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Rabindranath Maharaj Stepping back, drawing closer
Shivanee Ramlochan an interview with UWI writer-in-residence Rabindranath Maharaj
The idea of returning to T&T for a time to work and share knowledge as an established writer came to Rabindranath Maharaj when he took part in last year’s Bocas Lit Fest in Port-of-Spain. This year’s writer-in-residence at UWI, St Augustine, Maharaj explains that this job entails discussions with masters of fine arts (MFA) students and a weekly workshop on their stories. It also extends to students and individuals not currently in the MFA programme who also have a serious interest in becoming full-time writers.
The writer-in-residence programme culminates annually in Campus Literature Week, an entire week devoted to the written and spoken word, which runs from March 18-22 this year.
Born and raised in Trinidad, Maharaj left for Canada in the early 1990s. Currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, he has also served as a writer-in-residence at the Toronto Reference Library.
Maharaj’s books have been finalists for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award; and the Rogers Fiction Award. His most recent novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, won the 2011 Trillium Book Award for English-language fiction, as well as the 2011 Toronto Book Award. In 2012, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Nalis, and this year, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his services to Canadian arts and culture. Despite his long list of accolades, Maharaj cautions against becoming wrapped up in the cult of celebrity. An obsession with literary fame, he adds, usually gets in the way of the actual work.
Writing itself, Maharaj says, is usually done in isolation. This was one of the driving reasons for his emigration to Canada 25 years ago. There was a dearth of true literary apprenticeship, and the vocation of being a writer was more widely scorned, or thought of as an idle amusement, a profession of “nothingness,” the author says. One of the considerations that vastly encouraged Maharaj to return to Trinidad and take up the writer-in-residence position was the new, emergent Caribbean literature. “There are serious writers who are beginning to understand the craft and process of writing, and whose motive for writing is to share a particular view of the society,” Maharaj says, casting his ballot in favour of writers in T&T and the region who are dedicated to this mode of creation. Conversely, would-be writers who aspire only to “express themselves” ought not to force their work on the public. “That sort of thing is usually best left for private diaries,” Maharaj says frankly.
His advice to fledgling writers he’s encountered here and in Canada? “This is not a glamorous profession; you have to enjoy writing, because there are days when the writing itself is going to go bad,” he says. He elaborates, too, on the dangers inherent in waiting for inspiration. “If you do that,” Maharaj says with a chuckle, “the book is going to take ten years to complete.” He strives to complete the first draft of each of his novels within a year. Writers, Maharaj believes, have the professional calling to help define a place with more clarity and creativity than perhaps any other group of people. What, then, are the advantages of writing about Trinidad while not inhabiting it? Perspective, Maharaj responds, can grow the further away you get from your place of origin. “When you step back from something, you’re able to see little angles and sides of it that you otherwise wouldn’t have, if you remained too close.”
His writing habits and the style of his novels would have been quite different and perhaps more erratic had he remained in Trinidad, he says. Living and working in Canada meant he could address issues and concerns of Trinidadian society while not being actively mired in its beauty and complexity. Maharaj expresses admiration for those writers who have made the conscious decision to remain in T&T while writing about the society, notably Earl Lovelace and Michael Anthony. “It’s difficult to understand how they do it,” he admits, sharing that he has not written any new material since returning as UWI’s writer-in-residence, because of the responsibilities and schedule the position entails. Maharaj’s view of support for the arts under this or any other government is grim. He stresses that his criticism is not politically motivated, but to him it is clear there is a distressing lack of funding and recognition for cultural and creative ventures.
It is ironic, he adds, that “one of the best ways for foreigners to know the countries they visit… is by reading the work of its writers.” This is an imbalance in priorities that Maharaj hopes will be addressed by the initiatives of programmes such as the MFA at UWI, and the Bocas Lit Fest. Maharaj’s most recently completed creative project is a film script, co-authored with acclaimed T&T-Canadian actor Errol Sitahal, entitled Crabman and Sandbird. He’s currently finishing up a full-length novel set in a madhouse where “the psychiatrist is a fraud but still winds up curing the most patients.” Asked whether writers retire, Maharaj responds that while some may do, he certainly has no plans in that direction. “I can’t do anything else.”
Rabindranath Maharaj will read from The Amazing Absorbing Boy at UWI’s Campus Literature Week Gala Reading and Closing Ceremony on March 22 from 7 pm at the Learning Resource Centre, St Augustine. It is free and open to the public. More information about Rabindranath Maharaj and his books may be found at the author’s frequently-updated Web site, http://rmaharaj.wordpress.com/
About the Author
Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of five full-length novels, as well as three short-story collections. He has also written radio plays for Canada’s English-language radio service, CBC Radio. In 2011, his most recent novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, was long-listed for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Published in 2010 by Alfred A Knopf Canada, The Amazing Absorbing Boy launched the already prolific Maharaj into the spotlight of the Canadian literary scene. The novel is described by Canadian writer Steven Galloway as “an immigrant’s tale unlike any we’ve been told… a book Canadians have been waiting a long time to read.”
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