Earl Lovelace and I meet on his balcony in Cascade, Trinidad to talk about Is Just a Movie, his first novel since Salt, which won much critical acclaim and earned him the Commonwealth Prize in 1997.
The balcony looks out onto tall bamboos and below is a deep ravine, a quiet peaceful spot behind a tall wooden gate. Earl mixes two rum and grape juices which slip down well and we settle to talking about, Is Just a Movie, now out from Faber.
Like his last two books, this novel has a central male character who is serious-minded and yet a little unsure of his future; he is on some kind of a quest for truth and justice in his country, the island of Trinidad. Is this male character like him or a part of him, a brother, a friend or just a character?
“I am in some ways all of the characters in my fiction - male and female. In terms of some of the issues that are worked out or addressed in the book, I am there both as an observer and perhaps at times even as a participant.”
As in Salt, there is a local novelist in this book, John de John; he appears in cameo and it feels like a mischievous self-parody; is this local novelist Lovelace?
“Certainly, he represents a side of me - the novelist on his own in the Trinidad landscape, someone with a certain presence, who knows the islands from having lived in them. He appears in Salt too and I would like to see him again. I like this character. I don’t think we have seen the end of him.”
Is Just a Movie has many hallmarks of the post-modern novel including the use of adapting and including real-life characters and events. Trinidadians who read this will be kept guessing as to who the Clayton Blondell character might be based on, if anyone at all. Reviewers in the UK have already decided that he is based on Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael.
“Clayton Blondell is more complicated. He comes into prominence in the confusing aftermath of 1970 when Blackpeople are at their weakest. He offers Africa as dream, as safe harbour. His objective is possibly to help Blackpeople revive their potency. What he ignores is what they had done. Sonnyboy listens to him because he offers Sonnyboy this harbour. Sonnyboy hasn’t yet begun to see himself and what he has done.”
Where were you in the Black Power movement of 1970, I ask him.
“I was in Trinidad. At first, writing on the Express newspapers, giving support to ideas of Black Power and generally speaking and interacting with individuals and groups who were concerned with addressing the issues that Black Power raised. Black Power in Trinidad didn’t set itself to overthrow the government. In that sense, it wasn’t revolutionary, like in Cuba; it wasn’t an attempt to overthrow those in power and start something new. “
Lovelace is written about as the quintessential post-colonial Caribbean writer, mostly because he gives a voice to people who were once marginalized by the colonial powers. He writes about small communities and individuals within them. His characters are everyday people. And yet, I know from speaking about this in the past, that Lovelace doesn’t like the term post-colonial.
“No. I wish we would call it the literature of Independence. It is a matter of perspective. Even the term colonial as used to describe the colonised is not quite accurate when what most of us were concerned with was not being colonised, but struggling against colonialism. In that sense I am both a colonial and one who has opposed it, what name do we have for that?”
Quite. More rums follow and dogs bark down in the ravine. Lovelace is now seventy-five and shows no sign of slowing down. In Trinidad he is something of a celebrity, a man of the people. He is one of the few Caribbean writers who haven’t left the region and for this he is respected by everyone on the island, myself included. He lived for many years out in the countryside, working for the forestry division of the Ministry of Agriculture. He says his time there and the people he met have been a huge influence on his work. While V.S. Naipaul has stayed away and can be patronizing to his fellow Trinidadians, Lovelace is resident, thoughtful and grounded about his status as a Caribbean Great. He reads and teaches both on the island and abroad and the launch in February of Is Just a Movie in Trinidad will be a star studded event, attended by other writers, painters and calypsonians.
While he no longer plays cricket, he likes to stroll around the savannah of an evening. Clearly, he is engaged with his country and the political state of play; clearly he finds the complex society of Trinidad engaging and worth writing about. What I most like about this new book is that it’s so uncompromisingly Trinidadian, not just in its subject matter, but in its use of language and various Caribbean forms such as the midnight robber monologue. As a Caribbean author myself, prior to the Orange Prize I found it difficult to impress the metropolitan reader with my story set in Trinidad.
“I suppose the promise of the Caribbean experience has been taking a beating, that imitation as a way to go forward has been establishing itself, but imitation is not going to take us anywhere exciting and new. It is not going to help us create a more humane society where we see each other as equally human. It is not going to make us explore our gifts for the benefit of all. We are now in this place of confusion and uncertainty, which this novel deals with. We need to discover and value who we are. We are a small country. Smallness has its own strengths.”
Indeed, and for now, Lovelace continues to write about the small country he knows well, and he has been an inspiration to a whole new generation of authors coming out of Trinidad.