as you see fit’.
I think that ‘tolerance’ isn’t the right word. I think ‘acceptance’ is better. When Doc quotes Chesterton, I intentionally had Edward unthinkingly respond, ‘Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions’. And I like to say that tolerance isn’t enough. There must be an acceptance.
That’s a very important distinction.
Yes. Because I think the Collymores tolerated them, but didn’t accept them till the end.
And there was an undercurrent of fear in there. Another aspect that I think you handled quite well was that very strong sexism that the white males had towards the white females. You had that uncomfortable scene – but uncomfortable in a good way in that it did what it was supposed to do – where there’s a man who’s just been engaged, and then he starts eying the help, because he knows that getting married is one thing, but ‘I can still be having my fun and with whoever I please, because I’m in that position of power.’
Sexism and racism almost go hand in hand. Whenever mixing has gone on in the past in Barbados it’s generally been white men having illicit affairs with black women, for the most part. That’s a generalization of course , but I would think the further one goes back in time, the more true it was, because it’s reflective of the power relationship between whites and blacks. That’s why Benjamin reacted so strongly to the birth of a child that wasn’t necessarily white. It’s because the connotation of the black male’s sexual prowess versus the pureness of the white virgin – you know that whole issue … it’s complicated, as is any issue involving man and women, even without the introduction of race.
That whole system and structure and trope … yeah.
… I really wanted to explore that, to some extent. The book is not heavily oriented that way, but I wanted to reveal that double standard.
And that double standard, in a way, what you’ve done with both those images: his being very free about his sexual relations and then being very upset about what’s happening with his wife, also demonstrates to me the undercurrent of fear that contains the white people in the novel. A lot of what they’re doing is out of fear. They’ve got some very rigid boundaries and if they go beyond those boundaries they lose a certain amount of privilege, so they maintain those boundaries as strongly as they can.
I think that’s true. I think that dates from way back. The white population of Barbados is like two per cent, and the black is ninety-five per cent, so there’s a real fear for some people that potentially they could be swamped, but Fanon talks about a terrorised consciousness amongst the white population [Tom is actually referring to this paper, and I unwittingly bring up some related points later]. He says that it’s based on independence, but I think it’s always been there from the earliest days of slavery. I think that’s a theme I could explore in later novels … there’s a sense of manning the barricades.
I don’t know if you’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea …
Yes, I have.
… but it very much gave me a feeling of that. It’s interesting because, as you say, although it is set in the late 1960s, when you encounter the Bajan whites [in the book], they feel very Victorian in a way. They feel very much like they’re holding onto a past.
Yes, for some of them I think that’s very true. It’s funny, when I did a reading of this in Toronto, someone asked me ‘how do white Barbadians feel about this?’.
Hmm, good question.
And at the time, I said, ‘I’m really not sure’. I wasn’t sure how to answer that. I think underlying it was the reader’s discomfort at certain portrayals. And actually, one white Barbadian I know in Toronto loved the book, and there were a few white Barbadians I believe on the judging panels [for local literary awards]. They have to appreciate the fact that … when they say that the whites are all bigots and the blacks are all morally unblemished … just look at the amount of mixing that’s gone on. One of the themes in the book is identity. When you make assumptions about who and what you are, you may be very wrong, because you don’t really know whose family you belong to, who your parents were. You’re taking it on faith. All of us do. Every one of us. We have no real proof that our parents are who we think they are. It’s a story about human beings, and let’s not get carried away by separating the groups into whites and blacks. Let’s look at them as human beings that operate in a certain culture.
That’s another thing. Judith says in the book, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and never understood the place’. It’s like saying, ‘we are in a culture’ that we assume is some sort of institution, it’s out there, but actually we are the culture. Without our behaving in a certain way there is no culture. We’re all orchestrating the culture and not taking any responsibility for it.
What you said about living here all your life and not understanding it, I did in fact think to myself that Doc’s insanity was not only interesting from a symbolic point of view, but there is in fact a longstanding tradition of the highly intelligent Barbadian who goes overseas to study, usually to the ‘mother country’, and goes mad … it happens more in the UK. The US is acknowledged to be foreign, but when you’re talking about the pre-Independence generation, raised to think of Britain as the mother country, going there and being treated as alien was in many respects an identity fracture, a culture shock such that some did not recover from. And we have in fact got statistics that show the levels of mental illness [schizophrenia] among West Indians in the UK is spiked far higher. When they compare the data here, it’s a normal amount but when they move to the UK, it seems to spike higher, and a lot of that is the inability to handle the incongruity of it.
You take someone, you tell them ‘you are British’ … you remember Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin. They go to school, they learn all the names of the kings of England and they’re part of the Empire and all of that, and they may even be in a situation where they’re fighting for what they see as the Empire, and then they come to the heart of the Empire and they are told ‘you are not human’, and it fractures the mind.
So there is also a sense here in reverse for the white Bajan as well where there’s a structure that’s created to protect their sense of identity, but it’s a very fragile structure if it’s based on things like ‘we’re better than them’. Just around that same time, around Independence, there was an exodus of white Bajans, because they were convinced that … ‘oh, they’re going to wreck the country, they’re going to mess up the country, you give them power, they can’t run anything’, and that was a strong, deep-rooted belief, because that was a part of their social structure, to understand that ‘we are in this position because we’re actually superior’.
That’s why I set the novel in 1969, shortly after Independence.
Yes. But you could see that Judith at least knew enough to understand that it didn’t make sense, and that’s why she could say ‘I’ve never understood the place’, and that to me was very significant.
Judith was an important character for me. She was open-minded. She was ready to accept, more than tolerate.
I feel I should stop now because I’m starting to go into spoiler territory, but I’ll close off this bit and say thank you.
Tom and I spent some time afterwards chatting about the more spoilery parts of the book. I do look forward to Tom’s future works. I think he is more widely read than I am when it comes to the West Indian classics and associated literary critique. I must confess, I’m also curious to see what kind of science fiction a writer with his qualifications and interests could produce.
I hope this conversation has piqued your curiosity about Of Water and Rock. You can find it on Amazon.ca or Amazon.com. Many of the books that we mentioned can also be found at online bookstores, or libraries, especially academic libraries. Of course I have an agenda. The more West Indian literature you read, the more you’ll appreciate the genre. Have fun!