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An Interview with Anthony Kellman

We caught up with Anthony Kellman to discuss research, King Ja Ja and the fine balance of historical fiction.

What first drew you to the story of Jubo Jubogha, King Jaja of Opobo?

During primary and secondary school years, I, like most Barbadians, heard and sang the anonymously written traditional folk song about a King Jaja and Becka, a song in which the two protagonists are mutually determining the terms of an imminent common-law relationship. Given that Barbadian and Caribbean people often give neighborhood figures grandiloquent names or titles (like the late quixotic Barbadian King Dyal, for example), we assumed the “king” and his love interest were local characters.

It was only when I came upon a 1974 book written by Sylvanus Cookey, a descendent of one of Jaja’s chiefs, that I found confirmation that Jubo Jubogha, known by all as King Jaja, was a real Nigerian king and one of Africa’s great kings. He had been kidnapped by British officials in the Niger Delta, tried in a kangaroo court for allegedly breaking a treaty, fined, and sentenced to years of exile in the Caribbean. He spent some time in St. Vincent and was later transferred to Barbados. So this mix of adventure, romance, and political intrigue drew me in.

Tracing Jaja focuses on the last months of the king’s life. But who was Becka? The folk song gave only a slight glimpse and, even then, an unreliable one since Jaja was a prisoner of the British government and would not have been given permission to cohabitate. I found no empirical evidence of her actual existence, but I was hooked on the idea of one day writing a novel in which the King and Becka both told their stories.

What historical research did you do?

In 2005, I wrote a contemporary folk song “King Jaja” which appeared on my CD album Limestone and which was to some degree a response or additive to the traditional folk song. Along with a love thread, the song addressed the real and serious reason why Jaja was in Barbados as a prisoner of the British Government. The following year, I embarked on a trip to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and from there traveled to Jaja’s town, Opobo, where I engaged in field research. I was guided through the past and the present by members of the Opobo youth council. Today, the area is still governed by the Jajas. Afterwards, I traveled to Tenerife, Canary Islands, where part of the novel is set, and again engaged in both documented and experiential research.

In 2007, I wrote a six-part series about that Opobo trip for The Nation newspaper in Barbados, and at that point felt the definitive push to begin drafting the novel.

What constraints did writing historical fiction put on you as a writer?

Writing historical fiction is very tricky business. By necessity, the process of fiction (and especially historical fiction) is, simultaneously, an inner and outer experience, an inchoate and realistic experience, an inventive and factual experience. But one isn’t writing a history book; one is writing a dramatic work of the imagination. It can be challenging to seamlessly blend these polarities without (from the historical side) the risk of irritating factual purists. What I therefore attempted was to remain true to the spirit of my subjects and themes. There are some details that are rendered as facts, but which I interpreted in ways that complement the needs and demands of plot and character, while simultaneously remaining true to the spirit of the factual subject. So it’s not the easiest of forms in which to work.

My 2008 book, Limestone: An Epic Poem of Barbados, took some fourteen years to write and covers some five centuries of Barbadian historical, political, social, and cultural life. Here I also worked with both invented and actual historical personages (including a section on King Jaja). So, with historical fiction, a central question is how does a work set in a particular time and featuring real historical figures, shed light on the condition of humanity? And a creative writer has the artistic license to alter historical detail, if necessary, in order to properly answer that question. The alternative would be to blindly cling to factual detail and risk ruining the work’s imaginative and emotional integrity. So the character Jaja is both factually and fictionally rendered, while Becka and other characters are fully fictionalized.

What are you working on next?

I admit to being somewhat superstitious about saying what I’m working on, but I can say it will have something to do with the 1970s... and with one of the characters in Tracing Jaja. And I’m playing with some ideas for another book of poetry.

Which books are you currently reading?

Edwidge Danticat’s poignant Claire of the Sea Light; Ted Hughes’ revelatory Birthday Letters (finally got around to reading this!!); and I’m re-reading the incredible The Bowling was Superfine: West Indian Writing and West Indian Cricket, eds. Stewart Brown and Ian MacDonald (a must-read for lovers of sports and the Caribbean).

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