`Was strange, our sweat mixed'
A courageous new novel breaks taboos to tell the secret story of a Caribbean sexual awakening.
Tuesday 15 September 1998
It is a story of sexual awakening, in which the 12-year-old narrator, Lula, passes from happy, flat-chested, gangly ingenue to bra-wearing, sexually aroused teenager. The setting for what one publisher's rejection slip dubbed "too hot to handle" is a fictional village, Tamarind Grove, on the coast of Guyana. Lula and her friends come of age against the backdrop of the political oppression and violence of the Seventies.
When I was a child growing up in Trinidad, my two girl cousins and I would spy on our younger cousins playing doctor and nurse. We were shocked by what five-year-olds got up to. Nobody ever got to know about our own pre-pubescent half-innocent adventures between white cotton sheets during compulsory, grandmother-induced, "afternoon rests", from which we would emerge sweaty and nervy. We never spoke, even to each other, about them. Then Oonya Kempadoo gives away all our secrets.
"There was a sound of movement from the other bed and I quickly stuck my head out from under the sheet. Judy was on top of Sammy already! We hadn't even kissed yet. I pulled my head back in, rolling on to Rachel, and wriggled up slightly until my bunge was in the right place and the battery was held between our two bones. We kissed now, hurrying, just pushing our lips together and keeping them there for a second. When I lifted my head and licked around my lips, she did too. Was strange, our sweat had mixed, wet and salty."
It doesn't often happen to me, nor to many people, I suspect, that I come across somebody else's writing which reveals entire parts of my personal history - from the rude bits to the bum-sliding along polished floors till my cheeks burnt, to intense conversations with the trees (not a Buxton Spice mango tree though, they don't grow in Trinidad). It is something of a shock. And this novel will shake up other people too, but for quite different reasons. She's a brave and talented woman who takes on the taboo subjects of sex, race, politics and violence in the Caribbean.
You have to have a lot of confidence to write the way Oonya Kempadoo does, and you'd have to be wanting to ruffle a few people, too. But she doesn't look like a trouble-maker. She's warm, intelligent, funny, and has a contagious laugh. Dark brown eyes look right at you, and tell you how it is. There is no artifice in her, and no malice. And she doesn't look the sort to do things for effect or necessarily to shock.
Did she do it because sex sells? "I knew sex sells, but not pre-sex, and I didn't set out to write for publication. The novel grew out of notes on the most powerful recollections of my childhood." She was aware of the predominance of the sexual memories, and decided to let the theme emerge, trying to make it as real and as honest as she could. "The challenge for me was to not put an adult perspective on it."
It is honest all right, but there's the rub: Caribbean people just don't talk about these things. They tend to stop at double-entendre and innuendo. "There is a lot of sex going on though," she says. "We know because of the number of single parents and teenage pregnancies. But there is a lot of duplicity, because of the conflict between religious values and the actual lifestyle that has emerged from the mixture of our European, African and Indian inheritance." She and I digress for a little gossip about single women we know, who have active sex lives while living with their parents, without either party ever talking about it. They never spend the night out, either.
Kempadoo and her seven siblings were brought up differently. "We discussed everything. We were taught to go our own way, not to allow ourselves to be confined by race, politics or religion."
She was born in England in 1966, and her parents returned to Guyana when she was four. Her Indian father, who worked on rural development for the United Nations, refused to join in the ruinous race politics of Guyana. In the novel, Kempadoo describes the occasion when their house was searched, and her mother taken away by soldiers for not returning some foreign currency. Now, she's fallen out with her widowed father, because he's stopped practising what he preaches. She thinks he is not above sexism, that his ego is as big as any Caribbean man's: "It's sad that all that's still there in a man who had a bigger vision." Ms Kempadoo may appear to be young and fun-loving, but she takes no hostages.
"My mother put his principles into practice. I had a lot of respect for her." She taught the children at home, using books from a vast library, with shelves marked, Caribbean, Arts, Philosophy etc. For their writing lessons, she made them go outdoors for long periods, then come back in and write about what they'd observed. The young Kempadoo observed well: in Buxton Spice, she inhabits scenes with a powerful command of detail.
She shifts slightly on the leather sofa, but I don't flatter her by saying she really can write, that she has enviable descriptive powers and that she has triumphed in interweaving standard English and local dialect, which is broken English and the leftovers of some French-style constructions.
She is delighted to hear that the lingo falls off her pen as easily as it did for the deceased Trinidadian writer, Sam Selvon: "the most underrated of writers - he used the right spelling of the word, but its positioning in the sentence is what gives you the lilt." Her sing-song accent is somewhere between Guyana and Trinidad, and I could hear myself sounding more and more like her. We both slip into a bit of lingo occasionally. And that's how Buxton Spice is: natural, like children's interest in sex.
She laughs her big laugh, and her mass of curls bobs around when I tell her about the fatigue among British critics with the dream world of magic realism. She finds writing like that boring to do, although she admires it. Her style is as free as the thinking her parents encouraged. It's uncluttered, relaxed, and devoid of the laboured elegance of Arundhati Roy. Comparisons between the two don't go beyond the fact that she is a new woman's voice from a former colony, and that they share the same agent.
Kempadoo is eager to stick to the principle of not being pigeon-holed: "What do they mean when they ask me if I am a Caribbean writer? For me, writing is about trying to voice what hasn't been said, and to write about everyday matters in a way that anyone can relate to, anywhere in the world." We agree that she is a Caribbean writer to the extent that she lives there (just moved from Tobago to Grenada), and with her first novel has filled a gap in the body of work emerging from the region since the Fifties. "Writers don't often deal with simple everyday matters, and the joys of life. We get a lot of the woes of life under, or after, colonial rule. But ordinary, contemporary life is not reflected there. And that was what I was trying to do."
Political correctness also gets short thrift from Ms Kempadoo. When sending out the manuscript to publishers, she added a note that the racial language might be offensive. "Both black and white may not like it, but part of the reason I live in the Caribbean is because of people's spontaneity, and the natural way in which they deal with matters such as race. In the Caribbean, I'm a dougla (mixture of African and Indian), or a coolie (Indian), or I am no-nation - a mix-up."
Her mother's racial mix of European, African and native blood is similar to mine, and it shows in her features. She gets serious again. "I don't like how, in Britain, you have to identify yourself with this or that, and being put into a category is new to me. I don't want to conform to those, or take part in them, because some of them I don't agree with, and because it creates boundaries."
Oonya Kempadoo says she is not at all special, that you must put your mind to what you want to achieve, and believe in it. The faith of the ignorant together with the resourcefulness of the average Caribbean woman goes a long way, but not even the most intrepid would take on the world's publishing industry. Whoever heard of an unconnected young woman, in a far off land, forcing six agents into vying to handle her, and managing to get four top publishers into an expensive auction for her first novel? She appointed her agent on the phone and by fax, and flew to London to interview the publishers. Now Buxton Spice will be published in Spain, Holland and Italy. The puritanical Americans are waiting to see how what one of those publishing houses dubbed "unsuitable material" does in Europe before signing on the dotted line.
Kempadoo is sanguine. Whatever happens, she's put aside her profession of textile designing to get on with her second, scorchingly honest, tale of life in the Caribbean. I, personally, can hardly wait to be shaken up again.
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