A World Within Walls by Sophie Jai
By Wasafiri Editor on August 22, 2022 in life writing
In this lyrical, layered essay, author Sophie Jai examines the experience of writing and publishing her debut novel Wild Fires, and the ways in which history resonates on through centuries and generations.
Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture interrogates the lives and experiences of indentured workers, and the legacies that their communities still carry. It is now available for purchase or download
There are set assumptions of literary opportunities open only to BAME writers. The offhand generalisation is that the winning writer is getting published, and only getting published because of their race. The intent of these opportunities isn’t to put the writer in a constrictive box – at least not in my experience – but to find and publish underrepresented voices who exhibit talent for a promising literary career. It’s important to note the last seven words of that last sentence as a requirement and not a bonus cherry on top; critics of opportunities open only to BAME emerging writers have deduced that the sole requirement to get published now is to tick a diversity box, as if good writing and BAME people simply do not – cannot – coexist.
A BAME opportunity opened in December 2018 with the Borough Press and the Good Literary Agency, in which the winner would have their debut novel published. Knowing the above assumptions might be held against me if I won this competition, I entered, anyway. I would deal with the assumptions of whether I was a good writer later, regardless of if people had read my book first or not.
As I wrote my submission, insecurities seeped in, as they will when writing. As well as with the above, I wondered: was what I was writing ‘BAME’ enough—and for me, my peers, my potential readers? If I, a new writer, wrote stories that weren’t constructed around race, would the publishing gatekeepers, the large majority of whom belong to ethnic majority groups commission my work? Did I owe it to my ancestry to write my first novel about Indian indentureship? What did it say about me if I didn’t? Was I a bad person? If I did write a story around race, would it define the rest of my career? Or did I first have to write about my so-called identity as my ‘way in’ (as Brandon Taylor put it) to move on to more universal stories?
I am an Indo-Trinidadian Canadian woman. What words were expected to pour forth from me?
Most of the Indo-Caribbean fiction I’ve read has been centered on indentureship, immigration, belonging, and race—and rightly so. As explored in Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture, post-indentureship identities and our individual stories are damn near impossible to explore without glimpsing over the shoulder at a brutalised and fragmented history. Certainly not least, these stories allow us to document our own voices and ancestry and remember/imagine a linear – though hazy – narrative. The now socio-economic consequences of these not-so-long-ago conditions are often the heart’s conflict of our stories, then. The effect of this on our fiction is that we, like many post-colonial writers, are summoned, or feel summoned, to write about a very particular experience of human bondage versus a universal one, as if it were our central, or even only, story to tell.
Is it our central story?
But there also lies the school of thought that a writer of colour, as Ocean Vuong summarises of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, ‘does not arrive at the literary table … in spite of their geographical and cultural roots, but because of them, that those origins … were foundations within their praxis—not shackles that denied them an imagination.’
I believe all these things: that in the afterlife of post-colonialism and indentureship, its effect on our fiction is dominant, that it casts its burdening shadow over a more universal human experience, and that it fans our fire as extravagant storytellers.
All these thoughts streamed through my mind as I sat down to write my submission for the competition. The questions befuddled me – perhaps it was procrastination masked as critical thinking—until I got angry, told myself to shut up, and instead of asking ‘What does an Indo-Caribbean woman write about?’ I asked very clearly and out loud:
What do I want to write about?
A neglected garden, a disintegrating house, a tawny curtain bloating through an open window. You look at this house and already know something intimate about its dwellers. You know they are not happy. You know something of great force must have happened for such indifference to envelop its structure. Upon walking in, you see the dark corridors and missing lightbulbs, hear the creaking stairs and hushed voices. You feel as though you are trespassing, but there’s a morbid curiosity to carry on. Yes, you confirm, something has happened here, something larger than life. Among its inhabitants, there also lives something gifted by the dead: grief.
I suppose there was a story brewing within me all along, becoming more and more restless for every day it stayed inside me until it found its palpable form. These are the words that speared out of my fingers at the keyboard, not unlike a ferocious war cry before an attack on the white page. These pages make up the first three chapters of Wild Fires, and are largely unedited from the very first draft.
I submitted my first three chapters to the competition and won. Among joy came a wonderful onslaught of anxieties, one of which was not knowing the intricacies of my characters. I knew their names and where they’d come from, but I didn’t know who they were. What were their secrets? Who had they once loved a long time ago? What was their relationship with their parents? Their biggest regrets? Their dreams? Did they even have dreams? If not, why? I understand now that a novel is a journey of discovery not only for the reader, but writer, too. In moments of self-doubt though, my anxiety and fear appeared as points of truth and therefore could not be fought, when indeed they could, if I only showed up armed with a pen.
One of those beautiful moments of discovery – tantamount to a clink after grueling weeks of digging – was walking past Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in a bookstore window. Its contents are remarkable and helped me better understand the psychology of houses and everything that makes, and unmakes, a space. In the space of a house, I, as the Writer and Creator, could summon anything. I could create my own country (the house) with its own borders (the rooms), with its own ‘race’ (its inhabitants). The possibilities were endless, for everything we carry out in the world happens in the house first. It’s where revolution and repose begin and end.
But just as impactful was the book’s cover design, a scribbling of nine rooms in which one wall or corner is coloured. The eye is drawn to that colour and forced to ponder how that section defines the room. How does it fill the room? What shadows might slope in the sun? How strong are its walls? How weak…? It was in looking at this cover that I realised that the house in Wild Fires must be a character on its own, one of ‘psychological phenomenon’, without taking on the elements of magical realism.
Not only this, but each character must be so persuasive in their traits that when entering a room, they change its dynamism with their body language and dialogue, and by the narrative I would have to lay out. That’s why Wild Fires’s Sangeetha – the bathetic aunt and keeper of secrets – bolts herself in the basement, a place that ‘becomes buried madness, walled-in tragedy’; why Leela, the matriarch of the family, retreats to the attic after the death of her husband, for the stairs ‘bear the mark of an ascension to a more tranquil solitude’; and why Rani, the most sensible of the women, is centred on the ground floor where ‘common-sense lives…always ready to engage.’ I came to know my characters and lift them to life off the page – at least, I hope I did – through the commanding structure of the house, and vice versa; once the characters were fully formed people, they began to manipulate its darkness, creaks, and corridors into a language unspoken. One only needs to place a family – their own, for example – in an entirely different childhood house. How might inter-relationships, traumas especially, morph in a smaller space? How might the intangible and unspoken take shape and emulate back into their own bodies, laying dormant over time? What effect would that have when they left home and entered the vicious, vibrant world?
It was this kind of symbiosis, this muddled exchange between the living and non-living, that created a world within walls in my novel. ‘[The house] is both cell and world,’ Bachelard says. ‘A house that is as dynamic as a [cosmic house] allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.’
But because I had spent so much time with my characters in that house, every day and night for three years, they had spent time with me, too. At a milestone I should have been celebrating – submitting my final draft to my editor – they began to turn my greatest fears against me.
I tell myself two versions of what happened in the following days. One, that the thought of strangers drawing parallels between the book and my life unspooled something unstable inside me. This anxiety, which morphed into panic, infested my brain, interrupting everyday function. I began asking people for forgiveness, even though what I had written was fiction; trying to convince them that I wasn’t a bad person. In short, I began to feel that what was happening in Wild Fires was happening right there and then, to me and my family, whom I was living with during the pandemic and when I wrote a large portion of the book. I began to speak of the dead as though they were still living. People were worried about me, I was told. I wasn’t ‘the same.’ Memories that weren’t mine flooded my mind the moment I opened my eyes from a night’s sleep, and from then on, until it was night again. Existence seemed an eternal struggle. This is about as much as I can write about ‘the following days’, but I will say this: how far and fast I fell.
The other version I tell myself is that my Muse was frightened she would produce something of poor quality and therefore took on the burden of my characters and made me believe things – some true, some not – so I could write with total conviction of loss, guilt, and grief. Worst of all, there was nothing I could do to stop the book because it was already handed over, it was in production, there was a team working on it, real people were sending real emails, and here now was the book cover in my inbox, red flames licking the darkness when I closed my eyes, confirming that I was, indeed, going to hell for the crime of having written twenty or so true words—words that were reading more and more like my epitaph…
I could spiral on for hours trying to understand why why why. This is not the space to do it. What I am saying is that this house, its characters, and its claustrophobic universe had an unforeseen effect on me.
I mentioned earlier a glimpsing over the shoulder at our collective past as Indo-Caribbean people. Wild Fires is first and foremost a story about family, grief, and homecoming. The main character doesn’t attribute her family’s missing pieces to indentureship or immigration, but rather as a traumatic effect of death. The missing pieces do exist and are right within reach through her mother and aunts who she lives with in the very same house. The challenge then, is not tracking down documents, but getting a stubborn, older generation to talk about the past. This is often the aftershock of a death that shakes and arrests a family and is not exclusive to Indo-Caribbean culture.
The undercurrents of post-indentureship are still in this book. In the protagonist’s need to understand her own shortcomings (bad choices in men, poor social skills, and her constant need to retreat), her inability to piece together her family’s fragmented history aligns with barriers faced in documenting Indo-Caribbean history. Her success is largely dependent on oral accounts spread across several countries, decades after the deaths. She encounters gaping holes in the stories she’s told. And, for every person that dies, a critical piece of history dies with them. There are things she will never find out and must make peace with imagining in order to move forward.
I wrote Wild Fires organically. Whether or not something within me coerced my Muse to overlay the conflicts of my story alongside the challenges of tracing Indo-Caribbean ancestry, I don’t know. But there it is in the book. I again revive the subject: can we really write our stories without the ubiquitous ghosts of our long-ago beginnings?
You’ve left through the back door now—it just seems easier. Circling around to its front you look up at this monument to Home. Everyone is asleep this early in the morning, except one face that peers through the attic window. It searches your face for nothing in particular; you do the same to her. Neither of you understand how the other has found their way to where they are now: you, outside, alone; she, inside, alone. You understand the outside of the house a little bit more now, though its interior…It still casts it magic over you. ‘How?’ you ask. ‘How did we do that? How did it happen? Where did we go?’
I write to explore all these questions and their answers, and the questions born from those answers. The best closure I can provide at this time though is proffered by Bachelard: ‘We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.’
Sophie Jai is the author of Wild Fires (HarperCollins, 2022). The novel was longlisted for the 2019 Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award. She was a 2020 Writer-in-Residence and Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, and will be a Kellogg Scholar at Oxford from ’22-’24. She is an alumna of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto where she studied under Olive Senior, and graduated with her Hons. B.A. from York University. She was born and raised in Trinidad, and grew up in Toronto. She currently lives between London, UK and Toronto.
Wild Fires cover photo via Harper Collins.
Cover photo by Oswald Elsaboath on Unsplash.
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. With fiction from Ingrid Persuad and Stephen Narain, a conversation between Richard Fung and Ramabai Espinet, life writing from Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and more, Wasafiri 110 is testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories.