May 2017

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“I think writers like Selvon, Naipaul, Lovelace, they did certain things that allow us as the newer writers to do different things. We can start to be experimental and I’m seeing that happening here.”

Writer, creative writing tutor, playwright, literary activist, PhD student, Courttia Newland is a multiplicity of identities so it’s unsurprising that when he sat down to talk to UWI TODAY correspondent, Jeanette Awai, about his role as Department of Literary Cultural and Communication Studies’ (LCCS) Writer-in-Residence and featured speaker for their 19th annual Campus Literature Week, the conversation spanned the gamut from the Caribbean roots of the black British; to the celebratory confidence of UWI’s Creative Writing MFA students and why privileging the Shakespearean canon over contemporary writers of colour is much ado about nothing.

What has been your experience as this year’s Writer-in-Residence?

I wanted to wait and see in terms of what was going to happen. I’ve been to Trinidad before and had an idea of Trinidadian culture in London and what to expect, but I really wanted to know what Trinidadian culture is now. People are patriotic, but still exploring different ways of writing about being in Trinidad; it’s exciting times to be here. I think the Writing-in-Residence programme is pretty amazing. I don’t know many universities with this kind of programme, to be honest. I think the idea of having international writers coming in has been really beneficial for me – I’ve been writing my next novel, TV stuff for BBC and trying to work on a screenplay, all based in Britain. So the programme is excellent.

Your bio mentions you are British writer of Jamaican and Barbadian heritage, can you talk about your experience growing up in the UK?

The UK is filled with the children of Caribbean immigrants. When I was growing up, the UK didn’t claim Jamaican/Bajan duality or hybridity so I just thought I was Caribbean because I was raised in a Caribbean household; then I went to Barbados and realized I had an accent so maybe I am English? I decided to own it.

A lot of your work mentions the Caribbean, how is Caribbean literature received in the UK?

There’s a strong Trinidad-London connection, remember all the mainstays of the UK civil rights movement – Frank Critchlow, Darcus Howe, who recently passed, John La Rose – all Trinis. So black British culture is deeply rooted in Caribbean culture, it’s a fusion of what modern Britain is and was. Caribbean people run and ran everything from the working class and wider mainstream, even the music. In terms of the Caribbean literature scene, I think writers like Selvon, Naipaul, Lovelace, they did certain things that allow us as the newer writers to do different things. We can start to be experimental and I’m seeing that happening here. But, I think there needs to be more reading done. People are reading Caribbean literature, but there’s a whole other literature that has not been had. It’s a problem in England as well.

Do you want to elaborate?

There are so many writers outside of the Caribbean that should be read, Sarah Hall, Rupert Thompson, Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead. I’m really keen on getting writers of colour to read other writers of colour from all over the diaspora and making a concerted effort to read these guys as a matter of importance for your own craft.

We’re taught to privilege the traditional English canon and Shakespearean canon, but let’s look at what we did and what we’re doing. Shakespeare is relevant to me as a kind of faraway anchor, but he’s not really relevant to what I’m writing. But I believe there are people out here who have that level of intelligence and wordplay in their use of language; they’re alive! Just support that.

What kinds of issues or themes have you seen the MFA students grapple with?

What it means to be a Trinidadian now and the complexity of that. Which is not to say they are focused in a kind of a “who am I?” kind of identity, they’re more focused on “this is me” which is very different. This is my makeup, what I love. The writing I’ve been encountering is very celebratory. It needs to be nurtured and not taken for granted, going to a positive rather than a negative. Whereas in England, because the focus has been so much on narratives that are about identity and ability like we don’t know who we are, are we Caribbean, British, Nigerian, whatever; that’s led to people thinking that’s the way you articulate our culture and I find that strange, because I don’t feel that.

What advice would you have for your younger self as a writer?

Don’t use as many adverbs. (laughs). Just enjoy the process. When I was first published I was very lucky. I was published at 23 then I published another four books, but I was unhappy, I didn’t know who I was. I think I shouldn’t have been so afraid about losing myself because of that juxtaposition between where I was going and where I was coming from. I think I would have an easier time if I had just gone with it.

Do you think it’s possible to be a full-time writer?

I’ve been writing for 20 years as a full-time writer. It’s possible, I’ve done it. Have a safety net. Parents could be more encouraging about what nurtures people’s soul versus what nurtures their pockets, and if they can do that, they’d be much more likely to have happy kids.

What’s next for you?

Working on a collection of science fiction and short stories called “Cosmogramma” (title of the third album by the band Flying Lotus). It’s about African diaspora tales of speculative fiction, mainly British-based but some set in Barbados.