Oonya Kempadoo: The Workings of Magic

When Oonya Kempadoo walks into a room she brings along with her an indefectible pause. This might sound strange, almost deranged, but it’s true. It might be some sort of power, an old-time magic—though I doubt there’s anything malicious, or even deliberate about it. Most likely what it boils down to is what we commonly call “presence.” Oonya Kempadoo has a presence you cannot miss: she doesn’t walk, she glides; she doesn’t speak, she addresses you; she doesn’t fade into the background, either—she gets noticed. I’m talking of her physical presence, of course, but all of the above is true—and vigorously so—of her writing too.


It’s not as if she writes about anything new, unfamiliar, undiscovered. Quite the contrary, Kempadoo explores in her novels themes that are perfectly common to all of us—especially to all of us living in small Caribbean islands. Which makes it even more remarkable that her words, her notions and the tales that she weaves into her novels remain with us long after we have finished her books. Kempadoo builds small models of everyday life with careful detail, only to depict that which we know all too well in ways we had not envisaged before, or perhaps not quite thought through. There is an art to that, something akin to a craft but further infused with power, something spellbinding.


English of birth and of Guyanese-Indian descent, Kempadoo grew up in Guyana, where her parents moved back to in 1970. Small-town Guyana provides the setting for her first novel, Buxton Spice (Phoenix House, 1998), which unfolds in the fictional village of Tamarind Grove sometime after independence (1966). The novel mirrors with palpable dread the political impasse brought about by social fragmentation (or was it the other way around?) of a racially mixed community too concerned with their own differences to be able to identify a common good. But rather than spiraling into a dense analysis of historical causes and political altercations, Kempadoo chooses to tell her story through the eyes of Lula, a young girl from Indian descent who is in that confusing age where she begins to see the world outside differently, and where a different world is introduced to her through the discovery of her own sexuality.


Somewhat in the vein of Naipaul’s Miguel Street, Kempadoo’s first novel is a vivid portrait of a specific society in a given moment in time. Throughout the book there is a sense of expectancy, an almost inexorable but also ephemeral sense that all is about to change forever, that nothing will ever be the same. And of course, for Lula, entrenched in that no-man’s-land that is the period between childhood and adolescence, nothing will—but this feeling, a combination of intuited melancholy and excitement, transcends her story and seeps onto the country’s profile at large. Indeed, this might well be the foundational core of Buxton Spice, a novel without a plot, really, in which nothing of great note happens. Because Kempadoo is concerned, rather, with the mundane details of ordinary life, with the four madmen of Tamarind Grove, with the genip and the cherry and the dungs trees, the sweet and bitter tastes of her Caribbean home, with innocuous events that gain transcendence by virtue not of the effect they have on the world at large, on History, but rather of the direct impact they have on the lives of people.


The impact of individual events in the lives of the people affected is again central to Kempadoo’s second novel, Tide Running (Picador, 2001). Desire is again part of the core foundations of Kempadoo’s novel, although more as the circumstantial trigger of the crisis than as the guiding concern of the story. Tide Running is about a mixed couple living in Tobago who is attracted to a pair of young local brothers, Cliff and Ossi. The couple engages in a loose sexual relationship with Cliff, who happens to be a criminal in the making. If Tide Running has a tighter plot that Buxton Spice it lacks the latter’s inebriating complexity—the lush landscape of Tamarind Grove is mirrored in the young Tobagonian’s attachment to the sea, but where trees and fruits and flavors crowd Lula’s world in 1970s Guyana, Tobago in the ’90s is rather less romantically constructed through the influence of TV shows and American blockbusters. And yet Kempadoo’s literature is all about tradeoffs: the world inside Tide Running might be simpler than that in Buxton Spice, but the narrative voice telling the story splits halfway through, looking at the events that unfold from the perspective of Cliff, the beautiful Tobagonian, and Bella, the Trinidadian married woman who is fatefully attracted to him.


Inevitably, as the affair evolves problems come to the surface: problems connected to Bella’s level of involvement, to Peter’s levels of self-confidence, to their relationship outside of this affair. Many of these critical questions, however, are left to linger unresolved as the cataclysm that provides the twist to the plot is played out: money goes missing in the couple’s house, they suspect SC, a friend visiting from Trinidad, the police arrest Cliff, and everything goes to the dogs. Kempadoo is careful—self-consciously so—not to cast judgment or drive her readers to rash conclusions, softly treading around a delicate issue and opening an interpretative can of worms, from social exclusion and disenfranchisement as the root causes of crime, to a commentary of the class divide in Tobago or the irresponsible attitude of foreigners, who seem to forget everything they learned elsewhere in life when they come to live in comparably safe islands. Unfortunately, Kempadoo’s unwillingness to stick to one of these and explore it fully means that the novel fails to offer definitive answers to an uncomfortable situation, leaving instead an equally uncomfortable silence where another fifty pages might have benefited the book’s authorial voice.


In this sense, Kempadoo’s latest novel, All Decent Animals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) is also her most ambitious and accomplished. Despite the twelve-year pause separating Tide Running and All Decent Animals, there are clear parallels between the two: many of the characters in the earliest novel come back in her latest, either openly, such as Small Clit (SC), or thinly disguised, like Peter, the English corporate lawyer, who becomes Pierre, a UN director, and Bella, Peter’s younger Trini photographer wife, who becomes Atalanta, Ata for short, a strong-willed creative mind engaged in a relationship with the older Pierre. Similarly, a break-in in All Decent Animals brings echoes of the fear for crime present in Tide Running. As a matter of fact, there’s even instances in which the gadgets and technology used seem to displace All Decent Animals a decade backward: offhanded allusions to cassettes or VCRs, which to be sure could be there to emphasize the multiplicity of temporal frames interacting simultaneously in Trinidad, somehow feel like they are debris from previous drafts. Which is not to say that this is a pre- or sequel to Tide Runningnot at all: like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in say, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, these two are similar casts in altogether different movies.


Different in the treatment, different in the feeling, different in the depth of their explorations. All Decent Animals is an adult novel about pain and grief, about unexpected crises and the particular ways in which each person resolves them—in short, about life at its hardest. Imbued in the suffocating stress of pre-carnival season in Trinidad, Ata struggles to cope with the demands placed on her at work—developing the costume of the island’s most notorious designer—at home—navigating through the friction that has come to punctuate her four-year relationship with Pierre—and, most importantly, at the usually safe haven of her friendship with Fraser, her beloved but difficult architect friend who has been diagnosed with AIDS.


All Decent Animals daringly explores some of the dark corners of our behavior, both individually and as a society, which usually tend to be overlooked or disregarded due to extreme mitigating circumstances. Like in Tide Running, Kempadoo stops short from casting judgment, but the questions she raises in All Decent Animals resonate with the terse of sound of guilt. Rather than looking at social patterns in general, she explores in detail the sometimes selfish, sometimes incoherent, sometimes simply instinctive reactions of individuals with widely disparate backgrounds in her novel, thus dispelling the notion that we are all guilty in the same measure (if we’re all guilty, no one individual is more guilty than the other) and questioning instead particular attitudes, all problematic, all intensely human. Consequently, All Decent Animals is a novel in which there are no good or bad characters, there is no hero, of course, but what is more unsettling still is that there are no possible heroes, either—like in life, I guess.


Reading All Decent Animals is not easy, not only because it confronts us with realities we might prefer to escape. It is a book full of beauty and of passion—you can sense at every turn that this was harder for Kempadoo to write than it is for us to read. It is crafted with full aesthetic purpose and with a deliberate desire to acknowledge previous influences—from Lovelace to Calasso and Naipaul, from calypso to carnival costumes. But most of all, it is written with courage.


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Indeed, if Oonya Kempadoo is anything, she is a brave writer: she is undaunted by the prospect of facing familiar stories and revels in the challenge of turning stones that aren’t meant for turning. That’s why, that’s how, the familiar patterns she tends to weave end up catching us by surprise in a fit of enrapture. If you ask me, I think there’s a bit of witchcraft involved in that, but maybe that’s just me.




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