When Keith Jardim says, “The writer needs to present the world that is here. If he can’t do it, then he shouldn’t or should learn how,” you might think of a stern, pedantic type—the sort of instructor you wouldn’t want grading your term papers. In conversation with this award-winning author of Near Open Water, one realises that the opposite is true. He was frankly elated the book was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Fiction, he reflects, as he sits in a coffeehouse on the grey-skied Friday before the August 11 book launch at Paper Based Bookshop in the Normandie Hotel, St Ann’s. A particular pleasure, this Kuwait-based lecturer adds, was sharing longlist space with another short-story collection, Merle Collins’ The Ladies are Upstairs. When pressed on what makes short fiction resonate so deeply with him, the answer is instantaneous, reassured, brimming with conviction that speaks to a life as much characterised by a reader’s appreciation of phenomenal writing as it is by a writer’s dedication to producing phenomenal work. “I do like the short story form very, very much. I love reading them. I think there’s a lot you can do with a short story, and that some short stories are better than novels, once they have that breadth and that length...there’s so much that can be put into them, if the writer is good.”
His book, published by Peepal Tree Press last December, holds 12 stories. They flow with such seeming effortlessness into one another that it comes as a revelation of sorts that Jardim took painstaking care with their arrangement. Some of the stories were chiefly composed in the 1990s, a period of the nation’s history that held special significance for the writer. The reason the book’s publication took several years, he explains, was a matter of decisions: deciding which of his books to finish first, and choosing the particular stories that would best suit this collection’s tone and theme. “Seeing what happened in Trinidad in the 90s . . . the violence, especially, was something that really got to me. I found it traumatic, quite honestly.” Faced with the natural follow-up question to this, Jardim freely admits that yes, writing upsetting stories is troubling for the writer, too—at least, it has been for him. His tears have been shed, and yet his unremitting desire to write about what’s important has persisted. Writing has long been one of Jardim’s principal passions, though, he admits, laughing in mild self-deprecation, initially the idea of being a painter held the most appeal. Visual artistry remains embedded at the core of the work he’s chosen. “I write because I can paint that way; I paint with words.”
He pauses, hands spread slightly as if to indicate the vastness of what this endeavour signifies. English professor Lois Parkinson Zamora attests, beneath the book’s blurb, that “the sense of place is fabulous, interweaving vistas of landscape and seascape, local fauna and flora, architecture, politics, inhabitants, history… all of which creates an atmosphere of longing and despair.” Something that exemplary writers do, Jardim stresses, is “this paying attention to the world you live in, the physical world, the natural world. It’s very important to get it right, to pay it the respect it deserves, along with its living creatures.” His own stories follow in the literary tradition of prose and poetry masters such as those he lists with admiration: Lovelace, Walcott, Rhys, Naipaul, Selvon, Lessing, as well as Lawrence Scott and Jamaica Kincaid. It’s clear that Jardim, a professor of English literature and creative writing at Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait, isn’t compelled to rest on his considerable laurels. In addition to the Bocas Prize longlist achievement, they include a James Michener Fellowship, the Paul Bowles Fiction Award, a C Glenn Cambor Fellowship and a profusion of publication credits in regional and international literary journals. He’s in the process of writing a novel, as well as consolidating a second collection of short fiction. The allure of a second novel beckons on the horizon, too. It seems unlikely that the innate curiosity and love for people and places that fuel his writing will ever be complacently filed away.