canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Longing and Belonging: An Interview with Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt is the author of Out of My Skin and Dragons Cry, published in 1998 and 2001 by The Riverbank Press in Toronto to wide critical acclaim. In Out of My Skin the adopted Daphne Eyre, having grown up in Toronto, is living in Montreal and working at a copy shop during the Oka crisis. Against the background of racial and political strife among Native Canadians, Francophones and Anglophones, Daphne discovers the traumatic truth of her origins: an incestuous union of her mother and grandfather in Guyana. This reluctant discovery about herself, enabled by the diaries of her mad (grand)father, Gerald, by the cryptic encouragement and warnings of the Mohawk matron, Surefoot, and indirectly by the erotic interest of the artist, Michael, transforms the naive, insecure and self-mythologizing Daphne into a historically conscious and self-accepting person.

Read TDR's review of Dragon's Cry

Dragons Cry is the story of the Carter brothers, Simon (a geologist) and David (a musician), and their relationship to Faye. Simon and David come from Guyana via Barbados to Canada -- Simon to study, David (after New York) to perform -- where they meet Faye, an ex-cellist for her ex-husband, a conductor. Faye marries Simon, trying desparately to become pregnant. She later has an ambivalent sexual encounter with David, whose powerful spirit haunts both Simon and Faye; the marriage and the filial relationship are almost destroyed. David commits suicide and during the one evening of the novel’s present tense -- Faye and Simon in their house after the funeral -- we come to know through alternating points of view and flashbacks, the full stories of Faye, Simon and David and the characters’ terrible longing for trust, mercy and love.

Dragons Cry is a more complex book, but both novels are courageous, original explorations of McWatt’s dominant themes: post-colonialism, identity, art, love, and family. McWatt’s prose is sophisticated and beautiful: the use of structure and point of view is adroit and unique; the inclusion of diaries, quotations of song, various encyclopedic references, and the convincingly rendered, wide range of dialects, accents, and languages of her host of extraordinary characters make the work truly “polyphonic”; the multi-layered symbolism and recurrent images or motifs -- which draw all aspects of the novels into deft, tightly woven semantic webs -- evidence the author’s musical training as well as her fundamentally poetic sensibility.

Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and grew up and was educated in Toronto. She later lived, taught and wrote in Montreal for several years, then moved to London, England. She has recently returned to Toronto. Besides the novels discussed in this interview, McWatt has published various short stories and poems in Canadian and British journals, and has been commissioned by the Ontario and Canadian arts councils to write libretti for the well-known Canadian composer, Bruce Pennycook. Dragons Cry was short-listed for both the City of Toronto Book Awards and the Governor General’s Awards of Canada in 2001.

Geoffrey Cook conducted the following interview with Tessa McWatt by email in 2002.

Out of My Skin

TDR: Why do you allude to Jane Eyre in Out of My Skin? Is it for thematic and political irony, your book having a post-colonial point of view?

TM: The allusions to Jane Eyre stem originally from a family fascination with the fact that my mother's maiden name is Eyre. She always thought she had some spiritual connection to Jane, even though she's a fictional character. I was influenced by my mother's deep psychic eccentricity. I did my Master's thesis on Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, exploring the north/south, white/colour issues and power dynamics inherent in Rhys's study of Bronte's first Mrs. Rochester. Then through fiction, Gerald became like my Bertha Mason -- misunderstood, trapped, unable to survive in a colonial context and finding madness almost as a solution for survival.

TDR: What is the significance of the story of "Nansi" and "Candlefly", which Daphne, as a child, hears from a stranger when she is wandering in a Toronto park?

TM: "Nansi" and "Candlefly" are there primarily to link Daphne to the oral history of her parents' culture that she had never been a part of. Nansi stories are the common folktales of the Caribbean. When Daphne hears it from the stranger who is trying to warn her about straying out late at night, it gets a particular weight in her over-functioning imagination. I've never found the Nansi stories particularly comforting. They've always seemed tinged with something ominous or threatening, a bit like Grimm's Fairy Tales, really, but also not as direct for me, having grown up in Canada. Daphne senses something familiar and strange at the same time, in the voice of this man with resonance of the Caribbean. She never got this kind of bedtime reading from her mother. The story starts her on another path of self-invention and discovery, and of course there are more obvious references to light and "stealing" someone's light that I think also resonate with the colonial/post-colonial contexts and the Oka story.

TDR: What is the significance of the manta ray - specifically of Frederick wanting to relieve or purge himself in the dead ray's embrace? Is it some sort of purge or salvation? Yet it's dead - killed. Is there a symbolic connection between the ray and Gerald? The ray is to Fred as Gerald is to Daphne? And then there's the line at the end: "Frederick had died longing for the touch of the wing of a fish that should have been a bird, that should have been a lover" (p. 192) - is this the metaphor's tragic core? Manta ray as a poor substitute for love? Daphne doesn't buy the ray for sale in the market, but gets Michael and love instead at the end of the book.

TM: The manta ray is really an important image for me. Something about it is terrifying, yet it is really a harmless creature. Frederick and his shipmates catch it by accident, and, being seamen, they are highly superstitious. It becomes like Coleridge's Albatross, which the Mariner has to make sense of and carry like a weight. The image haunts Gerald as well, as he finds Frederick's tenderness in the story of the ray, and this opens him up to his own vulnerability. And yes, Gerald is like Daphne's ray -- something she finds by accident and then must deal with -- the rotting flesh in her psychic container. The line "Frederick had died longing for the touch of the wing of a fish that should have been a bird, that should have been a lover" relates more to Daphne's sense of discarding the things that could be or should be or might have been. The love for and obsession with the ray is tragic. Daphne decides not to be a tragedy.

TDR: Your novel is set during the Oka crisis in Montreal, and the story of the Mohawks is obviously paralled to Daphne’s story of self - and cultural discovery. Besides this post-colonial parallel, I assume the significance of the name "Surefoot" is the ironic reference to "Oedipus"? That is, despite the tragic myth (of a culture Daphne initially idealizes and tries to adopt) and despite the apparent tragedy of Skin (Daphne as Antigone/Electra), "Surefoot" shows Daphne a "way out". For example, Surefoot advises Daphne after the latter has discovered the truth of her heritage -- that Daphne is the offspring of the incestuous union of father and daughter: "It's only a seed,” Surefoot says. “You don't have to plant it. Animals make tracks. You choose the ones you want to follow." (p. 173)

TM: Yes, somewhat initially unconsciously, Surefoot was meant to be a sort of Greek hero for Daphne, and they are her footprints Daphne thinks she's following out of the forest in the last chapter. But Surefoot has made up her own myth of herself. This is the legacy she offers for grabs to Daphne. The seed Daphne can plant is one of her own engendering. I do believe we create who we are and are not totally bound by our genetics or what may seem like our paths. We choose all the time. Consciousness is the difference. Memory is crucial. Consciousness has to be actually in the flow of real circumstances; that is, we have to be conscious that we have been choosing all along, even when we didn't know we were. It's in that consciousness that we can see the motifs and layers of our own lives, like one long novel.

TDR: Gerald is a very ironic figure in Skin. Just what is the significance of this character? How are we to read his comments on post-colonialism; for example: "The gift of civilization is like the gift of life, and a man does not turn his back on his father after he has learned to copulate" (p. 107). I assume the over-all point is the ghastly tragedy of this man's life (how representative is it?) and therefore any answer to questions about him and anything he says are deeply ironic (For example: compare his political pronouncement above with the fact that he rapes his daughter). What are his politics? and what does his fate signify about those politics?

TM: Gerald is a very ironic, enigmatic figure. He's hugely significant. The novel started with him. I wrote that section first, in about two weeks, just in the flow of something I couldn't exactly explain except as an attempt to put myself in the mind of someone truly trapped, internally and externally. Gerald is kind of a rant, or a howl at the moon. Old-time colonials of my parents' and grandparents' generations really did believe that life as a colonial was better than after the British left Guyana. So Gerald's comments on civilization are from some sort of indoctinization under colonial rule. He believes very strongly in the days of Empire, primarily because he thrived in those days. He's confused about power. He's a product of confused notions of power, and hence the confusion with his own daughter. He's a victim as well as a perpetrator of that confusion and abuse. And that certainly is one of the ugly sides of the effects of colonialism in Guyana.

TDR: Obviously, Daphne’s story is of her "becoming conscious", responsible, reflective, un-denying of history etc. (And this is shown through a myriad motifs: Daphne works at "copy" shop; tries to be "Aphrodite"/Daphne; "hits and misses" all the time; wakes late all the time - until the last 2+ chapters when her waking early signifies a coming-to-consciousness; researches birds instead of listening to the news etc; always wants to rebuild her face and name; she’s onanistic, a pubic hair-plucking voyeur). That is, what's the lesson, in a nutshell, for Daphne? And a follow up, what IS the role of imagination compared to history and fact?

TM: Yes, all you say about Daphne seems right to me, although sometimes I lose track of her myself. I started to dislike her by the time the novel came out, because I still felt she was wishy-washy, even though, as you say, she learns to become conscious, responsible, and no longer in denial. But there is a part of her, I think, for which the new consciousness is just another costume to wear. She invents everything. That's who she is, perhaps that's who she would always be if the novel continued. Even in consciousness she might continue to mythologize. Consciousness might then become her "thing." It might also be a part of the writer's or artist's consciousness. We get used to making everything up! Perhaps in that sense the role of the imagination is to simply allow us to endure.

Dragons Cry

TDR: While it employs the same technique of dense symbolism and 'leitmotifs' which gives your fiction such impressive coherence, your second novel, Dragons Cry is more sophisticated, structurally, with the two, alternating points of view (Faye's and Simon's) and the sustained flashbacks. Was this a deliberate attempt to exercise certain techniques, and/or integral to the expression of character and theme?

TM: When I first conceived of the novel it was in the first person, with two first-person narratives (Faye's and Simon's), and I wanted to differentiate between them, so I wrote Simon's by hand and Faye's directly into the computer. Technically, my fingers on the keyboard tap into a more rhythmic, playful part of my brain, while my handwriting is slow and seems to speak for my more melancholic, romantic side. I don't know why this is so, but it was an interesting experiment for me. After reviewing the manuscript, however, it became clear that it should be in the third person, but I kept the voices by merely changing 'I' to 'he' or 'she' and so was able to show the meeting and non-meeting of the two lovers' hearts. The two lovers look at the same things and yet see them differently.

TDR: As in Skin, the narrative point of view in Dragons (Faye's or Simon's perspective) is, in a sense, "ordinaried" by a secondary character with a more radical perspective or vision -- David. The analogous figure in Skin is Gerald. Why this 'othering' or 'distancing' of the more radical character?

TM: Simon and Faye understand their own lack of passion by experiencing their lives through David's --- his intensity, and, of course, his death. He's a catalyst to their own growth. I suppose, like Gerald, he's raw passion and unbridled imagination, which in our society tends to get punished. We don't know how to accommodate such rawness and directness and freedom. Gerald ends up in an asylum and David ends up committing suicide, not knowing where to direct his longing.

TDR: Despite the location of point of view in Simon or Faye, clearly David is the central character in the novel, or the central conundrum or symbol, as was Gerald in Skin. David is the question that the others must answer. On one level, his story is representative of a particular cultural crisis - that of the postcolonials - and one of the tragedies in Dragons is David's 'failure' to succeed in North America; yet the book also clearly implies that the artist figure more generally is a scapegoat.

TM: David says people want to be the artist or to kill the artist. I guess I was thinking of two things. The star-making machinery (to use Joni Mitchell's term) and also the stalker mentality that produces people like John Lennon's murderer. Art seems to threaten some people -- they want a piece of it, they want a part of it, but they feel that it's not within them. It becomes something that's commodified and also coveted, because as adults in our society we are trained out of using our creativity, or imagination. Creativity is a life-force. It's what all of us are driven by. We are creators. Sometimes we lose track of that. David is many questions: "what's my role on earth? where do I put my passion? what's life without passion?"

TDR: Why must David die? Not why did he; why must he? For the narrative demands it; life, hope, love, (as represented by Faye and Simon) demand it. What does David lack? Is it love? But clearly he loves his wife and family. Is it David's longing for impossible dreams. Does life demand art as sacrifice? And the irony - David represents fertility -; is that another metaphor for the value of what art allows us? Is David Dionysian?

TM: David must die because he doesn't know how to accept life. His longing is too much for him. He wants love -- the metaphysical power, the sense of wholeness and completeness and peace that he finds in music -- to come from somewhere outside of himself. He can't find that power in himself, as much as he senses its presence. And his society and circumstances have defeated him at every battle. Art is his connection to "god," but real life -- or his perception of real life -- stops him from being continually attached to it. Life does not demand art as sacrifice, it demands art (and fertility) as enough. Perhaps it isn't.

TDR: David's scarred face, from the accident at the political rally, is described as similar to the "ritual symmetrical cuts on the faces of African men.... A sacrificial face." (p. 32) David says at the end of the book, "People don't want art, they want the artist - or to be him or to kill him, whichever; it's not about what he makes, just about who he is..." (p. 182). David, like his Biblical namesake (also a musician), sounds like a King figure whose body/spirit must be ritually slain and disseminated in order to guarantee fertility, a harvest for the community: the Greek sparagmos. And this idea/image of the scapegoat artist and sparagmos is reflected in the meditations on love and identity in the book, particularly toward the end where it is evoked with and in the images of home, longing, and children: "[David] wanted to live in a song, but he couldn't stay there forever, couldn't sing all day. He wondered again when it would stop, all this longing, a throbbing pain like the aching bones he'd had as a growing child. It had only recently occurred to hm that this yearning... would be with him forever - until he died" (p. 128). Later Simon says, "The body begins to reject the soul for its yearning...Simon came to think of home as a yearning fulfilled only by love, which transformed yearning to belonging" (p. 159-60). As well, the doubling of the brothers is typical of mythopoeism (I’m thinking of Graves’ and Hughes’ works on myth.) Is this mythopoeism deliberate?

TM: Yes, if I understand the term as you propose it, I suppose the "mythopoeism" is deliberate, in that the characters -- as brothers and as lovers -- are connected by longing. For these characters to fulfil their longing requires a metaphysical joining -- with the catalyst of sex, or love -- and perhaps that's something we only achieve in death. For want of a better term, perhaps what we long for is god (the lower-case version), the face of god, the comfort of god, where we can be assured that we are one, whole, and will no longer have to "long" to be attached to someone or something greater than ourselves. What we long for is ultimately inside ourselves, but perhaps we can only know this in death. So if in the face of death we realise that all we have is life, we must live it authentically. The only "solution" or "answer", if you will, is to live it in love. That's why Faye and Simon must try again to reconnect.

The Darker Side of the Moon:

TDR: In both Skin and Dragons there is some horror or terror or tragedy in the characters' past, some transgression which the main character(s) have to face, accept and move on from. (In Skin, Daphne's father/brother rapes her mother/sister; in Dragons Simon's brother, David, practically rapes Simon's wife, Faye). Both novels end on notes of hope and redemption (however tentatively offered); but this means the tragic transgression is necessary. Given the symbolism of the novels, it seems to me too easy to claim that these tragedies are personal and limited. Are these tragedies and transgressions politically and culturally symbolic of the fate of post-colonials? Or are they more universally symbolic? Of what?

TM: Yes, I think they must be politically/culturally symbolic of the nature of change and life, in general. I'm not trying to be glib by saying what my track coach used to say to me, but "no pain, no gain." And that is to say that the process of life demands "tragedy," if you want to look at it in a literary sense, because I still (although this wavers from time to time and I am beginning to wonder how long I will believe this) believe that we evolve, we grow, we emotionally and spiritually change, both individually and collectively. I am most certainly digressing from your question here, but I just read something in the Guardian about the abolition of slavery in 1833 in Britain. At the time, many of the literary elite in London -- people like Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, Kingsley, Tennyson -- supported a view of "us" and "them." Carlyle argued that black people were not like white and should not be treated as such. Kingsley wrote that "there are congenital differences and hereditary tendencies which defy all education." Claiming to be "no slaveholder at heart," he also added that he did not like Negroes. I mention this because I think I can safely say that, on the whole, we have made some ground since then. But in order to do so there have been many "tragedies," both personal and political. On the other hand, the perspective continues throughout most of the world (the "us" and "them" of the rich/poor; East/West; Christian/Muslim, etc), and I think we have much more to go through until this is no longer so. John Berger said in a radio interview that as soon as there is an "us" and "them" there is the potential for barbarism. Hopefully we learn lessons from such tragedies. Perhaps we are the necessary sacrificial lambs (scapegoats? to use your term) of our own human project.

Madness and the Mother:

TDR: Both Skin and Dragons include mothers who are mad and/or literally or symbolically dead, although there are "mother" figures in both novels whose voices and characters are strong, wise and stabilizing (Surefoot in Skin and MacKenzie in Dragons). Why is the "real" mother's voice displaced? Since clearly you want such a voice/character in the books?

TM: Both Daphne and Faye are insecure women at the beginning of their stories. Their disempowered mothers are images they must battle within themselves to gain confidence. I come from a generation of women whose mothers were disempowered by social expectations and opportunities at the time. I don't know a single one of my friends who doesn't describe her mother as "mad" or "batty" or "whacko" and I think it's because their creativity was bottled up via marriage and motherhood. Some of those same women, had they been born just a couple of decades later, would be running the world or brilliant artists.

TDR: Following on this: the damaged daughters of these mad mothers are haunted by their mothers' affliction (not just implicitly damaged by an 'absent' mother, but literally threatened by the same madness - i.e., both Daphne and Faye hear noises/voices/sounds (a tintinabulation which is not just your signature, but what I think is a singularly attractive element in your writing). In the first novel, Skin, Daphne concludes that her mother was simply too weak to overcome her tragedy or the threat, and in the end Daphne accepts her monstrous origins; Dragons, which thematizes the question of art, also addresses this question of madness more consciously. Faye asks, early in the novel, "Is insanity the penalty of endowment, a levy on richness of spirit and mind? How could she account for the complexity of the sounds in her own head....?"(p. 52). A little later, in reflecting on the meaning of David's suicide, Faye reconsiders her mother's insanity: "She used to think that her mother's nervous breakdown was a coward's way of living, but she's come to understand it as strong and creative, a means of leaving the world without having to tie a noose, wield a razor blade, gag on pills. And yet to prepare a noose as effectively as David had, requires physical dexterity and consciousness that defies obliteration; it almost reinforces a worldly existence" (p. 81). By the end of the novel, as with other tragedies, Faye overcomes her fear of madness and her mother: "She had transformed her mother's mad ditties into the arpeggios on her cello.... Faye accepted the noises in her head, the only voice she had of her mother - a souvenir." (p. 172) Again, it is art that plays a vital role in sustaining life by transforming its madness and horror into art. Is this what you were getting at?

TM: Of course daughters have their mothers' legacies to live with. Each individual carries his or her past in different ways. We each have generations residing within us and those generations, and whatever legacies they bear, form a kind of primary knot we have to untie and make sense of in our individual lives. Perhaps I see the past as inescapable, as something to be incorporated into the present and the future, but also something that needn't bog us down. And, if I can continue my idea that we evolve out of each other, then consciousness of what the characters see as "a failing" and how much of it is really one's own and how much of it is "inherited" is one of the first steps in evolution. Art, or specifically, creativity, plays a crucial role in that evolution. In the act of creating something from the horror or madness, we transcend it because we are conscious of it. In considering David's dexterity in tying a knot, Faye wonders if he was more conscious of it as a creation than "in it" as in a moment of madness.


TDR: Edwin, his son Simon, and Faye are "Dragons" - born in the Chinese year of the Dragon. Dragons are, according to that other choral figure, Phillip the mime, "special: 'The world is hard for you, 'cause you're its best invention: Impossible. Very sensitive, but don't like to be challenged..." But Simon realizes something very important: "Dragons were not real. They came from nowhere, belonged nowhere." (p. 112) Again, this suits Edwin, Simon, Faye and David to a certain degree, though the ending implies that Simon and Faye may find belonging - in creating a loving family, and possibly music - and therefore become "real". I guess the question here is how does 'longing' become 'belonging"?

TM: Longing can become belonging in love. Or in David's case, in death, in that place where nothing is separate (Whether or not you believe that we go to "nothing" or we go to "everything," we all go…). Love at least provides the illusion of oneness. And perhaps, on earth, illusion is all we have.

TDR: A follow-up question: Simon's recognition of the "fictionality" of the Dragon recalls Daphne's recognition that she and "Surefoot" are creatures of the imagination only. In Skin, Daphne's struggle is to learn and accept her tragic past and origins, and that involves rejecting "stories" about her life, rejecting fictionalizing her life (or at least using others' fictions/myths which implicitly deny her past and reality). And in "Dragons" the characters similarly struggle to throw off illusions about themselves, to get out from under other people's narratives of them (eg Michael's oppression of Faye, or Faye's disappearance/annihilation in her trying to be the character/story Michael wants her to be; David becoming a hybrid musician, despite his father's wishes, etc.) What are these recognitions of the "fictionality" of lives? We always end up with the ugly question: What is the relationship between art and life?

TM: We make it ALL up! We make up the art and we make up the life. I think we are creative beings in the deepest way, on the most basic level. We make up stories about ourselves and live them out. Making art is just one, more self-conscious, way of fitting our lives into stories. The ugly question isn't ugly to me: life is art, art is life."

Family, Music, the Writing Life

TDR: The novel is as much about love and family - specifically making babies i.e., genetics - as art. And the two seem analogous or connected.... The genetic variety of the Carter family gets much attention; David suggests that mongrelization is the key to a successful future - and his music is hybrid; Edwin is an artificial inseminator; he ironically remarks that "survival doesn't guarantee health"; there is a suggestion that the colonies are both a hope (in that mongrelization) and "the offspring of exhausted loins"; Faye is "idiopathically infertile" and her mad quest to get pregnant includes some of the most comic and the most disturbing moments in the book; having a child is the one great hope for love and life at the end; there is much ironic commentary on modern genetics. What is your interest in genetics/family/ baby-making and how does it relate to making art?

TM: Perhaps it follows from my feeling that we make up everything. Perhaps in that way art and babies aren't that far apart. I am fascinated by genetics, biology and my own family as a genetic experiment. We come from a very mixed gene pool. I like to understand where I fit in it, but, well... science is not a science... so to speak. I do think that there's a place where science is as mysterious as art. They both are about engaging in understanding mysteries, or at least in channeling them. I wanted Faye and Simon to experience the same things but through different paradigms.

TDR: The subject of music is central to Dragons Cry, yet it is also present in Skin mostly through the 'noises' in Daphne's head (exactly like Faye). Do you, Tessa, have a background in music? Were you a musician or singer etc? How self-conscious a metaphor and/or structural device is music in Dragons (or your writing generally)?

TM: I have sung professionally -- on a very, very small scale, in just a couple of venues -- and I used to play the cello. Music is crucial in my life. I think I might have been a musician if I weren't so shy. I'm not a performer. The music and noises and rhythms of my writing are a very a natural part of how I experience language. It's not as self-conscious in Dragons as it might appear. For me, Faye just thinks like that. I hear sentences before I know exactly what the words are in them. Most of the sentences I wrote for Gerald were just accidents, really. I heard him before I understood him.

TDR: Do you see your writing (and your self?) in a particular cultural or national context? I.e., your family is from Guyana; you grew up in Toronto; you lived in Montreal; most recently you've lived for years in London, England, and now you are coming back to Toronto; your books are set in Montreal, Toronto, and Guyana and Barbados and deal explicitly with post-colonial issues. But do you think of yourself as a Canadian writer? Where do you position yourself in Canadian writing?

TM: Tough question. I'm asked that all the time. I don't know how to answer it, because I have many traditions making themselves heard in my head. I think that's true of many, many writers today. It's mostly the job of critics to put those labels on, I think. But I can say that Canada has allowed me to be who I am. I would not be the same person, let alone same kind of writer, if my father had stayed in Guyana or had moved to England instead of Toronto. I feel hugely privileged to have grown up in Canada, and I identify with Canadian writers, but also with Caribbean and British writers. I suppose I have gone from, as a child, feeling like I belonged nowhere, straddling two cultures, to feeling like I belong everywhere. I feel very lucky.

TDR: You are working on a film script for John Berger's To the Wedding. Can you tell me how this project came about? Also, what was your interest in this particular work by Berger? How do you deal with the problem of point of view in the film version of this novel "told" by a blind old man who 'shouldn't' know the story he knows.

TM: The Berger project came about because I was reading scripts and suggesting projects for a film company here in London, and the Executive Producer asked me if there were any novels I loved that I could see becoming a film. I named three, and he read To the Wedding and liked it very much. He said: "Ok, write a letter to John Berger." I did, and John called me a couple of weeks later. He's a remarkable man and I have great respect for his work and his life. Most of all, I love his novel. It is about love, the dissolving of national boundaries and cultural barriers, change, death, and ultimately beauty. The wedding scene is really one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. In the film, we don't use the blind narrator, because we have a camera to do his job.

TDR: What have you learned from turning a novel -- and another person's novel -- into a film? You've published two novels, but have you other writings (in story form, script or poetry); or do you have any interest in pursuing such genres? Or does such division and classification of writing mean much to you? for clearly your novels are "poetic": carefully, beautifully written language of symbolic, metaphoric weight developed into works of intelligent complexity and coherence.

TM: From film work and screenwriting, in general, I've learned a great deal about my own writing. I've learned about economy of action and have become conscious of a very different kind of structure -- one that suits work that is real-time driven (ie. you have control over an audience's time) versus one in which the reader controls when he or she is inside the story. I started writing by writing poetry, then I wrote short (and not-so-short) fiction, as well as a novella. Somehow they're all part of the same thing for me, and I think I write what I can contain at a particular moment. I wanted to write a big poem, I think, and it became a novel. Dragons also feels like a musical composition for me. Something I'd like to do is to create a multi-media project. I'd love to have a cd included in the jacket of Dragons, or to create a novel with a cd that would complement the aural landscape of the book. In the future I'd like to create a novel that blends aural/visual/textual landscapes like an art installation.

TDR: What are you working on now? Does it develop from your past two novels?

TM: I'm finishing my third novel, Victoria, which I do feel is a kind of culmination to the female stories in the first two novels, and perhaps a culmination of the post-colonial issues I have been exploring. I am also sketching a new work that I think might be the novel I mentioned above -- something brief and poetic, with space for other media. It has something to do with “Death in Venice”, but I'm not exactly sure how to speak about it. More death, here we go again...

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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