For the duration of their time on our site Tina Makereti and Lisa Allen-Agostini wrote posts alternately. After two posts from each writer, we asked Tina and Lisa some questions that their writing had raised.
Commonwealth Writers: In your opening pieces you think about the relation between readers and writers. You examine the responsibility and power of the writer and the role the reader has in shaping the writing process. How does your readership affect how and what you write?
Lisa Allen-Agostini: I think I pay more conscious attention to how my writing will be read when I write as a journalist, rather than in my fiction or in my poetry. My journalism training tells me I have to write in a way that is easily understood and avoids jargon or overwriting. I don’t have the same restrictions in my fiction or poetry. I can be as obscure, prolix or flowery as I want to be. In my poetry and my fiction I mostly write for myself first, and then for the reader; often it’s only in second or third revisions I consider how the reader might respond. The process typically looks like this: I write a first draft based on an idea that I’ve had or something I’ve seen, then I edit it until I’m happy with it, satisfied it says what I want it to say, in the way I want to say it. I send out that draft to as many people as possible to get a reader’s perspective.
The questions or comments those initial readers return inform my rewrites, usually in aid of making my intention clearer, my characters stronger, my language easier to understand. At that point I rarely make drastic changes—it’s usually tweaking more than a complete renovation—but in the case of the manuscript I read excerpts from in Grenada, I did make big changes. Those changes came after several readers said the first draft didn’t work—it was too didactic, too cold, overwritten and filled with unlikely events that didn’t ring authentic even though they were based on real life. For example, the story is set in Trinidad in 2005, around the time when there were dustbin bombs being set off in the capital, and I put those bombs into the story. However, many of my readers said they found the bombings unrealistic and that they didn’t fit into the story. The next draft I did was from a completely different point of view, narrated in Trinidad Creole instead of Standard English, and excluded the bombs. The excerpt I read at the Groundation event was very much the same as I had originally written it, however. I wrote it determined not to elide disturbing details about how the child felt when she was being raped. Maybe it’s sensationalist, but it definitely affects readers.
Tina Makereti: When we write about the process, it makes it seem much more conscious than it is. The truth is, when I begin to write, I am writing for a reader who is like me. I write about things I would find interesting, in ways I would find interesting. I avoid boring myself! However, what interests me is how we interact as people in communities, how those communities are formed, and how individual identities are formed within them. If you are passionate about community and how we all relate to each other and interact with each other, then it is difficult to ignore the needs of people who are facing real hardship in those communities. For me, writing about history or culture is a way of trying to untangle how our communities produce prejudices and inequities. If we figure out how and why we do stuff that is detrimental to our collective wellbeing, perhaps we can begin to imagine ways our communities could operate differently. Ultimately it goes back to the grief I identified in the first post, and wonder, which is the thing that gives me hope.
Again, it all sounds very calculated, but it isn’t. The first question is always: ‘what makes a good story?’ For me at the moment, in my own writing, those are the ingredients.
Commonwealth Writers: Tina, you say ‘I write to you now as an author from Aotearoa’. Lisa, you ask what ‘constitutes Caribbean identity?’. However, in the two excerpts above, there is also a movement away from physical, geographic locality into imagined spaces. As a writer, what kinds of spaces are more important to you?
Tina Makereti: I want to say they are the same. The imagined reality and the physical world around you. They inform each other, and they exist at the same time. As an Indigenous writer, I see no conflict between the two, in fact the paradoxical space of those two things happening simultaneously is a very potent creative place, and I think I recognise that in the work of Caribbean writers too. I think this is why our (and here I am opening my arms wide to include a very expansive ‘us’: writers of colour, of migration, of the Pacific) writing has such a charge.
In fact, I would go further to say this has something to do with the idea that we create our physical reality through our stories – the link between those two things is beyond my complete understanding, but it has something to do with our imaginations informing the possibilities of our lives, which is why creative writing is so crucial for anyone who is disadvantaged by the colonial inheritance – we have to imagine different realities and different futures, and write about them. At some point in the process we will also begin to talk and act collectively because we have seen what is possible.
Lisa Allen-Agostini: In my poetry I often identify the physical space of Trinidad as home—my very first published poem is called “Identity” and characterises my relationship to the environment here as immutable. I know when I’m away I long for the hills of Trinidad’s Northern Range, for the fragrance and foods and foliage of Trinidad, and I constantly engage in a subliminal or overt comparative exercise between where I am and home. (Home isn’t always better.) My racial heritage—African, Indian, Amerindian, Arab, Spanish and probably some other unknown European ancestry—marks me as typically Caribbean, but it’s a mix you aren’t likely to find elsewhere, so I also feel I belong here biologically as well as psychologically.
Several years ago I read a book called Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, by James Sanders. It deeply influenced how I think about the intersection of identity and location for creatives. Sanders’ exhaustive study of films made in and about New York looked at the relationship between the actual city and how film writers portrayed it as an imagined space, and I feel many of the dynamics he explores in that book are also true for the Caribbean. For example, he writes about the yearning felt by East Coast writers relocated to California during the Golden Age of Cinema, and how this influenced a romanticised, nostalgic version of the city appearing in the films they wrote. I think a change happens when you transplant writers from the Caribbean and put them in the US or Canada or the UK. The place they remember changes while they’re away, so they are citizens of an imagined or reconstructed Caribbean. The same thing might happen to a writer who is stuck on writing about a particular era of Caribbean life. But does that mean their “Caribbean” isn’t valid? I think it’s still valid, because identity isn’t just geography but is heavily influenced by culture. You can take the writer out of the Caribbean, but you can’t take the Caribbean out of the writer.
Commonwealth Writers: You both believe in the power of stories to affect change, however you also give time to activities which are not strictly to do with writing. For any aspiring writer who wants their story to encourage people to think differently, can you say more about the times when your writing didn’t feel enough?
Tina Makereti: I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly! The writing is always enough, in fact I would like it to take up all the spare space in my life! And the writing became the thing through which I could see so much more happening. So, when I do something like teach workshops or organise writers’ hui (gatherings), these things support my own work as much as they support others. I just couldn’t see myself working in isolation. This must again be an Indigenous thing, I think. Up to a certain point, I was wholly concerned with developing my own skill. That will never end, but once I had published and established something, I lifted my head and looked around and wondered where everyone else was. They were there, of course, wondering the same thing. We don’t do too well in isolation from each other.
I do want to quote Kei Miller, quoting Lorna Goodison, who said ‘we all must bring our own portion of light’. Sometimes I feel guilt that I don’t spend more time at a community level, doing the real practical stuff that has an immediate impact on people’s lives. That’s real activism to me. Especially the health workers, the people who work face to face at the front lines. I work with words, I’d like to see change in our educational institutions, and I like to think about the big picture stuff around history and culture. I write stories, which brings me a lot of joy, and I can only hope it brings joy and light to others, and that it confronts them as well. Perhaps this is my portion of light. It’s not very big. We can always do more. Doing more simply means turning towards a problem or an issue rather than turning away from it.
Lisa Allen-Agostini: As a journalist I know stories can make change. And as a reader, I know it as well. I think about books that have affected me deeply, changed the way I thought about a topic or a region—like The Kite Runner, for example. Art can be used to change the world. However, I don’t think a writer should start from that end. Developing the craft of writing should come first, or the writing, in my experience, comes out stilted and ineffectual. I think few writers successfully combine social activism with real art; often what results is an ideological lecture rather than a truly artistic creation. So craft first, before mission. A Trinidadian artist recently worked with a psychiatrist to mount an exhibition of paintings about mental health. The work served as a springboard for discussion and a form of activism, but it was art in its own right. That’s what I think we should aim for, as creatives who want to use art to send a message.
Tina Makereti: It’s interesting to see the similarities between our answers, and I particularly like Lisa’s final words, that it’s about making art first. I think we’ve both reflected in different ways on how, even though this is a nebulous, indefinable process, the things that are very important to us eventually find their way into the world through the work. The last thing I want to say is simply thank you for the opportunity to discuss these issues – it’s really important to have forums like this. Ngā mihi mahana – me rongo.
Lisa Allen-Agostini: As Tina said, the similarities between our answers were very interesting to note – even though we are in island societies a whole world apart from each other geographically, we had similar perspectives on many issues. It’s one world for artists, it seems.