October 12, 2007

A Conversation With Fragano Ledgister

Roger and Fragano LedgisterFragano Ledgister was born in London, moved to Jamaica at the age of 12, and was educated at St Elizabeth Technical High School, Munro College, UWI Mona, New York University, and the University of California, San Diego. He has worked for the Jamaica Daily News, The Gleaner, CANA, Efe News Agency, as an office temp, as a college professor, and, once upon a time, as a radio actor.

Fragano is the author of Class Alliances and the Liberal-Authoritarian State: The Roots of Post-Colonial Democracy in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam, and he has also published poems in Focus 1983 and the Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English. The father of two sons, both in college, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University.

Where were you born? Describe current family life.

I was born in London, England. I lived there till I was twelve, then moved to Jamaica.

Currently, I live with my third wife and her mother in Atlanta. I’m the father of two sons by my first wife (who is now a good friend), both more or less grown – one just graduated from college, the other is a sophomore. I have a complicated family life which seems to include two wives (one current, one ex) who nag me about my health.

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

I’m a political scientist, teaching at Clark Atlanta University. I got my Ph.D. in political science, from the University of California, San Diego, in 1994, after obtaining an MA in Latin American and Caribbean studies from NYU in 1988. It was while I was at NYU in the 80s that I became interested in political science. I hadn’t expected to find that it was the courses in Caribbean and Latin American politics that truly engaged my interest.

I work in two areas of the discipline – comparative politics, which is the study of the domestic politics of countries other than the one you’re in, and political theory, which examines why we engage in politics and what it means for us. My particular interest in the Caribbean (no surprise, surely) and I’m currently looking at the ideas that led what were the British West Indies to independence.

Who are your three favorite writers? Why?

Bwoy, Geoffrey, you know how to ask hard questions. I read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve found myself really enjoying the novels of Harry Turtledove. He writes both fantasy and alternative history, and he’s a superb teller of stories with a tendency to produce excruciating and wonderful puns.

I would say that my favourite poet is Derek Walcott, who continues to amaze me and who manages to condense the complexities of human experience in the Caribbean into the best words possible. If there is someone whose verse truly speaks to me and echoes best my sense of who I am it is Walcott. No one else could write lines like ‘either I’m nobody or I’m a nation’ and give them the kind of force and significance that he does.

I also really like the novels of Neil Gaiman. I’ve managed to read every novel he’s written, and I was completely blown away by American Gods and by Anansi Boys. Both novels have something powerful to say about culture and identity, and an Englishman who can take on Afro-Caribbean beliefs and treat them honestly and respectfully is going to get my attention.

The problem with this question is that I have to leave out a host of other writers whose work I love, and who, for one reason or another, attract my complete attention. A couple of years ago, for example, I reread all the novels of John Hearne. I’ve read most of Anthony Winkler’s work and been bowled over with laughter. I’ve read the poems of Lorna Goodison, Kwame Dawes, and Donna Weir-Soley recently and enjoyed them all. Right now, I’m waiting for new novels by Charles Stross and Jo Walton, which I know I’ll enjoy.

I couldn’t abandon this question without mentioning the work of John M. Ford, whom I had the honour of encountering online in the last year of his life, and whose novels and poems unfailingly delight.

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

The first book I fell in love with was the Spanish school primer that one of my aunts gave me as a child. I read it again and again for years.

I read, as I’ve said elsewhere, promiscuously. I have to engage in two kinds of reading, after all. One is for my work, both teaching and research, and one is for my own pleasure and, sometimes edification. I read in spurts: light novels that amuse and entertain me, more serious work that makes me think, poetry that makes me think and feel, and I generally find myself reading two or three books at a time.

The first novel I can recall truly loving – and reading over and over again till the binding came off – was an abridged translation of The Three Musketeers that I read around the age of nine. Not until many years later did I discover the Caribbean connection of the author.

The first book of poetry that truly gripped me, as I’ve said elsewhere, was The Faber Book of Modern Verse.

What are you reading now?

The questions you’ve asked me, of course. But that’s unfair. I’ve just finished a fantasy novel, Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton. Another fantasy novel, the Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (a birthday present from my older son), Women and Human Development by Martha Nussbaum, and I’ve been reading Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin (having recently read his Crystal Rain). I ought to say something here about Caribbean-themed science fiction – the work of Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson is breathing fresh air into a genre which has been unfairly stereotyped as for white male nerds (I fed my science fiction and fantasy habit for years at the second-hand bookshop in Liguanea Plaza, after all).

I’ve also just read student essays, and have more to come.

In addition I’ve been reading The New Guide to the Conversation in English by Pedro Carolino, a work that dispels gravity. The author was described by Mark Twain as a ‘well-intentioned and honest idiot’.

What makes you laugh?

Most statements by George W. Bush. The less-than-wondrous things that some of my students write (I’m still trying to figure out how Confucius came to be a major figure in the early development of Western Europe). The comedy of Jo Caulfield. Anthony Winkler’s comic novels. Puns. Unintentional confusions, as uttered by the evening news host of my local public radio station.

What are your other passions?

Above all else, poetry; my own verse, which has reappeared over the past couple of years, and the poetry of others. What amazes me is the return of the fierce joy of producing verse and the need I have, once more, to write it.


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