Stephen Narain, a writer and teacher based in Orlando, Florida, was recently announced as the winner of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize for his brilliant story, What In Me Is Dark, Illumine.
Stephen, who was raised in the Bahamas by Guyanese parents, has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has won the Small Axe Fiction Prize and the Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing.
Following his win, we took the opportunity to ask Stephen about his writing, his winning story – which is set in the political turbulence of late 1970s Guyana, and his influences.
What did you think when you were announced as the winner of this year’s BSSP?
I went cold. As I mentioned during the awards ceremony, I have been working on a collection of linked stories spanning a century of Caribbean history for over a decade. The seeds of one story were planted in a writing workshop led by Paul Harding in 2005. In January 2019, I submitted a draft of the collection to my agent who informed me that the collection was not just in need of revisions, but was structurally unsound. The word “tornado” was used at some point during a conversation I’m not fond of remembering. I was standing near the lawn section of a Home Depot when she called. There are many places—a beach in St. Lucia, for instance—where you’d want to be when your agent calls to deliver her verdict on your labor. Home Depot is not one of them.
My literary hero, the late Derek Walcott, delivers a beloved metaphor for Caribbean artmaking in his essay, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory. He likens the work of the Caribbean artist to gluing a shattered vase. This is what the past two years—on the page, in life, in the world—have felt like: holding the pieces (“disparate, ill-fitting”) to the light. This work, Walcott writes, is fundamentally an act of love. I’m grateful the judges have found one of my project’s shards resonant. Practically, I can now study what is working in the Bristol Prize story and apply those lessons to my future work.
Walter Rodney is central to your winning story, What In Me Is Dark, Illumine; what does his life and work mean to you?
I wonder what Rodney would say to this moment about the slipperiness of tyranny, about the malignant narcissism at the heart of many we trust to lead. Rodney, undeniably, was a prodigy. The son of a tailor, he received his Ph.D. from the University of London at 24. His unorthodox dissertation on the history of the Upper Guinea Coast caught the attention of esteemed academics. He could have presumably assumed a lofty position at a British or American university but, instead, he walked toward the people—working people thirsting for independence (political, spiritual)—at the heart of his writing. His walk followed his talk, and this is one route to gaining the hard-earned trust of many West Indian people who, as the poet Edward Baugh suggests, are in a constant “quarrel with history.”
Rodney terrified Guyana’s dictator Forbes Burnham. On a mythic level, the relationship between Rodney and Burnham—widely held to have arranged Rodney’s assassination—is a classic Cain and Abel story. One senses Burnham saw in Rodney many of the characteristics (selflessness, genuine humility, the unshakeableness of divine calling) that could reveal and undo his Machiavellian machinations. Burnham tried to fight Rodney’s idealism with intimidation; I’m not certain he knew how to fight Rodney’s raw intellect. Above all, Rodney was beloved. (Are dictators ever beloved? Truly?) June 1980, my Auntie Indra was working at a bank in Georgetown. She describes watching Rodney’s funeral procession during her lunch break. 35,000 mourners processed. “the Caribbean bleeds near Georgetown prison,” Kamau Brathwaite wrote. These mourners were lamenting the loss of a lion, yes, but were they mourning their potentials as well?
You spoke movingly at the awards event about your father; what influence has he had on your work?
When I was eleven or twelve, my father introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad. He made it clear that this world is mad; the book was mad, but, if you studied it closely, you could find a map. To where? I’m still answering that question.
My father grew up on a rice farm in a very rural Indian community in Guyana’s Lower Corentyne, and I believe he spent much of his childhood searching for a way out. Books were his path. The eighteen-year-old student in the photograph that inspired this story possesses this mixture of pain and resoluteness and tentativeness we would find in the eyes of the protagonist of What In Me Is Dark, Illumine. My father’s name is Toolsie; the protagonist’s name is Tulsi, a sacred herb used in many Hindu rituals. Devotion to language—to controlling one’s thoughts, to finding the right phrase, to saying “I don’t know”—was central to his ethos. If we could master language, or try to, we could construct an armour against the weaponized language immigrants, working people, Caribbean people must fight each day in grand and subtle ways.
When I was a child growing up in the Bahamas, my father was training my attention, my consciousness. He made sure our home, however humble, housed intense ideas. He set impossible standards. He was Protestant with his praise.
How many drafts of a short story do you typically go through before being satisfied with it?
Paul Harding taught me two important lessons. The first lesson: a key distinction exists between writing and publishing. The ritual of writing is strange and private and mercurial and sacred. An author can become numb to a published work. Isn’t it funny? This novel could have preoccupied the author for the better part of his or her life. The second lesson: pay very close attention to sound. Prior to turning to a literary life, Paul was a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. His novel Tinkers is a masterclass in sonic integrity. The book is synesthetic: you feel what it sounds like and hear what it feels like to die. I try to draft each story with this sonic integrity in mind. Fortunately, I have very large ears. This work takes me a comically long time. Years.
Which other writers have been your biggest inspirations?
What’s heartening for me to witness is the development of literary culture in the Caribbean region despite Hanumanian infrastructural odds. A great portion of this work can be attributed to literary festivals such as Calabash in Jamaica (which provided a well-timed catalyst in Marlon James’ career) and Trinidad and Tobago’s Bocas Lit Fest, which supports emerging artists in the region and in the diaspora. I grew up in a very small place—Grand Bahama Island—where folks are always caught between the limestone on which they stand and the sea that promises anything. I’m inspired by the transgressiveness and dynamism in the writing of Sonia Farmer, Shivanee Ramlochan, Andre Bagoo, Nicholas Laughlin, Diana McCaulay, Ayanna Gillian Lloyd, Vladimir Lucien, and Richard Georges—I won’t have space in this interview for a proper shout out. Pragmatically, these writers will reshape curricula for students in coming generations. This evolution will be invaluable in the cultivation of post-independence Caribbean thought.
How much impact does teaching English have on your own writing?
Massive. I teach at the Poinciana campus of Valencia College, a two-year college that serves many first-generation and immigrant students in Orlando. My students remind me I am getting older. They write essays preoccupied with Hokusai and Bad Bunny. They make me think of that John Dryden line: literature “only instructs as it delights.” We read work where people still laugh when their backs are pressed against the wall. My students teach me that this laughter is a rude, gorgeous way to survive 2020.
If you ran your own publishing house, which writers and books would you like to be publishing?
A dream list: the near-perfect short stories of Jamel Brinkley and Anna Noyes and Jonathan Escoffery (a young Jamaican-American writer from Miami to watch out for), the criticism of Thessaly la Force and Jia Tolentino, the poems of Safiya Sinclair and Raymond Antrobus and Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong. Friends: Yaa Gyasi, Alexia Arthurs, Naomi Jackson. Desus & Mero. Rihanna’s autobiography.
Stephen’s winning story, What In Me Is Dark, Illumine, is published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 13 which is available direct from publisher Tangent Books or to order from bookshops and the usual online outlets.