A Conversation With...Anton Nimblett

Where were you born? Describe current family life.  

As  the saying goes my navel string is buried in San Fernando, Trinidad.  Unfortunately, I can't claim it literally because my parents were too "modern" for that traditional rite, yet San Fernando for sure.  I played kiddies carnival, and regular sailor mas' in San Fernando.  I attended school there until form two, when I moved to Brooklyn.  And, I still occasionally wake from dreaming of a small wooden house on a short hilly street in San Fernando.  That house, long demolished but intact in my mind, in very many ways says "home".

Home now is an apartment in an ever-changing Brooklyn neighbourhood.  I'm a single man of a certain age, with neither chick nor child.  So family life: my parents a 30-minute trip away; my sister and teenaged-niece a 20 minute trip in another direction.  My sister and I work at the same organization, so I see her more regularly than anyone else.  My parents seem always glad to see me.  They are both great cooks -- with a healthy dose of competition about their skills -- so their refrigerator is always full and I'm never allowed to leave their home without a care package, a treat of some sort.  

Actually, I initially disliked the "family life" question, but as I respond  it's impossible to ignore how strongly my family life affects my writing.  To be comfortable writing about gay subjects, for instance, is a clear by-product of the foundation of unconditional love from my family, coupled with an  awareness that many others don't have that experience: so often the writing is a sharing.  And, oh gosh, doh talk 'bout de food eh?  Food is layered through so much of my fiction, sometimes in the background,  often as a theme, sometimes as a central plot piece, perhaps sometimes rising to the level of a character on its own.   There's a direct line from food in my family life to food in my fiction.

What do you do for a living? Why did you choose this vocation?

I currently work for a non-profit organization, providing social services at a domestic violence shelter.  In the years that I've worked there, I don't think I've mentioned my job once without someone  saying how heavy or intense or stressful it must be.  But, the work is none of those things for me.  I find that it both draws on and feeds my creative soul.   Because really, there's no cookie-cutter model that could work to engage, encourage and even inspire individuals -- each with a different history, each in a different spiritual and emotional place -- as they work to reclaim their lives.  So even to try to be of use in that space is an exercise in creativity.  To have any effect is a creative success.  

Yet it's not a vocation I "chose".  In high school I did want to be a psychologist or therapist, but I strayed far afield and worked in the land of data processing for years, enjoying all the problem solving that came with that field. Yet, life does what it does, and here I am, now.  

Who are your three favorite writers? Why?

Of course, this is an impossible question: three is too few; today's favorites are different from yesterdays, and hopefully different from tomorrow's as I meet new brilliance in literature; and is the "favorite" the one I enjoy reading most, or the one whose craft instructs?   Still, who am I to leave one of Geoffrey's questions unanswered?  So I'll name three favorite writers from a list of thirty three or so:

Earl Lovelace.   I left Trinidad before knowing his work, didn't find it until I was an adult.  Lovelace does all that I think a writer should.  Things like: take your breath away with beautiful language; comment on the human existence;  captivate the reader.   And he does it within the richness of the Trinidadian cultural tradition: making social commentary and flinging picong like a calypsonian; relating stories like the saga-boys on the corner, or the tough-tongued market women; singing the songs of my people to the rhythms of  every culture in our twin-islands.   And all this while being radical.

Toni Morrison.   Aside from the obvious, or perhaps in defense of the obvious nature of this choice, there's a sentiment to the selection.  Morrison was like a gateway drug to writing for me. Years ago, before I started writing, I went through a  Morrison phase that was intense and important and wonderful.  I read Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved in a book club where the members included two women who later published widely and one man who knows me better than anyone else in the world.  I remember us all celebrating Morrison's Nobel Prize on a personal level.  And I know that in Beloved  there is a special passage that I can turn to,  read aloud, and get goose bumps.  So yeah, Morrison.

Jericho Brown.  Here's a poet with one published collection, Please, and a string of accolades, achievements an awards.  But I'll list him in my three because he illustrates the changing nature of favorites.  I  just discovered his work last year, and it left me breathless often.  The poetry embarrassed me when I read it on the subway because it left me emotionally naked in public spaces.  And the collection showed me I could connect to poetry in new ways.  List worthy.

What was the first book you fell in love with and how have your reading habits changed over the years?

Listen, every West Indian writer my age, must start this off the same way: saying that he/she grew up reading Enid Blyton.  I cut my baby teeth on The Famous Five, it's how I became a reader.  The Hardy Boys came later, exchanging books with schoolmates in standard five, competing to see who would read the entire series first.  And in high school I remember Allan Patton's Cry, The Beloved Country.    I read plays a lot in high school too,  I think that helps my own work now.  

Yet, to name a book that I fell in love with?  Maybe for real love of a book, like real romantic love, one has to be adult, to have lived, to have learned.  So as an adult, the first book I loved is Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera.  I think no explanation is needed  if you've read it, if you've spent half hour talking to me or reading my own writing.  No further explanation.

I read fiction, mostly.  But sometimes that looks like "serious fiction" and sometimes there's pulp.  There have been phases, surely, as I discovered new authors and styles.  As my life changed.  But while there's been pulp, there is always quality.  In that regard I am a snob.  Not an academic, or an egghead, but a snob.   Here's a list of three writers I'll never read again...just kidding.  

What are you reading now?

I'm reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.   Sounds pretentious I know, but consider that right before this I was reading a John Irving novel and a cartoon collection, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes.  And consider that I'm reading Dostoyevsky for the first time, trying to fill in one of many gaps in my literature education.   Not too late, to have recently caught up on Moby Dick and Ulysses and Walden.  Glad of it too.  Shocked to see blatant homoeroticism in Melville, along with radically progressive comments on religion and environmentalism.   Blessed to have read Joyce at the right time to inspire a breakthrough on the final story in my collection.  

What makes you laugh?

I don't laugh enough.   But my best laughs I suppose are at myself.  Yeah, I crack me up.  

What are your other passions?

I'm often described as laid back.  And I think of myself as cynical.  Neither of those qualities seems to fall in line with being passionate.  And perhaps my passions are more apparent in my writing than in my daily life.  So, I had to think about this one for a while.  And then I came up with two answers.  One frivolous and fun:  I'm passionate about chocolate.   Literally, not a day goes by without me consuming chocolate in some form.  Never is my cupboard bare of hot chocolate mix and chocolate cookies of some kind.  Yes liquid, solid, or in-between.  A gourmet truffle, an over-the-counter chocolate bar, a home-made brownie.  Bring it on.  My favorite fragrance is A*Men: heavy with notes of cocoa.   I think my Grenadian forefathers who grew up in the cacao would approve of this one.

And one passion, a bit more serious:  I'm passionate about growth.  I'm glad to say that I'm not the person I was five years ago, or ten.  I'm relieved to understand that I won't be the person I am now five years hence.   I'm honored to work in a field where I get to see others grow.  And my greatest wish for those I love is that they allow themselves the growth that life makes possible.   

About Anton Nimblett:

Anton Nimblett is the author of Sections of an Orange (Peepal Tree Press, 2009).  His fiction appears in the award-winning anthology Our Caribbean (ed. Thomas Glave, Duke University Press 2008), as well as the journals African American Review, African Voices and Calabash.   His poetry is included in War Diaries, the latest activist-anthology from AIDS Project Los Angeles.  He curated  the 2009-10 season of Caribbean Cultural Theatre's reading series Poets & Passion.  He has presented work at many venues, including: Bowery Poetry Club, Caribbean Cultural Theatre, Chashama, Cornelia Street Cafe, Fire and Ink, Harlem Book Fair, Kumble Theater, The LGBT Center, Louder Arts Collective and Paper Based Bookshop.  Visit him at SectionsOfAnOrange.com
Photo of Anton Nimblett:  Leslie Ward.

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