Whenever I get approached about anything connected to writing—be it a new project or a bit of advice—my first question tends to be “who is the reader”. Obvious as it might seem, the persons likely to be reading a piece contribute a key element in the shaping of that piece long before they even have the chance to read it. Almost inevitably, though, the profile of readers is diverse and sometimes even contrary, lending one piece to multiple, variable and occasionally unkind interpretations. I was fortunate enough to know this in advance with The Night of the Rambler, although this has in no way prepared me to predict the response from its different readerships.
The Rambler is purposely told with an authoritative voice that constantly warns the reader that this story is not actually true. I would never have guessed that these warnings would be universally disregarded to the point where the book would be firmly labelled a historical novel, which reminds me of that old Venezuelan saying, no hay peor sordo que el que no quiere escuchar (no one’s as deaf as s/he who does not want to hear a thing). I expected this to be the case in Anguilla, however, where the story is so close to home that people, families, friends and gossipers at large would want to align fiction with fact—whatever that may be.
Because the storyline veers away from Anguilla for much of the novel, this potential alignment has been pinned down to the characters, the majority of which are, however, just little green men running inside my mind. This is where the resilience of curiosity and the unwillingness to accept the words of the author as true has struck me as extraordinary. Not that I blame anyone for questioning my integrity: someone—I can’t recall who, and it doesn’t matter anyway—once said there is no such thing as a good writer and a bad liar, and I’m not saying I’m a good writer, but you’ve got to start somewhere!
Recently I was reading from The Night of the Rambler in the 3rd Anguilla Literary Festival when I was asked about a particular review published in a local magazine. A few lines into the piece the “unfortunate” circumstance of the novel’s characters being out of sync with Anguilla’s reality is highlighted and immediately softened with the reassuring fact that “after a few pointers you’ll be able to think of them by more familiar nomenclature.” To me, this emphasises the importance of empathy in fiction writing. People in Anguilla need to identify the characters that carry out the familiar actions—taught in school, told time and again by the elders of the families—that take place in The Night of the Rambler, to the point where deliberate character traits will be dismissed just because a circumstantial feat carried out by one character on the page corresponds with a version of the way some events took place in some person’s in real life (whatever that may be). In other words, if people can’t picture who is carrying out the action, they simply don’t care about what is happening. (Mental note: bear that in min next time!)
Another issue that has been raised repeatedly in Anguilla in relation to the novel is the notion of appropriation of history: who is this white boy (or who does he think he is) to come and claim ownership of our history, of our heritage, of our tradition, past glories and accomplishments. This is a subject I feel deeply passionate about and I tackled consciously, purposely and perhaps even controversially in The Night of the Rambler. History belongs to no one but s/he who writes it, s/he who claims it, s/he who embraces it. If history is written by the victors, then (that) history belongs to them. But the defeated can—must—write their own history. History can be shaped at will, manipulated, even revised. This happens all the time, and I’m not talking about what goes on in North Korea. History is nothing more than a story: an important story, a transcendental story, a story that must survive to be effective, but a story nonetheless, and as such it must be adapted to the needs of a certain people at a specific moment in time. To me, the absolute notion of History is nothing short of a fantasy, like the Ether or Ptolemaic spheres.
I have wilfully distorted, corrupted and all but abused a key episode of Anguilla’s history for the purpose of placing the ambitions and the frustrations of the most neglected of people in consonance with the ambitions and frustrations of a larger region where, unfortunately, prejudice and bigotry prevail over common sensibilities. Anguillians are understandably disgruntled by my imprudence, but if just a handful of readers take The Night of the Rambler seriously enough to ask themselves why I have done this, I will consider my job done.
Published in Akashic’s website on July 16 2014.