André Alexis is a fascinating young Canadian author, with an extraordinary range of literary knowledge and a thoroughly cosmopolitan sensibility. Born in Trinidad in 1957, he grew up in Ottawa, which is the setting for his first, and critically acclaimed, collection of short stories, Despair & Other Stories of Ottawa (1994). Alexis has written for radio and for the theatre; his plays include Lambton, Kent, & Other Vistas (1996) and Hunger (1993). He regularly reviews international fiction for The Globe and Mail and is a contributing editor for This Magazine. His first novel, Childhood, as a senior publicist at McClelland & Stewart tells us, has created an international stir; the novel's rights have been sold to several publishers abroad, including Bloomsbury in the U.K., Henry Holt in the U.S., and Paul List Verlag in Germany. This interview was conducted in Toronto in late December, 1997.
BG: Do you like giving interviews? Do you think they are an essential part of the writer's responsibility toward his or her readership? Aren't you afraid that you might reveal aspects of yourself or your work that could later embarrass you?
AA: Yes, I like giving interviews because I can talk for days. I come from a talking culture. As far as responsibility to the reader is concerned, I have this to say: When I speak about something, I have a myriad of opinions about it and I'm not slavish to any interpretation. An interview is a thing that tends to circumscribe the work itself. I don't think it brings anything important to it. It brings my kind of speculation to bear on it in a way that I can sometimes use later. But the reader has to be aware of the fact that I may say any number of things now-depending on the situation in which I find myself vis-ŕ-vis my work-that I will a week later refuse to defend. My effort is to be honest at all times, but of course one is only oneself momentarily. So, the André Alexis that answers the next question is not the same André Alexis that answered this question. I'm aware that the beauty of fiction and the beauty of life need constant re-interpretation.
BG: In Despair & Other Stories of Ottawa, you often draw the reader's attention to yourself-if not exactly to yourself then to your name. Why does André Alexis insinuate himself into a number of stories? He seems to appear as both the dreamer and the dreamt; as himself as well as his own twin, the doppelganger. In what sense are your stories autobiographical? Is the use of André Alexis a sort of postmodernist self-reflexiveness, the placing of the author within the fictive moment of creation? Or is it something else?
AA: I'll answer the last part of the question first. No, I'm not in any sense a postmodernist writer. When I'm creating, I don't have a theoretical background for what I'm doing. I'm not trying to address aesthetics issues. The point of André Alexis-and you hit it right on-is not André Alexis, it's the name itself. The idea of the name is a mystical and spiritual one. You are assigned a name, this thing that gains an accretion of detail, depth, and dimension.
So the idea of the name pervades my fiction as a sign for something that is real and unreal-names exist in the shifting ground between the imagined life and the life that you live in from day to day. There is something about naming that fascinates me. It has to do with the mystery of origin, with sound, with sign. On another level, I absolutely like to play with names. I'll call all my characters one name which in a sense is a form of real honesty because they all do come from me.
BG: Your stories are dealing with a wide array of metaphysical and ethical questions and yet they never become abstract. They are very much defined by references to a specific locale, in this case to Ottawa.
AA: I'm more inclined to think that it's a comment on the fictionality of all names. I don't use the names of Ottawa for the reader's benefit, I use them for my own. That's an important distinction for me. There are, for example, certain places in Ottawa that have a great deal of emotional meaning for me. When I'm writing something that is fantastic, for instance, it will be set in Strathcona Park because it was there that I first experienced the intense beauty of nature: the river, clouds drifting by, the evening light on the water.. Strathcona has a complicated emotional meaning for me that I can't define for myself any better than by saying "Strathcona". So when, in my work, you see the name of a street, the description of a building, that's my way of going back to the emotional reality that's hidden behind the names or the buildings.
There's a more personal reason for all this, as well. We moved to Ottawa when I was four and I had to learn the new names so that I could get home. Secondly, my parents sent me to a French school and the learning of new names was, on some level, extremely traumatic. When I was in Grade 1, all of a sudden everyone spoke French, and the new identity of the place was in language. How can you know a place if you can't speak it or name it?
BG: You were born in Trinidad, but came with your parents to Canada at the age of four. You are a first-generation Canadian. However, culturally speaking, you are really the second generation. You grew up and were educated in Ottawa as a bilingual Canadian. Tell us something about growing up in the nation's capital.
AA: One of the most important things in growing up in the nation's capital was, of course, the fact that Ottawa looks nothing like Trinidad. We came in the summer, but my impressions of the city in winter are still pretty vivid. Ottawa as Ottawa was initially less important than Ottawa as the first place that I knew of the "new world". Then again, there was the language and learning to speak French; learning to function in French at school was a source of real anxiety. For a long time I had a recurring dream. I'd find myself in a strange place, surrounded by people who were more or less friendly but who spoke a language I couldn't understand. When they addressed questions to me they were smiling, expecting me to understand, but I couldn't, and this was a source of great humiliation for me, and their anger increased as I struggled to answer their questions. To learn a language one goes through a cycle of humiliation. In a sense, I learned French through humiliation and, I guess, it was a good way of learning it. [laughter]
Aside from that, Ottawa is something of a mystery to me. I mean "mystery" in the best sense. I find it intriguing that I should have ended up in this particular place, and yet it is home and I belong to it, as it belongs to me. I don't know if any other city would have suited me as well.
I've always loved to read and Ottawa is a marvellous place for that. It has two universities and good libraries. It was a place where I could read anything I wanted to. I could see foreign films, plays, and so on. It is a place in which there are two very strong cultures existing side by side, and so I also associate Ottawa with the opening up of the world in a strange way. Maybe it has something to do with being a bureaucratic town, or a town for diplomats, but so much is available to you just by being there. And when I went to Carleton University, I read such a variety of fiction, Japanese fiction, for instance: Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Kobo Abe.all that stuff was there and just seemed so wonderful to me. That is also where I read Borges and Hamsun for the first time. You know, the combination of my own curiosity and desire to escape from the real world and the availability of all these documents from all over the world, all these fictional universes, was wonderful. I think that was the most significant thing that Ottawa, intellectually and emotionally, has meant to me.
BG: We are all looking for an imaginative homeland. At this point in time in Canada there are at least several such places-they co-exist, sometimes occupying the same landscape. With whom do you connect? Is there a Canadian tradition that you find yourself particularly a part of?
AA: No, I don't feel myself particularly part of any branch of the Canadian literary tradition, but I don't feel myself disconnected from it either. I know this is a contradiction, but I feel that the work that I do fits not in the centre of any tradition, but in a previously unexplored margin.
Despite that, I'd really like to mention Norman Levine, a wonderful writer who's had a deep influence on me. He was influential in his simplicity, in the purity of his language, in the directness of the emotions and in the fidelity to place. If you know the place, when you read Norman Levine you are vividly reminded of its physical environment. I wouldn't compare myself to Norman Levine, but on some level I cover the night world of Ottawa because Norman Levine covered the day world of Ottawa so well. The night world became my province because I didn't want to repeat Levine's work.
There are certainly other Canadian writers who've had real influence on my work. Margaret Avison, for instance, is a tremendous poet. She has a specifically metaphysical and religious tone and diction that I find very appealing. Then there's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, a book I read in Grade 13. I really loved his sense of humour. I also liked The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. I spent some of my growing-up in Petrolia and Laurence could recreate, in her fiction, the small town that was recognizable to me. Also, I have a real admiration for bpNichol and The Four Horsemen, for their kinds of literary experimentation.
BG: Your status as a Canadian writer is obviously complicated by two things: by your West Indian inheritance and by being considered an African-Canadian writer. Your work was recently anthologized by George Elliott Clarke in Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature. How important are the African and the Caribbean to the writer in you?
AA: That's a difficult and tricky question. By virtue of being of African descent I am an African-Canadian writer, and that's something I wouldn't want to hide or change. It's a matter of origin. Yet, I think that George Elliott Clarke, for instance, is infinitely more aware of the African-Canadian tradition of literature and writing. I'm only marginally so. I'm tangentially a part of the African-Canadian literary tradition. Not that I don't want to belong to it. It's just that I wasn't exposed to the tradition at the time in my life when it could enter into my consciousness as a writer. Other things entered instead.
As to the West Indian heritage, that's a different question and a less complicated one. Yes, I am very much West Indian in the way I grew up. The place I grew up in was permeated by calypso, by the specific accent of Trinidad. I have relatives, cousins, aunts, and uncles who still live in Trinidad. Trinidad is and always will be the first environment that I was exposed to, and if you know your Henri Laborit, that's inescapable. It's where you learned to deal with the world, your first environment.
However, that doesn't mean that I consider myself a West Indian writer. It means that I consider myself as someone who begins at point A-which happens to be the West Indies-and goes to point B, elsewhere. I couldn't write as I write now had I stayed in Trinidad. I don't even know if I'd have become a writer if I had stayed there. I mean, it may be that alienation was necessary for my creativity.
BG: The previous question has led me to ask you this: What do you think of multiculturalism? Do you find it, as Neil Bissoondath has argued in his controversial book, Selling Illusions, to be fundamentally a fraudulent ideal, invented to delay the immigrant's integration into the mainstream society, or to be a necessary and useful model based on the actuality of the contemporary world-at least as we know it in Canada-that strives towards the fuller recognition of cultural pluralism?
AA; Multiculturalism in Canada is another complex question. In principle, the idea of the equal existence of a wide range of people of different cultural origins is wonderful. The idea of equal citizenship is quite wonderful. But I also think that, while the theory behind it is laudable and praiseworthy, multiculturalism as we live it is less than wonderful. When I first knew it, Toronto, for instance, was certainly an enclave of white Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Culturally, what I saw when I was growing up was largely the product of white Anglo-Saxon tradition. So, despite a kind of systematic inviting of diversity, there was a solid Anglo-Saxon bedrock. Diversity had its moments in small festivals meant to encourage or placate different ethnic groups but, let's face it, the political power, the monetary power, the economic power, and the institutional power were uniquely English or French.
That said, maybe I'm stupidly optimistic, but I can't help thinking that on some level we are part, all of us, of an interesting moment in the history of this country.
Those of us who came to Canada in the '50s and the '60s, we came to a country that was still young. The culture, specifically English-Canadian culture-French-Canadian culture had already made moves to define itself-English-Canadian culture was and is still in the grips of an identity crisis that made it look around for its sense of self. And, despite the political and economic power, the country was not sufficiently defined to absolutely exclude people that were coming from elsewhere. I get the impression that the generations of immigrants from the '40s, '50s, and '60s have had a tremendous influence on English Canada's definition of itself.
So some of the cultural ideas, some of the ideas of how the world works come from elsewhere and are starting to manifest themselves in Canadian institutions. I think there's been an influence on the white culture by the cultures that have come from abroad. Maybe, slowly, there is a changing of the absolute. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture has been influenced by other ways of thinking, other ways of being.
Whether that means that there will ever be a state in which minorities of different cultural origins have as much political, economic, and social power as the dominant group, I don't know. But, at least, they have influence and, perhaps, that's all you can ask.
BG: What is "reality" for you and can reality be represented? You have created some of the most bizarre and, at the same time, the most humanly fragile characters in Canadian literature. Where do they come from, these "contaminated" creatures, the carriers of every imaginable parasite? What is their purpose?
AA: I can't hope to answer that question-I can poke around it. I'll start with something that bothers me, which is the idea of magic realism. I loathe that term. I think of it as a label that is there for the sake of critics. I think of it as being absolutely lazy. I know that it was generated in response to the popular work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but that it has almost no applicability to someone like Cortazar, or especially to someone who preceded Marquez, like Machado de Asis, the Portuguese writer who, in Epitaph of a Small Winner, has a man who is dead recounting the narrative of his life. Now, by calling a writer a "magic realist", you avoid dealing with very difficult questions. I mean, what is real? How do ideas interact with the world around us? How does the fantastic interact, not above or below, but on the same level as the so-called real? And who is to say what is real and what isn't, anyway? What is this thing that we're living through? It's part dream, part desire, it's will, it's the concrete, it's the metaphysical, the religious.. All of these versions of world exist at the same time and I think it's irresponsible to label Borges or Cortazar "magic realists". There's a kind of condescension in the use of those words.
For me, the essential drama of any of my characters-in so far as I understand it, and I don't pretend I understand my own creations-is really, how do you distinguish between the real and the "not-real"? How do you know when the religious or the metaphysical has taken over from the "day-to-day"? Where do the lines get drawn? For me, the challenge is always in finding some sort of balance between the layers that exist in the world.
BG: Since we are talking about the representation of reality in fiction, how would you describe your own writing? Would you consider your work surrealistic, even though, as we mentioned earlier, your settings are ordinary? Which are the writers, Canadian or otherwise, that are particularly close to your imaginative sensibility?
AA: I'm definitely not a surrealist writer-I think André Breton was a pinhead. I mean "pinhead" in the best sense. [Laughter] He was an interesting pinhead. No, I definitely don't consider myself a surrealist. However, I do have a great deal of fondness and a great admiration for some of the so-called "dissident" surrealists: I'm a fan of Georges Bataille, of Antonin Artaud and Raymond Queneau. What I really admire in the work of Raymond Queneau-as I do in Italo Calvino's-is a groundwork, a set of constrictions and constraints that are at work at the same time as a more or a less "normal" narrative. I don't think you will find extravagant language in Queneau's work, at least not as extravagant as the language of Finnegan's Wake, for instance, though Queneau was an admirer of James Joyce. What I love in Queneau is the interplay of the base and the material just above it, the mysterious changes that happen in the course of the narrative. Queneau is for me a realistic writer, despite the fact that there are some very strange situations in his novels.
Another important influence is Samuel Beckett. In Beckett you have what is, for all intents and purposes, the deeply personal, the almost untranslatably personal, just on the edge of being understandable, but brought in through humour, through a very strong narrative sense..
I guess I'm in love with writers who have to struggle to bring the peculiar or personal concerns to bear either on strong structure or on strong senses of reality. This is the reason I love Kawabata, for instance, who's obsessed with physical deformity, who's obsessed with a woman whose left breast doesn't look like her right breast, and so on. And yet, at the same time, all this is presented in a language that is lucid, deep within the tradition of Japanese writing, almost old-fashioned. So when you approach it, you don't even realize that something very peculiar is at work in it. What you have, in fact, is that interplay between the normal and abnormal. Surrealism, because it is obsessed with the abnormal, with the Id, and the level beyond the conscious, is outside of my interest. There is a banality to dream and the subconscious unless they are grounded in some sense of the real.
Another writer of real importance for me is Leo Tolstoy. In a way, it took me a long time to understand why that was so. One of my favourite novels is War & Peace and the reason I like it is that in it Tolstoy juxtaposes different worlds and peoples, all placed within what is essentially a single historical moment, the invasion of Russia by Napoleon. From this single event all other offshoots take shape. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there is a moment when Tolstoy resembles Samuel Beckett, when he gets closer and closer to an inexpressible anguish of existence. Yet Tolstoy's language never gets wild in the way that Dostoevsky's does. Tolstoy is interesting for me because there is the tension between the aesthete that he is and an absolute religious maniac and depressive, aware of the darkness.
BG: I suggested earlier that your work is strongly ethical. Do you see it that way?
AA: Yes I do, in so far as the ethical is another level of existence, another dimension of the real. The story that I'm least happy with in the collection Despair is called "The Metaphysics of Morals", which is one that specifically ties the imagination to ethics. The reason I'm not happy with it is because it doesn't go deep enough-it feels like a nice try, but not good enough. Yes, I would agree there is an ethical dimension to my work, but only in so far as there is a constant struggle to determine what the "good" and the "evil" might be. The ethical is one of the grounds on which the battle for the real or the unreal is fought. But it is no more important than the political, the racial, the aesthetic..
BG: One of the central themes in Despair & Other Stories of Ottawa appears to be the tension between the body and the soul, between the physical and the mental manifestations of a human being-or, if we go one step further, between the body's mechanics and the mind's imagination. Michael in "The Metaphysics of Morals" is fairly emblematic of this tension. But so is Winston in "The Night Piece" and André in "Horse". Another André, in "The Third Terrace", tells that "all of Nature turned away" from him-a sort of "paradise lost" statement. Why is this archetypal Judaeo-Christian "split" of concern to a contemporary writer living in a world of cyberspace and virtual reality?
AA: I think the answer to this question is rather simple. Being a reader of Beckett I am also perforce a reader of Descartes. I find the division of mind and body in Descartes of great interest. It's very entertaining to me. I don't think it is contradictory to the world of virtual reality. The question is even more heightened when we think of our bodies' extensions in imaginary space. But, you know, it's a language for me, it's a return to the initial question of how to fit in, how to belong, what is real-the many levels of reality, the way that your body can feel this way while your mind can be off doing something else. That amuses and interests me. I wouldn't say that I have a specific anxiety about the mind-body split. It is not any more problematical than some other questions. I guess, for me, the effort is to make peace with how the mind feels and the body thinks. Part of the problem is to see that man is diverse and divergent, and that a coming to yourself is a coming to an awakening of the body's thinking and of the mind's feeling.
In the story "The Third Terrace", there is a moment at the end when a character is recalled to himself by smelling toast. Such a precise and concrete reference to the world of experience can bring the two things together, the body and the mind, to what is, I think, a properly harmonious existence. I don't feel any greater respect for the mind than the body-both can be very funny. Not being a philosopher, I don't have any commitment to investigate any further.
BG: Another significant theme that runs through most of your stories is that of a fragmented, disordered universe. For Michael in "The Night Piece", Winston's bizarre story about the Soucouyant/Vampire breaks his "faith in the unique world" he had known. On the one level, the story is about a boy suddenly falling into experience, and yet, on the other, it is a commentary on our post-Einsteinian universe. Am I taking it too far?
AA: No, I wouldn't say that you're taking it too far, if that's where you wish to take it. What we haven't mentioned, and should, are two sense-makers in the equation called "literature", in the battlefield called "literature". Literature can't be created by a single entity, the writer. You, the reader, are a sense-maker in this equation in a way that is unpredictable, sometimes arrogant but always interesting. I depend on the sense-making mechanism of the reader. I'd like to think that I'm playing with the reader's sense-making mechanism by giving him or her good reason to go off in a certain direction, but every once in a while the reader will find that something is wrong with the direction taken. Halfway through the story he or she will realize, if I've written a good story, that they've taken the wrong road in terms of interpretation, or perhaps they've taken a road that is not as effective as he or she thought it would be. I hope that my stories induce a level of confusion in the reader that corresponds to the level of confusion in me at the moment of creation.
Yes, there is some comment on the post-Einsteinian world at work in my fiction, but all I could say is that I wasn't aware of it. And not being aware of it, I should actually interview you to figure out my position.
BG: Imagination seems to play a key role in your characters' worlds. They all have a superabundant imagination-which, as it were, can lead them by their noses. They can dream themselves and others into alternative states. They can experience the darkness of their own souls. They can be saved from being cruel-from doing indecent things to others-by "imagining" the pain of suffering. As Michael says in "The Metaphysics of Morals", one is only as good as one's imagination. Yet, if I'm not mistaken, the imagination can also be dangerous-one can be as bad as one's imagination. The world is full of Dr. Pascals.
AA: In so far as I'm able to speak of absolutes, I'd say the human imagination is an absolute. For me, it's the highest element in human life, the necessary catalyst for everything from God to Swiss pastry. It can be both terrifying and comforting, sometimes both at once, but I can't imagine human life without it.
BG: While we are talking about the imagination, can you comment on the two worm-ridden poets from "Despair: Five Stories from Ottawa".
AA: That particular story-another one I don't actually like-is interesting to me because it makes a strong connection between creation and death. I have to admit, it makes me laugh to think of a connection between death and the poetic imagination, but the common ground of the natural and the poetic is language. I mean, if you agree that the world is the writing of God, if you agree that the world is ultimately a set of symbols that are saying something, then, it sometimes seems to me, the world says, and it says it over and over, one thing: death, death, death. Actually, the world says two things: life and death, but never mind.. The poetic imagination is closest to death, closest to the essential message of Nature. And the poetic is, I think, among the most powerful ways of articulating death. So, I guess, what that story expresses, in abstract terms, is the connectedness between the imagination, language, and death.
BG: Let's turn now to your new novel Childhood. In many ways you have created a "typically" Canadian novel-the protagonist in search of his origin. And yet the novel is just as much about the impossibility of one ever knowing one's origin. Thomas, the protagonist, seems to be saying, "This is who I am," and yet he also says, "What you see here really isn't me, only one of many versions of myself." Is this the novel's message?
AA: I don't know if that's the novel's message as such, but it is one of the engines that drives the narrative, one of the ideas that makes Thomas nervous. I agree that all versions of the self are provisional, time-based, and evanescent, but all of these versions are also true, however briefly. And, in the end, it's the search for a clear perspective, for those flashes of understanding, that I find really moving. I mean, it's important that Thomas should fail to answer the question "Who am I?" That's a question that can only really be answered at the end of a life, when there's no more change, when there are no more perspectives. But "Who am I?" is also one of the most noble questions, don't you think? To ask it deeply is to risk everything and, in so far as Thomas asks it deeply, I kind of admire him.
BG: At the very centre of Childhood-at least in my reading of it-is a powerful moral dilemma, which Thomas presents as a casual rhetorical question: "Can one love what one doesn't know?" Then he wonders how such a "small question" could have provoked so much writing, obviously referring to the book he's about to finish. Is knowing what makes us finally love someone?
AA: Can one love what one doesn't know? I guess that's another of the questions that drives the narrative, but it's a pretty ironic question, given that, in childhood, we're supposed to love God, our parents, our country.things and people we can't possibly "know". That's where faith comes in, I suppose, faith in God, faith in our parents.. And the end of childhood comes when you can no longer accept faith as a substitute for knowing. Of course, the adult puts as much faith in the idea of "knowing" as the child puts in the idea of his parents' love, for instance. The saddest moment in the novel, for me, is when you watch Henry Wing searching through his library for a cure for cancer. Before this desperate search, he treats books as a convenient repository of entertaining ideas. And as long as he doesn't believe books are the answer, they are an answer of sorts. But as soon as he actually seeks knowledge in books, they become something else entirely: a really bewildering labyrinth. The question for me isn't so much if knowing leads to love, but what the heck "knowing" might be. I'm not sure that answers your question, Branko, but it took me some 70,000 words just to ask the question clearly. I haven't had time to answer it.
BG: Is this novel a version of your own childhood? At the end Thomas says that he will have "thousands of childhoods before time is done." Can we expect more versions of the same? Or is this it? Are you ready to move somewhere else?
AA: Well, sorry to be so banal, but yes and no. Childhood is one of an almost infinite number of possible variations on my own childhood. And like Thomas, I do think time is what puts a stop to one's childhoods. But Childhood is a novel that takes my own childhood only as a starting point. Thomas is not me. He has his own way of ordering the world, of dealing with chaos. I mean, I welcome chaos as a relief from thought, something Thomas could never do. I don't want to live with Thomas any more. So, even though I love the idea of consciously writing the same novel over and over again, with the same title and the same characters, I'm ready to move on.
Branko Gorjup teaches Canadian literature at York University. He is the editor of Mythologizing Canada: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination.