Pamela Mordecai on Writing

Pamela Mordecai on Writing

Posted on March 4 by Kyle in Fiction, Interview
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Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

I’m not big on themes. I start with a character, a joke, a scene, or a memory and am most often well into writing before I discover what I’m talking about. (I’m perhaps wary of my mind subverting my imagination.) I discover themes in retrospect, as having happened by themselves, sort of. There are, in this accidental way, a couple themes I explore extensively in Red Jacket that are not just part of my own lived experience but also of life in the modern world. One is the theme of alienation, outsider-ship. Like many people who feel excluded, indeed who are excluded, on all kinds of bases, Grace, the heroine in Red Jacket, struggles to belong. Most people develop a sense of identity from within a supportive group, so the book also explores the related theme of identity, of discovering and affirming the person that you are. Grace fights to discover who she is, what is her heritage. In her case, the simple business of who her mother and father are is fraught.

One can regard alienation and identity (in a somewhat different sense) as being at the root of things as apparently far apart as bullying and the idea of citizenship. It’s not hard to recognize bullying as a way of isolating people, putting them out of the group. But there are socially acceptable ways of keeping people out – clubs, for example. Even families have no qualms about alienating their members: ask any gay person. Indeed, communities of all kinds do it all the time, for reasons of gender, religion, race, culture, language, and ethnicity. When governments make citizenship a privilege and tie it to ‘good behaviour,’ it’s easy to miss the fact that they are appropriating the right of every human person to belong, and using it to create a system of ‘us’ and ‘them’ by making some people aliens.

Most of us have an experience of having been ‘put outside’. Black people in the Western world have always had divisive issues of race and in my native country, of ‘shade’. Given our colonial history, many of us have privileged lighter or white skin, and regarded dark-skins as inferior, so that some of our stories have been about the dissing of dark-skinned folk. Red Jacket is perverse in that its heroine is dissed (doubly dissed in fact) because she is red-skinned and not phenotypically black, like other members of her family. She continues to be considered ‘different’ in one way or another, and it’s one of the challenges she must face as she travels abroad, first to get an education, and then in her chosen profession.  

So bullying, the plight of immigrants and refugees, prejudice of any sort (race, class, gender, sexual orientation), perverted foreign policy, disproportionate provision of national and worldwide health services, the stigma attaching to those living with diseases like HIV/AIDS (re these last two, consider the lessons of ebola!) and skewed ideas of citizenship can all be seen as the result of systems devised to keep some people out. Many of these are part of Red Jacket, which is pretty wide-ranging in time, and geography – and themes, for it also looks at man-woman relationships, faith, family, motherhood, and child rearing.

The story kept my interest, so hopefully it will appeal to readers as well.


What was the hardest part of writing your book?

There were two hard parts: the research and the timeline. The book takes place in several real places (Toronto, Ann Arbor, Washington, Geneva, Barbados) but also in two imagined countries. These are specifically placed, geographically, one a small island in the Caribbean south of Cuba, the other a tiny country in French West Africa. So though I did make up some things, I had to find out about topography, architecture, weather, flora and fauna, etc. The other challenge was the timeline. The story takes place between 1948 and 1998, and so I had to be true to (world and local) historical and weather events, which took some doing. Also timeline in the sense of time lapse, as it affects characters. I needed to keep track of children and adults aging and changing, how it affects their appearance and behaviour even when they are not immediately part of the story. 

In your own work, which character are you most attached to and why?

I’ve different but equally strong attachments to Jimmy Atule SJ, his mentor, John Kelly SJ, Nila, Jimmy’s dead wife, Grace Carpenter, and her grandfather, Ezekiel. Jimmy is very much your tall, dark and handsome hero; he’s also a widower, a priest, a clairvoyant and a midwife who delivers the babies of mothers who have HIV/AIDS. When the disease invades his small West African country, Jimmy, who has just been ordained a Jesuit priest, decides that he wants to work with people who contract it. He is the only son in his family, and he will in time become chief of the small clan that his father leads. The Atules are wealthy enough, so he is a man of the world, smart, educated, travelled, multi-lingual, witty, and painfully honest with himself and with others. In a lot of ways, he’s a hero’s hero. John Kelly is a white Jesuit of Irish heritage who is briefly part of Jimmy’s life. He is the only character in the book based on a real person. The real person was a formidable one, and so is John. Nila is also only briefly part of Jimmy’s life, but her appearance is like the cameo of a famous movie star in a big film. (The story spans three generations, so it’s big in that sense.) She’s beautiful, glamorous, clever, and Jimmy adores her and is devastated by her death. Grace is the most complex character in the book, and faces formidable challenges – in her growing up, her education ‘in foreign’, her love life and the unfolding secrets of parentage and heritage. She’s bright and determined like Jimmy, as well as honest and hardworking. We see her as a good friend, loving daughter and devoted mother, who has a dry wit, and a penchant for doing crazy things that can lead her into big trouble. She’s not your regular heroine, but hers is a terrible and unusual life story and she manages it well.

What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

Don Maass says every page of a story should have something that moves the reader to the next page. The best advice I’ve ever had (though it’s not from Don Maass) is, if the action in your story is slowing down and the narrative is getting nowhere, “Have a man come through the door with a gun!” It’s not meant literally of course, but it’s a good reminder that the writer must keep the reader engaged. When the forward impulse in the tale threatens to come to a halt, the ‘man with the gun’ (read ‘an entirely unexpected event’) can come to the rescue. The advice is from my husband, Martin, who is also a writer and more experienced with prose than I am. As a new fiction writer who must keep studying the craft, I’ve found it immensely useful.

What is your new project?

I started out as a poet and children’s writer, and I’ve written critical articles and a reference work on Jamaica with my husband, but until 2006 when Pink Icing appeared, I was mostly a poet.

I’ve published five poetry collections, most recently Subversive Sonnets in 2012. Though I’ve still to do final work on a novel called “The Tear Well,” the project I am currently focusing on is my sixth book of poetry. There are interesting connections (interesting to me, at least) between how the poetry developed and the crossover to writing prose. My second collection of poetry is really a verse play (two-hander) about the crucifixion of Jesus written entirely in Jamaican Creole. It’s called de Man: a performance poem and was published by Sister Vision Press. Although it appeared in 1995, it’s only recently come into its own, perhaps because it’s a retelling of the most famous story in the world, and also because Jesus is now in some respects, back ‘in’. It’s moving because it is in Jamaica Talk, which, as anyone who listens to reggae music will agree, is a very powerful language. But it’s a story, and many, if not most of my poems since then, have been stories. The new project is called De Book of Mary, Mary being Jesus’s mother, and it is a kind of prequel to de Man. So I’m now hooked on stories, so much so that, “if God spare life,” as we say in Jamaica, I hope to complete a poetic trilogy by eventually adding a book called “De Book of Joseph.”