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Singing, still

Photo: Lee Warner

In June, British-Jamaican writer Leone Ross released her first book in 17 years: Come Let Us Sing Anyway (Peepal Tree Press, 2017). A collection of short fiction, it follows her novels Orange is Laughter (first published in 1999), and All the Blood is Red (first published in 1996, and shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997). Born in Coventry, UK, she moved to Jamaica as a child and at age 21 returned to the UK after completing UWI. She was one of 50 notable black-British and Asian-British writers in the historic photograph “A Great Day in London”. She teaches creative writing at the University of Roehampton in London.

The stories here include literary fiction, psychological drama, horror, erotica and magic realism

The Caribbean Insight Magazine: Congratulations on the new collection! Is there a theme or do the stories come from different genres? Do they treat with the Caribbean?

Leone Ross: I think what unites the collection is that I am fascinated by complex human emotional spaces: the gentleness of lust, the healing power of rage, the necessity of defiance, the lessons we get from pain. Come Let Us Sing Anyway is a multi-genre/ form collection of short stories and we hope that is what makes it unique in Caribbean literature.

There are 23 stories here and they include literary fiction, psychological drama, horror, erotica and magic realism. The collection also includes normal, commercial length short stories (anywhere from 1,500- 5,000 words long) and “micro” or “flash” fiction stories—under 1,000 words and in some cases, quite tiny.

And yes, the stories are tremendously Caribbean, I think. Several are set in Jamaica: a little girl who meets a man called President Daisy on a countryside train; a curious threesome triggered by a Manning Cup football match; a very Jamaican fashion show. Others are informed by diasporic and immigrant experiences: the middle aged woman from St Elizabeth whose children are Londoners; an electric, ferocious moment in Deptford Market; a man who suddenly begins to find women’s hymens across a big, cold city. That last example isn’t atypical of immigrant experiences, of course. That’s just me, writing odd things.

So I am a Yardie with an imagination. I’d like to think I am in the tradition of Louise Bennett and Anthony C Winkler.

A 16-year break between books is pretty intense. In the meanwhile you have published many short stories and even a chapbook. Is there another novel in there too that you’re working on?

It is a period of time in which I got really wrapped up in academia and also simply fell in love with the short story form.

I was a novelist initially, and always thought of myself as a long-form writer, having written and published two of them—All the Blood is Red and Orange Laughter. It is also a period in which I have been facilitating the growth of other writers. Time for me, again!

I have been working on the same novel for about 10 years and it’s ready for any publisher who is interested! I really need to try harder to sell it. It’s called This One Sky Day and it covers a single day in the lives of two people who should have been lovers, but just missed out on each other. Everybody knows the concept of the one who got away, right? It’s set in an imaginary archipelago designed to satirise Jamaica. The lead character is an extremely handsome chef called Xavier who is addicted to hallucinogenic moths. Yes, it’s weird. And I love it.

Watch this space, as I have three ideas for more novels. They all seem to be coming at the moment. I am going to have to settle down into one at a time…

The location of an artist often influences the work they make. Do you find this to be true in your own work? Has living and working outside the Caribbean region affected your voice—and if so in what ways?

I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, from [age] six to 21 before I returned to the UK, and the stories reflect that fact, as already discussed. As for voice, I retain the multi-syllabic, long-sentence hyperbole, full of simile and juxtaposition that I do think of as Caribbean, because put simply, that is how we talk. I also dip in and out of accents and different dialects and Jamaican patwa, although that is only part and parcel of a “voice”, of course.

Editing a collection of short stories created over a 16-year period was interesting, as I could see, viscerally, how my voice has altered over the years. I hope I’ve gotten better but I don’t think that’s to do with place. I think it’s time.

Like anything else, like any other craft, you get better the more you do it. You become aware of what you want to achieve and what specific sentence and word choices you make to get that affect. Having said that, like most writers, the kernel of a voice was always there and the same impulses remain intact from childhood: a concern with the ordinary that is extraordinary and vice versa; wanting to jolt and shock and arouse in equal measure; a certain kind of dark sentimentality; similes and details. What is wonderful is this: I can grow even more. You never stop learning how to write. I will be better in another 16 years.

In 2010 Orange Laughter was named one of Wasafiri‘s 25 Most Influential Books. You’ve been awarded and shortlisted for some significant prizes, notably the Orange Prize. Does this kind of recognition make your writing life harder or easier?

I think you need to win—and big—for it to make much of a practical difference. Although any and every accolade gives you a boost and helps you in front of that laptop, when essentially, you are alone. Don’t get me wrong—I would love a slew of prizes simply because publicity is all in a heaving, demanding market where you need a reason to be noticed. But it gives me equal pleasure—maybe even more pleasure—to meet a reader, have them look me in the eye and tell me I made them cry or laugh.

I am delighted to see that such as Marlon James and Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine have been proving recently that we can be recognised an international literary level. Ladies and gents: mi ah come fi yuh!


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