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Extract of Seminar with V.S. Naipaul, Fatima College, 1974

Teacher:
They have been doing Miguel Street, not for examination purposes. They have been looking at themes and so on and lots of them have been inspired to read. Most of them have read "A House for Mr. Biswas"........

NAI:
Yes, well, I suppose it's really a matter of people in a place like this, trying to understand themselves and their own position in the world and I think what is being said might become a little clearer to them. I think it's very good to ask yourself who you are and why you're here and what has made you.

I really would like people to try to come to grips with the emptiness of the society and try to understand what kind of bastard country we all inhabit; how we are all cut off from our roots in different ways - our ancestral roots and we have a kind of colonial melange here which deprives people of past and background, which, in other countries, most people feel the need of. If you can come to terms with the fact that you just live back a couple generations as a night that descends and you don't give way to despair at that stage, or you don't find political slogans or political explanations, you should try to face that and try, out of the knowledge that you are a man and you try to come to terms with that, you might find that the there may be missing a few more things.

What you must do is, you must try to clear your head of what I had to do. The reason why I had been able to go on as a writer is that I came very quickly to the understanding of the limitations of the place around me - the place I was writing about. I came to an understanding through the writing, and unless I was able to go ahead from that, I would have been sunk as a person, as a writer and as everything else.

The difficulty in going ahead is this, and I'd like people to try to understand this. When people read novels, they tend to read about really organised societies. I wonder if anyone would like to think about that point a little bit and say something. (Speaking to someone in the audience) What do you think. Can you think of a novel outside of the West Indies which is not about an organised society, but really organised because its roots and its own values and its own framework?

MK:
One student asked me a question pertaining to that aspect of your vision of life in the Caribbean. In the Middle Passage, there's a statement which says that we have created nothing. So the student says, "Miss, what does that mean. Does it mean that we have no monuments, no museums, no history books..................

NAI:
What are your values? If you read, we all need to have values. There is always some standard by which we judge people's behaviors. What are the values of the society?

MK:
Is that why, when you write about, say for example, religion practiced by the Indian community, it seems to me you see it as an exaggerated ritual type of thing rather than something that is genuine - that could provide a sort of valid eschatology for the society?

NAI:
Yes, but I think we're running away to another point now.

BP:
Don't you think that the Indian population has its own values and world view?

NAI:
Yes, but I think that has all disappeared - that is the point made in the 'big book'.

Just consider the confusion in the last twenty years. When I wrote The Middle Passage, I was still reading things by the University about what is the civilisation of the region and it has the ideals of the Victorian in the nineteenth century. We've been hearing the Greek world, the Roman world and the Judeo Christian world. Listen to this kind of curious history that is taught in English schools in the last century, and which is still being transferred here. Think of all the revolutions that have occurred in that time since 1950. Let us take a simple thing, let us restrict it to one area of the community: When I was a child I think the word "black" was an insult. I think people liked to be called coloured, and the word "African" was an insult . It was slightly different in Guyana because "African" was what was the used word and "Negro" was the insulting word and now, of course, "black" is a very popular word which is the accepted word.

BP:
So is your book, "The Middle Passage" out of date then?

NAI:
I had a look at it two or three days ago and it was and I was quite frightened by the percipience really. Especially what I had said about the Rastafarians. What has happened in Jamaica is that the intellectuals have gone down to meet the rest of the Rastafarians. I thought that they might have been exploited politically, but indeed they have. I didn't think they would have had a kind of intellectual meeting. I didn't think that despair was spread to intellectuals. I thought that it might have just been used by politicians.

Teacher:
That just one of the things we were discussing just before you came in. Suppose you had left Trinidad and twenty years later, if your vision would have been different because certainly - at least we are … a lot of young people are aware of what kind of revolutions are taking place outside, revolutionary thought, they are not thinking the same way as the people you seem to be talking about in The Middle Passage.
They have pride in the steelband which has become part of them. I don't know what you think of the steelband…

NAI:
No, I don't like it, but then I don't like noise; it drives me crazy.

Teacher:
So maybe The Middle Passage
is out of date in that respect.

NAI:
It might well be - I wouldn't argue about that.

MK:
I just want to know what approach I should give them. It sort of hinges on to what we have just been discussing. If we talk about the statement where you say that we have created nothing …......If you try to assess, or I must try to assess for them (the students) what you have created or contributed to the West Indian people, would it be fair to say that perhaps what you wrote portrayed a particular era in our growth and development and, looking back on it now, there are things that we can point to evidence which shows a complete change of thought or new development.

NAI:
All that is possible. I think that writers are like teachers, you know, they always quickly become out of date.

MK:
Do you think your writing at the time was an effort to do something about the distress you depicted or were you just describing it for people to become aware of it?

NAI:
Was I trying to do something about it?.. Well I don't think anyone becomes a writer with any kind of purpose except to be a writer. Such purpose has really just developed as a writer to me. I mean, I am interested in understanding myself, where I was born, my background.

BP: (about Mimic Men)
Did you have any one person in lyrics and mood?

NAI:
No, no...................... not really, there was no one I had in mind. No particular person, but I once said - when I was asked to write at the start - how you should accept reading. I said that most people read novels which are about organised societies where the patterns are so established that what the novelist is writing about is a little eruption; a little bit of disorder in that pattern and the novel charts the progress with a little bit of disorder and at the end, there is order once again. You could almost see a line, a little line with a few squiggles, then the line gets straight again. We read what we already half know.

So I think someone going to a novel like that and expecting to see a little crisis and then things being alright again or that which implies a very ordered, settled, stable world with fixed points of reference would find it hard, so he should clear his mind of that idea of the novel that is dealing with order in the society and the little crisis in that order of society. It was a difficult book to write. I was stalled for a long time with it. I put it aside for about a year, then I began writing later in '65 after I'd halted for a year or so.

I'm saying it's very, very difficult to write. You see, there's no point in trying to do what's already been done; no point in trying in 1975 to do the kind of writing that's already been done. I'm not a great believer in experimentation because I think that originality really lies in perception - the way of looking, the kind of truths you arrive at.

BP:
You've been so internationally acclaimed as a writer about a society which does not conform to the stable society model…

NAI:
Because I've made it interesting.

BP:
But Trinidad is your base in many ways and though you've said that the West Indies has created nothing, it has created you and Biswas
is a classic novel…

NAI:
But it also means this - by this order of society - that you can't do or it's much harder to do a great body of work that one could do in a more ordered society because every time I write a book especially since I discovered after - I'm trying to take a complete experience - I'm not just dealing with the same society; I'm dealing with the changed thing.

So one doesn't have so many lives and to get a whole new rounded kind of experience to write about.

Well, perhaps one just wouldn't know the dirt after a certain time whereas, if you're writing about a fixed society, I suppose you can endlessly keep on producing work. So in that way, it's difficult because if you are about a particular kind of disorder where the values are changing all the time, you have to write as though it were separate experiences. Each book represents an experience slightly different from the earlier one. Am I talking too difficult for anyone?

Consider the many advantages a writer like myself had. He did have a kind of ordered thing to write about- ordered family life - settled values from which you could get knowledge from everybody within the book as it were - all the characters within the book. That was an immediate advantage and before he went political, I think there's a point made by Braithwaite, the poet. In '70, he wrote in BIM, I don't quite know when and it was a nice point. The point is roughly the point I just made, so the book does have that as a full advantage. I don't encourage writers to write that way now because things are more broken.

BP:
To study these books, shouldn't we therefore study Indian culture as it pertained in the thirties in Trinidad. Should one study family structure and basic Hinduism and some of the ideas of the festivals and the worship and the importance of weddings and the mother figure? Should the people who study these books have a course in this?

NAI:
After the initial response. People have to find points of similarity with their own experience first. I think that's the most important thing. I don't think one should be too objective about a book. A book should speak to you directly. You should be able to pick up things in your own experience and if you can't pick things up, then for you, the book has failed I think.

I think people should try to get a personal response and get kind of involved and if they can't get this, then for them the book is a failure. They'll probably have to wait until they get older because our appreciation of literature tends to get deeper as we are older. Literature is not really for the young.

BP asks one of the students:
You read Biswas? How did you find Biswas?

Student:
Well I didn't quite the idea behind the theme of the book because you see I'm not really related with the Indian society, so I don't very much know about their way of life, especially in the early 1940s I think it was. I don't know anything about that time, so I can't really relate the book to anything.

NAI:
So it said nothing to you.

BP:
But did you enjoy it?

Student:
Well it has some comical parts in it and .........

MK:
That's one point I wanted to make. After reading Miguel Street
, most of them said, "Miss, that book funny fuh so", but when you started to explain to them, you must be careful; don't get fooled. There's a double meaning behind most of the things and try to get them aware of the ironical side and so on. That reaction to the book was something different, "Miss how you could say that. I don't find so" , and some would say "So, Miss what about this and that and the other". That is the reaction that you get after you try to show them below the surface. I get this difficulty from most of them.

NAI:
Probably when you're very young, it's very hard for you to stand back and look at yourself and your place. Doesn't that come with age - a greater age and even distance, if you go away?

MK:
They've been wanting to find out about your childhood and if you could explain at what point you found that you were inspired to be a writer; if you could tell us whether there was any experience which marked you decision and what it was like?

NAI:
It doesn't happen like that.

MK:
It was more or less gradual.

NAI:
Yes

Student:
Was there any special person or thing that really moved you to really want to become a writer, like maybe you parents or so?

NAI:
I suppose my father yes.

Student:
When you were writing Mr. Biswas, how is it that you got such feelings across, because when you're writing a book and you sit down and you start writing, a lot of ideas start coming to you and you have to put them in order, so I want to know how you take notes and so on?

NAI:
That's magic. You can't talk about that. It still happens. I don't know how one does. One has a few ideas which are modified during the writing, always modified, always in everything I write. I'm not a great note-maker. The last book I wrote that was published this year, I wasn't making notes. I was writing it in a slightly different way. So I was writing little bits long before I came to them in the book.

BP: (about Guerrillas)
What is that based on?

NAI:
What is it based on? It is based on dishonesty - the way people fool themselves. We live in a world where there is so many ready-made slogans and ready-made political attitudes which are so nice, which should be defended. You know, we live in a kind of immensely half-educated world now, not only here, but everywhere else, that we can choose from any number of pretty thought patterns or belief patterns or faith patterns and we pluck one out and decide to live by it without being deeply committed to it. It's a book about that kind of fraudulence.

BP:
Is this place in the West Indies?

NAI:
Yes, a kind of place which I don't name. Yes, it is a West Indian place.

BP:
Is it to any degree about guerrilla activity in Trinidad?

NAI:
No, no, it's not about guerrillas. The word is used ironically.

BP:
So, about Biswas
, after we read it initially, it could be used for studying the Indian cultural background.

NAI:
Yes, but I think that will be a failure unless the person reading it feels touched in some way.

(to student)
There was nothing that referred to your experience in the book? Nothing, not even going to the elementary school and getting your exhibitions?

Teacher:
The problem is that he is Venezuelan.

NAI:
He is Venezuelan! Ah yes. So there's nothing about independence and men wanting to be on their own?

Student:
It's all part of going to school and the education life...... (?) children , they learned everything by heart because they sort of crammed. What that's what you experience when you go to school

NAI:
But the larger theme you missed completely.

BP:
What do you think are the larger themes of Biswas
?

NAI:
I think that the theme was outlined very simply - the theme about a man getting a house.

Student:
Mr. Naipaul, after you read the book and it related to you, what do you expect to be the next person's reaction who read the book? What do you want them to do from there? Where do you want them to go from there? Did you write the book for them to change?

NAI:
Oh, no, no, no. I'm a great believer in understanding.

Student:
Some of us have read your books and identified with your views and your style.....

NAI:
How do you mean identified with my style?

Student:
When we see that you alienate yourself from the society...

NAI:
No, no. You are using words I can't understand. You can't identify with my side.

Student:
You criticize Trinidadian society and in this book, you went to India and you couldn't really relate to the people there because..........

NAI:
Why are you using this word relate in a strange way? This is a kind of jargon word at the moment, isn't it? What do you mean by relate? I want to know. I've heard this word in odd quarters.

Student:
You don't really fit in to the society. You don't really mingle with them.

BP:
Maybe you didn't feel that India was your home - your own country.

Student:
You really couldn't see on the same level as the rest of people.

NAI:
Yes, because one is striving; one is entering another kind of culture.

NOTE:
BP - Bruce Paddington

MK - Maureen Kelsick

 

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