The Audacity of Art – Interview in the Sunday Arts Selection, Trinidad Guardian,
Interview in the Sunday Arts Selection, Trinidad Guardian, December 28, 2013
The Audacity of Art
by Shivanee Ramlochan
The way Robert Antoni sees it, history is ripe for bold acts of reimagination. During a Skype interview with the Sunday Arts Section, the author of five books, including the newly-published As Flies to Whatless Boys, was enthusiastic about the strides one gains from trailblazing powerful new ground in historical fiction. “I’m always interested in pushing boundaries,” says Antoni, following up this confession by remarking that we live in continually unfolding histories, without giving them enough credence. “All of us inhabit this fairly comfortable place that history has brought us towards.” With this book, a title that’s been gestating for 15 years from conception to delivery, Antoni purposes to bring both real and imagined histories closer to the surface.
The Bahamian-raised writer, who teaches postgraduate writing at the New School University in New York City, launched As Flies to Whatless Boys at Paper Based Bookshop on December 14. That capacity audience included visual artist Jackie Hinkson, designer Meiling, and T&T Guardian Editor-in-Chief Judy Raymond. Reminiscing on the local reception surrounding his newest title, Antoni is warmly appreciative. He’s equally enthusiastic about the recent praise delivered by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, in the December 10 issue of the New Yorker. Danticat proclaimed Antoni’s new novel to be one of her favourite picks of 2013, describing the work as “a marvel of narrative and documents, which collide to create a book that is at times breathtaking and tragic and at other times laugh-out-loud hilarious.”
The novel’s scope and range straddle eras, including a treasury of meticulously-harvested secondary materials. What spark ignited Antoni’s pursuit of these records, many of which were gruelling to access? Two paragraphs on John Adolphus Etzler and the Tropical Emigration Society emerged from Olga Mavrogordato’s 1977 publication, Voices in the Street, to capture Antoni’s interest. The German-born Etzler was a radical utopianist, who believed the machines he invented could harness the powers of nature to perform large-scale labour. Etzler’s “Satellite”, a machine designed to supposedly clear 20,000 acres at a time, was meant to revolutionise the agricultural and plantation landscape. Armed with the Satellite, and the recruits from Etzler’s colonising initiative, the Tropical Emigration Society, this self-avowed visionary set his sights towards Trinidad in 1845—and on this point, Antoni was officially hooked.
“I wanted the book to be as daring as Etzler,” Antoni says, qualifying this aim with his decision to shift the narrative focus from the 19th century messianic figure himself. The author’s desire to explore the history and lineage of the Tuckers (of which prominent local family he is a member, matrilineally) took precedence, and the book is principally narrated by William “Willy” Sanger Tucker. Readers join Willy in his account of the sea voyage to Trinidad, recounted to Willy’s 18-year-old son, RW, spanning a voluminous series of events in the space of one night’s storytelling. Antoni’s research took him along multiple channels, among them the British Library’s online databases, as well as the T&T National Archives. Antoni’s fictional forays in the National Archives leave some readers clutching their sides from laughter. The author intersperses Willy’s reflections with the epistolary offerings of Miss Ramsol, the archives’ director, and would-be paramour of a researching American scholar, one named for (and ostensibly based upon) Antoni himself.
When asked about his motivations for Miss Ramsol’s technicolour personality, and for the ultra-modern “text speak” language she employs in her e-mails, the writer shares dual perspectives. “She’s… the inheritor of the old colonial processes,” Antoni says, but makes it clear that she’s also a woman in charge of her own sexual fortunes. Modestly sidestepping the issue of whether the book retains feminist principles, Antoni declares that it was important to write a present-day woman in the height of her own autonomy. Proudly avowing himself a literary subversive, Antoni reveals one of his chief understandings regarding good storytelling: “Writing fiction is making verisimilitude—an illusion of reality,” he says; everything becomes a story on the fictional page, including historical elements and fantastical imaginings alike. “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” he says, paraphrasing Picasso or, perhaps, the title of the creative writing manual by John Dufresne. “It’s scratching the surface of reality to get at a deeper reality that’s underneath.”
Some of Whatless Boys’ deepest realities have to do with how language is used. Antoni says that the concerns of language ownership and style have always filtered into the books he writes, ever since his Commonwealth Writers prizewinner, Divina Trace, in 1992. “Language gets my blood flowing!” the writer says. By his estimation, “Every one of my books is a community of voices”—an idea he credits to the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. “A novel is a democratic space,” says Antoni. “All voices have equal right.” The languages of the novel are often fuelled by pure invention and the remembered tongues of his grandparents. This is a testament, Antoni says, to his most important and difficult duty, that of listening hard. Concentration is no less valid depending on the colour of its immigration stamps, according to Antoni, who strongly disbelieves that Caribbean writing must be written locally to be considered authentic. He credits the painstaking attention to detail provided by his editors at Akashic Books. This support, added to the readership of a small peer circle allowed to vet Antoni’s unpublished work, represents a strong community for which he is deeply grateful.
Nor is he content to linger on his laurels, though he admits to being still enthralled by the worlds evoked in As Flies to Whatless Boys. On the cards is a sequel to his 2002 collection My Grandmother’s Erotic Folk Tales, as well as an enhanced e-book version of Whatless Boys itself. He advises against settling for traditional routes of writing, for those who have new, visionary things to say. Deriding those who claim digital media signals a death knell to the novel form, Antoni ends as he begins, by championing the audacious. By his own confident reckoning, “in the West Indies we’re good at doing bold things.”
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