THE acceptance of Kevin Jared Hosein’s latest novel, Devotion, by publishing giant Bloomsbury brings a boost of confidence to Trinidadian and Caribbean writers.
His success hasn't come easy. He said between 2012 and 2020, he was rejected at least 30-40 times by different publications and competitions.
Devotion is set in 1940s central Trinidad and tells the stories of the Changoors and the Saroops, Hosein said.
“The spotlight shifts between an estate farm, home of the wealthy Changoors, and an old barrack, where the impoverished Saroops live. After Mr Changoor mysteriously disappears, ransom letters start appearing, and their dogs start getting viciously killed, Mr Saroop is tasked to act as a watchman for the Changoor house.
"In the meantime, Mrs Changoor tries to solve the mystery of her husband's vanishing. The two families soon become hellishly intertwined as motives and the truth are slowly revealed.”
The novel was inspired by the 32-year-old writer’s conversations with his grandfather as research.
“I was commissioned by Commonwealth Writers to do an article on some aspect of Trinidad, and I chose to do one on the village I was born in, La Paille Village in Caroni. Him talking about his own experiences as a young man working for the sugarcane industry sparked something in me. I talked to some other people for information, including Angelo Bissessarsingh. There are, of course, other elements that come into play in this story, such as the American occupation in Chaguaramas, Boysie Singh, the notorious Poolool brothers in Trinidad, stories within the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Harold Sonny Ladoo's novella No Pain Like This Body."
Hosein said he’s drawn to writing because he likes to explore downtrodden and beaten-down characters who are usually "othered" or made into caricature.
“Several situations in Trinidad try to villainise certain people or types of people, or we are led to scorn them – I like to try to understand their desires, pasts, failures. A good deal of it usually stems from a single character or personality that I want to place into unfamiliar scenarios."
Some of his inspirations are Cormac McCarthy, “for the way he incorporates landscape into the mood of his books; Harold Sonny Ladoo, for writing unapologetically; and lately, Bernadine Evaristo, for the way in which she explores character and reworks the very idea of grammatical structure to allow them to resonate.”
Hosein began writing in Form One at Presentation College,Chaguanas.
In a Facebook post chronicling various points – high and low – in his writing career to date, he said he had a short story published in the Sunday Guardian’s Sunshine Magazine in 1995, while at Enterprise Government Primary School. In Form Four, he completed his first 400-page novel. He tried to apply to do Literatures in English at UWI St Augustine, even though he hadn’t done literature in school, but ended up in natural sciences, "naturally.”
After leaving UWI, he began teaching science at Upper Level Educational Institute in Chaguanas in 2010.
Hosein said he learned one of his most important lessons at 19 when he attended a workshop at UTT hosted by Trinidad-born, US-based author Elizabeth Nunez.
“The crazy plan in my head is to wow her with my writing, so much that she’d recommend me to her literary agent or editor or publisher or whoever. She hands me back my writing with critiques, semi-impressed, but very willing to help. There’s a lot of red ink on it – which is something you should always be grateful for, by the way, as you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d take that kind of care with your work.
"But at this time, it feels like she has taken a bloody knife to it. The idea hits me and hits me hard. Now, if I want to learn anything, I must accept that I know almost nothing.”
In 2006, during VS Naipaul’s visit to Trinidad, Hosein overheard him giving a fellow student a writing tip – you shouldn’t bother to write any more, as most stories have already been written.
He entered the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the first time in 2012 out of a total of seven times, and got a rejection e-mail. After several more rejections, he decided to semi-self-publish his first book, Littletown Secrets, in 2013.
“I decide that if I want to traditionally publish and get attention, I need to make a plan and get something out there. Anything – but something good. 'Semi,' because the publisher, Lyndon Baptiste, is helping me get the books into stores and some readings.”
In 2014, Hosein submitted his novel The Repenters to Peepal Tree Press, shortly after his story The King of Settlement 4 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which it won later that year.
It was in March 2016 that he wrote his non-fiction piece, Children of Straw, for Commonwealth Writers’ platform adda.
A month later, The Repenters was published and was longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Fiction.
In March 2017, his The Beast of Kukuyo won second place for the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. He said the difference between the final product and the initial manuscript is almost embarrassing.
Hosein won the regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize again with Passage in 2018. It was published by Granta Magazine, a year after the magazine had rejected the story under another name.
He travelled to Cyprus to meet the other regional winners.
“I sit with the writer Sarah Hall in a cafe, who offers to put up my name for Wylie Agency. We converse at moderate length about the many ups and downs of this 'business' aspect of writing, sales expectations, agents who'll cast you aside for their bigger clients, and the fact that you need to cast all those fears aside to produce your best work. Concentrate on writing a good story, above all things, above all fears.
"I’m being interviewed by Theo Panayides at the Cleopatra Hotel and he asks me if I’ll leave Trinidad to explore publishing opportunities. I hesitate a little. My answer is no.
“On my way back home, I have one last stop in London at BBC World Service. Publicist Daniel Kramb, who's helped get the word out, meets me there, even though he doesn’t need to. Many people at the station have read Passage and comment that it’s a story like nothing they’ve ever read before.
"Naipaul’s response comes to mind as I head into Gatwick, as well as the great unread plethora of Caribbean stories. Shouldn't bother to write? Write more!”
Hosein was signed up with agent Chris Wellbelove from Aitken Alexander Agency in September 2018. He began working on a novel, but scrapped it in 2019 and started over. He later decided to expand Children of the Straw, as he thought it would make a good novel.
An editor from Ecco (Harper Collins) messaged him on Facebook in 2019 to say she had been following his career for a while and he should contact her when he had a manuscript ready.
During the lockdown in 2020, he would stay up until 2 am working on the novel – and doing lesson planning.
His agent finally decided the manuscript was ready.
"Two days after it’s sent out, several editors have already read it and made offers. I meet with each editor over Zoom and we speak for about an hour each on average.
“I had eight offers, five from the UK and three from the US."
Hosein didn’t expect so many.
“From speaking to all of the editors, most of whom knew next to nothing about Trinidad, they were deeply moved by the characters and the setting. Our Trinidadian Creole and jargon have never been an issue, which almost all of the dialogue in this novel is written in. "I never intended to write a 'high-demand' novel, but then again, I know very little about marketing. But it solidified the fact that the literary industry is hungry for these untold stories, once there is a universal theme and characters that reflect on those themes.”
As a result of the interest in the novel, Hosein received a large advance – a payment to the author and agent when a publisher acquires a manuscript.
He hopes his accomplishment feeds other Trinidadian and Caribbean writers, the same way he was given a boost when Jamaican novelist Marlon James won the Booker Prize in 2015.
“Having done every aspect of this from Trinidad, down to my own education, is something I am quite proud of.
"I'd encourage writers from Trinidad to keep working on their big thing. Set ego and fears aside and just do the work. My own road was potholed with rejections and self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Just work on your big thing and see about getting it out there in a smart, patient way.”
Devotion is scheduled to be published simultaneously in August 2022 in the UK and US, backed by a significant marketing and publicity campaign.