Interview with Shivanee Ramlochan by Monique Roffey
Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She reviews Caribbean literature for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section, and is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. She was the runner-up in the 2014 Small Axe Literary Competition for Poetry, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers’ Prize. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in October 2017.
Your collection of poems is dedicated to your parents, Deborah and Suresh. Have they read the collection, and what did they think? The collection is a polyglot of Gods and religions. As a woman from the Caribbean, what are your own bloodlines and background?
What I want most to be known about my parents is that they contain multitudes. Both Indo-Trinidadian, they are complex, generous people, both traditional and permissive, both faithful to their visions of the world, and willing to see outside of their known orbits. Their acceptance of these poems, their quiet and voluble pride in them, has been a lesson to me: to never underestimate the ways in which anyone might come to the work, including the people who made me.
Can you talk a little about the opening poem, “A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child”? It seems to be a poem about the indoctrination of beliefs before a child can even utter its mother’s name. How does this relate to your own childhood?
The things I learned about Hindu gods I learned either from religious texts or old, Indian men. Hinduism is both ornate and simple, and it remains the faith in which I most recognize myself, but in Trinidad, its followers largely perform obeisance and enact submissions to male religious leaders, none of whom have ever inspired me to bow to them. “A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child” imagines a future for an unnamed infant that is not prescribed by cisgendered male hegemony. It is a future that is issued, mother-tongue to child-ear. It holds space, too, for the child to dismantle even those names the mother has offered, in time. The woman who gave me the best recognition of Hinduism is my own mother, who is Roman Catholic, but who, like I said, contains infinities.
In the final poem too, “Vivek Chooses His Husbands”, we see a gay man dealing with restrictions related to religious orthodoxy. It is an utterly subversive poem, subverting various festivals and their moral authority over sexuality. This final poem seems to be dealing with the old world and the old order of exclusion and hypocrisy. [I am the queen/the comeuppance/the hard heretic that nature intended.] Is it finally time to address and to realise queer people and queer lives in the literature of the Caribbean region, especially when its laws are still so draconian?
I reject the non-Caribbean fetishizing of queer Caribbean resilience. People who live outside the gender binary, outside heteronormative desire, have been doing so in Caribbean space, long before I was a tendril in my mother’s womb. What a fallacy it is for young queer people in the region to think their survival is more spectacular or more audacious than that of the queer communities preceding them. LGBTQI people have been on these islands, loving, resisting, going to market and paying bills, raising children and raising hell, for forever. It’s past the time to write about them. It’s *been* time. What kind of coward would I be, if I didn’t lend my queer voice to that?
Your sequence of poems about the abortionist’s daughter are stunning and unsettling. These are poems about the dire realism of the inequality of women at an everyday and yet unspoken about level. These poems shock and nail down the horrors of the female condition. How did they start?
I have witnessed the high moral and personal prices the women in my family have paid for female goodness. I found myself paying, too, without ever knowing what was being taken from me, before I could be properly conscious that a transaction was in place for me in ways it would never be for my brothers. This insistence on feminine goodness gets more play in contemporary culture because it’s far more insidious – less child marriages, more minute insistences on obedience, meekness, deference – but it’s there. The abortionist’s daughter poems grew out of one of my earliest sparks of creative rudeness, rebellion and the desire to perform subversions I didn’t feel comfortable vocalizing at home, or in public. I’ve grown into my rebellions in real life, and I’m thankful to these poems for helping to cultivate my dirty mouth, my transgressions, my refusal to shut up.
Your three duenne poems evoke a demonic lover and a caring mother figure [darling son]. Tell us about these three poems and how they link. One of them, Duenne Lara gives us the title for the collection, [everyone knows I am a haunting].
The Duenne poems came from my creative community with Douen Islands, an artistic performance collective founded by Trinidadians, poet Andre Bagoo and graphic designer Kriston Chen. This trilogy I contributed to the Douen Islands installations troubles the spelling of ‘douen’, and pries with the associations of douens as genderless and faceless. Conventional folklore has offered us the douen as a demon, but even demons have desires. What might they hunger for? Where, after all, could their navel strings be buried? Do even douens/duennes have mothers, who might, on the coldest of nights, scan the forest periphery for the trail of backwards-facing feet? From these questions, my duennes emerged.
Your collection reveals a plethora of women, either as witness (i. e. the virgin in the woods), or women who have been vilified (the abortionist’s daughter) or who have been cast out and banished/excluded (Lilith). Many of your poems subvert the demonic and offer a counterpointal view; they give us kind parents for ‘the wicked’, for example. Can some of this be ‘writing back’ or even rewriting the tainted women of the old books? Recasting lore and folklore? I’m thinking of this as a tradition in female Caribbean writing, Rhys, Melville etc.
I’ve been in love with nasty women long before that term acquired currency as a trending battle cry. This is the reason Kali is the god of my household of one – no sanitised version, but Kali in her black-skinned, murderous, protectorate ire and grace. It’s my honour to write about women who bleed, fuck, dance, cuss, transact and thief without apology, be they gentle or garrotte-hearted.
“The Virgin Speaks of What She Endured” is a masterful example of what Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier called lo real maravilloso. Your poems are rich and baroque and marvellous and juxtapose the probable and improbable; they speak of a polyglot and polyphonic world of Gods and influences, in short, the Caribbean. Have the magical realists of the Americas influenced your work, if so who?
Thanks to a sturdy A-Level education, I cut my teeth on Allende and García Márquez, then continued to feed myself for pleasure and illumination from the novels of Laura Esquivel, Louis de Bernières, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie, writers from the Americas and outside of it. I was also reading magical realism that was called by any other name: the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris’ The Palace of the Peacock is never far, for instance, from my imagination of the uninhabitable wild. Lorca’s torrid poetic feverscapes are proof, not of the impossibility of magic, but of the desperation we encounter when we think we can function without it.
The red thread cycle is a seminal and ground-breaking sequence of poems. Here, we see that poetry has given form to and can withstand the subject of violation. Is the sacred nature of poetry a vessel which can contain the profanity of rape?
I wonder if anything can contain rape: most or least of all the human body. I have seen women, men and non-binary individuals live with the predation of their assaults externally, doing all they can to cast the memory of that violation outside of themselves. I have also seen people swallow their pain reflexively, casting it up in helpless and miniature terrors spread out over years. The poems in the Red Thread Cycle are concerned with both the inner and outer fissures of rape, of how survivors of sexual assault are taught both to discard and digest their suffering, and of what it looks like when we choose how best we want to live alongside and after sexual violence. If they can do any measure of that, I will pay whatever it costs to write them.
Husbands, fathers, fatherhood, mothers, sisters and grandmothers are your subject matter too, the interrelatedness of everyday family life. Can you tell us about this?
I used to despair that I might run out of things to write about in poems. Slowly, I have realised that if I took one family, real or imagined, and split its secrets from end to end, I would be invested in a marrow-fed lifetime of work. Who says the domestic and the divine, or the dangerous, are far apart? I’ve seen horrors and hauntings in nuclear families that could fill novels, if I were ever that way inclined. I know patriarchies whose coats of arms ought to be crowned with cutlasses, mother-led clans fuelled by work and laughter and Sunday cooking. Wherever two or more people are clustered, there’s something to write about what connects them, whether it’s blood, babies or badmind.
There is a deep vein of feminism in your work and deeper sense of subversion of the hetero-normative value system. Some of your protagonists are openly queer, most are outcasts. In many ways, your themes are every day and yet still taboo in Trinidad. In down town Port of Spain gay and straight clubs are lively and throb with life and yet the crossover is still a shadowy subject. I’m thinking of the new wave of feminist activism in the region, too. This collection crackles with the energy of outrage and the need to ‘bun down’ the old order. Are we beginning to challenge the old status quo?
Goddess, I hope so. I think often of Jean Rhys’ Antoinette, carrying her arsonist’s candle through the empty, cold halls of her oppressor’s mansion, ready to raze it. I think, too, of the poems of my beloved friend, Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, which the uninitiated might misconstrue as solely gentle – and there is tenderness there, to be sure, but also a deboning knife between smiling teeth, a serpent coiled around a mango, waiting to strike. Subversion lingers in unexpected places in her work, gravid and as necessary as air. I turn to her poems to tell myself to myself, and they have taught me the valuable lesson that you can use anything to burn the house down, once you wield it with your heart on fire.
Can you tell us about the cover art? It is feminine and macabre.
I owe the visual narrative of my cover entirely to Mark Jason Weston, the Jamaican collagist whose image I licensed for use, and Kriston Chen, my Douen Islands co-conspirator who designed Mark’s collage into a poem of its own. I highly encourage readers to engage with Mark and Kriston’s work at http://markjasonweston.tumblr.com and http://notsirk.com. In conceptualizing and executing this cover, they have given habitation to a series of realities, distortions and feral beasts that have no names. I prize them.
“New’ is a fraught word in Caribbean literature, the idea being that our literature isn’t new at all. And yet we are seeing an emergence of a whole new generation of not just writers, but of genres of writing. Speculative fiction, YA fiction, queer literature and scores of ‘new’ female writers. You are one of these new female voices, can you comment?
I will answer this question with a list of names that are not mine:
Ayanna Gillian Lloyd; H. K. Williams; Gilberte O’Sullivan; Portia Subran; Soyini Ayanna Forde; Caroline MacKenzie; Deneka Thomas; Ira Mathur; Jannine Horsford; Elisha Efua Bartels; Anu Lakhan.
Whether they are new or not is a classification beyond my remit, but they all are growing transformative work, and I am more excited than I can say to wait eagerly at the tables, cauldrons and caverns of these Trinidadian women, for the writing they are poised to reveal.
Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting is published by Peepal Tree Press.
Interview by Monique Roffey.
Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and educated in the UK. She is the author of six books, five novels and a memoir. Three of her novels are set in Trinidad and the Caribbean region. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and the Encore Award in 2011. Archipelago (2012) won the OCM BOCAS award for Caribbean Literature in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Orion Award 2014. House of Ashes, published in 2014, is a novel drawn from historical events and tells the story of a gunman, a hostage and a child soldier caught up in a botched coup d’etat. It was shortlisted for the COSTA Fiction Award, 2015 and longlisted for the OCM BOCAS Award in 2015. A new novel, The Tryst, will be published in early 2017.