WORD Christchurch 2023: The hungry ghosts of history

There's no denying it. There is a small turnout for this session at The Piano. I've heard great things about Kevin Jared Hosein's novel Hungry Ghosts, and his performance in Thursday night's WORD gala was electrifying so it's confusing to see that neither of these facts have translated into ticket sales. Perhaps not many people have got around to reading the book yet? Not having read the book has never been a pre-requisite for enjoying listening to an author talk about their work for me but perhaps not everyone feels that way? Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo described Hungry Ghosts as "astonishing and linguistically gorgeous".

Julie Hill, in her introduction, remarks that we'll get to hear "the coolest accent on Earth for a whole hour" and she's not wrong. Her first question to the Trinidadian high school biology teacher turned novelist is to ask about the language of his home as it features in the novel. New Zealand writers have long struggled with the "cringe" factor of including local slang and language. "I can relate to that," says Hosein. But also he was presented with additional difficulties in that, unlike a language like Māori there aren't necessarily fixed spellings for Trinidadian language. Trinidad is a small island but has 1.4 million people and Trinidadian is not taught in schools, "speak it comes naturally". Which presents a bit of a challenge when "pen hits paper". Hosein gives the example of "dread" (as in dreadlock) which means "beyond good". Some people would spell it "dread" but others would use "dred" in some places when spoken it sounds more like "jed". So which do you use? There's certainly no creative writing class or course that will help you navigate this.

Julie Hill and Kevin Jared Hosein, WORD Christchurch 2023
Julie Hill and Kevin Jared Hosein on stage at The Piano, WORD Christchurch 2023.

Hill admits that she had multiple tabs open while reading the novel looking up words, animals and flowers to help her understand the setting, but says it didn't hinder her enjoyment, "it's good to learn things". "This," says Hosein "is why you should read from lots of different regions". He used to write about "random small towns in America even though I'd never been there" and was mostly going off what he'd seen in movies or on TV. He did this so he didn't have to explain the setting and could just get into the characters. He gives the example of trams, which are a known concept for American or British readers. They know what a tram is so you don't have to explain what it looks like. But they don't have trams in Trinidad, they have "maxi-taxis" but then if he were to mention those he felt like he'd have to add a footnote explaining that they are vans painted in a particular colour etc. "Eventually, " he says "I just decided to write... Once I overcame that hurdle it became much easier".

Hill asks him about the characters in his book who are descended from Indian indentured labourers that filled the gap that came with the end of slavery. Hosein says that slavery was the first version an indentured labour was basically a variation on the same system. There were various tricks and traps for the workers who were housed in overcrowded substandard barracks but told that if they worked for 5 years they would be given a parcel of land. The land often turned out to be in the swamp. So then you're stuck. Sometimes they were offered their pay in alcohol (which generally didn't work out well). They were, Hosein says given "an illusion of choice... but they're all terrible choices". None of this is really covered in schools, at best you might have a mention of it and a picture of workers in a field with big smiles on their faces. The general feeling was one of "that happened 100 years ago so we don't need to talk about that". I hear someone near me in the audience whisper to their companion "sounds familiar". Mmmhmm.

Hosein grew up in a Hindu household but there was division in his village, and within his family. They were offered the option of converting to Christianity - part of the colonial project to make them less "savage". Christians could send their children to an actual school (as opposed to having lessons in a cowshed), and prices to buy necessities would be cheaper. Remaining Hindu meant "playing in hard mode". Some of his family converted, some didn't. He spoke of some of the differences between the two religions. Christianity requires believers to worship or aspire to that which is above you - the idea of holiness as being a separate almost unattainable thing. In Hinduism it's not external in this way. Hosein sees a stark difference in thinking between the two and wanted to capture this in the book.

Hungry Ghosts

Hosein related a story that his grandfather had told him about something that had happened in his teens. There was a rich overseer whose wife would sometimes go for walks and would bestow gifts upon the people of the town; clothes for the children, Christmas gifts (for Hindus who don't celebrated Christmas) and so on. One day out on one of these walks she tripped and fell into a pool of muddy water which had been left following some flooding. A young boy laughed at the sight of her, her white dress soaked in mud to which the overseer's wife announced "I'm going to get the entire village bulldozed by next week". Hosein admits that this sounded "like fiction" but he looked into it and there was an order to bulldoze the village for some very unconvincing reason, like "the roads are very bad". The order ended up not being actioned but the villagers had the record in their heads that didn't match the official version:

There's a stark history of other people telling our stories.

Hosein reads from a passage that describes the nature of the barracks "home" that the main family in the story, the Saroops, are forced to live in and in discussion afterwards reveals that he wanted to explore what that kind of environment would be like - 5 families in a partitioned barrack where the walls don't go to the ceiling so everyone knows everyone's business. Never having any personal space, nor "space for silence or peace".

What if you were born there and just didn't know peace... the mental acrobatics you'd have to do.

This is a story of people who have a house but not a home. And everyone, apart from the Saroop's son, Krishna, wants to get out. But social mobility for this family means moving to the town - the same town that all the children who bully Krishna come from. The same town when Krishna's father, Hans, has to grovel even in order to be allowed to buy things from the shop. For this reason Krishna finds the idea of dropping out of society appealing - he and his cousin befriend twins who have done just this and live in the forest.

The twins are the child of a serial killer and as such are spurned by society. Hosein explains how this serial killer character is based on a real person who was even more gruesome that what's depicted in the novel. It's believed this person killed more than 300 people, offering to transport them to Venezuela on his boat but would throw them overboard. Hosein learned that the killer had children and wondered what would become of them, and so the twins became part of his story.

Together with Krishna and his cousin they form a brotherhood named after the black vulture which Hosein believes "should be the national bird of Trinidad". A carrion feeder, "they are hated by the world they will eventually eat". So there's an element of revenge within the core of the group.

Discussion moves on to different character from the book, that of Marlee who Hosein says is based on the woman in the white dress mentioned earlier, who wanted to bulldoze a village. Marlee has a life of luxury but it's come at a cost - she has had to change everything about herself. Again, there's a harking back to the history of Trinidad as Hosein explains that Marlee is from the north-west peninsula of the island that during WWII was claimed for a naval base to look for "invisible Nazis" (I immediately think of our own gun emplacements at Godley Head). The people who lived there were marched off their land at gunpoint and displaced. This is the origin story for Marlee, who suddenly has nothing and nowhere to call home. A rich man offers to marry her so she accepts, not understanding until later that he is a raving lunatic.

Hosein describes her as The Ship of Theseus. Her husband demands that she change how she speaks, acts, dresses, to the extent that we're left to wonder if she's even the same person. Later when said husband disappears and Marlee is asked to pay a ransom... she demures. And part of the reason she can do it is because of the isolation she's been subjected to.

The title, Hungry Ghosts, comes from leaving food to feed ghosts during a mourning period.

There are a couple of questions from the audience, the first of which is about Trinidadian music, and the next wonders about the divisions and relationships between the different cultures in Trinidad. Hosein once more discusses the division between those that converted to Christianity and those that chose to remain Hindu but also the ways in which colonisation kept people separated, but also the ways in which colonisation was internalised.

There are a lot of books that villainise the British but I wanted to write a book about how we had villainised ourselves. 

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