WILSON HARRIS, unquestionably one of the Caribbean’s most original and visionary writers, has published an extensive body of fiction, poetry and criticism. He was born in Guyana and has been resident in the UK since 1959. Now 89 years of age, Harris kindly consented to have this interview with literary critic and retired professor of English in the UWI system, Michael Gilkes, on behalf of THE ARTS FORUM INC.
Gilkes is possibly one of the few living critics with a deep insight into Harris’s phenomenal body of works and has edited two critical works on Harris’s oeuvre.
MG: My warmest congratulations, Wilson, on receiving a knighthood on the Queen’s birthday honours list. By now you will no doubt have received a flood of letters of congratulation from all over the literary world, especially from Guyana and the entire Caribbean. We are all delighted and vicariously proud of the honour you’ve received. When and how did you discover that you were to be made a Knight of the Realm?
WH: Well I found out because I received a letter telling me that this would happen, and that I should not say anything about it.
MG: You mean it was a secret?
WH: Well, they wanted it to be kept quiet until the Queen signed the form.
MG: Ah yes: until it had the seal of Royal approval.
MG: And will you be going to Buckingham Palace?
WH: Yes. I have to go there later on. For an investiture.
MG: Will that take the usual form? The kneeling, the sword and the words
”Arise, Sir Wilson” ?
WH: Well I don’t really know. I will be going with Alexis [his step-grandson] who lives in Portugal . He’s here now. You’ll see him later.
MG: Good. I look forward to meeting him.
Wilson, you’ve written 25 novels, all of which have been published by the prestigious publishing house of Faber and Faber. In 1960, their famous Director, T.S. Eliot, a literary giant of the time, personally recommended publication of your work after reading Palace of the Peacock. That fact, and this honour you have just received, must be seen as an acknowledgement and recognition of the value and uniqueness of your work in spite of the general criticism of it as ‘difficult’ and innovative to the point of eccentricity.
It’s been said that like the work of William Blake, yours won’t be appreciated or understood fully for 100 years. How do you react to that remark?
WH: I don’t know how to react. I just know that I write and leave it to the reader to follow what I’m doing. I mean I don’t know how it will be appreciated.
This knighthood has come as a surprise to me, and I can only assume that it says something about the importance of the work I’m doing. They don’t give knighthoods to many writers. They don’t give knighthoods even to conventional writers, so giving one to a writer of my kind of fiction is really extraordinary.
MG: So the question of future public appreciation of your work remains squarely in the context of speculation. You never know. One needs only to remember that the now standard text of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was first greeted when it appeared in 1922 as ‘This piece that passeth all understanding’. He was awarded the Nobel in 1948. Perhaps Eliot saw in your writing what a growing number are now, fifty years later, able to recognize and appreciate. So this new honour has come at the right time.
But I want to ask you about your latest novel, The Ghost of Memory, which you say is your final novel. What makes you so sure that it is?
WH: I’m sure because the energy is no longer there: I mean the special energy that I use in my writing. So I can’t continue in the same vein as before. That is how I know that it is my last novel.
MG: Beginning with Palace of the Peacock, your first novel, there is a dreamlike quality in the work that seems to be a characteristic of your writing. In Palace the galloping horseman, Donne is shot, falls, dies and then seems to enter the dream world of the narrator, the shadowy twin who dreams him back to life.
There are many such dreamlike sequences in many of the other novels. Ghost, this final book, interestingly enough, has a similar opening scenario. A man is shot and falls through space and time into a dreamlike existence between life and death.
Critics have suggested that your novels can be seen as stages, or pages, in one great ‘dream book’. What’s your response to that suggestion?
WH: Well, I never thought of my work like that. Dreams are, of course, important. They bear on what I discover, that’s all I can say.
MG: So you had no plan to write a great träumebuch?
WH: (laughs) Oh no. I have never had any such object or intention.
MG: Wilson you’ve said, on occasion, that there’s a point you get to in the writing of a novel when you feel that ‘another hand’ appears to take over the writing. Would you say something about that experience?
WH: Well that is a very important point. In writing, one becomes aware of the miracle of creativity. One discovers worlds (if I may put it that way) that one had not known of before. I discover new worlds, new places, new ways of seeing. For instance how streams communicate with rivers, or with the land.
I discover new ways to interpret character and the way that character is affected by and veers upon the landscape. One is discovering new worlds that lie outside of one’s self. That is, in part, what I meant by ‘another hand’.
In Palace, for example, one discovers that ‘Mariella’ is a woman, but also a place. Later on, she takes on other shapes, even more so than the old Arawak woman who is also a shape-shifting, shape-changing apparition in the novel.
This shape-changing is strung out in the writing in such a way that you can’t take character as defining the direction or circumstances of the novel, if I may call it a novel. In fact I prefer to call it a work of the imagination.
These shape-shifting dimensions seemed so evident in the writing that they did not appear to be planned. They were not planned to be so. Discoveries are made in the writing of the novel.
MG: Would you then say that the novelist, you, are actually as surprised as the reader is at some point?
WH: Yes. I feel that. As a matter of fact I’ve been asked on many occasions to explain Palace and I find it very difficult to do that. The explanation lies in the novel, and when I attempt to explain it I am merely drawing on certain phases of it.
The explanation or meaning lies in the novel itself. In reading you discover something but you can’t immediately say what it is.
MG: I suppose it’s a bit like being on that boat journey upriver in Palace. The reader goes along, unsuspecting, and at the end knows that ‘something’ has occurred that has deep significance, but isn’t immediately sure what it is.
WH: On reflection you may come up with a premise let us say, about the meaning, but only of a part or a phase of it, not the entire novel. Hena Maes-Jelinek has done incredible work in that direction. It was difficult for me to probe the novels successfully as students would have liked me to do.
I left out certain things which Hena brought into her reviews. But even she herself admits that Palace can be interpreted in many different ways. The novel is a tapestry of landscape that cannot easily be determined.
MG: Talking about the novel as a woven tapestry brings me to the subject of the novel as a painting.
WH: But Palace can’t be identified with a painting because if you did, that painting would be very partial…
MG: I was referring to the quality of the writing. You seem to use the pen like a brush, laying colours on as a painter does. So that makes it difficult for readers who are focused only on the words of the text. They say, “but the words don’t make sense when I read them.” Then they’d quote a passage from Palace, like “A brittle moss and carpet appeared underfoot, a dry pond and stream…” (p. 27). How can something be several other things at the same time?
WH: I feel that the technique, as you call it, is quite clear in my view.
MG: But then it would be, to you, the writer.
WH: I can’t help it if people don’t understand. For instance, in the beginning of Palace we read that ‘the wind had been stretched and torn…’ Now there is nothing so foreign about the wind stretching itself like a rope. The words are clear. But one needs to see the imagery. You see, readers are accustomed to novels that set everything out in a manner which seems to be realistic and lose sight of other issues and problems that can arise and which the writer is seeking to elaborate upon. In doing so, he uses words in a very strict way.
The writer tries to give himself to the writing as delicately and as powerfully as he can.
If the writing is not understood, the problem may have to do with the fact that readers tend to be conditioned by reading conventional novels and cannot see that other forms of novels are not only possible, but I would say inevitable.
MG: On that note of inevitability, since one sees only as far as one’s perception allows, anything outside the range of our perception will inevitably appear obscure. This is also a difficulty for readers of ‘difficult’ poetry encounter. Take Blake’s little poem ‘the Sick Rose’: (reads)
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy
The words alone have little meaning beyond the obviously horticultural one: the rose needs treatment for blight.
WH: But as you spoke that poem I could understand it at once. The images are clear.
MG: But surely that is because the images speak to you directly. Your range of perception allows that to happen and meaning is intuitively unraveled. The novels you write, like Blake’s poetry, have gone through what Robert Nadeau (in Readings from the new Book on Nature) calls ‘a knotting process’ which can’t be untied by logical analysis, but only by intuitive thinking.
You once said to me that the trees in the rainforest are not simply green, the rivers are not just black, though to most casual observers that’s how they appear.
The multitude of nuances of colour present are missed by those whose perceptions have been conditioned to see trees as green and rivers as black.
But let’s look at another assumption made, this time about you, the writer. You are perceived by many as a ‘mystical’ writer, ‘a man of mystery’…
WH: Now there we have an assumption made for which there has been no precise justification. When they say ‘a mystic’… what is a mystic? I don’t know what a mystic is.
MG: I expect that no one can say precisely what a mystic is, since mysticism, by definition, can’t be explained by logical or scientific methods. Perhaps that’s why your novels are sometimes called ‘mystical’. But I think the user of the term probably means ‘mystifying.’
WH: It may be that, but I have dealt here with rivers and the land and with men dying in the river. I have dealt with Caroll and Schomburgh…these are men who worked with me when I was a surveyor.
But I have implanted in them ideas and motivations which they may not have had.
But still they were actual men who worked with me. The figure of Donne is the only one who is entirely fictional in the novel.
I was able to imbue them with aspirations they may not have sensed, but which I sensed might nevertheless have been within them. I have fulfilled them.
MG: So you’re saying that you didn’t simply use them as fictional characters. You took the real men and drew out of them ideas and aspirations they unconsciously already possessed.
How does this relate to the landscape which also seems to have an influence on their unconscious selves?
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Page, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by E-mail at: [email protected] or on Tel: 592 227 6825.
THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 5 Numbers 1 and 2 is now in bookshops.
Stockists: Austin’s Bookshop on Church Street, Georgetown; Universal Bookshop at the Pegasus Hotel; Bernadette Persaud at: bernadettepersaud5
(Tel: 220 3337); or from the editor.
For guidelines for Submission of Articles to THE ARTS JOURNAL see: www.theartsjournal.org.gy
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