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Biswas House revisited
“On a sultry afternoon in St James,” as doyen of Caribbean Literature, Emeritus Professor Ken Ramchand put it in his laconic introduction, one of the region’s iconic sites hosted its first public event.
Aficionados of VS Naipaul’s arguably greatest book, A House for Mr Biswas, were on Wednesday welcomed to the humble family home of the Naipaul dynasty, which figures just as prominently in that classic as Tulsi/Lion House in Chaguanas casts its gloom over the struggling, forever endearing protagonist Mohun.
Seepersad Naipaul, whose dreams of literary fame were realised by the next two generations of his family, must surely have been smiling at the afternoon’s proceedings.
There’s a photo in the living room which captured the shy braggadocio his first son Vidia immortalised in the character of Mohun Biswas—a fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, shadowing eyes both mischievous and vulnerable; his raised jacket collar casual yet stylish, suggesting a thinking man’s saga boy.
Seepersad would have smiled firstly to see the house at 26 Nepaul Street, which had brought him a much needed measure of independence from his domineering in-laws, so meticulously restored, particularly as it now looks far more comfortable than the vikivie construction of the novel.
And then what better reason for delighted amusement than to see his grandson Neil Bissoondath deflecting and deflating the mystique of writing, in similar style but far more empathy than his illustrious uncle Vidia, that notorious scourge of fools and vapid questions.
This felicitous joint venture between the Friends of Mr Biswas (the NGO responsible for the restoration of Mohun’s dreamhouse and its metamorphosis into “a home for writers and the Arts,” a mini Naipaul museum) and the Bocas Lit Fest, commenced with Bissoondath’s earliest memories of the house and its inhabitants.
In a heavily Canadian-inflected accent (because he’s lived much longer there than here), Bissoondath recalled an aunt (herself a mere toddler) who attempted to carry the infant writer downstairs, but tripped halfway, jettisoning him to save herself.
Other recalls include the family dog Boopi and the night of Independence, with ships sounding foghorns in the harbour, cars blaring on the streets.
Also more significantly, he recalls how impressed he was as a ten-year-old when visiting his grandma and aunts on Nepaul Street to see Uncle Vidia’s books on the shelves and the realisation they brought that “he made his living from writing” and that this could be a viable alternative to the usual doctor/lawyer career. Right then and there he decided to become a writer.
Born in 1955 and educated at St Mary’s College, Port-of-Spain, Bissoondath left Trinidad for Toronto in 1973 “looking for adventure.”
As a writer he spurns labels “attaching a nationality limits readers’ reception”; additionally he insists that people (as do countries) evolve and part of his own evolution was putting down roots in Canada, which he considers home, rather than Trinidad.
After dismissing a reference to Edward Said’s concept of ‘exilic consciousness’, his real bomb de resistance came with a straight-faced statement that when he begins a novel “I have nothing to say”, and that “I don’t plan anything.”
One could sense a tremor rippling through the ranks of the literati, but Bissoondath tempered the trauma de salon by explaining: “I write to find the answer to questions” and “All my fiction begins with a character and a scene.”
Refreshingly, in a cultural landscape where “creative writing” courses and workshops encourage the often false belief that writing is a talent which can be taught, Bissoondath emphasised a lesson he’d learned from his Nobel winning uncle: “The only way to learn how to write is by writing.”
Although he himself has been teaching (in French) creative writing at Laval University, Quebec City, for the past ten years, he’s convinced “there are two things every writer must do—read and write.”
He suggested that studying literature (rather than reading), may actually be more of a hindrance than a help to the aspiring writer: “Usually you have to forget what you learnt in literature classes to be able to write; studying and writing literature are two different worlds.”
His own modus scribendi might lead to the asylum, rather than to a publishing contract in some places: “Women’s voices often come to me; I grew up surrounded by strong women; the aunts and grandmothers infiltrated my imagination; the whole idea of subservient women was alien to our family.” He is by his own admission “an instinctive not an intellectual writer” as “you don’t write with intellect but guts.”
Further revelations certainly endeared him to those in the packed audience who share his visceral, imagination-driven method rather than the strictly cerebral approach.
“I have no agenda; that’s like putting on manacles; I leave the ideas to my characters.”
In concluding, Bissoondath spoke about his latest work—a 1,000-page novel which took seven years to write “after 27 years of research.”
Based in fifteenth century Spain, the novel was a natural development of his passion for the country, and his interest as a born Trini in the origins of the New World project.
Like his previous six novels and the short stories of his two collections, this Spanish saga began with characters—Ferdinand and Isabella.
Again, it is these characters and others surrounding them who help to provide answers to many of his own questions.
As an inaugural event Naipaul House could not have done better. The Friends of Mr Biswas are promising year-round events, at a venue which could rival Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage or Hemingway’s suite in Havana’s Ambos Mundos hotel as a world literary heritage site.