Writer of the Month
So here was the thing. How to write three novels about three people living interconnected lives through the changing social and political situation of one small Caribbean island over – and this was the tough part – the same period of time? Not one book following on from the previous one, but (more or less) 1938 to 1980: same time; same place; same people.
My aspiration from the outset was to write a commentary on the contemporary political history of Jamaica. My version of it anyway. Not that I was in a position to change the facts or reinvent times past, but rather to show people living through the changes, adapting and re-configuring their lives and, importantly, coming to their own point of view; their own take on what it meant to be independent after 300 years of British rule. What it meant to be part of a minority Chinese community in a majority population of Africans who had been brought to Jamaica originally as slaves. What it meant to be a black woman or light-skinned and privileged in a divided Jamaica riddled with the structural and cultural prejudices that the British had created and left behind.
These were the issues. Broadly. Not just from a political standpoint but from a personal one. For as we used to say back in the 80s: the personal is the political. So while I wanted the books to be informative I also wanted them to be deeply personal. Absorbing. Vibrant. Entertaining. I wanted them to be human. And so, that was how Pao came to be a story about transformation and redemption. For a nation, as well as for Pao himself as he is revealed in all his human frailty, complex and flawed and humorous – as we all are – trying to do his best in circumstances not of his making but created by history and handed to him. Historical circumstances of colonialism and slavery, a part of which was the occupation of the body – the legacy of which Gloria must come to terms; and the occupation of the mind from which Fay must liberate herself. Because freedom, redemption, indeed life itself, comes only when we have thrown off the memories of our weakness and subjugation and come to make our own decisions and govern our own actions. Not dominated by external forces or driven by the internal ghosts we allow to control us, either unknowingly or because we are too afraid to confront them. True life begins with taking charge of our own minds.
Three books then: just over 300,000 words, with many of the same characters, telling some of the same scenes from different points of view. But, and this is a big but – each book being absolutely stand alone. A completely separate story so that each novel can be read, one or two or three, in any order.
Making sure I got the historical facts right, but not repeating myself unnecessarily over the three books; being accurate with respect to the social and political landscape of Kingston; creating a kaleidoscopic cast of characters authentic to their time and place; and storylines and predicaments that matter – not only then and there, but here and now — and carrying through with some of the cast from one book to the next while growing the role of previously minor characters and inventing new ones. Plus, I had to be vigilant about the timeline, for example, realising at one point that I had written a scene in ‘Gloria’ that had appeared in Pao almost three years earlier. So basically, it’s all about paying attention: to what happens when (politically and personally); the relative ages of different characters as we move through time; what is already known about each person; their relationship to others; making sure that what happens to them syncs with what is already known so that what happens next is not out of character or in any other way unbelievable. That kind of attention takes research, the macro and micro, from books, journals, documentaries, internet and people, especially those able to talk about the ordinary everydayness of life. And then you need to keep track with, in my case, flip-chart paper, a small mountain of it, written on in pencil. So I could rub stuff out and move it around. Over and again.
Because fiction, like life itself, is always changing.