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Veena Gokhale interviews H. Nigel Thomas about his recent book “No Safeguards”, African Canadian literature, and the experiences that made him a writer

H. Nigel Thomas

Veena Gokhale’s recent interview with Guernica writer H. Nigel Thomas touches on a variety of topics: the place of African Canadian writing in Canadian literature, homosexuality in West Indian culture, and the motivations behind his various books – No Safeguards, to be released by Guernica Editions this fall, the most recent among them. His responses to Gokhale’s questions refer to his previous experiences as a teacher in the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, and as a mental health worker at Montreal’s Douglas Hospital. These experiences produced many of Thomas’ writings, including Return to Arcadia which focuses on a patient at Douglas Hospital, as well as Behind the Face of Winter which was inspired by encounters of racist behaviour towards West Indian students in Montreal high schools during the ‘70s.

When asking about the place of African Canadian writing in Canadian literature, Gokhale refers to a statement that Thomas makes in the introduction of Why We Write, his anthology of interviews with African Canadian poets and novelists, “These conversations came about for several reasons, most important of which was my need to meet and chat with fellow Black writers living across Canada”. Thomas points out how “as late as the mid-seventies African Canadians found themselves invisible not only in well-paying jobs but also on library shelves”. Thomas emphasizes that the exclusion of black writers from the Canadian literary establishment is still an issue, stating “Literary agents tell us that major publishers are loathe to take on our books because books by Blacks don’t sell”, especially books which use Caribbean dialects or other languages that aren’t “being valorized”. Thomas has organized a reading series in order to combat this, which is “aimed largely, but not exclusively, at encouraging African-Canadian communities to engage more fully in Montreal’s literary culture”. The Kola Readings/Lectures Kola take place on the second Monday of every month at UNIA, 2741 Notre-Dame West from 7-9 PM.

Thomas also discusses the persecution of homosexuals in Caribbean culture. In response to Veena’s question about the persecution of black homosexuals, which also points out how Thomas is “among the first West Indian writers to feature homosexual protagonists in [his] books”, Thomas replies by explaining that “the persecution of gays in the Caribbean is framed as resisting the corrupting morality of Europe and North America”. This persecution is closely linked to religious influences, “the Judeo-Christian Bible is invoked at every turn to justify such persecution…Until gays here won the marriage battle, anti-gay sentiment in the African Canadian community was very vocal. It’s worth mentioning that it was stoked by the teachings of the Evangelical churches where most Blacks worship”. Thomas has given voice to this issue in many of his works, including his short story “Percy’s Illness”, which focuses on the “’self-hatred’ resulting from the persecutions gays endure”.

Thomas states, “I write because reality mystifies me, and my temperament pushes me to explore it via my imagination. I know that my senses apprehend little more than the masks of reality. My desire, then, is to strip away the mask and send probes into the darkness beyond”. His books achieve this in various ways, focusing on the negotiation of Western and West African identity in Spirits in the Dark and Return to Arcadia, and the experience of West Indian youth immigrating to Montreal in Behind the Face of Winter. Thomas explains that his most recent work No Safeguards is “a corrective to much of my writing, which is mostly about ‘the wretched of the earth.’…The novel is as much about the making of the middle-class in St Vincent (not Isabella Island) as it is about middle-class West Indian immigrants to Canada”.

No Safeguards is the first in a trilogy of novels focusing on Jay and his brother Paul from childhood to young adulthood. The book deals with the impact of fundamentalist Christianity on their family, the ways that this becomes even more poignant when they leave their grandmother’s home in St. Vincent to join their mother in Montreal, and the further oppression that the brothers encounter when it is revealed that they are gay.

Nigel Thomas was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and has been living in Montreal since 1986. He has written three other novels, Spirits in the Dark, Behind the Face of Winter, and Return to Arcadia, along with three collections of short stories, How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow, Lives: Whole and Otherwise (translated into French as Des vies cassées), and When the Bottom Falls Out and Other Stories. He has also written a collection of poems, Moving through Darkness, and two scholarly texts.

Veena Gokhale began her career in print journalism in Bombay during the 1980’s and first came to Canada on a journalism fellowship. She has worked in communications for non-profit organizations, and has had her fiction and poetry published in anthologies and literary journals. She is also the writer of Bombay Wali & Other Stories, released by Guernica Editions in 2013.

Posted in Fiction, Interviews, News.

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