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"To be static is to be dead": An Interview With Jacob Ross

Jacob Ross is an author, a creative writing tutor, and the associate fiction editor for Peepal Tree Press. His oeuvre includes Pynter Bender (2008), the 2017 inaugural Jhalak Prize-winning book Bone Readers (2016), and Tell No-One About This (2017). Bernardine Evaristo, in her review of Bone Readers which appeared in The Guardian in 2016, declared that “Ross’s characters are always powerfully delineated through brilliant visual descriptions, dialogue that trips off the tongue, and keenly observed behaviour. He excels at creating empathetic female characters.” The same can be said of Ross’s most recent publication, Tell No-One About This, which is a collection of his best short stories that have been published over the last four decades in addition to some new material. The stories are divided into four sections and are set in either Grenada or Britain. They capture intimate human connections, often through the eyes of a child narrator, and the complexities of the Caribbean-British migrant experience. The collection represents an important addition to Ross’s growing list of publications. What follows is a summary of Tell No-One About This and an interview which was conducted in celebration of the collection’s publication. 

The stories in the first section, ‘Dark’, examine aspects of Grenadian childhoods. Relationships lie at the heart of the stories in this section as Ross explores the dynamics between children and adults, women and men. ‘The Canebreakers’ focuses on a friendship between two children against the forked path of school and the canefield, whereas a fraught relationship between the child protagonist and an estranged parent inform ‘Dark is the Hour’ and ‘Girlchilde’. Rural economy, education, and gender are also prominent topics in ‘Dark’, as the practices of farming and fishing in ‘Cold Hole’ sit in stark contrast to the prospect of higher education in ‘The Understanding’ and ‘Walking for my Mother’. ‘Song for Simone’ and ‘The Canebreakers’ are critical of gendered expectations and the unequal opportunities afforded to boys and girls, particularly where education is concerned. The young protagonists’ naivety is touching, and throws an alternative light on economic, familial and personal issues in rural Grenada.

The second section, ‘Dust’, depicts a time of transition as modernity and tourism encroach on the lives of the island’s inhabitants. ‘De Laughin Tree’ illustrates the impact of commercial and residential development on Grenada through the formidable white presence that threatens the home of the child protagonist and his grandmother in a dispute about land ownership. In a similar fashion to the stories in ‘Dark’, Ross interrogates the strength of familial bonds throughout this section. ‘Rum an Coke’ and ‘Five Leaves and a Stranger’, for instance, tenderly portray the depth of parents’ love for their children, and the sacrifices they are willing to make and the pain they experience when their children are suffering. In addition, Ross is implicitly critical of men who take a standoffish approach to fatherhood in ‘Look Who Talkin’, a tone that is indicative of the sense of morality which infuses many of the stories in this collection. The subject matter of ‘First Fruit’, however, is significantly darker as it addresses abusive relationships, sexual assault, murder, and violence – themes that continue throughout Section 3 and Section 4.

All four stories in ‘Oceans’ convey the sea’s tangible power; its ability to conceal, to give, and to claim. ‘A Way to Catch Dust’ describes how the sea can provide an antidote for loneliness and be understood as a symbol of hope and new beginnings, and is comparable to Olive Senior’s ‘The Snake Woman’ through its portrayal of a community’s suspicion of a newcomer and reaction to alterity. Far from conforming to the stereotypical and highly exoticized representation of a Caribbean beach, ‘Deliverance’, ‘A Different Ocean’, and ‘Listen, the Sea’, explore characters’ relationships with the sea and the potential threat it poses to life. ‘A Different Ocean’ opens up questions about the greed and influence of wealthy tourists and exploitation of Grenadian people. While tourists and Grenadian people seem to live in separate worlds in ‘A Different Ocean’, Ross writes about finding familiarity in difference as a kinship is struck between a Grenadian and a tourist in ‘Listen, the Sea’ through the shared experience of depression.

The stories in section four, ‘Flight’, illustrate the realities of migration, including the emotional upheaval and sense of unbelonging that can accompany international movement. Several of these also explore the slow erosion and ultimate break down of familial relationships. ‘Giving up on Trevor’ and ‘A Quiet Time’, for instance, centre on familial conflict and betrayal. ‘Is Easy’ and ‘Tell No-One About This’, on the other hand, speak of encountering difference as the female protagonists of both stories are made to feel ‘other’ or ‘alien’ through their interactions with people and the environment. ‘Flight’ and ‘Bird’ – the latter fittingly closes Tell No-One About This – address the notion of departure, finality and lamentation. 

The stories collected in Tell No-One About This are compelling, emotive, and finely tuned. They raise important and timely questions about the white presence in the Caribbean, exploitation, and female subjugation, and observe the sometimes unfriendly face of Britain from the perspective of migrant characters. Ross displays an ability to captivate his readers’ imagination with his dramatic yet gentle tales.  

The following interview was conducted on 9th February 2018. 

SA: What appeals to you about the short story form?

JR: Well, apart from being short, it’s the most basic form of narrative, of storytelling. If you think back, every civilisation has folk tales, like Cinderella, all of these are short stories. And I suppose, coming from the culture that I come from, we tell short stories. I grew up in an oral culture and have been steeped in it since I was very young. All the tales of origin are short stories and they have a structure that we still use today. I think I have inherited these structures, I have learned them, perhaps, from listening to people talk. Short stories are like a shot of vodka or gin – concentrated and full of impact – not like a cocktail which is elaborate. And usually a good short story leaves the reader thinking, and is never complete. That’s what appeals to me.  

SA: Do you intend your short stories to be read as standalone pieces, or would you rather they were read in conjunction with the others in the collection?

JR: I’ve never done a collection of integrated stories, even though I have that intention. They always end up being quite disparate and diverse in terms of their subject matter, the characters and the setting, but I have never done this by desire. In my last collection I wanted the stories to be linked thematically, at least, but I didn’t get there really. Tell No-One About This came about because Jeremy suggested putting together all of the stories I have written that are good in his estimation. The next collection I plan to write – I don’t know when yet – will be thematically interconnected. This is an idea I stole from another writer called Jennifer Rahim, who has a wonderful collection called Curfew Chronicles.

SA: When I read Tell No-One About This, it struck me that the first section focuses on very young children, some of the stories in the middle sections depict pivotal moments during adolescence, whereas the final section is predominantly told from the perspective of adults. I started to wonder whether this collection could be understood as a kind of bildungsroman

JR: I suppose they reflect my own evolution, development, growth, you know? The earlier stories I wrote when I was quite young. They are preoccupied with children because I was acutely aware of my circumstances, of my context as a child. I was never an ordinary kid; people thought I was odd. My mum was very protective of me because she thought I was the odd one, the funny one. This is because I was a very quiet child, although you wouldn’t know that now. I was always quite internal and was always aware of my environment and what was happening around me, always absorbing, listening, taking things in, hardly speaking. But as soon as I learned to read, I became totally immersed in books. In a way I constructed a world I could live in comfortably, at least in my head. Everything was filtered through this world that I was immersed in, this literary world. In that sense, Tell No-One About This traces my development as a writer in the world. 

SA: So, your short stories have an element of autobiography about them. 

JR: They do, but not in the direct way that some people tend to think. When they read my work, they’ll ask me questions like “is that how you grew up?” or “is that how you were?” Well, yes and no. Yes, because I drew on the things I was familiar with. No, because the things that happen to my characters did not happen to me. And usually I write stories which draw very strongly on the traditional idea of a story, which is to make a statement or tell a message. Every one of my stories is making a point, or is making a statement about society or about relationships. 

SA: I found that they convey a powerful moral message. 

JR: Everybody says so and people talk about them in terms of morality. I don’t think about it that way. I suppose I carry within me – in fact, I know I have – a strong sense of justice, of fairness, of rightness. Is that moral? Okay, fine, if it is. Not morality in the sense of good or bad though, but in terms of the world being rectified, or the possibility of rectification, or of redemption, even. The idea that bad behaviour gets repaid by a certain kind of retribution, if not punishment. 

SA: A little bit like karma. 

JR: Exactly. The karma principle. I live by it because in my life I have seen karma step in quite often. I don’t come from a cultural space where a story has to end up in a dystopian way. There is always an element of cynicism about humanity or human nature and that’s not me. I believe in the goodness of people, and that people are capable of great – sublime – acts of generosity. But then I do believe in the awfulness of people which is why I write about awful people doing awful tings, too.  

SA: Many of the stories are about an emotional or physical transition, like ‘Flight’ and ‘A Better Man’. Do you think a state of change or even travel is crucial to character development, or to your creative process as a writer?

JR: The essence of the short story is about change, about how characters are modified by experience. We all are, it’s the natural disposition of humans. Take your first experience of betrayal by a friend, for instance. When you enter into another friendship after the unsuccessful one, you have already learned that friends are capable of betrayal and therefore it modifies the way you are with the new friend. We are changed by experience. To be static is to be dead. One of the fundamental principles of writing – not just my writing – is the story arc or character arc which reflects change. So yes, the notion of transition in my stories is a reflection of the dynamism of life. Life is dynamic. Life happens. 

SA: As a writer, though, do you find that travelling to a new place, or to Britain, or back to the Caribbean, acts as a creative catalyst? 

JR: It is a creative catalyst, but for me it took some time. When I first came to this country many years ago, my primary focus was on writing my Caribbean space, my Caribbean reality. I am from a very small island, as you know, and we didn’t have many writers. I grew up reading authors like George Lamming from Barbados, V. S. Naipaul from Trinidad, writers from Guyana, from Jamaica, but Grenada didn’t have writers who left for England in the 1950s. We didn’t have a literary tradition, so to speak. So for me it was important to do a kind of catching up. I began, in a way, to do what other Caribbean writers had already done which was to look back on that space and write it. Partly, this is for Caribbean readers to see the space they are living in from the point of view of a writer who shared their reality, and not through the prism or the filter of Caribbean writers who live elsewhere. It was a kind of patriotic act, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time. It’s only recently that I have written about England, even though I have lived here for longer than I have lived in the Caribbean now. I began to think “I’ve done my bit. Now it’s time to focus on England.” A couple of my England stories, or London stories as they get called, are in Tell No-One About This

SA: Several of your short stories, such as ‘The Canebreakers’ and ‘Song for Simone’, address gender inequalities, or at least gendered expectations. Therefore, I was wondering to what extent gender politics are important to you? 

JR: At the time I didn’t know I had that agenda. Before I came to live in England I was writing about that subject from personal experience, but that sort of vocabulary only became real for me when I moved here. My father died when I was very young so my mother had to bring me up. I was very very empathetic towards her and began from quite an early age to at least make an effort to understand her circumstances. Eventually, I had a step-father who took some liberties with my mother until I grew up and could stop him, so I was always aware of gender inequalities. When one of my sisters was 17 or 18 she got pregnant with this guy and her education stopped, even though she is very clever, whereas the guy went on to become some kind of mechanical engineer. Her whole career stopped as a result of that experience and that is specific to her as a woman. All that stuff didn’t go unfelt and I found myself being actually quite obsessed with it. When I re-read the collection, I realised the extent to which so many of my stories are infused with this theme and a kind of indignation, and yet it wasn’t conscious at all. But that is also me working my way through that, too; writing is a kind of self-interrogation, trying to understand. When I work a character through dilemmas like this I am also being modified as a result. 

SA: Do you find it difficult to write from the perspective of a character who is the opposite sex to yourself? 

JR: For me it’s easier than writing from the perspective of a man. 

SA: Why do you think that is? 

JR: Maybe I am transgender inside, I don’t know. It’s very easy but I didn’t used to do it. My early stories are only about little boys and then someone pointed out to me that I didn’t write about girls in my first collection, so I changed this. I think ‘Song for Simone’ was the first story I wrote as a girl, and I enjoyed it so much. It was very easy to slip into the skin and to see the world from her point of view. All of the gender issues come up very strongly with her. I write from an intense gendered perspective when I create female characters. However, my favourite story in the book, the one called ‘Listen, the Sea’, is very male. A certain kind of male, though, as he is very sensitive but had to receive some hard knocks before he became sensitive. I don’t write macho men because I’m not into macho men or chauvinistic males, unless I want to put them at the other end of the spectrum and make them a dislikeable character. There’s a predominance of stories in Tell No-One About This which are female, though. Have you ever heard of the writer James Baldwin? It’s worth reading his ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Baldwin can talk about any character, white or black etc., very convincingly. He writes from the point of view of rednecks, of racists, of women. His imagination is very malleable in that sense. I don’t know if I want to be like that or if I am like that, but I feel very comfortable switching. I can easily write a character with a different identity to me, like in the collection’s title story which is about a Sudanese woman. 

SA: So you find it easy to transcend your own subject position to focalise characters. Speaking of ‘Tell No-One About This’, I liked the way you address and undermine stereotypes of race and class in that particular narrative. Did you write this short story with the purpose of forcing your readership to confront their own assumptions? 

JR: Yes. Usually in Britain, when we talk about racism, we talk about the attitude of caucasians to other ethnic groupings, as we call them. We live in a highly racialised society. What we don’t do – either because we are scared to, or perhaps because the perpendicular relationships represent bigger struggles – is talk about the horizontal dynamics between Somalian and Black British, or Turkish and Black, or Turkish and Pakistani, for example. This a theme I am thinking about working on. Many years ago, I had an Indian girlfriend and we were incredibly connected. Her uncle wasn’t happy about our relationship so I challenged him, and asked what his basis was. He gave me all this shit about culture. It’s not culture. The bottom line was that he thought his ethnic grouping was better than mine, and because I am Afro-Caribbean, he thought I represented some sort of contamination. I really confronted him. There is something in those kinds of relations and it’s worth exploring. 

SA: I suppose when people talk or write about relationships between white people and other single ethnic groupings – the perpendicular dynamic, as you say – they reinforce binaries and place whiteness at the centre, still. 

JR: What I am getting at here is that it’s not as binary as we make it out to be, it’s nuanced. In my mind, there are two kinds of writing: there are cosies – where you write to fulfil and reinforce people’s sense of who they are, what they are, and where they are, it’s a very assuring writing, but the other kind of writing, which I think is the hallmark of literary writing, is to make people ask questions. How else would we improve as humans or how else do we confront ourselves as humans? What is writing if it’s not, in fact, some kind of interrogation or questioning? That’s the kind of writing that I do. People sometimes get annoyed and ask “why are you writing stories like that?”, but I don’t write tourist brochures, you know?

SA: I agree. Often, the things that make us uncomfortable are the things we need to read. Uncomfortable conversations can be the most productive conversations sometimes. Is there anything else you’d like to say, or is there anything you wish I had asked you? 

JR: I have a sense of urgency that I have a lot more books to write. I just want to get on with it, an impatience almost, and I’m wondering if time is running out. There is a pressure that drives everything I do now. That’s it, essentially. I love what I do. The kind of editing work I do here with Jeremy and Hannah is also very important and useful to my writing. There is a kind of approach to texts that makes my writing terser, more succinct, and probably of better quality.  


Sofia Aatkar 


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