Robin, as he is called, is this year’s Writer-in-Residence at the UWI’s Faculty of Humanities and Education (FHE), where he works with students of the MFA in Creative Writing programme.
It seems the seeds of a writer’s stuff were planted in a very young Robin, long before he knew they were there. His first 10 years were spent in Tableland, South Trinidad, before he went to live with relatives in Naparima. This may have been the life-giving drop of water.
“I didn’t realise it then,” he says, but, “that was an important thing for me as a writer, because it started this kind of dislocation, this period when I started to miss the village and I started to think – not that I knew that I wanted to write then – what [was it] about the village was I missing? And I started thinking about the characters and bits of the scenery and stuff like that.”
It was years later, as a sixth-form student at Naparima College, that Robin knew he was destined to be a writer. “I was fascinated by the way some of the writers we were studying,” like Lawrence Durrell, “would create a sort of magic for me, through their description and their stories … I wanted to create this … magic.”
Following the path of conventional education, after high school, he came to The UWI, St Augustine Campus, where he earned his BA in English and History, MA in English and Diploma of Education.
“I wasn’t too interested in academic stuff,” because he knew what he wanted to do with his life. “I started writing, surreptitiously, quietly, because at that point … writing was not a profession that people announced publicly.”
Without a writing programme, such as the MFA, or even writing classes, Robin learned techniques on his own.
“I started to read books a little bit differently. I started to look at the narrative choices that writers make … for instance, why is this writer stopping at this chapter? Why is he using this description? I started to read [flawed] books too … and I learnt just as much from these books, because I would then start to think, how would I write this? How would I improve this? So my process of learning to write was from reading really.”
He eventually created a series of short stories, “but it was a private fantasy then.” That is, until he had an early glimpse into what his life could turn into if he didn’t live his dream. In his mid-20s, while teaching at a high school in Rio Claro, he “met a lot of older folks,” who would repeatedly boast of unfulfilled ambitions, “and I started thinking about myself 20, 30 years down the line, telling younger folks, I could have been a writer”.
Encouragement from a few of his university lecturers solidified the idea. In his mid-30s, he decided to “leave Trinidad to write” since, “there weren’t any opportunities here.”
The University of New Brunswick in Canada accepted him into their MA Writing programme. Within a year he was done, and “thankfully, my creative writing dissertation became my first book.” His dean had spoken to a publisher about his dissertation, a collection of short stories, and one week before he was to leave Canada to return home, a publisher called to ask if they could publish it.
Six months later, The Interlopers was about to be published and he was asked to return to Canada for the occasion. The book “did very well,” he says; it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1996. His second book, also his first novel, Homer in Flight, was published soon after and this was also shortlisted for a literary prize: the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1998.
Random House picked up on him after that and today, Robin has eight novels and books of short stories, some of which have been nominated for and won various literary prizes (most recent is The Amazing Absorbing Boy, winner of the Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Book Award in 2011).
As Writer-in-Residence at UWI, he is at the helm of a tightly-knit group of new writers hoping to enter the literary world. When he was in Trinidad for last year’s Bocas Lit Fest, many young writers had sought his advice.
“I began to feel that there was a new recognition of writing and of writers.”
He met up with Professor Funso Aiyejina, Dean of the FHE and a founding director of the Bocas Lit Fest, “and I felt that this would be a great way for me to come back to Trinidad to share … a bit of my experience, a bit of my process … I think that this whole idea of a Writer-in-Residence couldn’t have come any earlier and the fact that it’s here, it’s a great thing.”
He cautions would-be writers, however, “this is not a glamorous profession, so don’t get in because you believe that you’re going to make a lot of money.” You also “have to be curious about the world. You have to constantly write. Writing, like almost every other skill … only gets better through practice, so you have to write as much as possible.”
Serah Acham is one of the students doing the MFA in Creative Writing programme at UWI St. Augustine. Rabindranath Maharaj brought the Campus Literature Week to a close with a gala reading on March 22.