The Crucifixion

Written by Sasenarine Persaud for Indo Caribbean World on

Following is an interview with novelist Ismith Khan by Sasenarine Persaud. Khan visited Toronto recently.

Sasenarine Persaud: You started writing in the 1960’s. How did you get started?

Ismith Khan: I was a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian. This was before I had any kind of academic background. I then went to the United States to do journalism in 1948. I did one course in journalism and it was a waste of time: I worked for a newspaper as a reporter covering the airport and shipping. Since I was there - I had a scholarship at Michigan State - I thought I might as well take full advantage of it.

I got into what is called a Divisional Major of the Social Sciences, which was psychology, sociology, economics and philosophy. That I thought would serve me in good stead as a writer. So I did that, and then I went to New York to the New School for Social Research. There wasn’t such a major when I got there. You had to do one, so I took Sociology. They also had these wonderful creative writing courses. You might say that was where I started.

S.P.: Why did you choose the US instead of London, England?

I.K.: One of the reasons was I grew up in a very anti-British background: my father felt that way, and I sort of grew up with this feeling. America was the country to look to - it was exciting. This was right after World War II.

S.P.: In retrospect that was an exciting time - even literarily, more in the States than in England.

I.K.: I could see I would not have been happy in England in the few times I went there, which was after my college years - it looked so old and beat-up.

S.P.: Some of this bitterness towards England seems to surface in your first novel The Jumbie Bird.

I.K.: It probably started with my grandfather and my father, and some of it was transferred to me. And I had different views about the British and going to England. I think I preferred to be treated as a second-class citizen in the United States than in England.

S.P.: Your first novel The Jumbie Bird is the one novel of its kind. Naipaul has written a lot about the Indian experience in the West Indies, and so has Sam Selvon, as well as many of the younger writers in more recent tunes. But no one has dealt with that period and the major subject
of that period - the repatriation of Indians to a newly independent India. This was a painful experience for a lot of our parents and the Indians of that generation.

I.K.: The novel is semi-autobiographical as most first novels are. I actually used my grandfather’s name Kale Khan. The name of his wife in the novel, Binti, is a fictitious name, but the circumstance which brought my grandfather to the new world was the uprising in India when Indian soldiers were called on to shoot Indians.

S.P.: In the 1857 mutiny.

I.K.: Yes. When I was in India, as I walked on the cobblestone of the Red Fort, I had this romantic notion that my grandfather probably walked on those very cobblestones. I was very close to him. I was his only grandson, and I spent a lot of time with him. He lived downstairs from us. He was by then quite old when I knew him.

S.P.: Did he take part in the 1857 mutiny?

I.K.: He did. And as a Free Man in Trinidad he did not feel as beaten down as the East Indians (in Trinidad) who came as Indentured servants.

S.P.: Kale Khan. Was that the name he actually used in India? Many of the ex-sepoys changed their names to escape the wrath of the British after the uprising was put down.

I.K.: Yes, it was the name he used in India. Maybe he managed to get out of there real fast, because I don’t know the exact year he actually left.

S.P.: In The Jumbie Bird, which is set almost entirely in Port-of-Spain, your description of the city seems so real and alive. You grew up in Port-of-Spain.

I.K.: I was born at 48 Frederick Street, facing Woodford Square. The Red House was over there, the Trinity Church to the left, the Public Library and the Town Hall to the right. That was my playground.

S.P.: So you were born and grew up entirely in Port-of-Spain?

I.K.: Yes.

S.P.: Naipaul and Selvon were not born in Port-of-Spain, but moved later to the city. Naipaul has not written much about Port-of-Spain in his novels even though he has written a lot about Trinidad.

I.K.: Except in Miguel Street.

S.P.: Except in Miguel Street. But his Port-of-Spain does not come off the page with the fullness and life as yours. There is a warmth in The Jumbie Bird for Port-of-Spain. How do you account for this?

I.K.: I was born and raised in the city. My father had a jewelry shop on Frederick Street, downstairs, and we lived upstairs - the building is now refurbished and houses offices, but I don’t think it was completely taken down. When I tell people now that there were homes here, they say ‘I didn’t know people used to live there.’

S.P.: Tell me about the title: The Jumbie Bird?

I.K.: The Jumbie bird is an owl, and it has this mythology in Trinidad, as it has in other places. People still say if you hear the jumbie bird, then somebody within earshot is going to die. There was indeed a jumbie bird and a calabash tree. I wanted to call the book ‘The Jumbie Bird and the Calabash Tree’. But my literary agent said that title was too long.

S.P.: Let us look at Binti in The Jumbie Bird. She is a remarkable woman. She comes across as the strongest Indian woman crafted by a male writer in the West Indies.

I.K.: My grandfather did abandon her.

S.P.: She’s based on your real grandmother?

I.K.: Yes.

S.P.: Did you actually say Ajee?

I.K.: Daadi. When I was in Trinidad the last time some school girls asked why did they split up? And I said marriages are like that. We hear in the United States two out of every three marriages break up. It broke up and I know little more than that. But my grandfather did take the two boys and raise them himself. He just left her to fend for herself, and that’s what she did.

S.P.: She comes across as a resilient woman...

I.K.: She had to take care of herself. She had a coalshop. I would go and spend time with her.

S.P.: Did she have influence on the narrator in The Jumbie Bird and you?

I.K.: I was very, close to her. I was very fond of her. I was also fond of my grandfather. I spent more time with my grandparents than I spent with my parents at that age and stage of my life, at about nine or ten.

S.P.: You published The Jumbie Bird in 1961. What was the critical response by way of reviews? How did you feel about your path as a writer after The Jumbie Bird came out?

I.K.: I didn’t feel too good, because there weren’t too many reviews. There was a review in the New Yorker: they thought it was charming, with a gothic use of language. The New York Times said I must be mistaken if I thought this was what Trinidad was like. I was writing about a period way back in the past, not about Trinidad, and one can date it. I was writing about the period of Indian Independence. Was it 1948? So as far as the New York Times was concerned, I wasn’t writing about the political situation as it was then in Trinidad. And of course, I was writing about the East Indian community. And there was very good reason for that. As a young novelist I didn’t think I could take on the larger multi-racial society and write a novel. I wasn’t trying to ignore anybody. If you read The Obeah Man I had made up my mind I was not going to write about the Indian community.

S.P.: In The Obeah Man you dealt with the larger society. In The Jumbie Bird you dealt almost exclusively with the Indian community in Trinidad. Did you feel pressured after this novel, having dealt entirely with the Indian community, to move on and deal with the larger Trinidad society?

I.K.: Not really. I wanted to do something completely imaginative, and The Obeah Man is a work completely of the imagination. There is nothing in there based on anybody who was part of my family or otherwise. There aren’t even people there who could be identified as such. A total invention.

S.P.: There is a big gap after The Obeah Man came out in 1964 until The Crucifixion in 1987. What was happening to you in those years?

I.K.: It had largely to do with having to make a living. I was married and had to support my family. I worked from 9 to 6, and then went to school. I wanted to write, and couldn’t find the time. Later on I got to the point where I could work half time; then later I went back to school, to John Hopkins, into a Masters programme which put me back into the academic world. In these years I was trying to make a living, trying to write and living in New York. Of course, there were other things involved. I was very heart-broken. I wanted to return to Trinidad to do something. I thought I would go back as a social scientist. I went back in 1962 and when I saw what was happening - which would be hard to describe - but it had largely to do with the Blacks and the East Indians - I could see where as an East Indian I probably wouldn’t be able to get a job even as a teacher.

S.P.: Lots of writers seem to downplay this polarisation, saying there wasn’t any between the two major races in Trinidad at the time. You saw some kind of polarisation?

I.K.: Oh, yes, yes. That was when I decided to become an American citizen after I came back in 1962. I have been put down for this. Jeremy Poynting seems to feel that I have evaded the issue by saying that the central character of The Obeah Man was described as having all the features of the Korean, of the Black, the East Indian and so on. I had no intention of being evasive. It’s just that I did not wish to write a novel which would pit the Blacks against the East Indian. I wanted to write what I think of as a work of art, which is to say, it had to do with a man who is in search of himself - who am I, where did I come from, and where am I headed. No more than that.

S.P.: And this is a raceless, casteless, colourless search?

I.K.: Yes. Indeed, I still feel that way today. I am one of the homeless of the homeless. I feel this way here in Toronto. I want to go back to New York, and I feel homeless in New York; I feel more comfortable in New York than I feel anywhere else in the world.

S.P.: I want to ask about definition. There has been a lot of talk recently about an Indo-Caribbean literature, an Indo-Caribbean aesthetic in writing as different from Afro-Caribbean. Was there such a thing when you started?

I.K.: Not really. I just wanted to write well. And that means the beautiful prose that George Lamming or Naipaul writes, or any writer, not only from the Caribbean. My aspirations were to write well. The experience was secondary, it was like my heritage, it was like a given. There was no problem with that, you didn’t have to learn that: you had to learn how to write well, and that’s how I perceived myself. And so as far as the content and the aesthetic go, I have seen some things that are so stupid - and I am thinking about a couple of books I’ve looked at which seem to be leaning over backwards to catch a speech pattern of the East Indian, whether in Trinidad or Guyana. I think this is so difficult and tedious. I wasn’t trying to do that, I was trying to capture something I think of as Trinidadian dialogue.

S.P.: Are there more works to look forward to?

I.K.: Yes. There is a collection of stories with Peepal Tree Press which is coming out shortly. I also have this novel set in the sixties which I have been back to several times, and I have another novel set in New York which I wrote when I came back from California. Those two things are there for me to go back to as I have been thinking about starting something new. For having come to Toronto and seeing all of these people - I am thinking about my people, our people - and I am thinking, where are we going? We didn’t seem to make it in the Caribbean, despite all the hell our ancestors went through. So on to what? Not so much New York where the East Indian population is relatively small compared to Toronto. And looking at them, I say to myself, ‘Do you know what you are doing here?’ And where is all of this supposed to lead? Is it supposed to lead some place? It’s as if we are like wandering Jews. And where are we going? Where are we going to wind up? We’re obviously not going back to India.