Category Archives: Trinidad

Naipaul on Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the Guardian V. S. Naipaul looks back on his evolution as a writer.

I had no great love for [Trinidad], no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.

So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.

But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn’t know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow.

The practice of fiction couldn’t help me. Fiction is best done from within and out of great knowledge. In the larger world I was an outsider; I didn’t know enough and would never know enough. After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.

via Arts & Letters Daily

When I finished high school I wanted to be a writer, and I studied journalism when I first started college (before dropping out). But I had already discovered that I couldn’t write very convincing dialogue, and my journalism professor told me I wrote in a very “scientific” style. So I ended up writing analytical essays, academic arguments, and—much later—travelogues. My youngest brother is the fiction-writer in the family, as was our maternal grandmother, who alternated between school-teaching and (mostly religious) writing.

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Stepin Fetchit in Trinidad

“Does the name Stepin Fetchit mean anything to you?”

It certainly did. Stepin Fetchit was adored in my childhood by the blacks of Trinidad. He was adored not only because he was funny and did wonderful things with his seemingly disjointed body and had a wonderful walk and a wonderful voice, and was given extravagant words to speak; he was adored by Trinidad black people because he appeared in films, at a time when Hollywood stood for an almost impossible glamour; and he was also adored–most importantly–because, at a time when the various races of Trinidad were socially separate and the world seemed fixed forever that way, with segregation to the north in the United States, with Africa ruled by Europe, with South Africa the way it was (and not at all a subject of local black concern), and Australia and New Zealand the way they were–at that time in Trinidad, Stepin Fetchit was seen on the screen in the company of white people. And to Trinidad blacks–who looked down at that time on Africans, and laughed and shouted and hooted in the cinema whenever Africans were shown dancing or with spears–the sight of Stepin Fetchit with white people was like a dream of a happier world.

It wasn’t of this adored figure that Jack Leland was speaking, though. He had another, matter-of-fact, local attitude. He said, “The ambitious people went north, and we were left with the Stepin Fetchits.” Now there was a movement back; not big, but noticeable.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 109.

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