Monday, January 22, 2007

The Worlds within Him

Ahmede: "I feel today about Trinidad the way I feel about, say, China. It's another country in the world. I've never had a single regret about leaving, or the slightest desire to return."--You have told Celia Sankar of The Sunday Guardian once. Why do you feel so distanced about a country where you were born?

Neil Bissoondath: There are several reasons. The primary reason, I suppose, is that even growing up in Trinidad, I felt I didn't belong to the place. My family - parents, aunts, uncles - travelled a great deal to Europe, North America, and even from very young I was a voracious reader. Somehow - and this is probably something innate to my personality - I was aware from a very early age that there was a larger, more vibrant, more interesting world out there, and I was very curious about this world. So, in a way, I grew up in
Trinidad wanting to leave it - to go to that other world far from what I saw even then as the small, isolated, deeply unintellectual place in which I was living. In addition, I was aware of being surrounded by political corruption, racism both social (our political parties were racially divided, one for the blacks, one for the Indians) and closer to home in that Indians hated blacks and blacks hated Indians, Moslems and Hindus distrusted each other - all of this in a place whose motto, promulgated at independence in 1962 when I was seven years old, was "Together We Aspire,
Together We Achieve". When you're young, you have little patience with hypocrisy and I had less than most people. So I grew up wanting to leave and did so with joy at the age of eighteen. I arrived in Toronto with the sense that I was beginning a wonderful adventure. I left Trinidad with no regrets. I've never wanted to go back, doing so only for a couple of visits to see my parents. The last time was well over twenty years ago, when my mother died. My father himself has since died and my brother and sister and their families live in Toronto, so there's not much left in terms of emotional links. I'm not a terribly nostalgic person. I believe that the past is the past. One acknowledges it and moves on. I've been living in Canada for thirty-four years now and at this point Trinidad is what it is - a part of my past. I have no feeling for the place. I think it's a natural process of evolution. One grows roots in another place and the old roots, such as they were, wither.

Ahmede: "Digging up the Mountains" has a loose similarity with Naipaul's some novels of later phase (The Mimic Man; Guerrillas, in the sense that it portrays (especially the title piece) a Post-Colonial country in ruin. Will you share of your reading of Naipaul's work (who, we understand, is also your uncle) with us?

Neil Bissoondath: Yes, VS Naipaul is my uncle, my mother's brother, and it was his example, more than anything else, that led me to write. In a way, he was living that adventure I dreamed of when I left Trinidad - travelling the world, writing about it in both fictional and non-fictional terms. I have enormous affection and respect for the man, for the way he persevered through years of toil and hardship, writing these beautifully-written books that offer the world with such clarity, such lucidity and intelligence. Of course, everyone writes in his own way but among the many things I learned from reading his books is the importance of honesty, of clarity of thought and expression. Novels such as Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, A House for Mister Biswas are like revelations. In the most subtle ways, they map the complexities of man and society. His non-fiction, much of which reads like fiction because of the sensibilities he brings to them, is equally complex. But I do find myself going back to the fiction. As he once said about another writer - Balzac or Flaubert, I'm not sure which - reading him is like eating the finest chocolates. You're fed on so many levels, all of which come together to shape or refine your view of the world.

Ahmede: Do you feel alienated at times as a writer?

Neil Bissoondath: I honestly don't know what this question means. Apart from when I was a child in Trinidad, I've never felt alienated from anything, either as a person or as a writer. Or perhaps it's that every writer is to some extent alienated, which is what gives him his particular vision. But to me this is not a bad thing - far from it. Perhaps a little alienation is good for the perspective! What I can say is that my imagination tends to be engaged by whatever place I happen to be in. I travel a fair amount and, even if these places aren't my home, I tend to feel at ease as I become familiar with it and its people. As a result I feel quite at home in Spain or France or Italy or Turkey, even while I know I'm not part of the place. But this too I think is part of the writer's make-up - this ability to feel both part of the furniture and like a stove in the living room and to be at ease with that.

Ahmede: How do you see rising religious extremism across the globe?

Neil Bissoondath: Religious extremism is a sign of unease and powerlessness among those attracted to it, that is, to religion given political purpose, which is the true nature of religious extremism. One of religion's strengths is to offer a sense of solace, a sense of security, a sense of one's place in the word. But when you live in a place where those are all absent, a place of poverty or oppression, religion can come to play a far greater role. Not just solace and security but a means of affecting change - and change as defined by religious leaders speaking in the name of God. When you come to believe that you're acting according to God's wishes or commands, you get a feeling of empowerment and so religion becomes a very powerful weapon, socially, politically and, perhaps most importantly, personally. So one can understand its appeal. At the same time, like all ideologies, it can turn toxic and become as destructive a force as those it's fighting. I'm afraid that, with religious extremism - be it Christian, Moslem, Hindu or any other - that's almost inevitable because those who lead these forces claim to have the truth, God's Truth, and there is no one more frightening than he who believes that he can read the mind of God. All of this makes it a dangerous thing to the kind of liberal democracy in which I live and whose fundamental values I share, whose freedoms I cherish - including the freedom from religion.

Ahmede: In "The Worlds Within Her" we see you ruthlessly dissect the idea of an individual's presence in history in an increasingly hostile world. Do you in a way like to aligne yourself with the marginalized?

Neil Bissoondath: As a novelist, I align myself with no one and with everyone. As a novelist, I have no constituency. A novelist's responsibility is to explore the complexities of the world as frankly and as honestly as he possibly can. You can't do that if you align yourself with a particular any group, because then you assume the role of the politician or social activist and, frankly, that makes for bad novels. Novels that read like political tracts, novels with messages, novels that want to reform society and save the world are boring novels - boring and dishonest in that they betray what I see as the primary responsibility of the novel. Novels should not try to sell or promote anything. The essay's there for that. If you've read War and Peace, you know that Tolstoy had a rather idiosyncratic notion of history and of man's role in historical events. At the end of the book, he presents us with a long essay on the topic. But who pays attention to that? What we remember are the characters, the human drama. War and Peace is saved from the didacticism of Tolstoy the Intellectual by Tolstoy the novelist. So as a novelist, I align myself with no one and with everyone. On the other hand, as a human being... but that's a whole other story.

Ahmede Hussain is a staff member of the Daily Star, his last work, a novella titled “Blues for Allah”, has been published in Colloquy, Monash University Australia’s journal.