Talking to Ruel Johnson

Ruel Johnson appeared on the Caribbean’s literary radar almost out of nowhere in 2002, when the manuscript of Ariadne and Other Stories won the Guyana Prize for Literature for best first book of fiction, and his unpublished poetry collection “The Enormous Night” was shortlisted for the best first book of poems award. He was only twenty-two years old. Ian McDonald described him as “the best young writer to emerge in Guyana in at least a generation.” Not content to bask in praise, Johnson proceeded to take on Guyana’s literary establishment, suggesting in a series of essays and letters to the press that much contemporary Guyanese writing was “increasingly unrelated to Guyanese reality,” since the country’s celebrated authors reside for the most part abroad. He argued instead for “a renewed and conscious provincialism, an engagement with our landscape and society and people that is not ashamed of itself.”

In August this year, during the Carifesta X celebrations in Guyana, Johnson launched his long-awaited second book of stories, Fictions, Volume 1, with a volume two scheduled to appear shortly. Via email, Johnson answered some questions about his recent work and his current attitude towards Guyanese literature.

NL: Fictions, Volume 1 was published five years after your first book, Ariadne. Why the long gap?

RJ: Winning the Guyana Prize for Ariadne actually coincided with the conception of my son, Aidan. I was suddenly faced with the responsibility of fatherhood. Additionally, my girlfriend, later my wife, and now my ex-wife, was at the University of Guyana. I made the decision to put my writing on hold in order to take care of my son, and his mother, until she finished at university and found a good job. I had Fictions in development for a long time, with some of the stories actually predating the publication of Ariadne. Ironically enough, it was fast-tracked after my separation from my wife a year ago.

NL: Why did you decide to split this new book into two volumes? Was it a purely practical or commercial decision?

RJ: I was timing the publication of Fictions for the usual Guyana Prize for Literature deadline in August, as well as for Carifesta X. Due the personal hell that was my life for the first eight months of this year, I couldn’t finish the book in time. I am a great procrastinator when it comes to writing, in that I let something ferment, or foment, in my head for a long while before I let it out in a few frenzied weeks or days of actual writing. Practically managing my personal problems and harnessing this creative energy proved a difficult balancing act.

About two weeks before the deadline for submission to the printers, I decided that it was best to split the collection in half. I then had to come up with several benefits to this approach, just to console myself. One benefit was that once the funding was there, I could sell Fictions, Volume 1, Fictions, Volume 2, as well the originally conceived Fictions. Another was that it allowed me to enhance this loosely conceived metafictional experiment that I wanted Fictions to be by giving me another variable to work with.

NL: When you won the Guyana Prize all those years back, you had the reputation for being a literary enfant terrible. Did all the fuss about how young you were help or hinder?

RJ: I think whatever came out at that time had less to do with the enfant part than it did with the terrible part. And I think it did a bit of both. It helped in that it gave me the visibility that a young person claiming to be interested in becoming a writer would not normally have. I occasionally revisit some of the stuff that I said then, and it was harsh and arrogant in its criticism of Guyana’s literary elite, but if I would change anything about what I did then it would be to broaden my criticisms as well as refine them.

What I mainly spoke about then was local academia’s obeisance to and reverence for Guyanese writers residing overseas and writing mostly for and about their adopted countries, while the academics neglected the development of young local writers. I know because of that, and because of less public criticisms I have made, I have been sidelined and denied opportunities given to people with far less proven ability to write. For example, the official delegation to Carifesta VIII in Suriname included a literary delegation that I was excluded from–this was the same year I won the Guyana Prize. I was also excluded from the Carifesta IX literary delegation to Trinidad, with no official explanation given. I was on the Carifesta X official programme to launch Fictions, but that was after I hinted to a few officials that I would raise hell if their petty and infantile exclusion of me continued.

I have progressed as a writer in spite of roadblocks like this. The sad thing about all this is that nothing has essentially changed from that time to now, outside my personal relative success. The environment of malign neglect is still very much the same. The Guyana Prize for Literature Committee is currently engaged in the ridiculous fantasy of expanding the prize to a regional one, and they have yet to achieve one crucial element of the intent of the prize–the development of creative writing in Guyana.

NL: You’ve often written and spoken about the “new provincialism” that you believe Caribbean literature should turn towards. Has your thinking about this evolved? And what does “new provincialism” mean?

RJ: I am by no means a scholar of Caribbean literature. I am a University of Guyana dropout, and from the international relations programme at that. What I do have is an idea of how Caribbean literature has moved in terms of a Walcottian (“Hic Jacet”) engagement with the particular geo-social space, to the sort of literature in excusable exile of writers migrating and having lived a couple of years in the UK and America and Canada, to this thing which exists now, which says that although my stories are set in New York or Toronto or London, and largely concern experiences there with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for exotic flavour, what is being produced is somehow identifiable as Caribbean literature. I’ve seen it in Guyanese-born writers like Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen–whose latest novel Molly and the Muslim Stick is a textbook example of this.

My idea of a new provincialism in Caribbean literature is a movement in Caribbean writing which is notable for the fact of the geo-social Caribbean returning to the centre of what is supposed to be “Caribbean literature.” We in the Caribbean have this tendency to over-associate with things of Caribbean origin succeeding in other places. Some pop star has partial Guyanese parentage, and we dedicate entire newspaper columns to an inheritance that this person barely acknowledges, much less celebrates, either in music or in life. Colin Powell becomes secretary of state in a unilateralist US administration and CARICOM suddenly pins all its foreign policy hopes on his Jamaican parentage.

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We essentially do the same for literature, and consequently become complacent about telling our own stories. If my conception of this provincialism has evolved in any way, it is that I used to think that it had to be a conscious effort–not anymore.

I believe that, given some of the benefits that immigrant writers overseas are privy to, what will emerge is going to be necessarily self-reflective and concerned with the place of the Caribbean in the centre of the maelstrom that is global affairs today, writing that is provincial but only incidentally or subconsciously so. You replicate and expand the Cropper Foundation Writers workshop, the Guyana Prize for Literature, and the Caribbean Review of Books across the region, and set up the regional publishing house promised at Carifesta X, and I believe that something vibrant and powerful will emerge, and with its major focus here.

NL: You seem to be concentrating on writing fiction at the moment, but you also write and have published poems. Are you still quietly writing poems but not talking about them, or have you shifted your focus?

RJ: I started writing poetry around the time I discovered Derek Walcott and Pablo Neruda, but by then, at eighteen, I was already a couple of years into my affinity for fiction. As I was developing the stories in Ariadne, I was going through my first major heartbreak, which found its best expression in the poetry.

Today, I think that whatever imaginative infrastructure I have for pure poetry is either dormant or completely gone. At the same time, I believe that my fiction has overall become far less strictly prosaic than it was in Ariadne. I have a theory of the short story that places it as close to poetry as possible, when it suits the uses of the writer, and that is what I work by. Additionally, I think that because I’ve spent the last five years in the journalistic mode of writing, it’s going to be hard to return to poetry, which I see as existing at a different end of the spectrum of writing from journalism.

NL: Why did you decide to start your blog? Where does blogging fit into the spectrum of your writing?

RJ: I started the blog partially as an impetus to keep me engaged in the act of creative writing. As the total idea for the artistic endeavour evolved (and I am conscious of how phony that sounds), of which a published Fictions is the central part, I decided to involve the blog. Part of what I would refer to as the “thesis” of Fictions is the metafictional concern of what is true/biographical, as opposed to fiction/imaginative. The blog serves as “Cliff Notes on crack” for the book, and while the book can be read independently of the blog, for me it enriches the experience of the book somewhat if the blog is read.

I don’t think I am going to ever enter what I consider the gimmicky realm of hyper-fiction, but I believe the Internet, blogging in particular, does have a place in the ongoing evolution of fiction. We’ve seen the use of this basic thesis already in, for example, the way Brett Easton Ellis created a website for his fictional actress wife Jayne Dennis as an adjunct to or an enrichment of her character in Lunar Park, which is touted as a semi-autobiographical novel.

The blog ties in with the overall function, whatever the ultimate outcome, of pushing the boundaries of the usual question of how much of a writer’s art is reflective of his life, how much is fictional within fiction, perhaps to the point where we say it doesn’t matter, or perhaps it does matter, and he uses x amount of truth plus y amount of imagination in his work, now let’s move on.

I developed this concern independent of anything other than people asking me how I was taking the death of my son, after my first short story “The Blacka” won first prize in a local competition. I did not have a son at the time, as the character in the story did, although the story was highly autobiographical in many other aspects. In Fictions, I decided to make this relationship between the reality of a writer’s life and his fictions one of the central literary concerns of the work.

NL: Which other younger Guyanese writers should readers in the wider Caribbean be keeping an eye out for?

RJ: I honestly can’t say offhand. Kojo McPherson is someone who has shown great promise, although he has been moving more towards performance poetry, something I believe doesn’t have the rigours of writing that is meant to be read. I’ve seen some initial work from a young woman called Mosa Telford who has some potential in short fiction. There’s also James Bond, who was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for best first book of poetry, and Edison Jefford, who made honourable mention.

The “looking out for” part is problematic, in the sense that there are no developmental avenues at present, so while the talent exists, the chance that it will be getting out into the Caribbean any time soon is poor. Charmaine Valere of Signifyin’ Guyana and I are currently planning a writers’ retreat, as a sort of precursor to an annual writers’ workshop, which will hopefully be launched next year.

I believe genuine talent exists out there, and all that is needed is a mechanism to bring it out into the public light.

NL: What are you reading right now?

RJ: I am perpetually re-reading Borges, but as for the important new things I am reading at present, those would be Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and all the stories I can collect online written by David Foster Wallace.

Ruel Johnson’s Fictions, Volume 1 will be reviewed in the November 2008 issue of the CRB.

Nicholas is the editor of Caribbean Beat and editor of The Caribbean Review of Books (CRB). He is also one of the administrators of the contemporary arts space Alice Yard and the Bocas Lit Fest (The Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival). His reviews, essays, and poems have been published in various periodicals.