THEO PANAYIDES meets a mild-mannered biology teacher who turns into an award-winning fiction writer by night, and who sees himself as always being on the outskirts
It’s the perfect cultural exchange, really. Kevin Jared Hosein, at 31, gets his first trip to Europe (or the outskirts of Europe) while I, at a good few years older, get my first conversation with a person from the Caribbean generally, and Trinidad and Tobago specifically. I suppose we have the Commonwealth to thank for bringing us together – and indeed, Kevin isn’t here for a Sunday Mail interview but something (even) more prestigious: the award of the annual Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which he won last month (beating out some 5,200 entries from 48 countries) for his short story Passage.
The choice of Cyprus as the venue for this year’s ceremony isn’t entirely coincidental: this year, for the first time, Greek has been added to the list of languages in which entries can be written (the others are English, Bengali, Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili and Tamil), hopefully encouraging more Cypriots to participate. Relatively few writers have competed from Cyprus since the prize was relaunched in 2012, whether we’re talking native Cypriots or other Commonwealth citizens (Indians, Sri Lankans, etc) living in Cyprus. Trinidad, on the other hand, has been quite the literary lion: Kevin is the third writer from that nation to have won the prize in the past six years – and indeed he was also the Caribbean regional winner in 2015, netting him £2,500 in addition to the £5,000 he won this year.
Literary prizes aren’t enough to live on, of course: despite his growing fame (he also has a published novel, The Repenters), he continues to make ends meet – as he’s done for the past seven years – as a science teacher at the local high school in Chaguanas, central Trinidad. The hours aren’t too bad (usually from nine till 2.30), allowing him to write in occasional pockets of free time, even at work. “I usually just find a corner and write,” he tells me, sitting in the lounge of the Cleopatra Hotel in Nicosia the day after his prize-giving. “It doesn’t have to be good. When I go home, in the night, I will edit it”. That said, he seldom mentions his writing career during school hours, leading a double life as mild-mannered biology teacher by day, award-winning writer of knotty, moody fiction by night.
At first glance, you wouldn’t really peg him as a published author: a large, hulking man, well over six foot tall, with a thin beard and lush, unruly thatch of hair. Unsurprisingly, despite his gentle nature, he doesn’t have a problem getting pupils to pay attention. “A lot of them are afraid of me,” he says, then modifies it slightly: “They start off bein’ afraid of me, because of my stature. They think I’m a beast, right?”. ‘Right?’ is his standard punctuation, the Trinidadian accent not quite as sing-song as the Jamaican – though it’s still ‘tink’ for ‘think’, ‘rate’ for ‘right’, ‘dey’ for ‘they’. His voice is deep, the knuckles on his left hand discoloured, as if recently bruised. ‘What happened there?’ I ask, and he laughs.
“The knuckles, that’s just something from long ago”.
Did something happen?
“Um … No, it’s just me bein’ angry.”
Did he get into a fight?
“More like a fight with the wall,” he replies, and laughs again. “Yeah, they still have a little scarring on them”. This was in his teens, during an angry rebellious phase when he was “just a mess, really” and writing stories was virtually the only thing that kept him sane – though he’s not angry now, he hastens to add. “I’m very patient now. I have to be.” Kevin shrugs: “I have to remain calm, because everyone else is angry. Everyone else wants to fight.”
He means his pupils, but there’s also a larger question here – a question that could even be phrased in terms of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, asking why Trinidad (we’ll omit Tobago from here on, for brevity’s sake) takes it so seriously whereas Cyprus, it seems, largely ignores it. The answer is partly due to language, the fact that English is commonly spoken there (albeit as a dialect known as Trinidadian Creole English) but comes with colonial baggage here. That’s part of the difference – but there’s also another difference, having to do with the role that writing plays in the culture, how it acts as a channel and, for many, a safety valve. Simply put, Trinidad seems to be a much wilder, more raucous place, with dark undercurrents which provide fertile ground for a writer.
Cyprus and Trinidad have a lot in common. Their population is about 1.3 million, ours about 1.2 million. They’re 165th in the world when ranked by area, we’re 162nd. They gained independence from Britain in 1962, we in 1960. Trinidad, like Cyprus, is quite well-off (“We have oil and gas, so we got lucky there,” says Kevin wryly). They, like us, have a local dialect which everyone speaks but few people write, making for a slight disconnect. They, like us, have a history of being under someone’s thumb, most of the population being either descendants of slaves or – like Kevin’s own family – of the indentured labourers who came over from India to work the sugar-cane plantations in the 19th century, and are now the biggest ethnic group in the country. There was “a dependency” on white overseers, he explains – then, when they pulled out, “we were left with ourselves, and I don’t think we respected ourselves enough”. Sound familiar?
Yet the texture of life is apparently different back home – starting with the fact that the place is multicultural without even trying: “We have all races. We have African, Indian, Chinese, Syrian, Latin American, and everyone pretty much gets along, right?”. He’s been in Cyprus for four days, and cultural differences stand out. Nicosia is surprisingly empty compared to Port of Spain; his taxi driver complained about the traffic, “but there wasn’t any traffic”. In Trinidad, if you wanted to go from Chaguanas to Port of Spain – which should take half an hour – you’d budget two and a half hours, because there’s only one road into town and it’s absolutely jammed. The only music in old Nicosia came from buskers, whereas “there’s a lot of music just blastin’ all over the place in Trinidad, there’s a lot of speaker boxes everywhere… And everyone [here] is kind of sittin’ down, in Trinidad they’d be up and about, movin’.”
“People say Trinidad is the happiest place, the happiest people – which is true, to a point. It is not tense, at all,” goes on Kevin. “The texture of life is easy-going, maybe too easy-going. I think a lot of us are too easy-going – just kind of glidin’ through life, you know?” Yet the place is also slightly schizophrenic. Crime is a major problem; there were almost 500 murders last year. Kevin himself has witnessed a man being gunned down (it was a drive-by shooting; he happened to be driving behind the shooters’ car) and was mugged years ago though he managed to escape without being robbed, or worse. “I don’t like to normalise it – [but] I think almost everybody in Trinidad knows at least one person who’s been killed”.
Old superstitions fester beneath the surface. A year ago, in south Trinidad, neighbours noticed a bad smell coming from a family home and discovered the entire household still caring for a baby who’d died weeks before (Kevin thinks it was probably part of a ritual aimed at resurrecting the baby). A recent news story concerned a self-styled shaman who promised to remove curses for $10,000. The state tends to be slow and dysfunctional. The country’s only forensic pathologist recently quit, “because bodies kept piling up and nobody was doing anything about it”; the freezer at the morgue was so full that he literally had to throw out older corpses to put in the new ones. Sounds like a story waiting to be written, I note. “Well, that’s the thing!” he replies. “I don’t mean to sound like I’m profiting off of it – but it’s quality. It’s quality stories, right? Because you don’t really hear that in other countries so much. Like you come to Cyprus, right, there’s nothing like that.”
Like his country – though of course in different ways – Kevin Jared Hosein is also slightly schizophrenic. There’s his double life, as already mentioned, as an under-the-radar writer. There’s his surname, which is Muslim, whereas Kevin himself is Hindu. Above all, there’s his status as a kind of semi-outsider, part of society but also – like so many writers – observing from a slight remove, using its stranger excesses to feed his creative muse.
He lives on a quiet suburban street in Chaguanas (also the birthplace of VS Naipaul, the most famous Trinidadian writer), but just “one street away” there’s a kind of slum area where killings are commonplace. (“In that street there, the garbage is hardly ever picked up.”) He’s next to the darkness, yet not really of it – just as, even though he’s proudly Trinidadian (unlike Naipaul, who hates the place), he’s not typically Trinidadian. “I think I’m my own thing,” he admits. “Always on the outskirts, not really mainstream.”
Most of his compatriots are “partying people”, but Kevin and his fiancée are stay-at-home people. Most Trinidadians know only the city, but Kevin likes to spend time in the small village where his grandparents live, or hiking through forests in search of flora. (His degree, at the University of West Indies, was in Biology and Environmental Science; he’s never studied literature – it wasn’t even taught at his all-boys high school – in fact “I have no academic qualification whatsoever, for literature”.) Most Trinidadians grow up with soca music, the local dance music, but Kevin grew up listening to heavy metal. Most have siblings, he’s an only child. Above all, most – or many – grow up in authoritarian families, with the threat of “flogging” always present, whereas Kevin was raised in a milder environment, merely observing the effect the beatings had on his fellows.
“A lot of us are not in touch with our emotions,” he tells me. “Men, especially.” He recalls a story from primary school, where “this boy came in, he was laughin’ and grinnin’, and he was like ‘You know, my mother just poisoned all six of our dogs, and they’re lyin’ down funny!’. I was like ‘Why are you laughing?’. But see, if you cry, you get beaten”. Like that boy (at least, according to Kevin), cheerful Trinidadians often hide pain and resentment beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior, having been taught from childhood to “toughen up” – a pain that then gets channeled into lashing out, through domestic violence or even murder. Or, if you’re lucky, into writing.
Is that why stories seem to be such a vital part of the island’s culture (more, arguably, than in Cyprus, though of course we’re also repressed in our own small-island ways)? Is that why Trinidadians keep winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? I’m being facetious, of course – but it’s notable, for instance, that news of Kevin’s ‘secret identity’ has only upped his street-cred at school; many of his pupils are aspiring writers themselves. The only problem, he sighs, is that local literature doesn’t pay enough attention to genre, “those fun books” like the Stephen King novels he devoured in his youth; his own work dabbles in the eerie and uncanny, the lurking darkness of the Caribbean. At nine he wrote his first published story, a sci-fi yarn about a boy who wakes up in an alien world; at 15 he finished an entire, 100,000-word fantasy novel, the kind of project many teens attempt but few complete. “It was bad, right. But I finished it…”
And now? The practical value of the prize he’s just won is significant. “There’s not many publishing opportunities in the Caribbean”, and name recognition is vital to attract foreign publishers. Would he go live in London, though, as VS Naipaul did? Would he quit the teaching job, and abandon small, problematic Trinidad? Kevin pauses: “Yeah, people ask me this”. He pauses again: “Yes and no, right?”.
On the one hand, he’d have so many more opportunities; on the other, the writing would surely change. Like any small-islander, his creative soul is bound up with the place he’s known all his life – and yes, “I would miss Trinidad,” he affirms in his deep, slow voice. “I’d miss the people. Even though I spoke negatively about the jokin’ around and things like that, I would miss the kind of happy-go-luckyness we have there, the friendliness. I mean, there’s a kind of kinship, you know? You don’t feel disconnected”. He smiles and looks out the window, disconnected – but not for long – from his Caribbean home, looking out at the alien faces and sparse not-quite-traffic of a Nicosia morning. A cultural exchange, indeed.
KEVIN JARED HOSEIN’S 10 FAVOURITE BOOKS
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
Watchmen by Alan Moore
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Miguel Street by VS Naipaul
The Shining by Stephen King
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut