Mark McWatt in Conversation about Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement

Article excerpt

Mark McWatt, Guyanese writer and scholar, is currently Professor of West Indian Literature at the Cave Hill (Barbados) campus of the University of the West Indies. He is a co-editor, with Stewart Brown, of The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005) and a joint editor of the Journal of West Indian Literature. He has also published two books of poetry, Interiors (1988) and The Language of Eldorado (1994). His short story collection, Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement (2005), was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book of fiction.

Suspended Sentences tells the stories of a group of students whose completion of the secondary school A-level examinations coincides with Guyanese independence in 1969. At a celebration party they vandalize the Sports Clubhouse of the Imperial Bank, and are consequently "sentenced" to each write a story about Guyana. These stories, brought together some twenty years later, make up the book. Their atonement is not only for the relatively minor incident of damaging the Clubhouse, but also for a moment in history when a generation of educated Guyanese left their homeland. In this sense, the book becomes a narrative, with both celebratory and melancholy tones, of the intriguing splendor of the Guyanese landscape, the diversity of its peoples, the multiplicity of its potential, and the erosion of that very potential.

We spoke with Mark McWatt in Calgary in March 2007. We began by asking about his turn to the short story form in Suspended Sentences.

You had written two books of poetry before Suspended Sentences. What was appealing to you about shifting to prose? Was narrative a particularly useful strategy for what you wanted to say in the book?

I didn't really think of it that way, but yes, there is a kind of a seduction in narrative. Even in poetry I had started writing in long narrative sequences so that I was moving in that direction anyway. As for what I had to say, yes I suppose it could be better said in narrative, because I wanted to celebrate both the physical reality of Guyana, the landscape, which I had done in the poems, and to mourn what had become of the country. Also, I wanted to talk about the period from the 1960s on, and prose narrative seemed more appropriate than poetry.

There is a strong sense of mourning in the book, perhaps most strongly felt in the fate of the characters, despite the exuberance of many of the stories.

Yes, that is something I really feel. When I go back to Guyana and visit the university, there are always one or two people who say, "You should be here helping your country instead of teaching in Barbados." I do not pay too much attention to that, but I do feel a sense of guilt for, along with most of my class, having left Guyana. Although many of us tried to get back, it is just not possible.

Suspended Sentences has resonances with fiction that has formed the canon of postcolonial literatures: the echo of Conrad's Heart of Darkness in Victor Nunes's tale of traveling into the interior and spending time at a "phantom outpost of civilization" (Suspended 70); the parallel with Rushdie's Midnight's Children in the association of the students' graduation with Guyana's independence; a hint of Faulkner's Emily ("A Rose for Emily") in the spinster, Miss Alma Fordyce. What do you see as the effect of these dialogues with other texts?

Some of it was conscious, a lot of it wasn't. You mention Conrad and I really didn't have that in my mind as I was writing. Marquez yes, and one or two others, the story about the courtesan, "A Lovesong for Miss Lillian," is modeled in part upon a Garcia Marquez story called "Maria dos Prazeres." But I just feel that the context of everything that I write is literature itself, these things echo and re-echo, although I am happy to have them pointed out.

It was fascinating reading the book because there were such obvious meta-narrative gestures, and you are also talking about the way we write fiction with an eye on all the fiction that has been written. …