WALKING DOWN THE TRACE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT ANTONI
By: Peter Josyph
“Watching my father suck an orange was the definition of the Caribbean for me.”
– Robert Antoni
(My conversation with Robert Antoni took place in Miami on two successive afternoons in the spring of 1994)
PART 1: BIG AND OBZOCKEE
JOSYPH: Divina Trace took you seven years. Is that because you finished it and then rewrote it, or did it proceed that slowly until it reached the end?
ANTONI: It proceeded slowly because I rewrote it the whole time. Divina Trace worked itself out differently from Blessed Is the Fruit, the book I’m writing now, in that I started with page one and ended with page 426 and could never move ahead until I felt very sure of what I’d done. I knew the day before I wrote the last page of Divina Trace that it would be the last page. I went back and made very few revisions. I had written the last three or four lines about three-quarters of the way through the book. Each time I began a new chapter I had to find a voice, even though many of them were voices that I knew. Granny Myna is my Grandmother Myna. Dr. Domingo is very much my father, idealized. Those voices came to me quicker. Evelina is a combination of several black maids who raised me. Velma, in the new book, is the maid who actually raised me from infancy, and I recorded her stories just as I recorded my grandmother’s stories. Papee Vince is a combination of a great uncle and my mother’s father. But that great-uncle, who was called Papee Vince, I only met for maybe three hours. I had heard about him. He was overseer on the estates in Trinidad for years. He was living at the time in Fort Lauderdale and my mother kept telling me: “You’ve got to go and speak to this man.” I finally did, and fortunately I brought my father. Papee Vince had never met me but he was naturally comfortable with my father. He had this huge interest in medicine and loved speaking about medicine with my father, so I just sat there recording them. They loved talking about Trinidad and the early days. I had heard a story about this character who had taken an overdose of bois bandé – the aphrodisiac – and had to go into the hospital for it, so I asked Pappy Vince for that story, which fed directly into what happens to Gomez, the Chief of Police, in the novel. Papee Vince also told my father a story about the operation he had for his hemorrhoids, which I added to my father’s own story of finding an eyeball in a rectum, and that turned into the eyeball-in-the-asshole story.
JOSYPH: Was your father’s story of the eyeball ever suspect to you?
ANTONI: I’ve since come to find that it’s the generic first-year story all medical students get. Physicians have come up to me and told me so. A few phrases, I think, come straight from my father, like “an eyeball staring back at me… like if I am the asshole looking out!” But the refrain that keeps coming through, “groundglass, and thumbtacks, and fishhooks,” that came out of my uncle’s mouth.
JOSYPH: Because of his hemorrhoids?
ANTONI: Yes. Those are the pages I always read aloud because they’re so successful in readings, but I wrote that little interpolated story in an hour.
JOSYPH: Despite what’s happening during this crazy examination, which is a discomfort to both the doctor and the patient, on some level it’s funny to them, while it’s happening, which makes it even funnier to the reader, because you love them for it.
ANTONI: That’s very much my father’s voice.
JOSYPH: Is he alive?
ANTONI: He just retired. He loves Freeport, where he practiced medicine for thirty-five years, and he goes back there, but we’ve all – except my sister, Jenny – relocated in Miami.
JOSYPH: Has he read the book?
ANTONI: Yes. He says they’re all his stories! What’s even nicer is that I hear him telling stories from the book as though they’re his own, which is absolutely flattering. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him talk about his first delivery being an anencephalic child, which is of course not true, that’s from the novel. But now he tells that story as if it’s his own, which is the highest form of flattery.
JOSYPH: He does do it with you present?
JOSYPH: There’s no sense that he’s stealing?
ANTONI: O, of course not.
JOSYPH: Is it that he forgets? How does that work?
ANTONI: We tell ourselves these stories over and over until we begin to believe them. I’m sure I’m that way too.
JOSYPH: But when you first heard him roll into a Divina Trace story you must have done a double take.
ANTONI: Yes, I was angry. Now I’ve come to celebrate it.
JOSYPH: You’ve discovered, then, that it works both ways: you can use their stories, but now…
ANTONI: They can use mine, yes. Even though, in my father’s case, I knew the voice intimately, it took me several months before I could hear it. I would sit at my desk every day for four or five hours for three months without writing a single word, waiting, and suddenly out of nowhere this voice would start to speak and I just listened and the story would just come out. I’m not trying to sound mystical – for me writing is hard work and little else – but I feel as if I’m a vessel, that I’m spoken through, and I had to wait in every case. Sometimes I would go into a sort of a trance and end up with twenty pages. Toward the end of the chapters especially it would come out almost clean, but other times it would take two weeks to get a single sentence right.
JOSYPH: Were you waiting for the right voice for a story you had in mind, or did the story itself arrive when the voice arrived?
ANTONI: Both, both. But the voice would always dictate what was written. I knew, immediately, when I was infringing on that voice. It seems a contradiction that I do so much rewriting.
JOSYPH: You’re an imperfect channel.
ANTONI: Yes, maybe that’s it, weeding out all the static, getting down to the perfect recording. My grandmother told the story of my uncle, my father’s brother, who was born premature and was kept in a shoebox, just like the frogchild, and how there was this flood at the time he was born. I don’t know what that had to do with the story, but it made a connection for me, and somehow that evolved into the frogchild’s birth, when Evelina says: “Out from nowhere come storm like me never see storm before, oui. Lightning flashing, and rain pelting, and wind blowing, and Manfrog jooking with he throat swell up big big and red and he eyes flashing green like break cocacola glassbottle through de night.” And she talked about the cow, and how she didn’t have milk for the child because it was born prematurely, “and she done bring Rosey inside with she to feed dis diab-crapochild.” My grandfather, Barto, who is very much Barto in the book, died when my father was six, in his middle forties. Barto was impeccably goodlooking, a very strong figure. There were six boys and two girls. My father was the youngest child. He and his brothers tell horrific stories of how Barto disciplined them. But because Barto died young he’s been made into this mythic figure, which of course feeds into the book. It wasn’t really until I started writing the book that I discovered that I hated him, passionately, as much as I admired him. There was a mistress he had children with, and I used to hear Granny Myna talk about her. She was friends with this mistress, they would have lunch together. She felt that she was the wife, the madame and so forth, and she could accept it that way, but I thought it was horrific.
JOSYPH: Is it customary for Caribbean women, jealous, angry, resentful, to still say: “Well, but he’s my husband”? As Granny Myna says: “Who am I to say Barto must give he affections to me alone when he have enough love in he heart for all the world?”
ANTONI: I think so, in a big way. It’s incredibly patriarchal. Still.
JOSYPH: Would it be unlikely for them to take a lover themselves?
ANTONI: O, never happen, never happen.
JOSYPH: Out of fear?
ANTONI: In my grandmother’s case, simply and purely because of religion, to the point where she never remarried, although she was still a very goodlooking woman and had several good proposals after his death. But Granny Myna’s phrase: “Barto raise me up on a pedestal, you hear? On a pedestal!” came from my grandmother’s mouth. She used to say that Barto revered her.
JOSYPH: Not quite enough not to have a mistress.
ANTONI: Yes, but when you think about it, he had eight children at that young age, so my grandmother was pregnant all the time.
JOSYPH: Was that a point of pride?
ANTONI: I’m sure. Barto was interested in medicine. When he died he told my grandmother that she should make whatever sacrifices she could to give all the boys a profession. She was left with a house in Trinidad, which she turned into a boardinghouse during the war and later sold, and she managed to get two of her six sons to Canada to study medicine, which was a huge thing. One is an oral surgeon, and my uncle who just died was an obstetrician. They went to the University of Toronto because of the connection, within the Commonwealth, between the Caribbean and Canada. My father decided to go too, but by then there was no money, so he went to Canada on his own. He tells the story of pinning two hundred dollar bills to the inside pocket of his jacket, and in Canada he managed to get scholarships, worked in a Nabisco factory in the summers and so on, and he came back six or eight years later as a doctor to Trinidad. The story in the book of someone coming up to Dr. Domingo trying to sell him a diamond ring just after he arrived in Toronto is one that my father tells, and how he bought this ring for a hundred of the two hundred dollars, and when he took it to the jeweler’s to have it sized, the stone melted.
JOSYPH: When you would hear a story like that, would you ever say: “Dad, come on – did that really happen?”
ANTONI: I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I think we all sort of exaggerate naturally anyway. I always say that anything I know about writing I learned from Granny Myna, who was a natural storyteller. She was ninety-six when she died, but absolutely clear. Things that I know now, that I can talk about to students as fictional techniques and narrative strategy, Granny Myna did naturally. She knew all the tricks, all the stunts. How to make absurd things believable by focusing on detail – you know, everything. She told fantastic stories like García Márquez, and I was thrilled to learn that his first source of storytelling was his own grandmother. When I sat down to really write, I tried first to transcribe as accurately as possible Granny Myna’s voice. I had written before that, but this is where things came together. Granny Myna was left a sum of money by Barto, and this American tried to swindle her, so I wrote a folk tale that was published in Conjunctions [September ’92] called “My Grandmother’s Story of the Buried Treasure and How She Defeated the King of Chachacari and the Entire American Army with Her Venus-Flytraps.”
JOSYPH: Was that your first published piece that drew on the narratives?
ANTONI: No, that was published after Divina Trace, but it had been hanging around a long time until Brad Morrow, for this issue of Conjunctions featuring folk tales, called me, as he often has, to ask me what I could send him. That was the beginning of Divina Trace, because I felt that I had come together with my material and my own voice, even though it belonged to her. I would like to do a collection of stories, or some sort of novel, called My Grandmother’s Erotic Folk Tales, something like that, doing just the stories, all in her voice.
JOSYPH: When you were working the transcriptions into a piece, how did you handle being an editor, which could easily have entailed a crisis of conscience?
ANTONI: It was a collaboration. When I recorded her, she gave it to me knowing full well that I wanted to shape it into a narrative.
JOSYPH: Did it take a while to free yourself to also be a writer with her material?
ANTONI: I never felt any restraints. What was difficult was how to do the dialect. I realized I wanted to do it all in dialect, but at that point – I was about nineteen or twenty when I started – I didn’t know of another Caribbean writer who had done that. Like your friend Richard Selzer, I came to writing extremely late. Selzer may say that he started writing at forty, but I’m sure he started reading young. I only started reading at age eighteen. I had never read literature. I don’t think I had read a novel! When I started to write, I decided, at the same moment, that I had to learn all of literature. Having completed all the courses for med school, I made the switch, in my junior year, and began reading, starting with old English and Shakespeare, proceeding methodically. When I realized I couldn’t cover it all and started skipping around, I fell on Faulkner and read every Faulkner novel chronologically from the beginning to the end at a single stretch. As a result, I have enormous holes in my literary background. How to handle the dialect – that was the problem, and it’s still one of the most difficult challenges, and the most characteristic feature of my writing.
JOSYPH: There was more dialect in the reading I heard you give than there was on the actual page.
ANTONI: Of course. It’s hard to know just how far to go. You don’t want to lose the music, but you don’t want to lose the reader, so you have to find, always, a balance, something that’s readable and something that sings the way it ought to. I warn the reader with the first sentence: “The bottle is big and obzockee.” He or she knows what they’re in for. There are Caribbean colloquialisms, there are words that I invent, and all of that language is meant to be played with by the reader. The publishers, from the outset, were after me to put a glossary of terms at the end of the book, which I absolutely opposed the whole time because the book is about the fluidity and malleability of language. Language is such a liquid medium in the Caribbean, constantly shifting and reinventing itself. The novel is an attempt to open up language, and a glossary would be closing it down and counter to everything I set out to do. Also, I want the reader to invent meanings. I don’t use that many colloquialisms. I could have used a lot more. The ones I do use occur over and over so that the meaning becomes pretty much explicit. I made up half these words – which is the way we speak in the Caribbean – but am I now to make up definitions for them?
JOSYPH: Readers don’t look at glossaries anyway. They did that with A Clockwork Orange and you never look at it, you’re caught in the flow of the novel.
ANTONI: And obzockee looks and sounds the way it means: cumbersome and hard to carry. It’s hard to pronounce. It looks obzockee on the page. What else could a jook jook frog be but a big fat frog? In Divina Trace I wanted to give every ethnic group in Trinidad a voice – for the first time, I think – and to represent them all telling the same story. It was a matter of making each voice different, but ring true to the ethnic group for which it spoke. Granny Myna’s voice is the Spanish Caribbean. Her first language is Spanish, so the English is meant to sound like broken English, but from a Spanish tradition. My father, to this day, doesn’t speak Spanish well, although he says he does. My grandmother spoke to them in Spanish but they answered her in English, so they understand much better than they speak. I think in a way they were trying to erase the Spanish. Trinidad was English at that point. They moved there from Venezuela so that their sons would have an English education. My grandmother even went to a convent in Trinidad. Trinidad sits in the mouth of the Orinoco River – you can see the coast of Venezuela from Trinidad – so there’s a lot of mercantile commerce between the two. Those Warrahoon Indians who so populate my book – they’re not nearly so populous in Trinidad – are Venezuelan Indians who came over to Trinidad and there was all that trade back and forth.
JOSYPH: Are they related to the Caribs that Columbus did away with?
ANTONI: He did away pretty much throughout the whole Caribbean. There are still people who claim to have Carib blood, or to be purebred Carib, but I really don’t believe it. They were all killed off. The Caribs were the last to go because they were the warriors, the most aggressive. The Arawaks, who were the gentle ones, were killed off all through the Caribbean chain. But my grandmother never learned to speak English well at all. When my grandfather Barto went to Venezuela from Corsica – this is where the name Antoni comes from – I think they were going into the jungles getting rubber. He met my grandmother, and they first lived on this enormous cattle ranch she had inherited. He must have been a fairly young man when he came from Corsica. I have a picture from Venezuela in which my grandmother and grandfather had come to this wedding, which is where they met.
JOSYPH: Can you get it? I was going to ask you what he was wearing.
ANTONI: (Getting the photograph) O, you’ll see… (Showing the picture) It says 1911, so that’s when they met. And Brito Salizar, that’s this man here. He proposed to her. He has nothing to do with the character in the book, I just liked the name. This is my grandmother… and this is Barto.
ANTONI: So you can see. I mean, look at the man. They’re not together because this is where they met.
JOSYPH: Barto looks like a real smoothy, doesn’t he? Striped pants, well-shined shoes, great mustache.
ANTONI: Now, this is the really interesting part. This man in the back there? That’s Granny Myna’s grandfather, and he is supposed to have been one-half Venezuelan Indian, so that would make me something like one-eighth Native American Indian. You can hardly see him but you can see the color of his skin.
JOSYPH: They all have that stance of The Gentleman (Antoni laughs), but none of them really quite make it. It’s only Barto that seems completely comfortable. He’s not trying.
ANTONI: But he’s towering over all of them.
JOSYPH: In more than just height. He’s got it down; he’s not worried at all.
JOSYPH: They’re all working for the camera and he’s just welcoming it. That’s not just a staring-at-the-camera gaze, that’s…
ANTONI: Coming from deep down.
JOSYPH: Yes, those are really eyes.
ANTONI: He died before I was born, but when the brothers get together they always tell stories about Barto.
JOSYPH: Great picture.
ANTONI: I had that above my desk the whole time I wrote Divina Trace.
JOSYPH: So there’s also a Corsican strain?
ANTONI: Corsican… French… Spanish… English… German… Italian… for starters. Then I’m sure we have Native American, quite a bit, if he, my great great grandfather, was half Venezuelan Indian. Surely we have East Indian: my sister looks pure East Indian. We are absolute potcakes.
JOSYPH: Have you ever seen the passion potient?
ANTONI: Bois bandé?
JOSYPH: “Gomez must have eaten down the whole bloody tree.”
ANTONI: Yes, it’s a common tree in Trinidad that’s supposed to have those properties. I asked Papee Vince, whose voice in the novel came from that three hour recording. “The facts are these” is very much the way he spoke. But when I asked him about the bois bandé he wasn’t interested. That’s common knowledge to all of them. He thought we should talk about politics, the early settling of Trinidad, his days on the estates. The cures for scorpion bites came straight out of Papee Vince’s mouth. I wanted to talk about bois bandé because it was scandalous, but he said: “Let me tell you about cures for scorpion sting.” It’s a big problem in Trinidad, especially before they had the antidote. I got from him the bush medicine, I guess dating back to the slaves. They take with them into the fields a bottle of bush rum that they throw all sorts of venomous insects and snakes into, and they keep adding more to it, and they just take a dose if they get a sting. The maid, Velma, that I’m using in the new book, who grew up on estates as well, told me they had this bottle in the house and when, as little kids, they got stung by a scorpion, they would climb up on the counter themselves and drink down a swig of it without even telling their parents about it! Another scorpion cure was this Belgian Blackstone that was discovered by a Belgian Benedictine monk at Mount St. Benedict, a Benedictine Monastery in Trinidad. I stayed there for a time while I was working on Divina Trace, but I had to leave because it was so noisy I couldn’t get any work done! There were these nuns running the boardinghouse in the monastery and they were always screaming, so finally I had to get out. The one thing to come out of that whole experience was that one of the nuns, who had actually been with my grandmother on a trip to Lourdes, told me a story about Christ appearing to her and she could see only his feet, but his toes were creamy like ice cream. That phrase stuck in my mind, and when Jesus appears to Myna at some point and she sees only his toes, she says they’re “long and white and creamy like icecream.”
JOSYPH: She was thinking about the colorations?
ANTONI: Who knows! I have no idea!
JOSYPH: Clearly it’s a term of delectation.
ANTONI: Yes, well, all through the book there’s this crossover…
ANTONI: O yes, which has always been my experience of religion in the Caribbean.
JOSYPH: I’m sure some would see it as irreverence, but that category – irreverence – has so fallen away for me I don’t even know what it means anymore. In Divina Trace the exasperation is so amusing, and there’s an affectionate forgiveness there, even about this godawful Monsignor. The book takes a very broad view of these shenanigans.
ANTONI: I didn’t set out to be irreverent. I wanted, somehow, to get back to the source of faith in the largest sense of the term. The sort of faith that’s going to be required of the Caribbean if it’s going to survive; the sort of faith that’s required to take up the pen, to write, most especially, a first book; and the faith required of the reader to keep forging on. All of those things – and faith in the sense of religious faith.
JOSYPH: Granny Myna’s loyalty to her husband transcends everything.
ANTONI: She’s even loyal to her husband’s mistress. She forgives him through her.
JOSYPH: With Velma, in Blessed Is the Fruit, there’s a sense of vulnerability to passion, to lust – not only that of others but her own – which is beautifully rendered. I’ve seldom seen so well portrayed the situation in which a woman is completely abused by a man and then becomes insanely jealous, against all reason. And the sense of being exposed – to passion, to violence – is so keen that you could tremble. In what Divina Trace has in common with Blessed Is the Fruit – the sense of women, in both novels, being screwed and screwed over by different parties and yet needing to be allied with the abuser – is there not an analogy to the Caribbean?
ANTONI: Yes. As the priest, Father Hawley, says in that article [“Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace and the Womb of Place,” Ariel, January ’93], the metaphor is taken to such horrific length that ultimately the sense of reality dissolves.
JOSYPH: How do you like that piece?
ANTONI: I thought it was incredible. He’s not from the Caribbean but he certainly knows Caribbean literature. It was intelligent in a critical sense but also revealing in a readerly sense, which is a fine combination. What most impresses me about him is his openmindedness. That’s a really gutsy thing that he’s done. He must get a lot of flack from other critics. There was one thing he objected to. The priest from the Vatican who is investigating Magdalena’s sainthood, Bishop Sévère, kisses, molests, Dr. Domingo, Johnny’s father. The same sort of thing, with Monsignor O’Connor, is repeated in the younger generation. I wrote the younger generation first, and it comes first in the book. The second occurrence, to Dr. Domingo, was a spoof on the first one. It makes absolutely no sense in the book. It happened to me when I was eleven. I had been raised on the altar, went to a Catholic school with nuns, and we had this Monsignor in the parish. We were all very fond of him. You’re always hugging the priest, never thinking anything of it.
JOSYPH: In my parish you never went anywhere near the priest.
ANTONI: O we would never speak to the priest without hugging him. But one morning before school I was in the sacristy, going to serve Mass just as Johnny does in the novel. The Monsignor was hugging me, then he held me and kissed me and reached for my genitals. I can still remember his teeth knocking against mine. I can remember what he tasted and smelled like. He held me there until I pushed away from him. I served Mass even after that, that very day, then I took off my cassock and went to school. I knew instinctively it was wrong but I didn’t know he was a homosexual, I don’t think I knew about homosexuals. It was so confusing and so powerful that I threw up in the lavatory. My mother came and took me home. I didn’t tell her what happened, I didn’t tell anyone what happened, but I knew something was wrong because Monsignor never spoke to me or looked at me again. I didn’t speak to him either. I lived with that for maybe a year. Finally I told my father, and my father told me I’d made it all up, so I turned it into anger directed at him. My father was always the upholder of the church in my family, the image of blind faith and all of that. Later, when I called him on it, he said he meant to say that this happens to everyone, so we should just forget about it. But I was irate at what he had told me and I used that as an excuse to deny my religion. It was a huge thing for me, really traumatic, but we never talked about it again. Then I came to find out years later that this Monsignor had done the same thing to my two best friends, Tony and Tim in the book. So it’s not only my anger at the church and my anger at this Monsignor but my anger at my father that I had to make my peace with in the book.
JOSYPH: It’s funny that you make it happen with your father.
ANTONI: Of course! Of course!
JOSYPH: Dr. Domingo says: “And boy, fa some reason I can’t explain, some peculiar reason which of course he can’t explain neither, I know my son has secretly been wishing this thing on me ever since it happened to him.”
ANTONI: It doesn’t make any sense in the narrative at all, but I needed it for me.
JOSYPH: I always find that if I, as an author, need it enough, it has a place.
JOSYPH: And you don’t need to justify it beyond that.
ANTONI: Well, I don’t, and the father says: “This is ridiculous! There’s no point! There’s no place for this!” Well, Father Hawley, in that article, says that this doesn’t seem to make sense. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
JOSYPH: But it makes subliminal sense. The comedy allows for it. The expression “What the ass!” signals things that are temporarily inexplicable, and then they become even more inexplicable. Is it Mother Maurina who kisses Johnny Domingo’s feet and he isn’t sure why, then he realizes…
ANTONI: They’re his grandfather’s shoes. I’m always aware what kind of shoes I have on. I feel as if my person emanates from my shoes. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time without shoes that when I have them on, I’m conscious of them.
JOSYPH: Do you wear “hardbacks” much?
ANTONI: That’s a word that I invented. Hardback means something else, actually. A hardback woman is a tough woman. In Bob Shacochis’ novel, Swimming in the Volcano, he uses hardbacks for shoes. In a way it’s kind of flattering.
JOSYPH: What really happened is that enough Caribbeans read Divina Trace that your usage of hardbacks entered the culture, and he went down and…
ANTONI: He heard it on the street, yes. But it’s interesting because it’s a misuse of a word, and in fact when I used it I was afraid people would tell me I was using it incorrectly. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” There’s some animosity that comes from Trinidad. People think I’m infringing on territories. Who am I, you know, this white boy, to go away and come back. I’ve had reviews that open by saying: “Robert Antoni is from Trinidad, but he’s not black.” It’s really everything that I’m working against in Divina Trace. I never express myself as being anything but Caribbean. I could stake a legitimate claim to any ethnic minority, but I’m all of those things, and that, to me, is what it means to come from the Caribbean. I purposely set the book on a fictitious island to free myself from any of those restrictions.
JOSYPH: When Thomas Hardy turned Oxford into Christminster, it irked me: I wanted Oxford. But Corpus Christi is such a world of memory within this family, and really within this one man who is sitting at this desk in the imitation Warrahoon-Windsor chair, looking “through this window at this moon above the same black glistening sea,” a story of, from, and about imagination in every respect, “Before my eyes. In my own ears,” that I think the Corpus Christi works. Corpus Christi: that’s the child in the bottle, Johnny, you, the church, the island itself.
ANTONI: And the sound of the phrase, the way my grandmother said it over and over again, this was the hokey part of Catholicism, that Christ gave us the bread and said it was his body, the miracle reenacted with every Mass, the human body transformed into the divine. I’m using it again for Blessed Is the Fruit. The novels are so different that at one point I wondered whether I ought to, but I’ve done so much work inventing this island in my imagination, and I like the idea of my own Yoknapatawpha or Macondo.
PART 2: GORILLAORGY
JOSYPH: Have you ever done a reading of the entire Hanuman episode?
ANTONI: Not the whole thing, but I would love to do it, and I would love to act it out with props. You know, pick up a dildo at the appropriate moment, and have a series of caps, one for each character. O I’d love to do that some day. To begin with, probably no one would understand what the hell I was saying, but slowly, I think, people would start to catch on.
JOSYPH: And it’s a piece of music, like Finnegans Wake.
ANTONI: Exactly. I do a takeoff on King Lear and the Fool talking to each other.
JOSYPH: Which reminds one of the dialogues in Finnegans Wake.
ANTONI: O of course, sure. We should talk about the influence of Joyce.
JOSYPH: There’s one wonderful bit in the eyeball-in-the-asshole section: “No Doctor, you play de Regan fa me old Grenada: is de plague of de times when madmen lead de blind!”
ANTONI: Yes, that’s Gloucester in Lear, but this is Reagan in Grenada, which I thought was absolutely scandalous. In the Caribbean the Americans were greeted, in most cases, with open arms: they had come to save Grenada from communism.
JOSYPH: Is that kind of political naiveté as bad there as it is here?
ANTONI: O sure.
JOSYPH: Big Daddy is really going to take care of everything?
ANTONI: America plays such a large role in Divina Trace because I think America plays such a large role in the Caribbean today. We’re clearly in the American sphere of influence. If we sink or swim it will be due to America, but I think America would love to see us tread water for as long as we can. All the islands are tied to the American dollar and when America is troubled, we are even more troubled. America should have been giving Grenada economic aid long before, instead of stepping in at the ninety-ninth hour, when they’re afraid of a communist takeover, and invading the country. To me that’s inexcusable. And everyone stood by and watched this happen as if it wasn’t an invasion! The military spoke of a pacification. You’re talking about an invasion at our doorstep!
JOSYPH: Did you have to control how much overt political edge crept into the book?
ANTONI: Writers are politicians by nature, not by design. A lot of fine writing has been handicapped by the politics of the writer. It gets in the way. But a lot of critics have referred to my politics and would like to make me out as more leftwing than I perhaps am.
JOSYPH: Do you think they figure: “He’s religiously irreverent, so he must be a leftwing radical”?
ANTONI: Possibly. I am certainly left of center. But politics in the Caribbean is going to be ultimately decided by America.
JOSYPH: Which almost by definition disassociates you from the radical left.
JOSYPH: In Divina Trace, one of my favorite recurring images is the Government House clock. It conjures a sense of the Empire by the importance of the phrase alone, Government House clock.
ANTONI: It seems to me more Latin American than Caribbean, somehow. It’s not anything I’ve experienced or adapted from Trinidad. I used it with the idea of suggesting how the colonial government actually keeps time for these people, whether they realize it or not, because unconsciously their lives are regulated by this clock.
JOSYPH: And yet you get the feeling that it’s important for a man from Corpus Christi to have a wife who, if she’s not English, has an English education, or at least an English accent.
ANTONI: I think it’s very true to life. The irony is that they’re all trying to escape colonialism and yet it’s almost as though unconsciously it’s what they’re all seeking. I name Johnny’s wife Ashley. In terms of narrative strategy, that clock is very functional because in a rural setting like that, Johnny, for example, would never have a wristwatch, but I could keep time easily, anywhere, by the gongs of the clock.
JOSYPH: As if the one fixed physical point in this chaotic universe is the Government House clock, which doesn’t even move in some cases – he lives a lifetime “in this already too-prolonged suspended instant ” – and the clock…
ANTONI: Yes, at one point it moves backward!
JOSYPH: Which I’m sure has happened to the Empire.
ANTONI: Right. I wanted Church and State both represented, and Church is so much there, so this was a way to establish the presence of State.
JOSYPH: And that desk, which is there from the beginning…
ANTONI: Yes, that purpleheart wood, which is such a beautiful wood. It’s a tree that grows in the jungles of Trinidad, but mostly in Venezuela, a very gentle, blue wood. The Warrahoon-Windsor Chair is carved from the same chunk of wood by an Indian using a diagram from the Oxford Dictionary, and of course he modeled it to fit only himself, so no one else can sit in it! The chunk of wood gets lugged from Venezuela by Barto, pulled behind the pirogues, and he’s calling the cadence of their strokes with this Na-me-na-na-ha! Na-me-na-na-ha! It’s the only Warrahoon word that I know, which my grandmother had heard. The meaning of na-me-na-na-ha, according to my grandmother, is I don’t understand a fart, or I don’t understand anything. When Dr. Domingo goes to Brito Salizar’s home, his wife answers the door saying: “Na-me-na-na-ha! Na-me-na-na-ha!” and he says: “Which I know from going with daddy to the old estate means she doesn’t understand a fart.” But here is Barto, the patriarchal figure of the text, opening the novel, timing the Indians’ strokes, calling out: “I don’t understand anything! I don’t understand anything!” The Na-me-na-na-ha! is so beautiful, and it’s lovely in italics at the end of that first paragraph. But that would be the right way for the book to open: “I don’t understand! I don’t understand!”
JOSYPH: It’s interesting that Papee Vince, in his history…
ANTONI: Which is meant to be a history of the statue of Magdalena but becomes a kind of generic history for the whole Caribbean. I didn’t want that chapter to be long – the book had already spilled beyond the boundaries I had in mind for it, in many ways – and I hadn’t really identified Papee Vince as the historical voice, not to that extent, but suddenly this was the moment to have a very clear, levelheaded historical account. Other than Johnny, he’s the only character who never knew Magdalena, and he is the most removed from her, the least passionately connected to the story. So logically, of the main narrators, he’d be the one to give the outsider’s perspective.
JOSYPH: The section acts as a kind of balm to the reader, especially one like me, who isn’t sure what countries are next to each other and doesn’t know who intermingled with who, when, and how it got that way. It’s as if Papee Vince is reading you the book with all the historical, transcultural clarifications you’ve been looking for.
JOSYPH: In a way it’s a climax. It would be hard to predict that through the history of a Caribbean you could come to one of a book’s several climaxes…
ANTONI: Right, it sounds all wrong, but…
JOSYPH: …it does work…
ANTONI: …it works…
JOSYPH: Absolutely. And everything he says is interesting, including…
ANTONI: …his asides – production of cocoa, copper, utilization of coconuts…
JOSYPH: Fascinating – and you trust him. And when Johnny says: “But what about our books? Our Literature?” Papee Vince says: “You never truly grow up until the death of the second parent. Whether that death is natural, psychological, or the result of bloody murder. Only then can you come to know yourself. And in fact we only just finished matriciding we mommy-England the other day.”
ANTONI: The father would, of course, have been Spain, the first parent. The third parent is America.
JOSYPH: Is that why Caribbean literature is beginning to blossom?
ANTONI: Yes, sure. You’re talking about the last stronghold of colonialism. With the exception of Haiti, there are no countries in the Caribbean that have been independent for much longer than a couple of decades, so how could the literature come into its own any earlier? There’s no heritage of Caribbean literature.
JOSYPH: No indigenous classics of Trinidad?
ANTONI: Nothing, nothing.
JOSYPH: Nothing at all?
ANTONI: No. In fact, I consider myself the second generation, and that’s all there is.
JOSYPH: If you went to a main library in Trinidad, wanting to read the classics, you would wind up with English and Spanish?
ANTONI: A few texts written by English adventurers who came over, but no major Caribbean novels.
JOSYPH: Were they written and never published?
JOSYPH: It wouldn’t have happened?
ANTONI: It didn’t happen.
JOSYPH: The person most likely to write a novel would leave the Caribbean, go to the university in England, and, in a sense, become an Englishman?
ANTONI: They all did. No one is more English than V.S. Naipal.
JOSYPH: Would you say that of Derek Walcott?
ANTONI: Yes, he went to England also, but that whole generation went to England, they all sought to live up to an English model, they were all trying to write books that could be read in England, and maybe they were interested in that audience before they were interested in their own audience at home. What I sought was a form that could be truly Caribbean, and that’s why I made absolutely no concessions to language. As far as I know Divina Trace is the first novel told completely in dialect. Maybe there are exceptions. Earl Lovelace, a wonderful writer from Trinidad, has a small novel entitled Wine of Astonishment that’s all in dialect. He sort of fits in between the two generations. He writes out of Trinidad, which is not what any of these other writers did. They all went to England and wrote in England. To become a writer was an English dream; it wasn’t for them a dream of their own. But I wanted to give every member of this boiling pot, this callaloo, a voice, and to my knowledge that hadn’t been done before.
JOSYPH: But out of the voices comes a sense of the land itself. Johnny says: “This story belongs to that moon. To that black sky and that black sea. This story belongs to the same foul smell of the swamp when the wind blows.” Through those voices, you feel your feet walking in this place.
ANTONI: Yes, I wanted to represent the impenetrable swamp, not only the juicy mangos and beautiful sunsets. I wanted the complications, the devastation, the poverty, the horror that’s so much a part of the Caribbean but can get masked over by all the tropicality and the lushness.
JOSYPH: And the confusion, which is so well portrayed. Did you ever confuse yourself?
ANTONI: O, yes! But Johnny says that all the time. When I got so entangled, the actual writing process became a part of the story at that point. There was no way I could not express that frustration. It seemed interminable, it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and I kept losing control of it. It was frightening, but I had already invested so much, I had to see it through.
JOSYPH: You never thought in terms of the market?
ANTONI: Only since, and I despise myself for it, but I’d like more readers. I’ve been frustrated and surprised that people say the book is difficult and are not willing to read it. I had one radio interviewer in Oxford who held it against me that he couldn’t skip through the book in fifteen minutes the night before in order to prepare for the interview. I’m upset that the book won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and has never seen a British paperback. There’s no British paperback because of the hardcover sales, and there were no hardcover sales because the books didn’t even reach the bookstores. I’m way out of pocket with the American hardcover, on which I spent something like five thousand dollars for the remainders, plus there was never any budget for publicity or for readings. I got into a rental car and drove all through the Middle West eight hours at a jaunt to do an hour reading.
JOSYPH: “How might story be publish abroad?
Where are dere monkeys enough to read it?
Where, in truth, are dere monkeys patient to trudge
Dis mudthick-mudswamp of monkeylanguage?”
ANTONI: Yes… I mean, I’m the person who sat down and read Finnegans Wake for a year. I read it with a composer friend, Arthur Nestrovski, a Brazilian who speaks several languages, an absolute genius, and is Johnny Domingo’s roommate in medical school, “a Brazilian from a small coastal town, yet he called himself Arthur and he spoke with an Oxford accent.”
JOSYPH: Did you use Anthony Burgess?
ANTONI: We used everything, we had all the secondary literature on my desk. We read for half an hour alone, then we got together and read the same passage together aloud, and we did that for eight months every night. It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had with literature. That was the height of my graduate experience. So much so that – well, for good or for bad, you see what happened to Divina Trace, and my friend just named his first child Livia.
JOSYPH: It is a kind of Hanuman’s Wake.
ANTONI: That wouldn’t have happened without Joyce.
JOSYPH: But you tribute him, you tip your hat to him, not only there but in the Bomb sequence.
ANTONI: Yes, really. I’m also influenced by a lot of Caribbean writers. Certainly by Walcott. I put his name on one of the most strikingly significant pages of the book, the one adjacent to the mirror page.
JOSYPH: The name is used as a kind of a generic term by Hanuman – “you dreamsleep walcott!” – as if there’s such a thing as being a walcott. I wondered if that was a dig.
ANTONI: No, not at all, not at all, not at all. I’ve met him, spent time with him, that was a great thrill for me. We are great imitators. Walcott, I think, first sought to imitate the English models, and later came to his sense of a more Caribbean form. Historical Kingdom is among the most interesting of his collections, and that, to me, is the most strikingly Caribbean in its language.
JOSYPH: You’re still grappling with dialect.
ANTONI: As you can tell, it’s getting simpler. The new novel is less opaque.
JOSYPH: Of these two older women living alone together, it’s Velma, the black maid, who speaks in dialect, while her white mistress, Lila, who nurses her after her brutally botched abortion, speaks normally. Of the two, Velma excites me more because I’m a sucker for dialect.
ANTONI: Well me too, me too. The hardest voice for me in Divina Trace was Johnny’s, which is the voice so many readers are attracted to and align themselves with, but I struggled with it so much. In the dialect I can sing and I’m not worried about it, everything is right, but in Lila’s voice, and in Johnny’s voice, I have to be a writer.
JOSYPH: With Divina Trace, did you encounter editorial resistance?
ANTONI: Maybe that’s why I had difficulty finding a publisher in New York. When I found a publisher in London, I wanted them to use my discs to set the book. I had been working on them for years and years and they were just where I wanted them. They said they didn’t have the technology in London, but I think the truth is that they pay a little old lady to sit in a back room and type it all out. What happened was that she standardized all of my dialect! She corrected all of my English! So then I had to go back and recreate all the dialect again. It was a nightmare. Nobody could proof the text, and I’m not a trained proofreader, so I just read the thing till I was blue in the face. I’d been through thousands of drafts. There’s not a line in this book that hasn’t been rewritten a hundred times. I couldn’t sit with it long because they were on a deadline. I did it all in Barcelona. It was a total nightmare.
JOSYPH: It says a great deal about Quartet that they would publish it, but it’s insane that no one was watching what this woman was doing, or thought to sit down and say: “Just leave it.”
ANTONI: I don’t know if that’s any different from any other publishing house. It was one of the first novels Quartet had published. They took it because an American woman, Nina Train, liked it. In Barcelona I shared a flat with an Englishman who was a friend of hers. When I went to London she decided right away and I sold her all the rights for a thousand pounds. Shortly after its release she came to the states, which is part of the problem the book had in England, because she had personally pushed it, and with her gone, it was on its own. I hardly thought about publication the whole time I was writing the book. I just assumed that when it was finished it would be published. I had met George Plimpton at a New Year’s party at the Rand house, of Sperry-Rand, in Freeport. Then we went out together at three in the morning to eat cracked conch in some hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and of course I was there in hopes of putting a plug in for my fiction, which I managed to do. We ordered a bottle of champagne – Fat Man’s, the only bottle they had in this place – to eat with the cracked conch, then we went to junkanoo, that’s our bohemian carnival which takes place on New Year’s Eve at three in the morning. It’s a small carnival, very primitive, more African than, say, the Trinidad carnival. The costumes are all crepe paper and the music is only horns and bongos and African drums and cowbells and whistles. It has a very strong beat and you dance in the street until daybreak. At some point, in the midst of the drunken haze, I told George I had this novel that was almost finished. I was essentially unpublished and unknown then, but George said that he would very much like to take a look at it. So of course first thing the next day – well, it was that day, really – I boxed up my novel and went over to see if George was awake. He was not only awake, he was playing tennis with his son. In the middle of his tennis match I marched out onto the court and said: “George Plimpton, here is my novel, Divina Trace. I think you should publish an excerpt.” He paged through it and saw the mirror, which I at that point had just stuck into the manuscript, and without looking at a single word in the book he said: “I’m going to publish this.” I bit my tongue, because I knew that on either side of that mirror page was that monkey chapter, and I was frightened even to mention that! For a while I thought that he may be publishing the mirror without any text, then I thought that he was going to publish other texts with it – but I was afraid to bring it up! All of his editors, with the exception of Jay McCullough, resisted it, but George has such a great sixth sense. He was the very first publisher to show great interest and to actually force a piece of my writing into print. He was amused by the mirror, but I think he was also taken with the experimentation of the language, the audacity of it. He says to this day he doesn’t know what the hell all of that monkey stuff means but it sounded beautiful to him so he did it. It was a bold move, and it meant that I could publish it in the book also. It cost them a fortune to put that mirror in there, but to me it was essential. When I went to England after being rejected one by one by all of the big American publishers, and I met Nina Train, whose father, John Train, was instrumental in creating The Paris Review with George, I think it was partly because the piece had appeared in The Paris Review that she was willing to take me seriously. So although the book was published in London, it began with The Paris Review.
JOSYPH: What response did you get to The Paris Review?
ANTONI: I was on the subway once and I overheard someone say: “Did you see the mirror in The Paris Review?” At that point I thought I would be discovered as the first writer to put a mirror into a book, but of course that was the only response I got! I wrote in a special line for that publication in The Paris Review. It’s where Hanuman says to himself: “Who ga publish dis monksense? gorillaorgy! Francoisi Review?” Which is, of course, The Paris Review. Francoisi is a monkey name.
JOSYPH: The book reminded me of that other bizarre birth in literature, Gargantua, in Rabelais, so I had wondered whether the Francoisi was Francois Rabelais.
ANTONI: No, it’s The Paris Review. The imprint at Quartet under which it was published was Robin Clark. They couldn’t tell me who Robin Clark was, but I made the nun who delivers Magdalena Sister Robin Clark. When it came to the Overlook paperback, I put in a line where Bernadette is the positive author and she refers to “the big publishing houses completing the mythology by inventing a fictitious celebrity to coincide with this fictitious pseudowriter and make theyself a fortune with she fat football face on the cover and the two scratches overlooking she right cheek.” That overlook is Overlook.
JOSYPH: So, far from being aloof, you’re a very accommodating author.
ANTONI: Of course.
JOSYPH: How did you find Overlook?
ANTONI: I had an agent who I don’t think was ever really committed to the book, and believed in trying one house at a time. You can imagine with a manuscript like this, nobody wants to read it. Every three months she would send it to one house. I couldn’t wait. As I said, some way or another I got it to all of the major houses. Then a friend of mine gave the book to Tracy Carnes at Overlook. They bought the rights from Quartet. Nina made it her business to finalize the sale before she left Quartet.
JOSYPH: Did anyone say: “We’ll publish it if you take out the middle”?
ANTONI: They didn’t say they would publish it, they said they were interested. In about a half an hour I pulled that whole middle section, stitched it together, and gave the agent the book minus the middle. She felt she could sell it in that castrated version. I said: “You can use this as bait but I want the whole book published.” Without it, it might have been published with less difficulty, it might have sold better, but if the book’s going to have any shelflife it’ll be for that middle section.
JOSYPH: Looking at it now, does it not seem that there are some really rough parts for your average reader?
ANTONI: I was never really interested in the average reader, I was interested in my own self as a reader. Maybe you develop your sense of an audience after you write for a while. But it was the story that was telling me where to go, and once I stopped fighting it I just had to go with it and when it wanted to go into monkey language I had to go with it into monkey language.
JOSYPH: I don’t mean the monkey section, which I find very enjoyable. Nor do I mean the other narratives. But in the sections that retell the Ramayana, if you don’t know the Ramayana, you almost wouldn’t know that that’s what’s happening. Between not being able to appreciate the references at first, and the language being what you could call knotty in some places, I can certainly say that even for me, an enthusiastic reader, it was difficult. Was it never a consideration to say: “Well wait a minute, is this going to stop them?”
ANTONI: By that point there was no turning back. When I got to the end of the first book I wanted the middle book to be very special, I wanted Magdalena’s voice to be absolutely unique. I knew she was the representative of the East Indian element. I had heard Caribbeanized versions of the Ramayana in Trinidad, and when it came to me it was as though it was given to me. Suddenly I saw that I could retell this tale, which is perfect for the book – it’s already oral and has existed in so many versions – and that with some minor juggling I could make it my own. There’s this wonderful feature built into the Ramayana that all versions are true versions, and in that sense they’re all scripture. When I began, I didn’t know about Hanuman, but Hanuman grew out of that. What puzzled me for a long time was whether or not I would put Magdalena into a verse form. I’m not at all schooled in poetry. I finally just did it because it looked right on the page.
JOSYPH: It eases the difficulty.
ANTONI: Yes, maybe because of the wide space around it.
JOSYPH: Is there an analogy to some of the verse forms in the Ramayana?
ANTONI: No, I never figured it out. Valmiki invented the shloka form, a story which I retell when he’s walking through the forest and he sees two birdlike creatures making love – “loving up dey loving up together” – and a Warrahoon appears and kills one of them, so Valmiki curses the Warrahoon – “Yo-yuga yo-yuga da-bamba!” – and that’s where the shloka comes from, but I call it the shackshloka, because we call maracas shackshacks. Just like the Homeric poets who used to strum the lyre, there’s an equivalent tradition for the Indian poets, so that made perfect sense, the shackshloka.
JOSYPH: You must have had some great fun composing an anthropologicon.
ANTONI: Great fun. It was five months of total immersion. I made lists and lists and lists of apes and moneys and started memorizing them and reading everything I could about anthropology, evolution, which always fascinated me, and then all this stuff started coming out and I started playing with it and I threw Shakespeare in and turned him into a monkey, and Joyce, and God. I could have told you at the time why every single word is there. Sometimes a word would work on three or four levels at once, and the only text that had done that for me was Finnegans Wake. It’s etymological at points, but it’s mostly phonetic. I’m not doing nearly what Joyce did, although at times I guess it can begin to approach that. I’m thrilled to hear other people read from it and to hear the crazy sounds that come out that I never thought of. The first time I told my family that I was writing a monkey chapter in monkey language in the middle of the book, I remember my brother screaming and laughing and I remember my father stroking his forehead, thinking: “O my God!” Realize that these people had been living with me for seven years – and I’m difficult to live with anyway – and they knew how much I had put into it, and I think they were worried for me. Either that chapter is the one that readers skip over, or it’s the one that really convinces them about the book.
JOSYPH: You either love the author for having taken the risk, or you say: “Why did he do this and ruin the book!”
ANTONI: I find the story form very restrictive in that it’s all meant to count, even if it seems like it doesn’t. But a novel, by definition, is that thing that is never sure of itself, is always groping, that can go everywhere and can do anything. To me that’s the joy of reading a novel and the joy of writing one, having absolutely no restrictions, being given absolute freedom.
JOSYPH: And you sympathize with the reader. You say, in effect: “Look, I know there’s a lot of this cacashit to wade through…”
ANTONI: I do that a lot with Mother Maurina.
JOSYPH: When she’s talking about how she deals with the Pope, it’s also the reader, in a sense, where she says: “Just for that I will take up my story again -”
ANTONI: “- from the very beginning -”
JOSYPH: “- that you will have no escape from it a-tall but only to sit right there on you big fat pontifical backside to hear the same story over and over from me and all the others to follow behind -”
ANTONI: “- in reverse sequence now -”
JOSYPH: “- until you have give up longlast in exhaustion….”
JOSYPH: It’s as if the muses had said to you, as Hanuman says at the end of his speech: “Boy, you ga chisel fa dis de whole of you strife and breath!”
ANTONI: Hanuman is Valmiki’s scribe, writing down Valmiki’s poem, and he is the special guardian and champion of the tale, so according to belief he is present spiritually every time the Ramayana is read aloud.
JOSYPH: So even though it’s about him, he’s also somehow the scribe?
ANTONI: Yes, just like Rama is being told the story by his two sons, and yet it’s about him, which is in some ways what I’m doing in Divina Trace. I’m the audience for my own tale. There is also this tradition, in Caribbean lore, of the monkey storyteller, the trickster-monkey figure. As I said, all folk tales traditionally ended: “Krick-krack, monkey break he back, all fa piece of pommerac,” which for me means the monkey will do anything to tell its tale. I realized that I was going further and further backward into memory and into history and into the unconscious in this sort of inverse evolution, and the Ramayana is perfect because it’s the oldest story we have, but the Hanuman tale is actually older and was incorporated into the Ramayana, so I’m going back to the origins of storytelling. The Ramayana is absolutely postmodern, obsessed with structure, totally convoluted, always referring to itself, and the characters who participate are also the listeners of their own story. In addition, it’s probably the most popular story we have around the world by virtue of the number of Hindus there are. In a thousand different ways it’s absolutely perfect for my novel. I had to shift around characters and relationships, but it all worked out fine. No East Indian has ever expressed any discomfort or disagreement with what I did to it. In fact they all take great pleasure in it, even the Hanuman chapter.
JOSYPH: So there was no fatwa put out on you?
ANTONI: Thank goodness no.
PART 3: WALKING DOWN THE TRACE
JOSYPH: When I give a composer friend of mine a libretto, the first thing he does is to create mathematics. He’ll divide it, determine a series of intervals, even when there is no motif yet. The lay listener knows nothing of that structure – at least not consciously – but he, as a composer, needs it to hold the chaos of his creation together. Are you like that?
ANTONI: I’m exactly like that. I’m obsessed with structure. For Divina Trace it happened by accident. The first chapter was written as the story of this frogchild, which, as I said, is a story Granny Myna told often. Crapo is from the French crapaud. She said that she was sitting on her front gallery one afternoon and this crowd of people went by screaming about this crapochild that had just been delivered. It was in the hospital and they were all going to see it. She went with them and saw it, and she told me the child was born that way because the mother liked to go to the swamp to watch the frogs fucking. We have this superstition that whatever a woman thinks of or sees at the moment of conception will influence the child’s development. It’s all through primitive societies even outside the Caribbean. Granny Myna said that this was the foreplay, going to the swamp and watching these frogs fucking, and that’s why the frog came out that way. That’s all she said, but obviously I was fascinated by it. It’s a story she told a lot, and when I went to record her and said to her: “Tell me your stories,” that was one that I asked her to tell me. I didn’t grow up in Trinidad, and I probably had more of a fascination for it and more connection to it precisely because I wasn’t there. Well, it was years later, at around the age of eighteen, when I was going through one of my father’s medical journals, that I came across the picture that appears in the book, this deformed, anencephalic fetus, monster as they call it. I went to my father and said: “This is what Myna’s been talking about!” And my father explained that this was a common congenital abnormality and this is probably what the child was.
JOSYPH: When your Grandmother told the story, your father never interjected?
ANTONI: He probably wasn’t there, or – well, we were never interested in truth values! So when I saw the picture, I started putting it together. The image of this child in the bottle and the boy toting it – I don’t know where the hell I got that from – was the beginning of the book. I just set out on the road carrying this bottle with the whole business of his knowing he would miss the funeral and all that, but I didn’t know where I was going, just as Johnny in the story doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s going to Maraval Swamp, but actually Granny Myna never tells him to go there, she just says to dig up the frogchild and get rid of it, and he puts it together that that’s the only logical place to go, that’s where the child was conceived, that’s where it came from. The mother of the child was Barto’s mistress, and I was using Granny Myna’s story of my uncle and the cow, but there was no Magdalena, there was no black madonna. Walking down the trace with this child in the bottle, I never thought the child was still alive in the bottle. But I got to the swamp, and dumped the child out, and in the last sentence of the story I watched the child swim away. I had absolutely no idea that this would happen! It happened to me before my eyes on the page, that’s when I saw it, and once I saw it I could never regress. At that moment, literally, the story exploded, and I knew it would take at least a novel to understand what I had seen and what it meant. Just like the boy, Johnny Domingo, I couldn’t deny it now: I saw it. And that’s what I was stuck with. It was the last piece that I wrote when I was doing my MFA at Iowa. I applied for a grant almost immediately – as all academics do as soon as they get a half-baked idea – but since I had only this one chapter, I had to think up a whole book. If we could get a chapter of a novel together, we all applied for a Michener Fellowship, which is $10,000. I only had one chapter, so I sat down and very dutifully came up with a skeletal outline. I figured out that there would be five narrators, I decided that Granny Myna would be Spanish. Pappy Vince would be English. Evelina would be black African. Dr. Domingo would be more localized. Magdalena would be the East Indian element. And I made up an outline that looks almost exactly like my table of contents. It wasn’t meant to be real, it was meant for Michener, there was nothing real about it, but it turned out to be the best chance event that could have happened, because I’ve come to learn that this is the way I need to work, inventing a very careful plan to strap myself down so I can rip myself free. In writing, you’re working always by intellect and intuition at the same time. The great difficulty is to be both right and left brain without abandoning either one. My trick is to make myself a structure which allows me to throw the reins away. When I got the fellowship I couldn’t be in school, so I picked up and went to Trinidad. That’s when I lived in the convent. I also lived in a bird sanctuary in the rain forest in the mountains in Trinidad where, by a stroke of luck, I was hired as overseer. It’s a research laboratory – there’s been a lot of research there on the oil bird – but they just wanted someone to live there. I had a maid, I had a car at my disposal, I had this incredible situation, and I had the ten thousand, which I put in the bank because I didn’t need it. For the first month I was there with the previous caretaker, a field naturalist who knew all about the jungle and took me out and explained everything. In the Bahamas we don’t have much vegetation at all, no wildlife, so I was absolutely fascinated. It was there that I wrote the second chapter, Papee Vince. But then carnival arrived. I’m a carnival boy. I started partying, and after carnival I couldn’t stop, so finally I went back home to the Bahamas and anchored our boat out somewhere and started working on Chapter Three before returning to Iowa for my PhD, where I took only courses for the novel: Hindu mythology, Old Testament, Joyce – whatever I needed. When I went to Trinidad I took two books with me: Absalom Absalom, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I read them back-to-back for the whole year that I was in Trinidad. I read nothing else. I must have read them each a half a dozen times. The whole structure of Divina Trace comes from Absalom, Absalom. It’s my favorite Faulkner novel, and it was doing with language what I wanted to do with language. In Divina Trace I took Faulkner’s structure and cleaned it up. Faulkner mingles his narrators and I just separated them. Eighty percent of Absalom, Absalom is in italics. A hundred percent of Divina Trace is in italics, I just dropped the italics. The whole idea of oral storytelling and how it evolves, and the listening, came from there. The idea of situating various narrators at different distances from the story, with different perspectives on it, the idea that all narrators are telling their own story although they think they’re telling another story – all that comes from Faulkner. I put Shreve in there. Did you get that? Dr. Domingo’s roommate in college is Shreve.
JOSYPH: One thing that hearkens back to Absalom, Absalom is the sense of immense pressure on young Johnny that doesn’t diminish as he gets older…
ANTONI: It’s gotten greater, maybe…
JOSYPH: …yes, to comprehend and to pass on the truth of this story. It’s even made physical, at one point, by his position in the Warrahoon-Windsor chair with his father behind him, unable to move, with no way out, but the story is so inscrutable that there’s no way in either, even sixty years after his father is dead, in the same chair wondering “whose hands are these still weighing down heavy on my shoulders? Whose arms are these still jammed up hard against my temples?” There’s the sense that he’ll explode if it continues a second longer, but it does continue, it never stops, and entangled with that is the pressure to tell the story of Corpus Christi and the Caribbean. Do you feel any of that?
ANTONI: I feel that in a huge sense. I feel I have my own material and I have an obligation to it. I don’t think I’ll ever write a Miami story or a New York story. Divina Trace was a gift, a gift of responsibility to be the mouthpiece for these characters, and I have always felt indebted to that. Blessed is the Fruit is even less me. I’m getting rid of myself.
JOSYPH: You recorded Velma?
ANTONI: Yes. As I said, she was the maid we grew up with. I recorded Lila also, although I’m not using much of that. As my aunt, and in my conception of her, Lila was much more the victim, but she’s been transformed along the way into someone much stronger and forthright. She’s the white, French Caribbean, which doesn’t really appear in Divina Trace, which is more about the Spanish families in Trinidad. The Domingos are typically Spanish. Lila is French Creole, she’s English and French, which is a new voice for me.
JOSYPH: Doesn’t she have black blood?
ANTONI: She has black blood, but because of her wealth and position she’s totally white, she’s high white.
JOSYPH: But when she’s young she goes through hell about it…
ANTONI: Yes, hell…
JOSYPH: …and there’s something similar to Johnny in that she tries to take responsibility for what’s confusing her. She says: “If mummy and daddy had committed a mortal sin… I was their mortal sin,” as if the Church were saying it’s all sinful, including you, and she’s trying to sort that out.
ANTONI: I think that’s personal, I think maybe I felt that as a child. I have a tremendous sense of guilt, for what I don’t know!
JOSYPH: There’s also the commingling of religion and sex that exists in Divina Trace, so that rolling the rosary beads is part of a system for masturbation.
ANTONI: Sure. O but it’s so true. That’s one of my themes, I guess. But I’m looking at a whole different society here, the English-French. The men procreate with the blacks, but they’re really sterile.
JOSYPH: How is the book structured?
ANTONI: I’m using a rosary form. A rosary is fifteen decades, but there’s a shorter rosary, called a chaplet, which is five, so I constructed the book in three chaplets. Each section has five chapters, each chapter has ten divisions. Velma has a chaplet in which she tells her background. Lila has one in which she tells hers. The third is interspersed throughout the book. I need that skeleton to start filling in. You make the boundaries so you can explode them. I don’t know all that much about music but I always think of my books as objects with a shape, as physical entities. It’s incredibly complex the way that I structured Divina Trace. Divisions of three and five and three and five repeat over and over until it becomes a sort of mystical, age-old structure.
JOSYPH: Is it true that the dimensions of the rectum reflect the divisions of the book into 5 and 3 and .5?
ANTONI: I don’t know where the hell I got that from! The first part of the colon is almost nothing, so I could use .5.
JOSYPH: There are going to be a lot of people graduating based on that.
ANTONI: This was my dissertation, and I make fun of that in the monkey chapter when I say I’m getting my PhD for writing pornography.
PART 4: UNCLE OLLY
JOSYPH: Tell me how you found the actual photo of the anencephalic fetus.
ANTONI: It was in my father’s journal, British Obstetric and Gynaecological Practice. I couldn’t find the journal, but I had written down the information, so I wrote to the Library of Congress, who sent me the journal, which was long out of print. They sent me the original. It’s the worst thing in the world I’m going to tell you. I knew that I would need the page and the picture… so I took it out of the book… and sent them back the journal. I didn’t take any text, just the picture. It goes back to the 1800’s. Everything was so great. By Sir Eardly Holland. I could never think of a name that good. There is all that play on García Márquez and Melquiades and the positive author in this Uncle Olly figure, who says he’s going to publish the novel under the name of the journal because nobody’s interested in reading a book about the Caribbean, but instead of British Obstetric and Gynaecological Practice he calls it English Gymnastics of Olympics Practice. He’s a little bit the Melquiades figure, but he’s also the one who ends up with the crapochild in his laboratory, doing experiments on it, and he’s the one who is supposed to put the book together with the pictures in it, proving that the child is a frog and all of that. But really it’s Olly Jr. that’s the positive author: me. I appear for one second in the book in my mother’s arms when Johnny’s in medical school and he buys the diamond ring from the Jamaican on the streets and comes back to the apartment where his wife meets him at the door and has little Olly in her arms and looks at the ring and then at her husband with “a look of frank tedium.” That’s the only moment when I appear in the book.
JOSYPH: But you’re also Uncle Olly: you have the frogchild in your lab and you’re making these experiments.
ANTONI: Exactly. So I stole the picture out of the library book. You’d better not print that.
JOSYPH: You’re going to give it back to them, you’re just borrowing it, Robert.
ANTONI: So then listen to what happened. I got to London to publish the book and when I gave them all the material, I said: “Here’s the picture, duplicate this page.” They came back to me and said the photograph was of such poor quality they couldn’t duplicate it and they wanted to do a drawing. I said: “No, this can’t be a drawing, this has to be a real picture of a real child.” Now, my roommate in Barcelona at the time was a sculptor. While he wasn’t there I stole a chunk of clay and I sculpted a frogchild using the picture. Then I got a friend of mine, an amateur photographer, to come photograph it. We sprinkled it with babypowder, we sprayed it down with water to make it look as though it had been just been born, we photographed it next to a ruler, we did all sorts of things. So we duplicated the page. We changed the page number from what it would be in the book to what it would be in the journal. What is it? 770? No, that’s too close to my own sense of structure – 7 and 7 – so I must have changed it even from what it was in the journal. We changed the character of the type, changed the format of the page, and substituted my sculpture. This is a big secret. No one knows about it. This is meant to be the real photograph of the real child. But I actually sculpted the frogchild.
JOSYPH: It’s quite a hoax.
ANTONI: It’s more interesting. My sculpture is slightly more froglike. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, it came out flat instead of three dimensional, more like a relief. If you look at it suddenly like a sculpture it looks primitive.
JOSYPH: To me this is key, because it’s all an illusion.
JOSYPH: I had to use blood on stage once – I was playing Vince in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child – so I had a hematologist take a few vials from me, which I stored in my refrigerator, and I used my own blood in the play. Backstage it horrified the actress playing the grandmother, and onstage it was a total failure. Real blood gets black too fast – it doesn’t work, you can’t see it at all from the house. It’s the stage blood that has the red look and the shine.
JOSYPH: So you’re better off making your own crapochild.
ANTONI: The difference in the paperback is that this second frogchild was meant to have been in negative, which they didn’t do. It was an error in the original hardcover that they published in London, so they had to go in and actually paste them in at their cost, which they did, but when Overlook bought the plates from London, they bought the error still in the manuscript and repeated it. It doesn’t make sense unless it’s reversed. It’s supposed to be an x-ray, and the frogchild appears white. It’s a pity. I kept the sculpture for the longest time. I used to spray it down with water and keep it in a little shoebox just like the frogchild, and I brought it back to the states. My sister Jenny, who, as you know, is a visual artist, was supposed to have it cast for me, but she’s so busy, by the time she looked at it it had disintegrated.
JOSYPH: She didn’t put the remains in a bottle and bring it to a swamp?
PART 5: BOBBY BEFORE, BOBBY AFTER
ANTONI: I grew up with both my mother’s father and Granny Myna in Freeport, which is only about seventy miles from where we’re sitting right now. I always thought it was so odd that people very seldom leave the hundred mile radius of their childhood, and here I am doing the same. I hope to eventually start sailing there. But I grew up hearing both of their stories. My grandmother remembered everything. My grandfather, who was part of Papee Vince in the novel, was sort of senile toward the last years, but as a boy at thirteen years of age he had left his family – they were dirt poor – and he had gone to work in the oil fields in Venezuela, living with Warrahoon Indians, and he used to talk about how they had their homes at the tops of the oil derricks. He described them as a short, potbellied people who had these enormous bows they used to fire at the tops of the derricks now and then. They had massive two-inch thick planking on these derricks and these bows were so powerful they could actually penetrate them. They were headshrinkers at the time, and my grandfather used to have these heads, which absolutely horrified and scandalized my maternal grandmother. My grandfather, although he was uneducated, made three inventions in oil drilling, one of which was paying him royalties up until the time of his death, and he was an absolute pioneer. He made his own refinery in Trinidad, an island that has a lot of oil. When he left Trinidad he went to the Bahamas. He loved property, he loved beaches, he would see a beach in the middle of nowhere and buy it for next to nothing. A lot of the property he bought is still worthless, but he bought an enormous stretch of land that ended up being right next to the Club Med, so we made an absolute killing on it, and there are several pieces of property like that. He moved into the house after his wife died and lived with us for about six or eight years. And we learned from him and invested. This is why I wouldn’t have to teach if I didn’t want to. My father had left Trinidad to do his residency in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my brother and I were born. My parents were returning to Trinidad, where my father had expected to continue his medical practice, but on the way he came to visit my grandparents in West End, a tiny village at the end of Grand Bahama. Freeport wasn’t even a city then, it was just an idea of this American, Wallace Groves. He hired my father to establish a government hospital, then my father built his own clinic and brought my two uncles to work with him. It was called Antoni Clinic, which is the legacy I had grown up with, my practice already set up for me. He sold it and built another one, also in Freeport, which is enormously different from Trinidad. If you think of the curve beginning off the coast of Florida and ending off the coast of Venezuela as being the Caribbean chain, I come from both ends, because Grand Bahama – excepting Bimini, which is tiny – is the closest island to Florida, and Freeport, where I spent most of my youth, is the closest city to Florida. Port of Spain, or Trinidad, where we used to visit, is the end. We have, from both sides, over two hundred years in Trinidad. On my mother’s side it goes back much further. Detroit, where I was born, I know absolutely nothing about except that I was born in the Henry Ford Hospital, which appears in the book transposed to New York. My brother and I, and my sister after us, went away to school at thirteen. At first I went to St. Paul’s, an all-boys Catholic school in Covington, Louisiana across the causeway from New Orleans. Not to say that I was thrown out, but they suggested I didn’t return. Then I went to Pinecrest, in Fort Lauderdale, where I got into trouble again. They let me graduate, but I had grown up in the Bahamas where it was a very free childhood and suddenly, having already had problems with the religion, here I was with Christian brothers, and the boarding side of places like St. Paul’s were really for juvenile delinquents, kids that couldn’t be controlled by their parents, so I was living with these delinquents and getting into trouble with them. I only really started to visit Trinidad when I was sixteen, seventeen. Then I would go every year. When I got to Trinidad it was as though I knew it already by a vicarious existence through the stories I had heard. And people came up to me on the street and said: “Are you an Antoni?” I took to the place immediately. Down there everyone is related. In the Bahamas, my father really is some kind of governor. Everywhere he goes he knows people, and because I had two other uncles who were doctors, they just confused the Antonis. I grew up with my father, for a time, as the only doctor there, so he was doing everything. We used to go out at night with him on his rounds and I used to watch him stitching people. When we started boating and would go to the outer islands, we would dock our boat, people would line up, and he would literally treat them on the deck. I always admired him and his medical practice and thought I wanted the same thing for myself without ever really starting to think about it. I did my pre-med at Duke, well enough to get into medical school, when I had this accident in my junior year. I had started writing with Alan Garganus, who was there to teach a special course. We were supposed to submit three stories to be considered for the class. I hadn’t written anything, so I sat down to write my first story, which I submitted with such a low expectation that I didn’t even bother to pick it up. Alan accepted me and encouraged me. He started asking me, for the first time: “Why do you want to go to medical school?” I went home that summer and I had this skiing accident. I could ski as early as I could walk, and we ski, slalom ski, very fast in the canals. We were drinking, smoking, all of that, but I know that I was sober because I did a barefoot run for about 250 yards before I had the accident, which I could never have done if I were too inebriated. Then I put on the slalom ski. You could get water in your eyes or just close them for a second and literally hit the wall, which is what happened. I ran into the concrete wall that lines the waterway. The ski took the brunt of the blow but then I must have gone forward and hit my head. You can see the scar. We were going probably forty miles an hour in the water, and you’re crossing back and forth across the wake, so you could be going sixty. The canal is thirty, forty feet wide, so it’s dangerous. I had a jacket on, which saved me. I was floating face down. My brother, who was in the boat, flipped me over and screamed: “He’s dead!” They pulled me out of the water, conscious, at first, but babbling. My father flew me out in an air ambulance here to Miami, where I lost consciousness for about three days. When I came to, as is common with this sort of concussion, I was extremely violent, because you have this massive edema on your brain, there’s this enormous pain, and they can’t give you sedatives in case of brain damage. So they strapped me down to a bed which I absolutely destroyed. From the moment I hit the wall to maybe a month and a half later, I have absolutely no memory. They tell me that I was just screaming and cursing at the top of my lungs for another three days, and they could hear me from two blocks before getting to the hospital. Would I be left deranged? At that point my parents didn’t know whether I would be better off dead. Then I became very docile, I turned into a child. I would keep the Jell-O they gave me underneath the bed, and when my parents came to visit I would make them each eat some of the Jell-O because it was the most wonderful thing I had ever had. My father walked into the room and I was sitting on the floor stark naked with all the little suction-cup monitors stuck in the ground. For a month and a half I spoke absolute nonsense. They didn’t know if I was playing with them. I would say and do all sorts of outrageous things. Under my father’s care I was another half month in Freeport, in bed, but I could walk around. We were at a party next door, where there was a small flight of carpeted steps. I was obviously very rickety because they were all worried about me and my brother was behind me. I was walking up this short flight of steps and I just slipped and sat down on the step, and there was a thud that made some electrical connections, and I said: “I’m waking up,” and from that moment I have all my memory. But I had changed, totally, to the extent that my family for a long time spoke of Bobby before the accident and Bobby after the accident. I became withdrawn, introverted, reclusive, I had fits of depression, I was suicidal for a long time, but the main thing is that I went back to Duke and I gave up everything to do with the sciences and I switched to an English major and discovered I had a knack for literature. I published a paper on Henry IV Part One calling for a change in the text after reading it for the first time! I had an intuition for it. I did better than I ever had done in the sciences. Then I started writing full-time. Another teacher at Duke, Reynolds Price, took me under his wing after Alan. I applied to Iowa because Alan recommended it. For a good while I had planned to do both. My poor father! I was his eldest son following in his footsteps, then I bang my head and say I don’t want to go to medical school! They thought it was a phase. I have no idea what decided it. Maybe it was some sort of brush with death that my body knew about, and my conscious mind didn’t, that drew me towards writing. I don’t think anything is lost in the unconscious. It’s served back to you at the right moment when it’s called for. I had always known as a child, from before I could even think about it, that I would be a doctor. I had never thought of anything else. I’m a lot like my father. I’m sure there was pressure put on me, but my father loved medicine and that’s what he wanted for me and I don’t resent it. After a summer at Iowa, I went to Johns Hopkins, where there were only ten fiction writers, hand-selected by John Barth, a brilliant teacher who you worked with for a year in such a high-pressure program that I only wrote one story, which became my first publication. Then, when I did my MFA at Iowa, the last piece I wrote was the first chapter of Divina Trace. The day my story was considered in the workshop, Reynolds Price happened to be visiting. Even though that sentence had exploded at the end, I still hadn’t figured out what would become of this thing. It was just a chapter. At the end of that class, Reynolds told me that I had spent enough time writing stories and that I needed to settle down to write a novel. That’s when I took this chapter and started thinking about Divina Trace.
PART 6: CORPUS CHRISTI DAY
JOSYPH: You’re not too easy on Bernadette.
ANTONI: I grew up with Bernadette. My grandmother had her Lourdes water in a little plastic squeezebottle the shape of the Virgin, and she used to squeeze it into her mouth. Bernadette was always there on her walls. I made a trip to Lourdes and was astounded at what goes on there. Little Bernadettes of every conceivable material are sold. It’s the biggest tourist ripoff in the world – the church runs it – with buses and buses of war veterans and sickly children all there drinking the water. I don’t know why I was drawn to Bernadette, but as soon as I started investigating I knew it was too good to pass up. She was clearly mentally retarded. Certainly slow. They made this imbecile into a saint. She was so slow she didn’t make her First Communion until she was eighteen or thereabouts, because she could never learn the catechism. The nuns hated her. The Mother Superior wanted nothing to do with her because she was so slow, and they made a special exception to let her into the convent. She was sickly, always threatening to die. At one point they gave her her veil, thinking she was at the point of death. The next day she recovered and the Mother Superior went to her and said: “If you’re not dead by tomorrow morning I’m taking back your veil!” She didn’t die, and it was, I’m pretty sure, taken away, but then it was given back to her. She had these fourteen apparitions, which were perfect for me because I had thirteen chapters and I spoof on all of that. She talked absolute nonsense. It’s all there in the transcripts. She started eating mud and all these people came to cover themselves with mud. Whether or not she’s a saint, I’m not even interested. All of this craziness was just astounding.
JOSYPH: As anyone knows who studies the saints, the church, at least in this century, does not canonize easily. As Dr. Domingo says to Johnny: “When it comes to matters of faith, the Church don’t believe nothing without hard scientific proof.” Why were they so quick with Bernadette?
ANTONI: She had such a tremendous following, there was no way to turn her down. She had the whole of France and Spain behind her. Maybe it helped that she was poor, from the lower classes. But she had nuns fighting for her. Not her Mother Superior, who hated her to her dying day. Every chapter in Divina Trace is separated by a year or several years, but it always happens on or around Corpus Christi Day, which is the day before Johnny’s birthday, right? So I went back to an ecclesiastical catalogue to look up Corpus Christi Day. It happens on a different day every year depending on the religious calendar, but I had to make it fixed, so I found one that recurred often enough, April 16th.
JOSYPH: And Johnny was born on the 17th?
ANTONI: Right, but don’t try to figure out the chronology because you’ll go mad.
JOSYPH: I learned that from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.
ANTONI: Exactly. I chose the 16th soon after I had written the first chapter. Corpus Christi Day takes place on the thursday before Good Friday in my book.
JOSYPH: Holy Thursday.
ANTONI: Yes, which is the old day when that feast was celebrated. It’s now been changed. I went back to that old day because traditionally that’s the day when the East Indians have their feast dedicated to La Divina Pastora. That was the only time during the year when they could have four days off – from thursday to monday, Easter weekend – when they could make the pilgrimage from all over Trinidad to remove the black madonna statue from the church of Siparia and parade her through the streets and celebrate for two days and then return to their estates. I thought that maybe the book would take me a couple of years to write, but here I am maybe five or six years later, on my thirtieth birthday, when I thought I would have finished it long ago – I was actually thirty-three when I finished it – but nothing seemed more appropriate than to finish this chapter, which was Mother Maurina’s second chapter, where I do the whole spoof on Bernadette, using the official source, by Francois Trochu, translated into English by Father John Joyce (who was not James Joyce’s father, although James Joyce’s father was a John). In any case, I looked up the official proceedings and I did my spoof on it. When I get to the date when Bernadette died and was canonized, it ends up being April 16th! The chances of that happening are a thousand to one, but that happened and it happened on my thirtieth birthday. There have been many strange coincidences and affirmations during the writing of this book. I’m in my little Iowa house in the middle of summer, in the midst of some long passage, writing away, and when I’m writing I get all worked up, and I’m sweating, you know, and I’m writing and I’m writing and I’m writing – and then I have to pee, but I don’t want to get up from my desk because I want to get to the end of what I’m doing. Then I start smelling fire – and I have to pee! But I don’t want to get up from my desk! So I get to the end of this thing, and I can’t think whether I should go pee first, or find out what’s on fire first, so I rush down the steps, and the fireplace, which hasn’t been lit in three months, is just blazing with six-foot tall flames. This was in the summer! Here’s another story. I was out in Iowa when I heard that Granny Myna died. I flew home for the funeral. My family is as crazy as the Domingos. All of my family from Trinidad, from Canada, from America, came to Freeport for her funeral, and we’re all hysterical. In my family we bring the casket into our home and we all gather and pray the night before. So all my family is there and they’re all screaming and they’re all praying and each one is trying to out-pray and out-weep the other, beating their breasts, “Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa!” and I got really upset because I wanted a quiet and peaceful time to be with my grandmother. We had built her an apartment in the garage, so I went out there to get away from this noise. There was a sliding glass door that led back to a little grotto, so I went there to spend a quiet moment. I got down on my knees and I said: “Granny Myna, give me a sign that you approve of what I’m doing, that you’re behind me in all of this.” There was a statue in the grotto, which I wasn’t facing, I was facing away from it, but having said that, I opened my eyes, and what I found was another statue leaning against the wall. What I didn’t know was that right before my grandmother’s death my father had changed the statues because the old one had begun to disintegrate. What I saw was the old statue of Mary with the disintegrated face. It had her arms open, spread. Then I looked over at the new statue, and it’s Mary holding a child. Now, you know from Divina Trace that in the first chapter young Johnny Domingo goes to visit the statue in the Church of Magdalena Divina at the end of the trace, and what he sees is the statue with her arms open. Then, as an old man of ninety, Johnny makes that same trip in the last chapter of the book and he goes into the church and kneels down and when he opens his eyes, what he sees is the statue holding the child. So there is no better way I can think of to sum up the book than the appearance of those two statues, the old one being replaced by the new one, which happened at the moment I had asked for that sign. Think whatever you like. I now have the old statue next to my bed in Freeport.
JOSYPH: Would you agree with Joyce that in the end there are only bad Catholics?
ANTONI: Yes. I fought my faith and said I didn’t believe for a long time, but what I’ve come to realize is that no matter how many times I say that, down deep I do believe. I have huge problems with the hierarchy of the church, but I’m fascinated by the idea of faith and I won’t discount the possibility of the miraculous. What I respond to in the Church is the ritualistic side of it. The place I like to go to church best is Barcelona. I go to midnight Mass in this ancient cathedral and hear them chanting and it’s not even Spanish I understand, it’s Catalan, which I don’t understand, and it feels like the old Latin Mass to me, and I respond strongly to that. I don’t think you can ever really escape it, which is part of my diatribe in the book, but there is an aspect which I want to celebrate: the acceptance of the mysterious and the unknown. And the concept of faith, in all its ramifications, I find very appealing.
PART 7: FUSTERIA
ANTONI: For me everything revolves around the writing. People who get involved with me have to understand that. I write every day, seven days a week. If I take one day off it takes me two days to get back into it. It’s going to take me two weeks to get back into it after this. I can only compose for four hours a day max. The rest is proofing, typing and so on. I would be lost without a computer. At the end of the day I want to see something clean. But I write in longhand, three or four rough drafts before I type. Like your friend Richard Selzer, who compares the use of the pen to the use of the scalpel, and is comforted by the gliding of his hand across the page, I enjoy the physicality of it. I only use a pencil because I erase the whole time. I can’t scratch out because I change each word three times. With a computer there’s no fear: mistakes are easy to correct. I feel the same about a pencil – there’s less fear because you can just erase – and I only write with a Pilot Clicker. I had an orange one with which I wrote the whole of Divina Trace. I began to become connected to this pencil and was always obsessing about losing it because I thought that if I lost it I couldn’t continue. After I wrote the final chapter in Freeport, I lost it on the flight to New York. I’m writing the new book with a blue Clicker with a piece of my grandmother’s crocheted thread stuck in it so I can’t confuse it with any other pencil.
JOSYPH: One of my books, The Wounded River, required that I use a mechanical pencil, which to me is not even a writing implement. I had no choice because you can’t work with ink among rare books and manuscripts. It was a torture to me. The leads were constantly popping. I mean, every few minutes. How the hell do you use them? Do you have a lighter hand?
ANTONI: They pop on me too, and the lead gets stuck and I do these fine operations, it’s a whole surgical technique. They have this switch, lower down, that you press, and the lead is very fine and they write beautifully. I use .5 lead, medium-hard, which I buy by the case, and I buy boxes of the erasers. There’s a little box with five erasers, and I buy a box of these little boxes. People in the stores think I’m insane! I have to write on yellow, normal-size paper, and I have to have thin lines, and it can’t have holes. I buy a special pad that doesn’t have that thing across the top and I don’t think it has a margin. I only write with that paper. Then I have a rough-draft printer and a final-draft printer, which I never use until the end. I would love to make a sculpture with all my rough drafts because they would fill up a gymnasium! But I’d be insane to keep them, I couldn’t possibly. I’m very workplace oriented. I can’t work on the road. I notice you keep a pad attached to your dashboard. I can’t do that. I wrote the first chapter of Divina Trace in Iowa, second chapter in the bird sanctuary, third in Tobago, fourth on a boat in the Bahamas, a few more chapters in Iowa. I went to England for a year and wrote the third-to-last and penultimate chapters there, then I wrote the final chapter in the Bahamas. So the book got written all over, but in spaces that were mine. I had a desk in each of those places. I even had a desk on the boat! In Barcelona, I live in the ancient city. Each city was given over to a guild. Fusteria is the Catalan for woodworking. They say that in the old days a blind person could walk around Barcelona and know which street they were on based on the sounds and the smells of the city. It’s an exquisite city, tiny, absolutely wonderful. I can work well in Barcelona because there are no distractions, and I like being away from my subject matter. Also, the Catalan culture, which has been for so long suppressed, and is now, so many years after Franco, still coming to life, has a connection to me with colonialism and the feeling of a language and a culture forced underground. And the galleons that went to the New World were constructed in Barcelona. The oldest building in Barcelona is the site on the port where these galleons were made. I’m obviously attracted to ports: Barcelona, Freeport, Port of Spain, Miami. In Barcelona I live on the port, as I do in Miami, and I see the same sorts of structures – the cranes they use to load the ships – from my apartment in Barcelona as I see from my house in Miami. I’m also right next to the Central Post Office, one of the most beautiful buildings in Barcelona.
JOSYPH: Will there be some Barcelona in future novels?
ANTONI: I don’t think so.
JOSYPH: You’re pretty firm.
ANTONI: I feel that’s for other people to write about. Also, in Barcelona, right in front of where I live, there is this enormous statue of Columbus, supposedly pointing at the New World but most likely pointing at Africa or somewhere else. There is something meaningful for me about writing at the foot of that statue. It’s in the most strategic position in Barcelona, where the Ramblas meets the waterfront, two blocks from where I live. I step out from my door and it’s there.
JOSYPH: So you’re writing at both ends of the process.
JOSYPH: Writers know when they’ve done something that’s golden, something that’s never been done and they’ve done it really well. You have to know that, otherwise you’re dead, because how would you finish anything? Nevertheless, authors are not supposed to be asked this, but: do you have any keen sense of how really great the novel is?
ANTONI: (Shakes his head in the negative) I love it – these people live and breathe for me and I enjoy being with them – I can read that eyeball story a hundred times and I still enjoy it – but I don’t know… I’ve never read this book completely since I finished that last page. When I went through the proofs, that’s not really reading it. Sometimes I thought, when I was writing it: “God, nobody’s ever done this. All this stuff I’m seeing these days – nobody’s doing this.” But… but then again, not many people have read it. The people who like it love it passionately, and that pleases me. But as I keep saying, it was given to me to do and I was lucky to have it. I certainly don’t have any idea of myself as a man of letters. I feel like a little boy.
JOSYPH: Whenever I feel that I’m anything, all it takes is one paragraph of Conrad…
ANTONI: …to put you in your place.
JOSYPH: Yes, I’m finished.
ANTONI: Still, when you write a sentence and you know its right, that’s it.
JOSYPH: Yes, you know it sentence-by-sentence and chapter-by-chapter, but then it generally isn’t discussed whether an author feels it’s true of his book as a whole.
ANTONI: It’s still too close. It took seven years to write it. How many years does it take to unwrite it, to get some sort of perspective on it? When I wrote Divina Trace I wanted every single sentence to be unique, I wanted every single sentence to say, like “The bottle was big and obzockee,” this has never been done before. I don’t feel like that about the book I’m working on now, I don’t feel nearly the obsession and trauma and emotion and confusion that I’ve lived with and everyone around me has lived with all those years that I was writing Divina Trace. I put everything I had into it. It has faults because it’s reaching too far. I’m trying to do things that I’m not yet ready to do. What I will say about this book – if I have any perspective on it myself – is that it’s always on the edge of control, always just slipping from my grasp, and I think that’s a wonderful thing for a first novel – some first novels. I’m mostly interested in books that test limits. I’m interested in form and I’m not interested in a book that isn’t at least attempting to do something new with form.
JOSYPH: When you went to Trinidad to develop the novel beyond that first chapter, you brought Absalom, Absalom and One Hundred Years of Solitude. We’ve talked about Faulkner. What about García Márquez?
ANTONI: Certainly any relationship I have to magical realism comes from García Márquez, although in many ways I think Divina Trace is an undoing of magical realism. We’re tired now of the tricks. Now all of that writing is so transparent to me. Because I studied the techniques so hard, I immediately know what writers are doing with me. It’s that kind of thing I wanted to avoid in Divina Trace. Magical realism is all technique, and once you learn the technique it becomes very transparent. García Márquez always talks down One Hundred Years of Solitude because he says it’s all trickery, whereas in Autumn of the Patriarch, for example, he’s using that but he’s also taking other great risks. As bizarre and as extravagant as One Hundred Years of Solitude sounds, especially for its time, it’s not nearly as risky as a book like Autumn of the Patriarch. Once García Márquez figured out the system, he dwelt there.
JOSYPH: But it was Solitude that you brought with you.
JOSYPH: Because it was the first one you read?
ANTONI: No, as with Faulkner, I read all of García Márquez chronologically. That was the one because it was closest to my material. It was subject matter and treatment of subject matter that I got from García Márquez…
JOSYPH: The way the family becomes the place?
ANTONI: Exactly. García Márquez calls himself a Caribbean writer, but I think there are differences between what he does and what I’m doing and what I consider Caribbean writing. The Caribbean in the West Indies is very different from the Caribbean in Latin America in that those Latin American countries have been independent for fifty or a hundred years, whereas no Caribbean island, as I was saying before, has been independent for more than twenty, and this is a huge psychological difference. Also, there’s a different physicality in how the body is perceived if you are connected to a mainland. In One Hundred Years of Solitude I have this feeling of endless swamp, but of land being attached, whereas in the Caribbean you’re always alone, surrounded by water, which psychologically makes an enormous difference. The other huge difference is that there are no indigenous people left in the Caribbean. The characters who people García Márquez’s fiction are, for the most part, Indians who have a connection to the land, who have a sense of continuous ancestry. In the Caribbean you’re dealing with only displaced people, all of them, which is a whole other world. An East Indian in Trinidad is entirely different from an East Indian in India. Or a Frenchman, or a Spaniard, or certainly a black African.
JOSYPH: You have these voices, each for a different nationality, but one senses that this is all one place, almost one town; it seems that unified despite all of the conflicts.
ANTONI: Because we’re all stuck on these few square feet of earth surrounded by this uncrossable sea. You can get to Venezuela from Trinidad, but who particularly wants to go to Venezuela? (Laughter) Trinidad is so far away! It’s the other end of the earth.
JOSYPH: Will the book encourage young writers in Trinidad?
ANTONI: It has already. They talk to me. I go down there all the time. The problem is getting books. This book sells for a hundred Trinidad dollars. That’s thirty or forty American dollars, but to them it’s a hundred dollars. It costs a fortune. I never got a British paperback, so legally the only book allowed is the hardcover. I literally have to smuggle the paperbacks into Trinidad in my suitcase.
JOSYPH: Do you feel at all an American writer?
ANTONI: I’m no more or less American than I am anything else. It’s all part of the whole healthy schizophrenia… that I wouldn’t trade for the world… but will probably drive me to suicide!
Copyright © Peter Josyph 2002
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