“We hear of America being a ‘melting pot’; yes? It is being in this melting pot that has helped me as a writer—in that it has broadened my perspectives on human interactions. Being here made me realize that despite your race the bills you have to pay do not discriminate—and that the struggle to survive financially, economical, spiritually, and socially in the white man’s land, make us all living here common sufferers when the masks come off.” – Harold Bascom
By Michael Jordan
(Continued from last week)
Kaieteur News (KN): Can you tell of adversity that you faced as a writer and artist?
Harold Bascom (HB): There have been many, and, as with life, adversity will continue to come my way—no question about that. The thing is how one faces them. The very first I faced was directly linked to my inflated ego of myself on coming to America. I had come from a country where the people knew me and my plays and my art—to one where it was like, “Harold Bascom?—who the hell is he?” That was tough—and sobering at the same time. Talk about one-eyed man in blind man country.
Being in America has been humbling. Adversity was discovering that feeling of non-relevance. But in time I came to grips with my new community and was able to stop being a blank document. But much of what others might have thought adversity, I made into learning experiences that fueled and continue to fuel my life. I believe in the ZEN philosophy—that everything that happens must be taken in stride since everything, never mind how dire, can be construed as happening for the good. Of course the passing of my wife Pat to cancer on the 30th of April 2006, was one adversity that was like a kick in the face; but in time I overcame that and am a better man because of having known her.
KN: What is it like to be writing in the US?
HB: For me, the physical act of writing over here in America—is the same as when I wrote back in Hadfield Street, Lodge, Georgetown, Guyana. It is the mental aspect that is different—and it is the mental aspect that matters. Now let me elaborate: When I wrote about the fictional Simone in Blank Document, I was, in effect, writing about myself and my challenges to continue functioning as a writer and artist once I had arrived in North America.
Let me put this in context: Between the year 1987 and 1996—a span of nine years, I wrote some fifteen full-length plays (which I staged at the National Cultural Centre)—plus two Guyana prize-winning dramas—Two Wrongs that won in 1994, and Makantali, that won in 1996. I wrote the fifteen full-length plays here—all here—while living and writing in Hadfield Street, Lodge. I then migrated to the USA in 1996 after which it took me some 13 years before I could have completed a single play. A SINGLE PLAY! Why? It was just that I felt that whatever I might write would be irrelevant to the American society because I was not American—that anything I wrote would not be relevant to anything—to anyone…. And yet…writing was the only thing I could have thought of doing to justify my existence—to justify me being in America—to justify me being alive—that my life had any sort of purpose… Back then I felt like a maroon in America—I was a blank document—empty until I realized that I needn’t be empty and irrelevant simply because I wasn’t in Guyana where relevance came easy because we spoke one nation language. I grew very frustrated to be blank amidst life because that life to me was unfamiliar.
It eventually dawned on me that the unfamiliarity of the life about me was only so because of my resistance to the life around me—that maybe deep down
I wanted the life about me to be Guyana. So I had to get real; I had to face myself and accept the new life and landscape in which my children were being schooled, where I laughed and where I wept. I had to make myself relevant in America’s melting pot; I had to get my fingers moving on the keyboard before me and assault the blank Microsoft Word document with words about life in this world now become a global village; I had to become a writer who was born in Guyana—and not a Guyanese writer with a parochial point of view that only saw things in Guyanese terms and in narrow Guyanese perspectives. I had to be a writer cognizant of where I lived and breathed … a writer where my wife drew her last breath. And suddenly a determination to be began burning within. I chose to resist merely being immigrant fodder. I was a writer, damnit! And so I began to write as someone who has something to say about my life as it relates to the life of that Ecuadorian neighbour on my left; to that African-American neighbour on my right; to that Italian-American family over the street! … to that Jamaican family around the corner from the Deli. … I shrugged off the cocoon of invisibility I had woven around myself, accepted the vicissitudes of life about me, and became a writer feeling relevant, once more, to his community and society.
KN: What challenges might a Guyanese or Caribbean writer face in breaking into a market that cares little about anything non-American?
HB: I’ll answer that question anecdotally: In 1996 when I migrated to the United States of America, I had the good fortune to be given a direct opportunity to make appointments with book editors of reputable publishing houses in New York City—Manhattan. I had walked with a few copies of my novel, APATA: The Story of a Reluctant Criminal (Heinemann 1986) to show that I had already been published. Each editor looked at APATA, but weren’t interested in it as a property they’ll likely republish. This was not because they weren’t impressed—they were. They thought nothing of APATA because it was not a novel based on the American experience, and worse—it hadn’t a White American protagonist. One editor complimented my novel but asked me why I came to America when my readership was in the Caribbean. He thought I would be best off in the Caribbean where my readership is.
It must be understood that in the USA—publishing is a big-money business that is predicated on what stands to sell well to an American mainstream readership—and if it doesn’t stand to sell well, there’s no way your writing is going to be accepted for publication—never mind how well it is written. If you’re a Caribbean/Third World writer and you continue to care about the Third World theme there may be a niche market for you, but if you hope to be published by the reputable American trade book publishing houses, your novel had better be very American in setting, with American characters, with an American mainstream theme that will interest white mainstream readers, or you don’t stand a chance.
The American mainstream publisher will never accept a manuscript about a Guyanese protagonist in a Guyanese setting around a Guyanese drama of some sort. The American reader has absolutely no interest in other countries—and it’s worse if it’s a Third World country. If, however, an American writer uses Guyana or Jamaica as the backdrop for a steamy, ‘sexciting’ story about a beautiful blonde American tourist in Guyana or Jamaica who falls love with a local hunk—it is likely to be published.
The Guyanese writer feels much challenged in attempting to get published by an American publisher. It took me over fourteen years to be published by a niche American publisher; the name of the story is, Weathercock in the Cul-de-sac, published by Global Graffiti, an online magazine.
KN: Has living overseas helped your writing?
HB: Good question—and I’m glad you asked it, since with the Guyana Prize, it has long been a debatable issue. Again, I can only answer for myself. Here goes: I have always been a writer that is heavily influenced by the social forces that surround me. Back in Guyana I broke into popularity as a playwright who wrote ‘mirror’ plays. In America, I continue to do the same. But the society is not the same as in Guyana—it is broader. We hear of America being a ‘melting pot’; yes? It is being in this melting pot that has helped me as a writer—in that it has broadened my perspectives on human interactions. Being here made me realize that despite your race the bills you have to pay do not discriminate—and that the struggle to survive financially, economical, spiritually, and socially in the white man’s land, make us all living here common sufferers when the masks come off. In America I truly leant to understand what ‘All are consumed all are involved’ really means. I truly grew into understanding what ‘BY THE SWEAT OF THINE BROW THOU SHALT EAT BREAD’ means. Because I have been, and continue to be exposed to a broader spectrum of human experiences for being here in America, I feel that on the level of social consciousness, I am a more informed writer than when I was back in Guyana.
KN: How do you keep writing in this society?
HB: No doubt, one will find it hard to want to continue writing if one finds that through the years here in America one is not getting his/her work accepted for publication. But years of rejection is not common to Third World writers only. All writers here and around the world live with the understanding that it might take years to get accepted for publication—and that ultimately you might never ever get accepted for publication. In order to survive as a writer here many people have opted to write on weekends only—as a hobby; others have opted to self-publish. The point is, if you truly consider yourself a writer that is what you will do despite the odds. Once you tell yourself that there are other ways to express yourself and find ways to do so, you’ll write. The Internet makes this even easier in the case of writers creating their own blogs and expressing themselves in circles, never mind how small.
(The final part of this interview will be published next Sunday)
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