A Conversation with Patricia Powell
A Conversation with Patricia Powell
The Pagoda, Patricia Powell’s moving third novel, published to wide acclaim in 1998, focuses on the physical and spiritual shape-shifting of “Mr.” Lowe, a shopkeeper in nineteenth-century Jamaica. Born a female in China’s Guangdong Province, Lowe—originally named Lau A-Yin, a Hakka construction that connotes “transmission, but without certainty of transfer”—stows away on a ship in order to escape her fate: a marriage arranged by her father to a man she does not love.1 Life following Lowe’s brutal Middle Passage and arrival in Jamaica involves a series of strategic gender performances motivated more frequently by survival than by choice. Writing in Anthurium in 2009, Sheri-Marie Harrison describes Lowe as “triply displaced in the post-emancipation Jamaican landscape as female, Chinese, and queer.” Lowe, Harrison continues, “symbolically embodies an intersection of race, class, and sexual politics.”2 Powell’s commitment to representing the individual shape of Lowe’s consciousness, however, ensures the symbolic embodiments Harrison references never devolve into embodied symbolisms. “What can I tell you about life, my daughter?” he (she?) laments by the end of the novel. “I feel as if I never lived it fully. I feel as if I lived it only halfway, only some of the time, and always sheltered, always through some kind of veil.”3
In a Jamaican society replete with veils and masks, costumes and carnivals, Powell traces Lowe’s/Lau A-Yin’s singular attempt to cull meaning—and dignity—from a life where his/her true voice has been immediately wedded to shame. Yet despite all the novel’s tragedy, Powell seldom slouches into unearned sentimentality. This is largely the effect of the narrator’s psychological precision and consistent world building. Careful brushstrokes paint a mind preoccupied with questions of race, class, and sexual politics, yes, but the reader is most stricken by Lowe’s/Lau A-Yin’s far deeper cravings for belonging, for purpose, and for fulfillment. Ambivalence, Lowe/Lau A-Yin learns, is our sole surviving certainty. His/her life is defined by a keen awareness that masculinity resides within women, femininity within men. Victimhood does not preclude one from poor judgment. And gritty, beautiful Jamaica—a country negotiating its own identity after unspeakable abuse—is really just a territory of infinite gerunds, “full of arguing women and girls and squealing babies, squatting and laughing and selling and buying and standing round and eating and philosophizing.”4
If Lowe gives us new eyes through which to interpret the Jamaica of the nineteenth century, Powell gives us a new language to express the complex Jamaica of today. This language is pointed and political. Writing on the dominance of whiteness in the construction of Americanness, Toni Morrison observes, “Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues [surrounding race] are encoded, foreclosing open debate.”5 Powell’s novels quietly and densely protest similar embedded evasions exercised during our own cultural debates, expanding our notions of “Jamaicanness”—and of “Caribbeanness.” Indeed, to view Jamaican society through the eyes of a “triply displaced” person heightens our attention to the anatomy of Caribbean evasions, be they of narratives, of moral interrogations, of historical truths. In a sense, Powell’s two-decade career can be defined as a protest against evasion. Inclusion and complexity form the major thread tying her brave, idiosyncratic novels that humanize gay Jamaican men with the same earnestness as they do straight Jamaican schoolteachers.
Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, in 1966, Powell migrated to the United States at age sixteen. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Wellesley College and her MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she studied with Michael Ondaatje. In addition to The Pagoda, Powell has published three other novels: Me Dying Trial (Heinemann, 1993), A Small Gathering of Bones (Heinemann, 1994), and The Fullness of Everything (Peepal Tree, 2009). Currently an associate professor of English at Mills College, Powell has taught fiction writing at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This interview was conducted over e-mail in November 2013.
Stephen Narain: I’m interested in the genesis of Lowe/Lau A-Yin as a character. Can you describe what motivated you to tell his/her story? How did the narrative come to you?
Patricia Powell: All this might have changed now, but, when I was growing up in Jamaica during the seventies, there was very little in our history books about the Chinese in Jamaica—there was just a paragraph or so on indentureship. But I was always curious about the Chinese students who were in my classes at school or the families that owned the bakery or the big supermarket, the tiny shop in the village that sold everything imaginable. I was curious about the families that lived in my neighborhood. I wanted to know what had brought them to Jamaica, and why they had left China behind. I was curious too about their language. I wrote The Pagoda around the time that I, too, was thinking about becoming an American citizen. The novel grew out of a desire to know more about home, to know Jamaica’s history, to understand the Chinese experience in Jamaica, the complexities of otherness for them—people who are neither black nor white. I wanted to know their particular experiences of exile and immigration and displacement, their experiences of community and home there on the island. The novel—about a Chinese woman passing as a male shopkeeper in rural nineteenth-century Jamaica—was a way to help me unravel these issues. Here was someone who first cross-dressed in order to survive, but then who came to live the disguise she had put on. By the end of the novel however, he wanted change, he wanted to find the real self underneath this masked identity. He wanted an authentic life.
SN: Writing a novel focused on a character of a different race living over a century ago feels like a daunting empathetic leap. Yet the novel never feels clunky or didactic. You’re never teaching us about nineteenth-century Jamaica writ large; we’re firmly anchored in Lowe’s/Lau A-Yin’s subjectivity. Discuss the historical research you conducted for the novel. How do you think you integrated this research during the writing of the novel itself?
PP: The research was an important element of the novel. I wanted to get the story right. I did not want to offend my readers, especially my Asian readers. I’m so used to writers being careless and lazy in the way they portray people of color, and I did not want to fall into that trap. I knew that I wouldn’t get everything right, that someone would feel slighted somehow, but I wanted to try really hard. I also had to confront many of my own prejudices that I had grown up with as well, and I was happy that the writing enabled that to happen.
To access Lowe, to inhabit him, to breathe through his skin, I felt I had to immerse myself fully and completely in my imagined sense of his life and world, and so I read for months and months everything I could find. I read countless novels by Chinese writers. I read books on indentureship (both Chinese and Indian), books on Chinese history and literature and culture and politics, books on Chinese religions and architecture, books about the Guangdong region where Lowe and his family originated. I read books on cross-dressing, on Caribbean history, on slavery and plantation life, on immigration, on maritime life and activities, and then, after months and months of reading, I finally stopped. As if I’d emerged from a deep and complex dream, I went about life again in a regular way: I saw my friends, I worked out at the gym, I planted a garden. I was allowing the material to steep, to integrate. I did not write during this time or think very consciously about the material or how it would unfold. But I knew that my unconscious mind was already sorting and shaping and patterning and making sense of things. After about a month of this holding, I finally started to write. I did not look at those notes again. I did not want the language of history to stiffen the text. I knew that all I had read would nuance and texture and color the work. And I wanted the novel to read in this way that felt effortless.
SN: You reference ancient Chinese works that were “essential” to this project, especially Huang Di’s discourse on medicine and an anthology of literature that includes the works of Confucius, Tu Fu, and Du Mu. Can you discuss, generally or specifically, your relationship to these texts, both in the writing of the novel and in your own life?
PP: You know, Lowe might not have personally encountered the works of these authors, but they’re his legacy. Somewhere in his body, in his unconscious, this material lives. And I wanted to acknowledge that. I wanted to know him—who he is, where he comes from, what he is made of. I wanted to know him in every possible way.
SN: Maxine Hong Kingston’s genre-bending China Men and V. S. Naipaul’s landmark A House for Mr. Biswas were also influential to writing of The Pagoda. How so?
PP: I love A House for Mr. Biswas. I love Naipaul’s sharp and cruel eye. I love his bitter humor. I never tire of the saga of Mohan Biswas’ life. When I reread it during the time I was researching The Pagoda, it helped me to appreciate the ordinariness of village life in that earlier period—the shop at midday, the flora and fauna of the countryside, riding a donkey or a horse down the road, the sitting room in the great house, the light in the afternoon, a long and winding conversation that has no conclusion. Another book I was rereading for similar reasons was George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin.
When I first started dreaming The Pagoda, it was to be the story of an ordinary and adventurous woman who leaves China to live in Jamaica. Gender-bending was never part of the equation, or so I thought. But mischief of every stripe lurks in the unconscious, which is what makes writing so wholly fascinating—all the bizarre places it can take you if you are curious and willing. I had just finished writing A Small Gathering of Bones, a novel peopled mostly by gay men. I wanted to write about a “real” woman this time. But my research soon revealed that Chinese laws did not permit women to leave China until much later; only the men could leave. It wouldn’t have been historically accurate for me to have a Chinese woman in Jamaica during the time period I wanted to cover, which was immediately after emancipation, when the planters were losing money and appealing to the British government for financial help. These appeals resulted in the first waves of cheap indentured labor from China. A Chinese woman by herself in Jamaica at that time would’ve been eaten up immediately. And that was when it occurred to me that maybe the character could cross-dress and pass as a man. That had never been my initial intention but, when the idea arrived, it so fascinated me that I dove headlong into the research to be able to write the story. It was during that period of reading and watching films on Chinese immigration and cross-dressing that I found China Men. It was perfect for my project, since it was narrated from the perspectives of all these Chinese men who had come to build the railroads and settle in the United States.
SN: Sheri-Marie Harrison writes, “Queerness in the novel as physically embodied by Lowe and his struggle to unravel himself depicts a similar sense of unraveling that needs to occur within the decolonization process. The traumas relived in Lowe’s nightmares are only overcome through confronting them in the acts of letter writing and Pagoda building.”6 Attentiveness to one’s authentic spirit, freedom of expression, and imagining an innovative—if marginalized or unsustainable space—move Lowe/Lau A-Yin to a deeper understanding of his/her self. Yet the novel resists easy epiphanies. We’re left unsettled. How do you position Lowe’s/Lau A-Yin’s awareness of his/her queerness to his/her internal “decolonization”?
PP: Thinking about it now, I think Lowe’s journey was about authenticity, how to get to someplace in himself that was truer than what he’d been living. I think he was tired of pretending. I think, at a certain point, he had lost himself in the many stories he was living—his father’s story, Cecil’s story, Miss Sylvie’s story, the villagers’ stories. Who was he? Lowe started out as this Chinese woman who comes to live the disguise she has put on but, by the end of the novel, he wants freedom. He no longer wants to live a disguise; he wants to find an authentic self. But what is an authentic self? Who are we without our disguises? Who are we outside our masculine and feminine gender roles? When we remove the clothing and the trappings of race and class, who are we? I think Lowe’s decision to no longer live as a “man” and the subsequent exposure and vulnerability and unraveling that unfold as a result of that decision make Lowe a more accessible figure to the reader and to the other characters in the novel.
And though Lowe may have first found a certain level of freedom in her male disguise and in her ability to pass and to have access to and perform masculinity, eventually that guise, that mimicry turned oppressive—not because of the fear of being found out, but because to be “masculine” (as she understood it and lived it and the society expected), certain parts of her had to be locked down, particularly her emotional life, her emotional intelligence. Lowe wanted something else. And in that search, she becomes more active in the village; she no longer binds her breasts, but allows them to fall free; she discards the fake moustache, grows out her hair, wears less restrictive clothing, becomes interested in color, in fabric, in texture; she grows more sociable, begins collecting friends and deepening her intimacy with them; she starts to laugh. Life opens up inside her. She allows herself to dream. Feelings that had long been hidden away rush to the surface, filling her and fleshing her out as a more full and embodied person.
What kind of a woman is she becoming? I don’t know. But as I’ve learned from writing these books, there are many ways to navigate safety as we make our way in the world. And sometimes safety, while it protects us, can also be a noose. No longer satisfied with the particular ways in which she/he had lived womanhood or manhood or personhood, by the end of the novel, Lowe is searching now for a more authentic route she can carve out—hopefully one that can capture her more fully.
SN: Tzarina Prater suggests, “The believability and acceptance of Lowe’s performance depends on communal consent, and it is through exercising literal or symbolic violence that the community decides and polices what ‘strangeness’ it will allow, specifically what strangeness it needs to create the normative.”7 In The Pagoda, what do you view as the specific roots of the community’s intense need to police “strangeness” and to hold up “normative” standards of gender and sexuality?
PP: This question is challenging. I don’t know what the root of this policing is. Certainly there is fear. We’ve been told from early on that this is the way things should be; these kinds of people should be in power, they should have access to everything, and these other kinds of people should have very little, and they should behave like this and live over here. If you deviate from this paradigm, you will be punished. We see the punishment that is meted out, and it is not pretty. We grow afraid. We don’t want to be ostracized; we want to stay safe so we can continue to enjoy the measly privileges that are afforded to us for sticking with the status quo. Therefore, we are going to behave: we are not going to deviate from the norm, even if it kills us.
People in the village had all kinds of feelings about Lowe. From my understanding of it, the Chinese had been brought into the country to help out the planters who were in financial ruin now that slavery was over; they were brought in to undermine black labor and to serve as a buffer between the few whites in power and the disenfranchised black majority. From research, I gathered that some Chinese were given loans to start small businesses—loans that were not offered to blacks—and this caused a great deal of resentment among the black people. And so I’m certain that, when Lowe showed up in that village with a shop and a near-white woman as his wife, the villagers were not pleased. They did not know the circumstances that brought Lowe there or the parts of her soul she’d had to give up for that life, but that might not have mattered to them. Lowe’s appearance showed up their own disenfranchised position, and that would’ve been enough for them to not like him.
I’m sure many of the villagers knew there was something different about Lowe. He might not have seemed manly enough to them. But he had a white wife, and he had a white benefactor, and that might have been enough of a shield to not call too much attention to his masculinity, at least publicly. But difference can be a kind of lightning rod that brings to the forefront all of our own unresolved feelings. I’m sure his gender and how he displayed it must have stirred people, made them uneasy about themselves, made them fearful about what might have been lurking in themselves, might have brought discomfort to the parts of themselves that were suddenly being mirrored. They might have wanted to smash those parts of themselves that Lowe’s figure was mirroring. Instead, they would have struck out at Lowe, found ways to hurt him, reaffirming to the community all the normative standards that were seemingly safe.
SN: Your novels often go into territories underexamined in Caribbean literature and polarizing in Caribbean life. A Small Gathering of Bones, for example, focuses on the gay community in Jamaica in the 1970s. How do you view the relationship between literature and movements for social justice, especially in such a homophobic region as the Caribbean? How has approaching such controversial topics affected your life—aesthetically, politically, and, if I may ask, personally?
PP: I think often of Nadine Gordimer, who said that writing is an invitation. You don’t know the journey through which it will take you, but, once you answer that call, anything is possible. I think my novels have walked me through some of my greatest fears. They have enabled me to give voice to some of my own deep pain, to celebrate gay love in a climate of intense homophobia, to write about the Chinese, even though I was terrified of getting it wrong and offending everybody, to write honestly about the sexual abuse that runs rampant in families and the healings that are necessary for recovery.
While Me Dying Trial was an important coming-of-age novel in its own right, I think it was A Small Gathering of Bones that really turned me into a socially conscious being. The awareness I developed—and the responsibility that comes with it—have underscored my work ever since.
A Small Gathering of Bones is loosely based on a childhood friend from Jamaica who died of AIDS in the late 1980s; Ian was twenty-six. What struck me most about his death was that his funeral was attended only by a few friends and by his sister. His mother who lived nearby did not attend—his mother who was a minister and who ran a Pentecostal church in Brooklyn. In fact, she had refused to see him during the terrible interlude of his illness once she found out he was gay. And to this day, in my mind, this is the real cause of Ian’s death: not the disease that devastated him at the end, but the heartbreak, the disappointment, the rejection from the very person he loved most.
It was in that moment I think that I truly became a writer. I was compelled by something about the interplay between personal pain and its connection to the suffering of others, by something about artistic expression, about healing, and about the benefits of this healing shared by others. Incensed by what seemed to me as an apparent injustice, I started the novel on the train on the way home from his funeral. It was a way to explore the homophobia that runs rampant in our Jamaican society and the oppressive nature of religion that was turning us into unfeeling human beings, turning us into killers. I wanted to write back into history the silent ones, the invisible ones, the vanished, the dying, the dead. I wrote the book from the point of view of a gay preacher, Dale. I was curious about his particular battle with his faith and his sexuality. How do you live with the very faith that is persecuting you? How do you love in that climate? Is this what God’s love is? I wanted to know this character. His pain had to be so private, so invisible. His anguish haunted me.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments related to A Small Gathering of Bones was when I gave a reading to a community of black gay men with AIDS in London not long after the novel was published. After the reading, a great hush stole over the room. And then, one by one, the men came up to me at the podium. Some of them were weeping. Their lives, their experiences had always been vilified in print, they said. They had never read a book where they were stars, heroes, where their lives and experiences were celebrated.
That moment colored my trajectory forever. When I initially began writing, I had no sense of my role as writer or what I wanted my work to do. But as I had more and more of those experiences, I realized that I want my stories not only to change lives but to save them. I want my stories to raise large social, political, and spiritual questions that provoke thought, challenge beliefs, help people deal with the complexities of their lives, and help people through devastation. And over the years, as I’ve become more influenced by Eastern philosophies, by transformational studies, by alternative healing and medical modalities—and by the large social problems that continue to trouble us in profound ways—I want my books to do even more, I want them to be a serum, an antidote to people’s pain. I want them to open up the nature of reality and make transformation possible.
Stephen Narain was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1986 to Guyanese parents and moved to the United States at sixteen. He earned an AB in English from Harvard University and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he won a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. His fiction and essays have appeared in Small Axe, the Caribbean Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Stephen currently teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. He is at work on his first novel.
1 Tzarina Prater, “Transgender, Memory, and Colonial History in Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda,” Small Axe, no. 37 (December 2011): 23.
2 Sheri-Marie Harrison, “‘Yes, Ma’am, Mr. Lowe’: Lau A-Yin and the Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda,” Anthurium 7, no. 1 (2010), 2; scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/anthurium/vol7/iss1/7.
3 Patricia Powell, The Pagoda (Orlando: Harcourt, 1998), 245.
4 Ibid., 53.
5 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993), 9.
6 Harrison,“‘Yes, Ma’am, Mr. Lowe,’” 11.
7 Prater, “Transgender, Memory, and Colonial History,” 32.