The Repenters. Kevin Jared Hosein. 2016.
Kevin Jared Hosein is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. His debut novel The Repenters was long-listed for the 2017 OCM Bocas award for Caribbean literature. He is the 2015 Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2013, he wrote and illustrated his first book, Littletown Secrets, which was named the best children’s book of 2013 by the Trinidad Guardian. His work is also featured in anthologies including Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, and Akashic’s Duppy Thursdays. He was shortlisted twice for the Small Axe Prize. His poem, “The Wait is So, So Long” was adapted into a short film which was awarded a Gold Key at the New York-based Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
Townsend Montilla is a graduate student majoring in English, with an emphasis in fiction writing, in the Master’s Program of the Department of English, College of Humanities, at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus in San Juan. His creative writing has previously been published in Tonguas, Entre Parentisis, and in the anthology Musgo Mundo: Muestra de Poesía Puertorriqueña (1985-1994) (Parawa Editorial).
Townsend Montilla: Kevin, congratulations on the recent announcement that your debut novel The Repenters was long-listed for the OCM Bocas award for Caribbean literature, in the fiction category. I read in your interview with Monique Roffey (Wasafiri) that you lamented that artists, writers, and musicians “stay poor in Trinidad,” but still “dare to dream, regardless.” Do you feel that your daring to dream has been rewarding as of late?
Kevin Jared Hosein: Since I started writing, there has been nary a moment I’ve seen myself not doing it. My unhappiest times were those where I had put down the pen. Would I describe it as a drug then—something that can fester in the bloodstream and eat away at the cells? It could be, and it can harm you if you don’t have the proper mindset. The proper mindset being one that understands reality and expectations.
Writing is a ‘hobby’ job for me—one that I take quite seriously, mind you. But it cannot sustain me monetarily aside from pocket change, not with the limitations of the Caribbean, not without the promise of an audience. But it gives me great joy to write, to record, to shape characters from things I see and encounter. Award, longlist, shortlist, I do not write expecting any of these things. I don’t even expect money. The validation is welcome, mainly because it means I can share everything with more people now. That is the real reward to me. However, I would love The Repenters and Jordon and Mouse and Ti-Marie and Rico all the same even if they were universally rejected.
TM: The cover of The Repenters, done by Portia Subran, shows Jordon and Chopper. I have to admit the cover was in the back of my head while reading. When I first saw it, I thought the story would be a shapeshifter story set in Trinidad. I was happily wrong, given the outcome of the story. However, you still set up this connection between Jordon and Chopper, who both represent innocence being beaten by life. Since Chopper is present in just two parts of the novel, could you expand on your process of the creation of the cover and how you feel it represents your book as a whole?
KJH: When I spoke to Portia, I told her I wanted something representative of Janus. Janus is the God of beginnings and transitions. He is the middle ground between the barbarians and civilized society. This, coupled with the ‘scorpion and frog’ parable that Mouse relates to Jordon, forms the visual symbolism of Jordon’s internal conflict. Is it possible to retain innocence and keep faith in an environment of constant punishment and violence?
Though he himself probably won’t admit or address it in his narration, he does have a propensity for violence and vengeance. There is a beast raging inside him. It comes out in spontaneous bursts throughout his narration, especially in his encounter with the American in the hotel. Only a few pages in, he attempts to assault Rico. He gets Sister Kitty banished, not because it was the right thing to do—but because he did not like her. He feels himself being molded by the ugliness of his environment, and Chopper’s situation is a constant reminder of his pain. Ti-Marie helps him put Chopper down. She helps him kill the beast inside him, which is what this story is ultimately about.
TM: I see the references to 80’s cartoons and video games as vital in setting the time period of your novel. However, for a reader in my mid-twenties, these references tied me closer to the story and made me feel more attached to the characters. For example, when the eighteen-year-old Jordon goes back to St. Asteria, all of those scenes in the first part of the novel came back to me that were akin to my own childhood. How did video games and cartoons in your own life help your creative development? And how important was it to you to present these popular culture references in a novel set in Trinidad.
KJH: Videogames were vital to me as a storytelling device. I’ve stated in prior interviews that I had much less interest in books than in videogames. Videogames got me interested in storytelling. I loved making up fantasy worlds and epics. It was then I knew I had to learn and study the mechanics of writing to perfect the storytelling. Everything else fell in place eventually. The pop culture references in The Repenters were from my own childhood—Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, The Prince of Egypt. Rico is first introduced, however, not as a child—he’s singing “Pum Pum Conqueror.” Childhood is lost to him.
Jordon and the other orphans do not discover these things until they’re well past their heyday, because of the head nun’s dislike of those media. We have gatekeepers here that do the same—that say videogames and movies rot the mind. It’s how you view them. It’s how you manage peripheral learning.
TM: Concerning adult-child sexual or romantic involvement in your novel, Rico and Sister Kitty’s relationship could be seen as is a twisted version of Jordon and Sister Mouse’s own relationship. These relationships and their outcomes ultimately lead up to Jordon leaving St. Asteria. Jordon never shows any interest in romance or sex until the end of the novel. He does have a child-like obsession with Sister Mouse, but he admits that he has lost his obsession when he is with Ti-Marie. Even when he has sex with Ti-Marie, he admits it is not love. What was your goal with making Jordon such a celibate character to any form of romantic relationship? Is this done to highlight, in opposition, the predatory nature of some in the adult world?
KJH: When I brainstormed Jordon and Rico, I had them down as more similar than the reader would think. They are both yearning for love, badly. We don’t know much about Rico’s background, but I wanted to make it seem like he was ‘made bad,’ just like Chopper. He has a fatalistic attitude towards life and claims to be just having fun until he gets snuffed out from this world. Many things happened to him that we aren’t privy to. Coincidentally, Rico knows everyone’s background, sometimes before even they know themselves (it’s not explicitly stated, but this is because of his relationship with Kitty).
You are astute to see the comparison between both boys’ relationships with the nuns. In my mind, Mouse and Kitty see Jordon and Rico as their sons, respectively. It remains unclear why Kitty did what she did to Rico, but I wanted to make it seem like it was more for him, than for her. Perhaps she thought that was how she could show love to him. Maybe that’s why she told him about the other orphan’s backgrounds, as well.
I like to think of Jordon as a romantic, but Jordon doesn’t understand what romantic love is. Even when he describes how he feels for Mouse, he does it through movie terms—slow motion, orchestral swells. Ti-Marie loves Jordon. This is no secret. In my mind, she has loved him for a very long time, though she knows to keep her distance. When they have sex, it’s hasty and awkward. Maybe she’s doing it the ‘Kitty’ method. If she can’t get romance out of it, maybe she can cure Jordon with lust. When he kills Chopper and tells Ti-Marie, ‘We did it,’ (We, not I), I imagine him seeing Ti-Marie as someone very dear to him.
TM: Youth and sexuality is a common theme in coming-of-age/ young adult novels. However, in your book, you present your main character as uninterested in sex during his teen years. Also, throughout your novel, sex is usually presented in immoral, unwanted, or unfulfilling circumstances. Does this connect to the text’s religious motifs, to some other issues of Trinidadian society that you wanted to touch upon, or were you actively trying to work with how sexuality has previously been presented in Caribbean coming-of-age novels?
KJH: Sex is a huge part of coming-of-age novels, and, yes, I actively avoided it with Jordon. Jordon remains celibate because I imagine he just can’t do it. He can’t have sex with just anyone. I think it has very little to do with religion. He sees it as simply something that separates him from the others. Sex, to him, is repugnant—the way how the other characters have it and who they have it with. Pinky and Rey in front of the other boys. Sanskrit and Shari in the latrine. Rico and Sister Kitty in the counselling room. The American’s ‘let me adopt you’ fetish. Even Jordon’s own mother’s rape. He has a perpetual negative view of it, though he doesn’t outright say it.
I think Jordon has to develop his own notion of love—not one borrowed from movies. Everyone loves differently. At the end, him having sex with Ti-Marie is a grandiose accomplishment for him, even though it isn’t played or narrated to be that way.
TM: Three things I really enjoyed in your novel were, firstly, your focus on the darker sides of Trinidadian society; your use of a child protagonist; and the way that sexuality is portrayed. Their blend throughout the novel seems so well interconnected, thinking back to the story. Was this a conscious effort from the beginning of your process, or did you create these connections during your writing? How do you feel about this blend now?
KJH: To be honest, The Repenters was a much different story upon its inception. It was originally two parts: flashbacks to St. Asteria and Jordon’s (who was named Joshua at the time) ‘apprenticeship’ with a serial killer in the future. Told you, totally different! Jeremy Poynting and Jacob Ross of Peepal Tree Press suggested to me that they were two great stories separately, but too muddled as a whole. They told me to rewrite one as a full-length novel, so I chose the orphanage because I loved those characters more.
I’m glad I did, because it was a joy to expand characters such as Ti-Marie and Father Anton, both of whom only had bit roles in the previous manuscript. From there, it became what it is now. I wanted to create the novel about the darkness of Trinidad’s youth—systematic failure, constantly surrounded by sex, bullying, being abused and a witness to abuse. The orphanage was a perfect microcosm for this, and also for salvation and sanctuary from these things.
TM: I have read the article in which you discussed the 20 books that have influenced your writing. I saw a lot of my personal favorites, such as SlaughterHouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and The Gunslinger by Stephen King. When reading some of your short stories, including “King of Settlement 4” and “Midnight in Raintown,” the reference to a science book as comforting to a child in a dangerous area and an inexplicable rain driving people violently mad reminded me much of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. I wanted to ask what are some of the specific novels of that inspired and influenced you while writing The Repenters?
KJH: The novel’s structure was partially born from the lamplighter chapter in The Little Prince, referenced and quoted in the book. We’re all kind of like the Little Prince, aren’t we? We meet people, move into their planets for a moment, and they leave us with something before we depart. Sometimes it’s crystal, sometimes it’s a riddle. I like to think of each chapter having a ‘starring role,’ usually the one who utters the quote at the beginning of each chapter. Shari has one. Saleema has one. Ti-Marie has one, and so on. I got the idea to open each chapter with a quote from the HBO series, The Wire.
A lot of the poetic inflection and description in the narration was while I was re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Child of God. He has a grim way of describing people and landscapes that leached into my writing, I believe, especially in the ‘Sinners’ section. I love how his characters speak unashamedly in their Southern drawl, as well—the constant elisions, callous and vulgar narration (“lanky country boys with long cocks and big feet…”), how he phonetically spells out words like ‘grampaw’. This powered me right through to put this entire novel in Trinidadian Creole, without questioning myself.
TM: I understand that you are a secondary school science teacher of physics and biology. Given that your recent novel is focused on the development of children into young adults— with a protagonist gaining an understanding of his own life by puzzling over a passage from a novella— have you noticed that your teaching experience has had a significant effect on your writing about young people?
KJH: It definitely has. This is why you shouldn’t quit your day job if you want to be a writer. I am in constant contact with a bevy of young personalities. I may not be at home with them or around during their most emotional moments—but I am there to witness the slow transitions. Students giving up, throwing hope to the wind. Students rising up, fueled by intense determination that has come from seemingly nowhere. Even “The King of Settlement 4” is partially based on a student I taught—bright boy who lives in my area, always came to school late, never wanted anyone to see him studying. I asked him why. He said if his ‘pardners’ saw him studying, they would laugh at him.
TM: The concept of faith is an ever-important theme within The Repenters. This faith is not only a religious faith, which is, of course, present in the beginning and end of the novel in the setting of St. Asteria, but also in the (sometimes misplaced) faith in adults, friends, lovers, parents, and figures of authority. What did you want to say about faith, in terms of your protagonist, and with your novel as a whole?
KJH: I simply wanted to show what a powerful force faith is. It doesn’t have to be faith in God. As Jordon put it, people who put their faith in the placebo—they can live. If you can’t put faith, you might as well be dead or dying. He never once questions God, despite everything. Maybe if he does, everything will fall apart.
TM: As a young Caribbean author currently gaining more attention, what would be your best piece of advice to other young Caribbean writers who don’t know how to gain traction in the literary scene?
KJH: First and foremost, enjoy your writing. If you enjoy it enough, rejection will ricochet right off of you. Submit to competitions, submit to anthologies, but keep improving yourself. If you get rejected, read and reread the work. But know that sometimes, it’s not you. Realize the externals to being accepted—the person who’s reading it, their mood, their biases. I know an author who claims to have gotten published because her agent slept with the publisher’s head editor. Love your work. You don’t have to suck up to anybody. I never did. Just write, get published as much as you can in journals, in collections, in magazines. Build that writing resume.
And also, write what you want to write. We have too many writers now trying to be like everybody else—trying to be like the canonized. The canonized have their place in history. We can take notes from them, but we need to write what we are passionate about, not what we think is intelligent and artistic and Caribbean. We need diversity of voice and subject. We don’t need to pander. Story and character first, symbolism second, agenda dead last. When Junot Diaz framed his Pulitzer-winning story around a nerd who just wanted to get laid, I realized this. I didn’t care or know about the Trujillo and the Dominican Republic before I read the book. But I cared about Oscar and Beli—and they made me care about their plights.