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The art of the fictional biography
Sunday, November 25, 2012
How does a writer create the imagined life of a famous historical figure? Lawrence Scott, whose 2012 novel, Light Falling on Bamboo, is a fictional exploration of Michel Jean Cazabon’s life, explains that this kind of writing isn’t an exact science, but that it guarantees a great deal of research no matter what slant the book takes.
Cazabon, celebrated as Trinidad’s first visual artist to be globally recognised for his work, was a prolific painter. His landscape scenes have become part of the T&T creative spirit, even if he is less of a household name than those who have come after him. Despite this, very little is recorded about the facts of Cazabon’s personal, daily life, either from historians and biographers of the time, or from the artist himself.
The reader who approaches Light Falling on Bamboo will not find a historically precise work of non-fiction, but this, Scott explains, was never an intention. The book is literary fiction, examining the interior life of its characters. Indeed, it was the very lack of available information on Cazabon that helped inspire Scott’s initial research and the years of planning that followed it. “Here was someone fascinating,” the writer reflects, “about whom so few specifics were known, outside of his art, his studies abroad…he needed to be given a life.”
According to the waves of acclaim that welcomed the British launch of the novel by its publishers, Tindal Street Press, the novel has done a remarkable job on all counts. Scott himself is thrilled by Earl Lovelace’s description of Light Falling on Bamboo. Lovelace hails it as an “intimate, compassionate portrait of 19th century Trinidad,” one that “presents a gripping tale of a world burdened by its secrets and exposed by its art.”
The author muses that “all novels are, of course, imagined lives,” but he agrees that those rooted in historical detail demand great time, energy and resources to finish. Light Falling on Bamboo is Scott’s fourth novel, but marks an interesting first in his career, since it is the first of those four to be written entirely in Trinidad. Scott says writing the novel outside of Trinidad would have created an entirely different reading experience. For that reason, and in seeking to capture the essence of a T&T of yesteryear, residing here for the three-year duration of the first draft was non negotiable.
This three-year period occurred from 2006-2009, and was funded by the Senior Research Fellowship at the Academy for Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs. The fellowship, granted by the University of Trinidad and Tobago, was strongly supported by former associate provost Prof Kenneth Ramchand. In Scott’s words, it allowed him the real luxury of being financed to concentrate fully on the novel’s creation.
A series of readings and panel discussions were scheduled to follow the November 21 book launch at Nalis, beginning with yesterday’s presentation at Paper Based Bookstore in St Ann’s. On November 27, at 6 pm, at Naparima College, San Fernando, Scott will talk with historian Angelo Bissessarsingh about Cazabon’s ties to south Trinidad.
At UWI’s Centre for Language Learning on November 28, at 6 pm, the conversation will focus on the work as a creation of literature guided by history. Finally, Cazabon the artist will be under the lens at the talk hosted at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook, on November 29, at 7 pm. In this concluding panel, Scott will discuss Cazabon’s art and legacy with Geoffrey MacLean, a Cazabon expert.
Scott hopes that these talks will serve to truly illuminate the various aspects of the novel. Light Falling on Bamboo is not solely a fictional portrait of Michel Jean Cazabon: it is a work devoted to capturing the feelings and struggles of an entire age in our nation’s history, a motivation that Scott earnestly looks forward to discussing and debating.
Books of this nature, Lawrence Scott emphasises, are appreciated for their true ambitions when they are allowed to stand alongside historical figures. “I am not striving to rewrite history,” he says with a smile, “but to amplify its voice.”