Trinidadian author Lawrence Scott. Photo Copyright © by Ryan Durgasingh.
“If crab don’t walk, he won’t get fat.” Old Bajan Proverb
AND HOW TRUE this is. In April last year, I attended the 4è Congrès des Ecrivains de la Caraïbe in Guadeloupe. It was my first time at this gathering of regional writers, and I eagerly reviewed information online about the congrès, its events and mission, and those attending. There were a number of writers I had never met, let alone heard of. One of them was Lawrence Scott.
While connecting here at Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados, from where I was departing, I was introduced to Scott and his wife Jenny, who also writes, by their travelling companion, the novelist Oonya Kempadoo. Oonya I knew—we had become friendly over the years of her being in and out of Barbados for one conference or another—but I couldn’t place Scott.
We shook hands and appraised each other, heads visibly tilted to a side. “I feel I should know you,” he said upon being told my name. “You’re familiar to me, too,” I said, shaking his hand. Later, arrived in Guadeloupe and studying the congrès’ programme, it hit me: we were probably recalling each other’s photos from their website.
I would not be properly acquainted with Scott’s work—or that of a number of other writers, French, English and Creole—until after the congrès. Although I had started to read Vladimir Lucien’s Sounding Ground on the flight in, I went on to buy new (and old) books by Joël Des Rosiers, Ruel Johnson, Montague Kobbé, John Robert Lee, and Elizabeth Nunez at the salon du livre.
It’s always a pleasure and a wonder to have your corner of the world, in this case the Caribbean, more specifically Scott’s, open itself to you. In a few words, his Trinidad is flirtatious, polyphonic, conflicted, conflicting, violent, yet nurturing and funny and hopeful. Scott read from his latest story collection, Leaving by Plane, Swimming Back Underwater (Papillote Press, 195pp, paperback, 2015), during a marathon session of what sometimes felt like dozens of writers speaking in tongues. I acquired a copy from him the next day. As it goes with such things for writers with ever expanding reading lists and never enough time even to write, I only finished the book in April this year.
I remain grateful for my invitation to the congrès. Apart from getting to know Scott and Jenny, I would have missed out on what has been a fine and fulfilling introduction to his work.
While I was reading through the fifteen stories in Leaving by Plane, Swimming Back Underwater, it was longlisted for the 2016 Edge Hill Short Story Prize, billed as the only UK award that recognizes excellence in a published collection of short stories. (The prize was won in July by Jessie Greengrass for her debut collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It.)
Despite an attractive cover and intriguing title, the collection may seem at first understated or familiar. It opens modestly with “A Little Something,” whose musical repetition and simplicity of language nonetheless convey complex themes and ideas about the importance of landscape to a settled state of mind and what’s lost to the individual in migration. “You could go back and visit,” says the narrator about an impulse to return to Trinidad. “You could stay, off and on. But to live, that would not be possible, living was something we did here, something you did elsewhere: Toronto, Brooklyn.”
This minimalist, possibly autobiographical story is followed up by “A Dog Is Buried,” an enigmatic thriller. The reader may not understand what’s happened to a dead dog any more than the narrator, who has “chosen to come back and live near the sea.” Again, the movement from London, where Scott resides, “back home” to T&T, where he was born, is noteworthy: it’s a journey not everyone survives. Over the years of separation, of coming and going, differences in personal and societal cultures can erupt aggressively or violently. The narrator claims the sea “had never stopped speaking to me.” The elliptical nature of the storytelling causes the reader to pay attention to what's said, and to consider what's not being said or what’s possibly being misinterpreted by now quasi-foreign ears.
The stories in Leaving by Plane, Swimming Back Underwater habitually leave the reader a little off-kilter. This has to do with the distinctive way each story is told, their peculiar narrative voices, which impress and linger more so than any particular character or consequence.
“Ash on Guavas,” a story about living in the shadow of volcanoes and sea-born destiny, and “The Archbishop’s Egg,” which successfully blends politics, religion and humour, are both rather idiosyncratically told. They make the reader question what kind of mindset may be required to read these stories, if not also to write them. An answer may be found in nature: “The island was on a cusp. The island was also in crisis. Something had to change. Wet season was finishing, dry season about to come…. Crop time, that was something of the past; there would have to be another kind of harvest.”
Guilty sex and violence noire
Other classic preoccupations emerge as the stories become more expansive, Jamesian yet very Trini, flush with guilty sex (“Tales Told Under the San Fernando Hill”) and violence noire (“Prophet” and “Penalty of Death”); with endearing, sorrowful language (“A 1930’s Tale: Coco’s Last Christmas” and “Mercy”); with suspect belief in God (“Faith’s Pilgrimage” and “That Touch of Blue”); and throughout with what may be called island concerns about corruption, identity, the decline of Paradise.
Much of what Scott accomplishes with time or place is evident in the title story. Well-paced—measured—it is, as with many of the others in the collection, about someone leaving home or who has left home. In this case, the narrator meditates on leaving Trinidad at the age of nineteen to give “my life to God” in England: “I was toasted and feted as if fatted for the sacrifice, my mother’s Benjamin, but now Abraham’s Isaac.” The reader relates to the narrator’s effort not to forget or lose sight of what was left behind even as he feels it necessary to move away, discover, believe in yourself beyond yourself, and grow. Nothing seems to happen in the story (plotwise, the trajectory is narrow), yet everything has happened, as the story’s final paragraph, describing a near miss with young bulls, makes clear:
“As I tried to compose myself, control my fear, I realized, that in my rush to escape, I had dropped my fountain pen inscribed with my grandfather’s initials. Days after, when the field was empty, I tried to find my pen, which had come to represent everything I had left behind at home. I never found it. I had lost that connection to home. The feeling overwhelmed me. It frightened me, what I had done, leaving my mother, father, home and country to find God.”
What is other?
The mystical and melancholy give way to an actual sense of displacement in a number of the stories. At these moments, the reader doesn’t so much see the limitations of faith (or God) as much as those of humans. Why would Faith, in “Faith’s Pilgrimage,” for instance, need the company—or “order”—of girls of obviously questionable character such as Clara? Her mother's quite right to ask.
There are times when faith in something higher or “other” doesn’t seem to be enough, or it temporarily falters. In the “That Last Glimpse of the Sun,” the oddest and most genuinely haunting story in the collection, the reader never quite knows where he is or with whom. It is a beautiful, intimate and stark piece of fiction, set in Gothenburg, Sweden, with humans and nature warring forever. It asks subtle questions about belonging, and suggests that what’s “other” may be only another manifestation of ourselves in a different time and place. Iseult, the protagonist, “was one of these, pressing her loss to her breasts, carrying her exile in her heart.”
Many of us do, whether at home or over and away.
Scott is the award-winning writer of Light Falling on Bamboo and Aelred’s Sin, among other novels. What he’s known for writing, they are most likely where I would have looked for him first. The stories in Leaving by Plane, Swimming Back Underwater are another worthwhile place to start. No chance encounters or congrès required.