Ruel Johnson made history in 2002 when at 22 he became the youngest winner of the prestigious Guyana Prize for Literature. On September 15 he once again took the prize for his collection of stories, Fictions. Johnson says that he plans to use his recently launched publishing company, Janus Books, "to move the centre of regional publishing back to the region." He was in T&T in September. SHIVANEE RAMLOCHAN interviewed him about the prize and his work.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the Guyana Prize for Literature, twice! What would you say has changed in your approach to writing since your first receipt of the award?
A: I received the Best First Book award back then, while this time I won the Best Book of Fiction, which is probably an indicator I suppose of the development of the quality of the writing. I think my writing has become a great deal more intellectualised–which is not necessarily a good thing–and certainly the range of my influence has grown. I've discovered the work of David Foster Wallace, for example, and the tremendous genius he possessed.
Do you perceive the literary cultures of T&T and Guyana to be distinct entities?
Trinidad actually has a literary culture, whereas Guyana simply has a grand occasional literary prize and support for even that has been shaky in the past ten years. We have a governing party that is completely anti-intellectual, and to engage in literary activity locally is to place yourself effectively on their radar. Much of my time is spent in active defiance of that, in order that a fledgling literary culture can be established.
Fictions read as political invective, passionate interlude, memoir–it's a collection of several selves, perhaps. How far would you say these variegated elements of the work are reconcilable?
I'm not sure political invective is quite accurate, in that whereas my public correspondence has focused, often viscerally and harshly, on the quotidian political inanity that infects Guyana, my treatment of politics in the work itself is, I believe, far more nuanced.Granted, some of the characters–in Cumae, for example–show a marked disrespect for contemporary political characters, but the story itself serves as allegory to the ageless mechanics that drive the corruption, hubris and tribalism that is characteristic of our political leadership. As to how the various selves are reconcilable, they are as easily as they coexist in the writer. I'm a necessarily politically aware man who loves women and who on occasion has stuff to look back at in his life; for me it's inevitable that those passions and concerns are going to make it into my writing.
Some of the best art is confessional by nature: do you find it difficult to avoid autobiographical insertions in your writing?
The greater difficulty isn't in avoiding autobiographical elements; the greater difficulty is to consciously craft the raw ore of your life into fiction, to transmute the glaringly real into a thing of (hopefully) accomplished artifice. Fictions is largely a blatantly "autobiographical" work, yes, but people tend to confuse autobiography with "truth" in contradistinction to "fiction," and it isn't that simple. I consider myself a student of [Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis] Borges, and the title is partly in homage to his work, Ficciones, but also a reflection of a particular attitude to this dilemma of fiction versus biography, one that basically sees it as a false dilemma...If there is anything that can be read as confessional in Fictions, it has to be seen as a false confession, an artistic construct, because I am, as the title suggests, writing fiction.
To what extent do you think creative writing ought to function in an educational environment, and how do you see your own work in this context?
The well-meaning suggestion that I get from a great many people is that I should perhaps aim to get my work on the secondary schools curriculum, something I hope never happens because it would mean that a generation or two of our students would be asked to authoritatively pronounce on texts they can't reasonably be expected to understand.I don't believe creative writing should be produced to be studied, and I've seen how even tertiary level academia, particularly in Europe and North America, has skewed Caribbean writing towards these annoying and convenient areas of "scholarly analysis," a self-reinforcing machinery that the writers themselves become part of.I think how we view and create Caribbean writing needs to be reconstructed, and if my work can be pedagogical in any way, it is in helping our people to unlearn much of what we have come to expect from ourselves as "regional literature" over the past 50 years.
Have you any particular writing projects on the horizon?
With regard to literary work, I have a triptych of novellas that I hope to finish in about a year or two, as well as a play I should wrap up by year-end. My grand personal projects that I am focused on currently, however, are two screenplays that I intend to submit for the Nicholl Fellowship next year.