Edgar J. Nieves and Michelle Ramos-Rodríguez interview Jacob Ross
Jacob Ross is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and creative writing tutor. His crime fiction novel, The Bone Readers, won the inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017. His most recent novel, Black Rain Falling, was published in March 2020 and has been described by Bernardine Evaristo as “outstanding”. Though receiving increasing acclaim for his crime novels, in this interview, Edgar J. Nieves and Michelle Ramos-Rodríguez talk to the writer about his long admired short stories, particularly his most recent collection Tell No-One About This which was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2017 and longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. The judges of that prize took note of the book’s voyage through “the author’s native Grenada to Britain, where he settled later in life, and over a forty-year sweep of Caribbean history.” In this interview, Ross sheds light on that voyage as well as the transgressions and illuminations that constitute his own practice as a writer.
Edgar J. Nieves and Michelle Ramos-Rodríguez: If you could select one of the stories in Tell No-One About This, which one would you choose to represent your collection?
Jacob Ross: A difficult one because most of these stories are indicative of important phases in my personal evolution both as a writer and as an individual. The story I’d probably choose — and it may be different if you were to ask me next week — would be ‘The Canebreakers’ because I wrote it at a young age. I was still in secondary school. But even then it encapsulated the themes and concerns that would find expression in my writing. One of those themes is the fate of women in society, the many oppressions and compromises women face, the degrading economic deprivation, the virulent misogyny, the sometimes unseen injustices. Somehow, despite such constraints, women are the true visionaries. So there’s that and there’s also, for me, the inescapable theme of education as the one true liberator.
Interviewers: Why did you decide to title the collection Tell No-One About This?
I’ve found that quite often a book of fiction contains the title somewhere inside it. The trick is to find the sentence or line in there. Usually, I look for something that suggests more than the sum of its words. In other words, I look for a sentence or line that resonates and catches the essence of the book. Tell No-One About This sounded right to me because it is full of intrigue and hints at the things we don’t want others to know. So many of the stories in there touch on things we don’t speak about: our inner demons, our longings, secrets, and transgressions; our private pleasures. I thought that while the title does not fully capture those things, it hints at them strongly enough to intrigue.
Watching my mother struggling to raise three sets of twins – I am a twin – and three additional children largely on her own, had a profound effect on my sensibility.
Interviewers: Tell No-One About This is a compilation of dozens of stories written over four decades. How did you decide which stories you wanted to include? You divided the book into four sections: ‘Dark’, ‘Dust’, ‘Oceans’, and ‘Flight.’ Yet none of the stories are dated. One reading of this arrangement is that it suggests a progressive exit from Grenada, a type of movement that goes from the countryside to town and then flying away from the island to life in the UK. What was your reasoning for this order?
That’s a very good description of my ‘authorial’ intention. There is a timeline there but the reader has to infer it, and you’ve done a good job of it. In terms of putting the collection together, my favorite editor, Jeremy Poynting, did that work. I trust his judgment implicitly and rather than do an overt chronology of the stories, we thought we might organize the collection, much as a poet might, according to mood or perhaps ‘worlds’ — ‘Dark’, ‘Dust’, ‘Oceans’, ‘Flight’. Those are evocative words and those realities leak into or taint the stories. But also, each of these narratives is about life, and life is not segmented. It is a flow. There are times when we move backwards into ‘memory-time’, then forwards in anticipation of a future we wish for ourselves — and all of this is happening while standing in the present. The book has that.
Interviewers: You’ve mentioned your concern with the theme of the plight of women. In this collection, there is a predominance of female characters. In previous interviews, you have said that you find it easier to write from that perspective. I was wondering if this has something to do with having influential women in your life, and if so, who have they been?
Yes, definitely. Watching my mother struggling to raise three sets of twins – I am a twin – and three additional children largely on her own, had a profound effect on my sensibility. Having a useless stepfather who didn’t father his own children didn’t do much to endear Grenadian/Caribbean men to me. Every success I achieved in my life as a sensitive, upright young man I owe to women. It was the Grenadian woman teacher who persuaded me that, from my class of twenty in secondary school, I could be the writer of that generation. Another came to my home and literally fought with me to return to school when I dropped out. I fought her back for three months. When I returned, she’d kept me on the register and marked me present for every day I’d missed.
Interviewers: Why do the stories begin with an action scene? Would you say this is a technique you use to connect readers to your characters or to launch us into the drama?
Yes. The short story is characterized by its economy, its precision, and the singularity of its focus. As a writer of this particular form, you’re aiming for the essence — of a character, an action, a moment. Nothing is wasted. Not a single word. In my view, all short stories are interruptions: the writer identifies an important moment in a character’s life, explores the essence/lessons/significance of that bit of life, then the writer leaves their characters to get on with it. I prefer to ‘interrupt’ my character at a moment when they are in the process of doing something. Other writers, of course, do it differently, and that’s a good thing, too.
Caribbean childhood is not innocent
Interviewers: Several stories, especially in the first section, are narrated from the viewpoint of children or young adult characters. In particular cases, such as in ‘The Canebreakers’ and ‘De Laughin Tree’, the young narrator experiences or witnesses social inequalities: gender inequalities, land expropriation, poverty. What are the advantages of exploring these topics from the viewpoint of a younger character?
What a lovely question! A great technique for extracting drama from an otherwise familiar situation is to resort to ‘othering’. A child does not usually have the tools to ‘interpret’ the world the way an adult would do, for example, in conversation, gestures, external events, and so on. A child might see love-making between adults as ‘fighting’. That sort of naivety nudges the empathetic reader to see differently, and to interpret events as the child would, oftentimes with greater integrity while at the same time, appreciating, as a reader, the significance of what’s unfolding in the life of that child. I use the word naivety rather than innocence because it is my belief that Caribbean childhood is not innocent.
Interviewers: Now that you mention that Caribbean childhood is not innocent, could you elaborate on how this is present in ‘A Game of Marbles’ and ‘Roses for Mr. Thorne’, where the narrations explore the everyday life and survival of the community in different political atmospheres through a boy’s and an old woman’s perspectives?
I’m interested in small acts that have tremendous symbolic importance without first appearing so. ‘A Game of Marbles’ has a real historical context i.e. 1974 when the island I grew up on was shut down for months by a national strike and there was nothing coming or leaving. Food became scarce. Shops and stores were looted. People were shot, arrested, and beaten up by a dictatorial government that we wanted to get rid of. I lived through that, and Ken’s search for food was also my search for food. Suddenly, as a result of that crisis, roles were reversed; children became the providers instead of adults. I was still in secondary school at the time, and writing ‘A Game of Marbles’ changed the way I saw children.
Poverty is a form of violence, and in societies like mine, the privileged, by virtue of their indifference to it, are participants in that violence.
In the West, people tend to associate children with innocence, vulnerability, helplessness, dependency. It struck me that Caribbean children have never been like that. Older children often do the parenting of their younger siblings. They take care of elders. And of course, you noticed that Ken became an avenging child. It was this that got me into some trouble when the story became public in Grenada. Because the powers-that-be understood the symbolic act of a child walking into a politician’s yard and seizing one of his prize turkeys. What that story has in common with ‘Roses for Mister Thorne’, I think, is the fact they’re both politically charged. And talking about symbolic acts, the gift of those flowers was a deep statement of trust and love and sacrifice by an old woman.
I’ve pointed out elsewhere, recently, that poverty is a form of violence, and in societies like mine, the privileged, by virtue of their indifference to it, are participants in that violence. As it happens, women and children experience the brunt of that kind of brutalization.
Interviewers: Stories such as ‘A Game of Marbles’ feel very cinematographic in nature, particularly the action scene near the end of this story. What other forms have influenced your writing? Have you experimented with other types of creative outlets?
I almost turned out to be a poet, but I gave that up and adopted fiction, hence my tendency to go for graphic imagery in my writing. Writing plays gave me a very good sense of drama and dramatic structure. And I was an insatiable reader of Marvel Comics and pulp fiction whose success rely largely on strong dramatic plotlines. I think I absorbed a great deal from reading those kinds of narratives. Interestingly, I recently turned to writing crime fiction, and I’m sure that I owe my success in that genre to what I absorbed from reading the types of books I mentioned earlier.
Interviewers: Short Stories such as ‘Song for Simone’ and ‘And There Were No Fireflies’ delve into the spirituality attached to music and nature. Why did you decide to focus on a spiritual non-religious atmosphere instead of religions found in the Caribbean? How come the stories that deal with religion, such as ‘First Fruit’ and ‘Tell No-One About This,’ show the conflicting and contradicting aspects of practicing religion?
It’s great that you make the distinction between religion and spirituality. I can write volumes on this. It is my view that religion has had, and still has, a devastating effect on the Caribbean sense of self and place in the world. Religion was part of the arsenal (these days they call it ‘soft power’) deployed to ensure submission. I can argue that much of the resilience, resourcefulness of the Caribbean ethos has its roots in a spirituality that has been a critical part of our survival as a people, in what Walter Rodney described as ‘a system designed to kill’.
Interviewers: There is a tradition of Caribbean writing that presents mothers as accomplices of their son’s violence against other women or instigators of violence against women. In ‘Giving Up on Trevor’, you present a character who struggles to decide if she will fall in line with this tradition. What was your intention when portraying this battle of deciding whom she wants to protect?
In a way, you’ve answered the question. She had a choice — I was aware of placing her in a terrible dilemma. Writing that story was ‘scary’ and very, very taxing because for that particular narrative to work the reader had to accept the emotional logic of a woman overriding the instincts and impulses of motherhood and giving up her son because a greater principle — a greater law if you like — was at stake. I did not conceive it as a feminist story, as some people have read it, because that suggests a kind of intent on my part. It was about a certain kind of strength and emotional truth.
Interviewers: In Western culture, there is the idea of the nuclear family — parents and children — as the ideal family structure. In your collection, it was refreshing to find different types of family. What do you want your stories to say about Caribbean family structures?
That ‘family’ in all human cultures and civilizations is fluid and is defined and shaped by the social, cultural, and economic circumstances that people find themselves in. Sometimes, aspirational culture brings a willful myopia to its own societal evolution. In the pre-Industrial Revolution and even today, in rural communities in Europe and North America, the extended family is still important. In other words, the nuclear family is not normative. It is merely an expression of the economic and social context people find themselves in.
Interviewers: Any recommendations to aspiring writers?
Read a lot. Start with writers from your own cultural space. Read some more, in ever-widening circles — including genres that are outside of your writing aims. Keep reading. Write. Self-belief is important; so is self-doubt. Keep writing.
Edgar J. Nieves holds an M.A. in Caribbean Literature and a B.A. in Comparative Literature and in Secondary Spanish Education from the University of Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Afro-Hispanic Review, Revista Cruce, and Revista Umbral, among others.
Michelle Ramos-Rodríguez holds an M.A. in English with a focus on Caribbean Literature and a B.A in Anthropology, both from the University of Puerto Rico.