DR ELIZABETH Walcott-Hackshaw’s office on the third floor of the Faculty of Humanities and Education at The University of the West Indies is exactly what you would expect the work-space of the senior lecturer to look like — books stacked on shelves, a laptop and stationery lying on a desk nearby. A quirky poster advertising one of her favourite French Caribbean writers Dany Laferriere and his book Journal d’un ecrivain en pyjama hangs on one of the walls, as do a few personal effects — photos of friends and colleagues and a picture of the front cover of her most recent novel Mrs B. It may be Friday morning but before Walcott-Hackshaw could say ‘thank God it’s Friday’, she has to get through what is already shaping up to be a hectic day - which is typical for this senior lecturer in French and Francophone Literature at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics and deputy dean for Graduate Studies and Research.
Walcott-Hackshaw is sipping her routine morning coffee when we meet. She offers a warm smile and a firm handshake before leading the way into her office at the St Augustine campus. There we sit and chat about her passion for linguistics, why she believes Caribbean people in general should speak at least two languages, her fascination with all things Haitian, having a famous father — acclaimed poet and Nobel laureate in Literature Derek Walcott, and of course her latest book Mrs B.
Mrs B’s storyline is set in Trinidad. The protagonist- Mrs.B is a mother and a wife from an upper middle class background. Although she is part of the society, she feels alienated and different. Added to that, Mrs B’s daughter, Ruthie, has suffered a breakdown and has brought disgrace upon the family following an affair with a married professor. In Mrs B, Walcott-Hackshaw explores how both women navigate these unchartered and turbulent waters.
“Inspiration is always a tricky thing. I was quite inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,” says Walcott-Hackshaw as we discuss what inspired her to write Mrs B.
By no means is Mrs B a remake of Madame Bovary. The similarity between the protagonists in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Walcott-Hackshaw’s Mrs B is the feeling of being trapped in their bourgeois society — a society that is very coded, a society that does not allow for certain liberties that the women want to take, explains Walcott-Hackshaw.
“And then of course, there is the inspiration of Trinidad and looking at different societies. There are a lot of Mrs B’s around us and perhaps we have a bit of Mrs B in us, but I do have to credit Flaubert for the feeling of that character who is psychologically very complex and it’s the dissatisfaction that I find very interesting,” she says. Walcott-Hackshaw is no stranger to writing. Some of her publications include Border Crossings: A Trilingual Anthology of Caribbean Women Writers, (2012) which was co-edited with Nicole Roberts, Echoes of the Haitian Revolution 1804-2004 (2008) and Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks (1804-2004) (2006) co-edited with Martin Munro.
Mrs B which was released at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest is a departure from Walcott-Hackshaw’s 2007 offering Four Taxis Facing North — a compilation of short stories, which was eventually translated into Italian. Since its release, Mrs.B has been selling well and the feedback has been positive.
“I was just at a festival in Bellinzona, Switzerland and the response was quite good, but I will tell you what touches me the most, when Trinis read the book and they tell me they like it or there’s something in it that they can relate to, I am touched by that,” she says.
But being a writer herself and the daughter of Derek Walcott must surely bring with it an overwhelming pressure to live up to expectations, doesn’t it? It’s a question Walcott-Hackshaw gets asked a lot in interviews. And her answer may not be that surprising. Walcott-Hackshaw says that growing up in a down to earth household took the pressure off from having a famous father.
“Remember when I was born, he didn’t have a Nobel Prize, he was just my father, so I imagine that in one sphere, perhaps there is always that idea that you have a parent that has won the Nobel Prize but in our household we were taught to work hard, to do our best at whatever we’re doing,” Walcott-Hackshaw says with a smile.
“I was brought up by - there is no other way to describe it- very down to earth, feet-on-the-ground parents. There were no airs, no pirouettes, none of those things. You just worked and did what you had to do. Growing up with a father who was an artist was just normal for me, I know that might sound strange, but it wasn’t extraordinary.”
By the time her father won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 and the fame train rolled in, Walcott-Hackshaw says their family took it all in stride and remained grounded. Incidentally that year was an especially memorable one for her, aside from her father’s accomplishment, Walcott-Hackshaw got married in ‘92. Her father’s milestone achievement was in no small measure the result of his strong work ethic and today she credits her parents for instilling this quality in her and her siblings. As we talk, Walcott-Hackshaw conjures up memories of her father working in his study all the time.
“We would wake up in the morning to the sound of him typing on a typewriter in a study full of books. Books were always around. My parents always read. I do remember in his study though, it was filled with these parallel texts, one side was English, one side was French. I always looked at those books and said one day I would learn to read the side with French. I remember telling myself that as a child,” she recalls.
Little wonder, therefore, that Walcott-Hackshaw went on to study French Literature and today she holds a PhD in French Literature and Language from Boston University. As a child growing up, she could not have known to what extent those French texts in her father’s study would help her find her passion - languages. But it would be exposure of a different sort that would help shape her perspective on life and people.
“Growing up, we had lots of arguments- fun arguments and discussions from early on, we would have to prove our point at the dinner table, no one would get away with any weak argument so we would all sit there and debate but in a very friendly way, we were taught to argue and debate in an analytical way. We were encouraged to express our point of view,” she says. “Also, my mother could entertain very well on a budget, she loved to have people over. At that time we didn’t realise the sort of people who came to our house, only later we realised they were well known people; artists, writers, painters, what that gave us was a very open, wide view of society. I’m very privileged to have had that opportunity to be around from a very early stage, people from every aspect of life, we met people from everywhere, it opened me up as child to not feel closed or to think that society was framed by any one ‘thing’.”.
As much as Walcott-Hackshaw wishes her son and daughter could have experienced the same childhood she had, the reality is that their background is far more traditional when compared to her own.
“I wish I could give them what I had but the excitement I had as a child was something special, I don’t think I could replicate that in any way,”she says.
However, she tries to instill in them the values that were taught by her parents; kindness, tolerance, generosity of spirit and of course openness which she says is needed in every society. It is that ‘openness’ which she learned growing up- whether it was while sitting around the dinner table with her family and debating about ideas, or meeting people from all different walks of life at the parties her parents used to host - that has extended into her career as an educator.
Walcott-Hackshaw’s work in the beginning focused primarily on French Caribbean writers such as Gisele Pineau, Maryse Conde and Simone Schwarz-Bart, now she has chosen to focus on Haitian writing and on the country itself which fascinates her.
“Haiti is one of the richest islands for literature, for philosophy and for history. I have found that we don’t know enough about Haitian history and Haitian culture, I think the images we get on the screen tell a very small part of the story, even after the earthquake which was so devastating, there’s history and culture to be discovered by Caribbean people and I don’t think we do enough of that and I hope that changes,” she says.
Walcott-Hackshaw is doing her part through her publications and lectures to change people’s perception of Haiti, (which is generally less than favourable) and help them to appreciate the country’s rich cultural and historical heritage. However, she says a key to truly understanding a country and its people is through language which helps bridge gaps between cultures and that’s one of the reasons why she is so passionate about French.
“It’s so important to get past the language barrier, that’s what stops us from talking to other people, from reading people. A lot of Europeans speak three languages, why don’t we as Caribbean people speak three languages? I do believe that in the Caribbean we should be speaking English, French and Spanish, I don’t think we should limit ourselves, I don’t think there should be policies on one language or another. There should be a drive for us to become minimally bilingual or perhaps trilingual and that is how we start to bridge cultures,” says Walcott-Hackshaw.
“In the Caribbean, we need to read each other and understand each other a lot more, we look to North America and to Europe and this is good- we must never be too insular but we must never forget the riches we have in the Caribbean.”
Mrs B can be found online and at the Paper Based Bookshop at the Normandie Hotel, St Ann’s.