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Imagination Unchained - Debut Novelist Roland Watson-Grant

Roland Watson- Grant, author of Sketcher (photograph by Marvin Bartley)

It isn’t very often that a Jamaican living and writing at home chooses to create a story that, at least on the surface, seems to have nothing to do with Jamaica. Yet with his debut novel, Sketcher, that is precisely what Roland Watson-Grant has done and he is not afraid of accepting the title of “sell-out”, for having done so.

“Yes I am that sell out,” he says with a laugh, “And it sell off!”

As an advertising executive by day and wordsmith by night, Watson-Grant should have a fair idea of what sells but he explains, that he is also about going beyond expectations and unchaining the imagination.

Sketcher, published by Alma Books in the UK, to a degree defies expectations of the conventional Caribbean novel and is set in the Louisiana swamps. The first of a trilogy, the story focuses on two brothers who are of Caribbean heritage, but know nothing about this past, and the island they come from is a fictional one, but of course sometimes, so is Jamaica.

Watson-Grant admits that  he is deliberately trying to circumvent the pigeon hole marked “Caribbean-writer” and allow Sketcher to end up instead on the larger shelf, with access to wider audiences.

Sketcher“There is nothing wrong with the Caribbean shelf,” he quickly adds. “I’m just saying, how many other audiences do we have without some bookseller saying ‘oh it’s a Caribbean novel, it’s an African American novel let’s park it on this shelf or that shelf’”

“I believe that we can from a creative standpoint make our stories more marketable.” He adds that Sketcher, which sheds its Jamaican overtones is one way to achieve this, but it is not the only way.

Time and again he returns to the question of imagination. Interestingly, Watson-Grant explains that although Olive Senior is the most important influence he has had as a Jamaican wrtier, the blue print for his writing is that used by Gene Rodenberry (Star Trek) and George Lucas (Star Wars) both of whom he argued created spaces and races while exploring the general human plight, allowing you to think “what if”.

Watson-Grant maintains that his choice of Louisiana, and the outskirts of New Orleans in particular, is no mere accident of where his pen fell on the map as the southern United States has played a real part in his life.

“From Tallahassee Florida to Houston Texas seems to have swallowed up all my childhood friends,” he says. He also argues that New Orleans is noticeably Caribbean in its music, mood and cuisine and has been by Cyril Neville (of The Neville Brothers) as the northernmost tip of the Caribbean.

Additionally, he explains that the novel is fueled by personal truths and experiences coloured by his youth spent living in a one-room shack in New Haven, itself resting on swamplands at the end of Washington Boulevard.

“I didn’t want to just talk about that. I wanted to use it as fuel to make this story larger than just my experience,” he explains.

So, he set his story in Louisiana and invented an island called San Tainos, a country that is clearly Jamaica in disguise. His choice of the name is deliberately made to invoke the history, power and relevance of the Tainos to Jamaican history. He remarks that although so much of our culture is infused with the remnants of theirs, from the name of the island to the much hallowed jerk, they are often relegated to forgetfulness.

Roland Watson-Grant shares a panel with fellow novelist Kei Miller (right) during the Kingston Bookfest 2013“I don’t think that we emphasize enough their [Tainos] occupation of a county like Jamaica and the tragedy of their demise,” he said. Additionally, Watson-Grant admits that they are benefits to be derived from re-imagining reality.

“The re-imagination of a place allows you to take a lot of liberties historically, socially and geographically that you could not take otherwise. Personally, I had to re-imagine Jamaica, the Jamaica that was, the Jamaica that probably wanted to be,” he said.

“I am proud of Jamaica,” he declares. “I’m always proud of Jamaica. I’m trying to find ways in which we can show that we’re not what we have been portrayed as.” He admits that Jamaica, the land that shadows the brokenness explored in Sketcher, is also a broken thing.

“The beauty in broken things is that there are all these lessons to be learnt from things being broken, from enduring the broken things and in that there is a magic.”

And of course, exploring the broken, be it an object, family, or historical connections, requires re-imagination.

“I don’t think we re-imagine enough. I think we accept Jamaican culture as it is. I think we’re doing a lot of hankering after the past, we’re holding on to the sentimental Jamaica or our fore-parents and we’re not considering a lot of emerging things that are happening in our society,” he argues.

“Our children have begun to buy into the culture of contemporary Jamaica only without re-imagining the historical importance of the country.” Watson-Grant argues that much of the magic and mystery of the country has been squashed and relegated as folk tales.

“All that magic is being relegated as folk tales and is being thrown out with the crocus and bandana that our kids hate,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with the crocus and the bandana but we’ve held on so tightly to them that we can no longer see their relevance on an international scale.”

“I think we’ve sacrificed our imaginations to our current issues,” he says. “I don’t think we are imagining and re-imagining so that we can inspire,” Watson-Grant says. “We can do a lot more in the ministry of imagination. Writers are the people who occupy the ministry of imagination and we have sacrificed it to our current issues and the stories are suffering for it.”