The celebrated author, academic, and essayist, H. Nigel Thomas, says:“I write because reality mystifies me, and my temperament pushes me to explore it via my imagination. I know that my senses apprehend little more than the masks of reality. My desire, then, is to strip away the mask and send probes into the darkness beyond.”
In the powerful body of work that he has created, Thomas interrogates the complex impact of colonialization and its aftermath, both tangible and less tangible, on black Caribbeans, on those who stay on in their homelands and those who emigrate, showing how race, class, gender and sexuality come into play, within this context, to further disempower and trap people. Thomas’ latest novel, No Safeguards, is now available and will be officially launched in the fall.
This interview focuses on the themes that continue to haunt Thomas and the inspirations that fire his imagination and commitment.
Q. In your first novel, Spirits in the Dark (1993), and in a later work, Return to Arcadia (2007), the central theme is the hero’s quest for identity and the difficult relationship between black West African and “Western” ways of knowing and being that both men must contend with. Could you please speak about how these books came about?
A. Thanks, Veena, for giving me this opportunity to comment on my writing. Regarding the genesis of Spirits in the Dark, this novel began as a short story in which the actual protagonist of the novel is expelled from high school, but the story brought into my consciousness various questions that had been obsessing me sporadically. One of them was: what makes a West Indian West Indian? The question was important because the curriculum English-speaking Caribbean children studied then [when Thomas himself went to school] was devised in Britain. The exams were set and corrected in Britain as well. Moreover, the educated prided themselves on how will they’d mastered such learning (or how it had mastered them), and in their behaviour they were de facto Black Anglo-Saxons. Moreover, as teachers, civil servants and to a lesser extent police officers, their raison d’être was to enforce and reinforce the stranglehold of the colonising power. It should be said that at the time no more than five percent of the population received a full or partial secondary education.
But there was the remaining 95 percent of the population, a large segment of which were the poorly paid plantation workers. Their only language was the dialect and overwhelmingly they belonged to Afrocentric religions. I decided to examine their ontology, and there I discovered the deep roots of Africa. I discovered too that for the most part they had escaped the self-hate afflicting educated colonial Blacks. One of these African traits is the concept of holistic medicine. Another is communalism.
These themes recur in Return to Arcadia as well, for that novel is a continuation of Spirits in the Dark. The latter is narrated by someone from the plantation squatter class and the former by a character belonging to the plantocracy [plantation owners]. In fact characters from the latter make cameo appearances in the former.
Q. The quest for identity is also central to your novel Behind the Face of Winter. Here your protagonist is Pedro, who leaves his Caribbean homeland at age 14 to come to Montreal. You were a schoolteacher for 12 years in Montreal. Did that experience partly inform Behind the Face of Winter, and in what way?
A: Without the ten years I spent as teacher in the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, I wouldn’t have been able to write Behind the Face of Winter. In one particular high school — whose name I change in the novel — I saw behaviours from students and teachers that shocked me. I began to teach Montreal in 1976, a few years after an amnesty had been granted to undocumented residents in Canada. The children of those West Indian mothers whose immigrant status had been regularized began arriving in large numbers then. Their parents were predominantly from the uneducated class, and for the most part their children hadn’t been attending school or had been doing so sporadically in the Caribbean. Here they were forced to attend high school. Some were already over twenty-one; most did not read beyond the grade two level, and most did not want to be in school. The teachers hadn’t the skills to deal with such students, and in their frustrations their overt and latent racism and classism came to the fore. Most of the incidents of student-teacher confrontation in Behind the Face of Winter actually took place. The high schools I taught in were not welcoming places for Black students.
That said, the teaching and parenting practices of the Caribbean, the liberal use of corporal punishment, for example, placed students at a disadvantage when they arrived here. In the Caribbean children comply from fear of pain. They are not given enough of an opportunity to develop an inner discipline. Here the physical pain did not exist, and many students, especially male students, ran amok and made their teachers scapegoats for the generalized oppression that many of them experienced in wider society. Many of my Black students found it bizarre that students here weren’t flogged, and blamed that fact for their lack of control, refusal to do school work, etc.
Q. When you came to Montreal you studied psychiatric nursing for two years at Douglas Hospital and worked there part-time as a mental health worker while attending Concordia University. What led you to do this and what impact did the experience have on you, personally and professionally?
A. When I arrived in Canada, I genuinely felt that a career in psychiatric nursing would be ideal for me. (In fact I had been accepted earlier to train in England.) I quickly realized that it wasn’t the career I wanted, but for pragmatic reasons I completed the training programme. It allowed me to work full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year. The training proved immensely beneficial when I wrote Return to Arcadia. It is set in the Douglas Hospital and its psychiatric content comes from my training.
The Douglas Hospital library was a treasure trove of books dealing with the human psyche — novels as well as monographs. I devoured them and they served me well when I took up the study of literature.
Q. In Return to Arcadia, Joshua, the protagonist, partly rebels against the psychiatric treatment he undergoes at Montreal’s Douglas Hospital. Nevertheless, he is partly healed here, and then helped further by a quiet, admirable, shaman-like spiritual healer who leads him through nature-based rituals, back in the Caribbean. Jerome in Spirits in the Dark also goes through a similar experience of native healing. What is your own perspective of these two very different processes and contexts? I am posing this question with the understanding that native healing is at best ignored and at worst much reviled by Western medicine.
A. Jerome’s and Joshua’s fundamental illness is alienation from their community, and, to some extent, from their authentic selves. Jerome is ashamed of the class he was born into. Colonial education has taught him to despise it. He is afraid as well to interact with the community as a whole because it is brutal to homosexuals. He has no friends and no community. Joshua is told by his plantocrat adopted mother that he must cut all links with his biological family; she even wants him to believe that he is white. But as a mixed-race person, he is unwelcome in the plantocracy. He is therefore bereft of a community, a situation that is worsened by his pariah status of being homosexual.
Because African religions emphasize an inextricable spiritual and physical wholeness, community and belonging, they are, I think, very therapeutic for healing this sort of pathology. By becoming a member of his father’s religion, Jerome leaves the desert of self-isolation and comes back to the community he’d been ashamed of. In it he finds healing support, even someone who understands his homosexuality and encourages him to begin to live it. By the time Joshua returns to Isabella Island his problem is more than community. [Isabella Island is fictional location featured in much of Dr. Thomas’ work.] Something in him has shut down. The persona he’d created to cope with the guilt he is carrying has supplanted his authentic self, and it’s by making him connect with the earth—and all of nature in fact—that his authentic self is resurrected. Pointer Francis and Healer André are my two favourite characters in these books. I have always been an admirer of Afrocentric religions. For their members they were like a very large family. Within their folds their members found the dignity denied them in the broader society.
Before I wrote either novel I had learned in a practical way that one’s community is one’s psychic mirror. When I arrived in Quebec City in 1988 and no longer heard West Indian accents and no longer saw West Indian gestures, I realized that in Quebec City there were no reflections of me in the community. I had no way of seeing, hearing, and nurturing my “West-Indianness.” I understood then how traumatizing alienation from one’s community could be. (It’s no accident that I relocated to Montreal once I no longer had to reside in Quebec City.) The treatment of Aboriginals in residential schools here in Canada is the number one news topic at the moment; one of its oft-repeated themes is the trauma that resulted from severing youngsters from their communities. Community is part of the mother archetype.
Q. In Why We Write, the anthology you compiled based on interviews with African Canadian poets and novelists, you say in the introduction: “These conversations came about for several reasons, most important of which was my need to meet and chat with fellow Black writers living across Canada.” What are some of the things you learnt from doing the interviews? Did you end up more connected and less isolated as a result of this book?
A. If we accept that one of the best ways to learn about a people — and for a people to learn about itself — is through its stories, then it’s in the interest of all peoples to have their stories in forms that can be easily accessed. As late as the mid-seventies African Canadians found themselves invisible not only in well-paying jobs but also on library shelves. Austin Clarke noted that they did not even appear in the background of works by Euro-Canadian writers. By the early eighties people like Harold Head, Ann Wallace, and Lorris Elliot sought to change this. But it wasn’t until the nineties that a significant body of African Canadian literature emerged. Why We Write was my modest attempt to begin to create a body of documents that might help in the interpretation of that literature.
One thing I learned from meeting these writers was that we write because we feel we need to explore reality by way of the imagination. (The book is restricted to authors of prose fiction and poetry.) I remember Lawrence Hill telling me that he found African Canadian history quite interesting and felt it should be put in fiction so that Canadians would know about it and discourse about it. As it turned out his Book of Negroes got the whole literary world talking about African Canadian history. George Elliot Clarke felt Nova Scotian Blacks were a subset of African Canadians; he termed them Africadians and put their joys and sorrows in plays, poems and a novel. In one way or other we — all the writers — felt that we were under a compulsion to give voice to our understanding of our humanity.
Q. Related to the above question is the issue of what kind of English is acceptable. As an Indo-Canadian writer educated in India, who brings words and phrases from other languages into her fiction, I am very interested in this issue. In India there is an incredible body of literature written by the Dalits (former untouchables according to the Hindu caste system) in my mother tongue, Marathi. These authors had to defend their language use against the Brahmin dominated literary establishment. How do you see this issue in general and in the context of Caribbean English, which you employ so beautifully and effectively in your work?
A. The overwhelming majority of my characters are of Caribbean origin. I want them to embody Caribbean reality as lived in the Caribbean and here in Montreal. I also want West Indian readers of my books to resonate with the reality they depict. I couldn’t therefore have a West Indian peasant speak standard English. In other words — and my West Indian readers will instinctively know this — a character’s speech is an important aspect of his/her characterization. Many writers in the European and Euromerican traditions —Dickens and Twain, for example — do something similar.
African Canadian writers who insist on letting their characters employ their various vernacular languages face criticism similar to that faced by Dalit writers. The use of vernacular languages challenges the hegemony of the dominant languages. (Junot Diaz says he challenges it by having his character use censored language.) This battle was waged for decades in Jamaica where the educated elite did everything possible to punish those who insisted on speaking and writing in Jamaican. Oftentimes people who seemed quite free of class prejudice nevertheless persecuted those who employed the vernacular.
In Canada I’m frequently told that I shouldn’t use the Caribbean dialects because my readers won’t understand it. A literary agent told me that she made an Asian Canadian writer remove all dialect from his manuscript before she submitted it to the publishers. Her reason was that publishers refuse manuscripts with dialect in them, because readers don’t want to be frustrated by the language. This is for the most part disingenuous. These same people read and enjoy Huckleberry Finn. It really comes down to whose language is being valorized.
Q. In the rich introduction to Why We Write you speak about the exclusion and demeaning of black writers by the Canadian literary establishment dominated by authors of European descent who see themselves as the norm and others as “immigrant writers,” etc. Other writers have also written about this. How relevant is this issue today? Is it still a question of exclusion or something else?
A. It’s still relevant. Literary agents tell us that major publishers are loathe to take on our books because books by Blacks don’t sell. When such publishers do, their advances are pittances. Most Black writers are published by small presses, and the books put out by small presses rarely get reviewed.
Q. You are among the first West Indian writers to feature homosexual protagonists in your books. Now, in 2015, how do you view the persecution of black homosexuals in the Caribbean as well as here? Your work also unflinchingly takes on “self hatred” that people feel based on racial and sexual persecution. Has that shifted at all?
A. The persecution of gays in the Caribbean is framed as resisting the corrupting morality of Europe and North America. The Judaeo-Christian Bible is invoked at every turn to justify such persecution. In most of Africa, Black America, and Black Canada there’s a strong aversion to homosexuality. Until gays here won the marriage battle, anti-gay sentiment in the African Canadian community was very vocal. It’s worth mentioning that it was stoked by the teachings of the Evangelical churches where most Blacks worship. Indeed many Blacks have left the mainline churches because of their more liberal attitudes to same-sex people. I know young people here whose parents evicted them when they found out they were gay, and several not-so-young who remain “closeted” because of fear of rejection by their family.
Yes, I explore “self-hatred” resulting from the persecution gays endure. It’s the theme of “Percy’s Illness,” which explores the experience of a former friend. [“Percy’s Illness” is a short story in Thomas’ collection — Lives Whole and Otherwise.] The friendship ended when he read the story. That friend has returned to the church that condemns him and he has severed all contacts with gays.
In 2009, I joined the St Vincent and Grenadines Association of Montreal. I knew many of its members and I knew that most of them were covertly or overtly homophobic. In 2000, there was quite a kerfuffle with some of them over an interview I accorded a [Montreal] Gazette journalist about homophobia in the Black community and in the White LGBT community. Since I’ve joined the Association, its members have treated me with respect. With some of them I have a very cordial relationship. I have even been the keynote speaker at a couple of their banquets. Being among them is for me the best way of showing them that gays aren’t demons. The Association has also asked the St Vincent and Grenadines government to decriminalize same-sex practices and outlaw corporal punishment. I see this as tangible change.
Q. Recently you started co-hosting a monthly event in Montreal with Maguy Métellus, a reading series sponsored by Kola Magazine “aimed largely, but not exclusively, at encouraging African-Canadian communities to engage more fully in Montreal’s literary culture.” The notice also says “our roster of invited readers will always be multicultural.” Why the need for this series? How has that experience been so far?
A. I rarely see Blacks at the literary events I attend. The same is true for the theatre, unless the play deals with the Black experience. I can’t believe that Blacks aren’t lovers of writing, so I’ve started a reading series where the majority of the readers are Black. At the same time, I, someone who loves good works of literature regardless of the writer’s culture, race or ethnicity, feel that the reading series shouldn’t be exclusively about the Black experience. So far the readings have been successful.
Q. Could you please tell us something about your forthcoming book (No Safeguards, Guernica Editions, 2015) and what inspired it?
A. No Safeguards is the first tome in a trilogy of novels — a trilogy that might well become a quartet. It began when two brothers entered my imagination and took it over. I think they came to demand a corrective to much of my writing, which is mostly about “the wretched of the earth.” These brothers are middle-class. The novel is as much about the making of the middle-class in St Vincent (not Isabella Island) as it is about middle-class West Indian immigrants to Canada. Here’s the publisher’s description; it effectively captures the significant aspects of the novel:
No Safeguards . . . follows Jay’s life from age six to twenty-six – and to a lesser extent that of his brother Paul. We witness the destructive impact of fundamentalist Christian beliefs on his mother and father, opposition to those beliefs by the boys’ grandmother and each boy’s very different response to their parents’ religiosity. This is especially poignant after they leave their grandmother’s comfortable home in St Vincent to join their mother in Montreal. The revelation that both boys are gay adds to their sense of oppression and divides them from their mother, whose views on the subject are shaped by the church and the theology of the Torah.
Q. In Return to Arcadia there is a reference to an author who insists that journalists send him interview questions in advance. When he receives them, he strikes out the ones he doesn’t like and adds his own. While I am hoping that you won’t do that to any of my questions, I am also hoping that you will add at least one of yours’ and answer it, of course!
Q. Touché. I’ll oblige. What frustrates you most when you write?
A. Finding the tropes that will resonate with my audience.
Kola Readings/Lectures Kola, a monthly bilingual reading series of poetry, fiction & spoken word will be held at the UNIA, 2741 Notre-Dame W (north-east corner of Notre-Dame and Atwater) 7-9 p.m. on the second Monday of every month, the exception being the October reading, which will be held on October 19. You’ll find information for upcoming events on Facebook. There’ll be an open mike as well. Everyone is invited. Donations welcome, but not obligatory.