The first time I heard Oonya Kempadoo read was in a noisy restaurant on the island of St. Martin’s. A parade of performance poets had preceded her, but the room was still in a battling mood. People were drinking and talking (known as “liming” in the Caribbean); in no mood for listening. Then, Kempadoo launched in with a passage of prose, and miraculously created ripples of laughter. She is a writer utterly given over to language—to pace, dialect and rhythm. The magic of her language is matched only by the magic of her voice. And the power of her voice is such that months after first hearing her, I could still hear her lilting intonations as I read her novel All Decent Animals (FSG) in the July swelter of Madras.
All Decent Animals, Kempadoo’s third novel, is set in Trinidad—that “prancy, peacock island,” where the hills breathe and “diesel-dark-skinned vendors comb through heat waves of glittering cars,” and where returnees like our heroine Ata ask: “How to live with the ugliness of the beauty we love?” We are introduced to an eclectic band of friends, one of whom is dying of AIDS in the months leading up to Carnival. As a backdrop there is all the lush breathing beauty of Port of Spain, pitted against “the hustle and knivery”. Kempadoo says that the biggest pleasures of writing for her are pushing the borders of the English language in Creolese form, and to be honest about the tragicomic situation of contemporary life in the Caribbean.
As a teenager she read Naipaul’s Miguel Street and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which she says are parallel books for her. A returnee herself (her parents moved from Sussex to Guyana when she was four), it was important to “see” where she was on the page. Her father, who inspires the “Madrasi father” in her first novel, Buxton Spice, was a Gandhian and inflicted ideals like vegetarianism on her and her eight siblings. “My parents were pre-hippies,” she says, laughing, “They always talked about being a global citizen.” In school, the other kids teased her and said she’d dropped from a coconut tree. “No problem,” she’d say, “I don’t mind belonging to no nation.”
Much of Kempadoo’s writing is defined by this nomadism, of belonging to a place but never staying too long. Is that why she adopts a non-linear narrative style, I ask? She chortles again. “Brain must be loop-de-loop,” she says. Kempadoo writes exclusively outdoors, as near to the ocean as she can get. She takes a chair, water, fruit, and sits by the sea, and it is in this drifting state of reflecting and daydreaming that she writes. “Sun cooking de brain helps too,” she adds.
Kempadoo currently lives in Grenada where she has just helped to open a library for the community (incidentally, something her father had done when they were living in Guyana). “It became too rarefied,” she says, of just writing novels. “I had to ask what is it doing here and now?” How to have community engagement? In a culture of disposable things, she says, a library book is a unique exchange—something you borrow and bring back. “You wouldn’t pass on a Kindle to someone else!”