Acclaimed author Rabindranath Maharaj has returned home to help build the community of emerging writers.
Twenty-five years ago, he left to go to Canada to pursue his dream of writing because, as he says, "We didn't have a community of writers then and writing had to be done surreptitiously or risk the suspicions of craziness. Few people announced then that they wanted to be a writer."
One of his contributions to budding writers is through his participation in Campus Literature Week at UWI, St Augustine, this month. On March 22, he will read from his latest novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, which has been optioned to be made into a movie.
Rabindranath, fondly called Robin, will give his feature reading to all interested members of the public at the Learning Resource Centre Auditorium on the St Augustine campus at 7 p.m. that day.
Rabindranath agreed to join the St Augustine campus this semester as Writer-in-Residence working closely with the Master in Fine Arts Creative Writing class. It partially answers his belief that "if he could assist in any way to help beginning writers, that would be a good thing".
He has authored eight highly-acclaimed books, including five novels. He recounts his initial learning phase of reading books with a sharp eye for what in the author's style worked and what failed, and why.
He tried to remedy his weaknesses in such descriptive writing and ameliorated this by reading architecture books so that instead of seeing just a block when he looked at a building, he could now perceive the design components and identify them by name.
All of these insights Rabindranath hopes to share with budding writers, but there is another aspect to the homecoming. He felt he had been away from the Caribbean too long and wanted to see what had changed about the place.
Did he find that it had changed?
"Mostly, it has not," he says.
He feels we are more sophisticated in terms of technology, people are more aware of what is happening, and there is a new frankness or less idealisation. He sees this as a new acknowledgement of the problems here; things people were not willing to talk about long ago.
There is what he calls a greater willingness to engage. Yet there are also some characteristic Trinbagonian qualities undergirding this, which Rabindranath feels have endured and which he appreciates. One is our openness.
"People are very demonstrative," he says, "which is to me, as a writer, a good thing."
Our openness, and the way that every rumshop has always had a good storyteller, are indicative to Rabindranath of the reason, perhaps, writing was never seen as any productive path to pursue when he was growing up – entertaining stories were easy to find everywhere.
"In Trinidad and Tobago we have an inventiveness and facility with language – like the way we give a new name to a cold."
Yet, he was determined to take his love for stories and craft a career out of it, that is, to take a chance on his passion so he would never have to wonder in later years what could have been. "I believe I am good at teaching and writing—the only two things—and whenever there is an intersection of these two things it is perfect for me," he said.
He has been a Writer-in-Residence before, at the Toronto Reference Library and as instructor at the Humber School for Writers and the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.
When he went to Canada to write, he pursued the Master's in Creative Writing and completed it in the record time of one year out of necessity – he only had funds for that one year.
His thesis was so compelling, though, that it was recommended to a publisher by the dean of his programme. That book, The Interloper, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Rabindranath's talent was recognised globally. It was to be the first of many writing honours and the beginning of a career of critical acclaim for solid work. Apart from novels, a play and short stories, he has written for the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
He says you have to persist as a writer.
"Sometimes, you spend a year or two years locked in a little room. You have no idea if the book will be published or if anyone will like it." It sounds like a lonely and frustrating process—one that might not pay off. So why do it? Why persist?
"First of all , you must enjoy what you do and believe there is a function to the sacrifice."
Rabindranath also believes that writers should resist bending their stories solely to satisfy a rigid agenda. If you wish to preach, a soapbox and a megaphone may be better tools than that story on your Mac.
"The main view of the writer," he says, "is to allow people a glimpse of something familiar in a new and startling way."
It isn't straightforward.
"There are moments the writing is not going well and you get frustrated, but there are also moments when everything is going well and everything is linked and all the questions that I have been asking about the book are answered. I wouldn't exchange these moments for anything else."
Finally, Rabindranath believes that although fiction writing is still under-appreciated in Trinidad there are positive signs. He believes that festivals like the Bocas event and the MFA programme at UWI are setting up frameworks that can be beneficial for writers, beginning or established.