NOT A DOUBT crossed my mind when I walked out of a good job at Boeing Commercial Airplane Company in Seattle 35 years ago and got on a plane bound for Trinidad. I tossed caution to the wind and set out on a life-altering adventure all because I had read Miguel Street by the late Trinidadian Nobel laureate VS Naipaul.
I had to see if a place like Miguel Street existed with a whole host of colourful characters: Hat, Bogart and Man-Man. Much to my surprise, there really was such a place with quirky, loveable, laughable characters as Naipaul described, so I owe my life in Trinidad – at least the move here – to a Naipaul book. I guess you could say I turned myself into a living, breathing, walking cliche – the one that says, “A book can change your life.”
In those early days, I assumed Naipaul’s characters were not merely figments of his imagination or descriptions of people he knew. Like all young readers, I figured the characters he created were disguised versions of himself.
Imagine my disappointment when I realised that Naipaul was not a happy-go-lucky Trinidadian. Instead, he proved to be a crusty, old curmudgeon who would have been horrified at people like me. Naipaul died with his surly reputation intact.
By all accounts he was not a nice person, but oh, could he write. I thought of Naipaul as a wordsmith who created perfect sentences. I still read Naipaul’s sentences repeatedly for the pure joy of experiencing gorgeous, tight writing and perfect diction. No one can accuse Naipaul of ever wasting a word. This and his ability to evoke characters were unmatched by any writer with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. Naipaul was a master of tone. The humour of his early works, namely Miguel Street and The Mystic Masseur, was simply unrivalled.
I mourned the loss of that humour in his later books, but admired how Naipaul made the transition from writing fiction to nonfiction. Naipaul broadened our perspective on colonialism. My favourite Naipaul book turned out to be A Bend in the River.
Still, I didn’t think of Naipaul as the perfect writer. I saw him as a master of literary elements, but often felt unfulfilled after finishing one of his novels. The endings did not feel complete. I didn’t always experience a culminating experience that proved a character grew to his fullest potential. For this reason, I found A Half a Life very disappointing.
His nonfiction, however, felt full: full of descriptions, full of observations, full of life and full of conflicts. The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization made powerful statements about the colonial world.
Through Naipaul’s books, I learned that good writing stays with you forever. I learned you have to trust your feelings and be confident in your opinions without expecting support from others. I always thought of writers as nurturing souls who guided aspiring writers through the minefield of writing if only by offering work that could inspire literary souls. Naipaul dashed that dream.
Given the chance, I would have passed on the opportunity to meet Naipaul because I would have feared any acerbic comments he might toss my way. But Naipaul, the person, made me realise how little other people’s opinions mean in sustaining the writing spirit.
Writers lock themselves away in seclusion and pursue a lonely career, but they must have feelings made of steel. They receive criticism – some just; some cruel – and writers need to exist and persist in spite of that negativity.
In many ways I still feel Naipaul’s influence on my life: I still feel the pull in a certain direction. Thirty-five years ago, his writing pulled me south to Trinidad. About 15 years ago, while writing a study companion on Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, short stories kept popping into my head. I wrote them and called the collection Speaking of Promises. I described them as an alternative view from Naipaul’s Miguel Street.
In the last six years I made the transition from fiction to nonfiction writing. Maybe Naipaul’s nonfiction lingered in my mind and shoved me subconsciously in this direction.
No matter which way I turned, Naipaul’s writing weaved its way through my life. Many described Naipaul as a selfish, self-absorbed man, but his self-imposed isolation provided a fearlessness and a brilliant clarity for describing Trinidad and the world. Say what you want about the man, the world is much richer for the literary legacy Naipaul left behind.