March 2010

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The journey of the word


Moving from Tobago to Trinidad was the biggest event of M. NourbeSe Philip’s childhood, but it was when she went to Canada that her career as a writer took off. Philip graduated from The UWI in 1968 with a degree in Economics, practised law in Canada for seven years before devoting herself to writing: poetry, novels, plays, short stories.

As the guest writer at the 2010 Campus Literature Week at The UWI, Philip attended readings and closed the week with a reading on March 5. She feels that the Literature Week is “exciting” and that literature is a good investment at every level. She spoke with Serah Acham on her journey as a writer.

You’ve said that your switch from practising law to writing was a surprise to you most of all. Why was this?

Simply, and maybe not so simply, because when I was growing up here in Trinidad and Tobago a career in writing was not something that anybody entertained and certainly parents weren’t thinking of anything like that for their children. You would come down the hierarchy, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, the civil service, you know? That was what every parent wanted best for their children. That’s what they were aspiring to, so certainly a life of writing was not something we thought of or that we were even encouraged to get into, so that was why I said that it was a big surprise for me.

Today when I come here and see students doing an MFA in writing, it’s really encouraging in the sense that change is possible.

When did you start writing?

I started writing in terms of writing with a view to publishing probably in the late seventies. While I was practicing law I published two books of poetry. I had been keeping a journal for several years before that. That was a more personal thing, but certainly writing with a view to thinking maybe somebody might be interested in what I have to say—it would be the late seventies.

How would you describe your journey as a writer?

It has been difficult. It has been very difficult in Canada because the first thing that comes to mind in my case is when I was writing, which as I say was in the late seventies, eighties, Canada was still overtly Eurocentric. I say overtly because I still think it is Eurocentric today although there is a more public discourse about multiculturalism and so on. As a woman from the Caribbean writing in Toronto, there were no elders. There were no models that we could look to, to pattern ourselves on in terms of writing, so there is a sense in which people like myself who are from Trinidad, Dionne Brand, Claire Harris, and others from other islands, we actually were almost creating the tradition as we were writing in terms of, you know, when we began writing, in the seventies and eighties.

Certainly I can’t say that there was an embrace by the Canadian culture—if not open hostility, perhaps indifference. So it has been a struggle in that respect. Perhaps a different kind of struggle than would have taken place here and then also the fact that I’m female and what that meant. Now, I think one factor in North America that accounted for what I just told you was the feminist movement. And the feminist movement certainly was engaged in many debates around race and racism and issues around how to be more all-encompassing in terms of women from different backgrounds: African women, South Asian women, first nation women, and so on. So that would have been counter to what I was just talking about in terms of the indifference of the mainstream Eurocentric tradition. There was a lot of contestation, a lot of debate going on in the feminist movement but it certainly was somewhere at least where you felt that you could engage with some of those issues.

Do you think it would have been easier here?

No. I don’t think so necessarily. I think it would have been a different kind of struggle. But you have writers here, like Merle Hodge or Pearl Eintou Springer and so on, who have published here. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a lot of women writers. I think it’s because you have to have another source of income because you really can’t sustain yourself writing. It probably meant that I would have had to have gotten a job at the university or doing something else and once you have a job and you have a family and so on, all those demands call for time. You only have so much time in any day. It would have been a different kind of struggle perhaps. Being further away from your matrix gives you a certain kind of perspective, but it also puts you at a distance from it. Being closer, the positive aspect of that is that you’re really immersed in the culture, but then sometimes there’s more resistance within the culture if you want to push things. I think there are benefits and disadvantages on both sides.

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

I would say sometime around the seventies when I began writing and thinking, in a very tentative way, “oh, you know, maybe I have something to say that somebody might be interested in.”

I was always interested in reading. I read voraciously as a child in Belmont, in Tobago, but no, I can’t say I always wanted to be a writer. I have an essay, “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy” and, if anything, probably wanting to be a spy was much more real because as I say, writing wasn’t on the horizon for anybody, and I used to read books about World War II and people spying for England. There’s a way in which I think writing does entail spying because you’re always observing gestures, what people are saying, stories they’re telling and so on. So I think there’s a sense in which I did become a spy.

What is most challenging about being a writer?

What’s most challenging I think is earning an income—if you’re doing it in the way that I have tried to do it for the last few years—which is freelancing. I have taught at universities for as long as five years at a time, but I don’t have a permanent position there and, so not having financial stability is, I think, the most challenging thing.

Is there any recurring subject or theme that you like to focus on in your writing?

Language. Language in all of its manifestations. What do I mean by language? I think what intrigues me is the fact that for many of us, particularly African people in the Caribbean, we lost our languages and historically there was the intent to split different linguistic groups, split up the groups so that they couldn’t talk to each other, they couldn’t work together to revolt and so on. There was this deliberate destruction of one’s linguistic heritage and coming out of that you have this, what I call mother tongue English which is also a father tongue in the sense that it is the language of oppression, domination, empire, all those things. And we have to master this language, literally to prove that we are as good as our former owners and oppressors, so starting from that, exploring issues of what language do we use in writing. Do we use Standard English? Do we use the vernacular? Is that a language? Will people want to hear it? So language in all those permutations, you know? And how do I work with that? What language do I work in? Do I work in the vernacular? That can affect market. Because if you write something in the vernacular, the publisher might feel that it’s not going to sell. You want something that’s more Standard English.

The interesting thing about English is that English is itself a vernacular language. It’s a mixture of Celtic, French, Anglo-Saxon words, German words and so on. You have different kinds of English. In the last couple of decades there’s much more acknowledgement of what people call pidgin patois and people have been writing in it now, so all those issues fascinate me. What happens, or certainly what happened to me, is that the issue chooses you and then you’re condemned to keep rehearsing it, exploring it from different vantage points.


I remember Austin Clarke working feverishly, in his room at the Caribbean Lodge, on what would become the prize-winning Polished Hoe. His computer had crashed just before he came to Trinidad and he was painfully reconstructing part of the manuscript. He was way past his delivery date and his publisher was breathing down his back….

At the end of the 11th edition of Campus Literature Week, Professor Funso Aiyejina, continues his description of its birth and the first decade of its life (1999-2009) under his stewardship.

Part II: The Writers Who Came