Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.
In this conversation about short and long fiction as well as nonfiction, homecoming and a creative pilgrimage pave the way for exploring a writer’s desire to pursue his craft with hunger and determination. The occult, mining one’s personal narratives for the page, the need for authenticity in writing, and transitioning between various stages of one’s literary careers are discussed with Roland Watson-Grant, the award-winning author of Sketcher and Skid.
Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican novelist, screenwriter and travel writer. His first novel Sketcher (2013) was published by Alma Books (UK) and has been translated into Turkish and Spanish. Skid, his second novel, was published in 2015 by Alma Books (UK) as well. Roland was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2021, his short story “The Disappearance of Mumma Dell” won the Caribbean Regional Prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He is a 2018 recipient of a Musgrave Award for Literature in his home country; his nonfiction work has been archived by the Smithsonian Libraries.
RÉMY NGAMIJE: Let’s start with your most recent literary exploits. You recently journeyed from Jamrock to Uyo, Nigeria for the IBOM Art and Book Festival. As a staple of the Jamaican literary festival circuit, what was it like being part of a festival on the continent?
ROLAND WATSON-GRANT: First of all, there was no way I was going to miss it. I always say you don’t get invited to Africa for the first time and not go—especially when you’re from a country like Jamaica with a culture that emphasises setting foot in the Motherland. That said, landing in Lagos and moving on to Akwa Ibom State for the festival was like a dream. Working with the organisers, volunteers, as well as literary and visual artists was the kind of experience you look forward to for a lifetime—and then it appears.
Artistically speaking, the IBOM Art and Book Festival was a leap forward in my journey as a writer. Apart from the sheer radical creative energy and enthusiasm of the people in Uyo, I think the trip also triggered my “beginner’s mind”—that zen quality that allows you to see familiar things in a new way. Every writer needs it and it was most welcome in this reset stage of my writing career. Landing in Africa was like stepping through the looking glass. Everything is familiar, yet new, and you can’t write down the sensations fast enough.
RN: I am going to be that person who asks if you felt “something special” happening to you as a) a Black b) Jamaican c) writer d) coming to Africa.
RWG: I welcome that question. Twenty minutes before landing in Lagos, I tried to divorce my arrival from any notion of “Back to Africa” or “Motherland”. I really did. However, call it Jamaican social conditioning or whatever you want, I got spiritually shaken up when we hit the ground and the pilot said “Welcome to Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos”—because the land rushing past the window is AFRICA. At a moment like that, logic takes a backseat and your writer’s mind goes into overdrive.
If you believe God breathed into man, well, that clay outside is what God animated. If you think humans evolved, well, this land is where Homo erectus first stood up on rickety legs and looked over savanna grass. Of course, while I was on this flight of fancy, history brought me back down to earth to remind me that, without a doubt, my ancestors were taken from this continent that I flew 7000 miles through the night to find.
It might not be easy for a person born in Africa to understand the catharsis. I shed a tear behind my shades and Covid mask—I didn’t give a shit if people saw I was emotional. This is Africa, bredren. “Home Home” as my BCLF peeps put it.
RN: Certainly that feeling of homecoming is something that a writer of your consciousness and calibre would be attuned to. I, myself, have always wondered what it would feel like to travel to the Caribbean knowing that the roll of the historic dice is the difference between landing at Michael Manley International Airport and being shipped into Port Royal in chains.
My literary brain has two follow-up questions. Firstly, has your recent “homecoming of sorts” been something you intuitively felt you would have to make at some point as a writer? Secondly, would the pilgrimage—if we can call it that— have held the same emotional value for you if you had gone to another African country in North, East, or Southern Africa?
And my troll gene, which is always set to on, prompts me to ask whether you shed a single cinematic tear or leaked an award-winning rivulet. These are the questions the people want to know.
RWG: Haha. Last question first. They were Niger Delta-type tears, the flow only dammed by my super-absorbent mask.
Now to answer your “homecoming” question: yes, I knew that Africa and I would have to meet physically sooner rather than later, especially after doubling down on writing about ancestral practices in “My Father the Obeahman” and “The Disappearance of Mumma Dell”. So, yes, you can call it a pilgrimage.
Speaking of which, the travel writer in me would have been happy to land just about anywhere in Africa, but a literary festival in West Africa satisfied the artistic urge as well as the need for homecoming. People in Lagos and Akwa Ibom didn’t believe I was Jamaican until I said “Yeah man” a few times and maybe bussed a few blanks to dancehall playing on the streets of Uyo.
By the way, we need to get you to Kingston, I will tell people you’re a Yardman
RN: Hahahaha. I would make a terrible Yardie, brethren. I think I will stick to the rivers, lakes, and deserts that I am used to.
We need to talk about your obeah powers, though; you anticipated where I wanted to take the lines of inquiry: your nonfiction and fiction work.
Let’s start with nonfiction.
How do you know or decide upon the medium of your writing? “My Father the Obeah Man” could be the foundation of a great work of fiction. It has all of the basic elements needed to build a fictional world exploring the occult and its effects on family. How did you decide that nonfiction was the right vehicle for this text?
RWG: Tales of my obeah powers have been greatly exaggerated. (Or have they?) Ask the people who blocked me on social media for fears of what they think I can do. Haha.
RWG: I don’t do spells, even though I have seen unexplainable things and I did speak that visit to Africa into being.
RN: Speak Pounds Sterling into my life, brethren. Don’t skimp on the zeroes either.
RWG: I’ll see what I can do.
As for deciding on genre, it depends on the assignment. I was invited by the Jamaica Journal to write my very first nonfiction essay which ended up being archived by the Smithsonian Libraries in a collection called the Africa Art Index. [*Insert vuvuzela and dutch pot cover sound effect here*] The follow-up was “My Father the Obeahman” for AFAR Travel Magazine, again a request for a nonfiction piece. Pree Lit magazine also requested an essay on Adverse Childhood Experiences and I was only too happy to write about growing up in a fundamentalist congregation.
I think these gigs have cemented the fact that there’s a whole book of essays waiting to be written, and maybe a memoir soon enough. My truth is stranger than my fiction—I promise you.
RN: That, my friend, is something I do not doubt at all.
RWG: In the meantime, my fiction is being influenced by my upbringing which included ancestral practices, folk ritual, and (now I realise) an eclectic mix of the occult. From my first novel, to my last short story, to my in-progress novel, I’m bound to give the inside story on these experiences.
RN: When you are in your nonfiction flow, what traits from your fiction instincts do you leave behind or rely on?
RWG: While preparing to do a creative nonfiction masterclass in Nigeria, I was able to pinpoint the most important tools I borrow from my approach to fiction. The first is that while writing nonfiction you have to tell the truth straight, but you can bend time and space and language. Trees can cry, people can be single-eyed monsters.
Also, events do not have to happen in chronological order. Keep your fiction glasses on. The other thing to remember is that while with fiction one has to breathe life into a story, nonfiction arrives alive and kicking, because the events have already happened. All one has to do is decide how to pick up that land crab and tame it.
Most importantly, creative nonfiction has an audience that cares about itself. The audience may want to discover a universal truth to cure their own condition. One of the best ways to find a rich, moving, live land crab of a story is to dig deep inside one’s personal human experience. Live land crabs are found in the gutters and swamps of one’s life, the not-so-sunny side of things, the darker more vulnerable places. If you can pull those from the muck and hold them up to the light, you could have a gripping story on your hands.
Just bend time and events and places and faces and change names, so you don’t get sued.
RWG: Haha. No, seriously, don’t get sued.
RN: “Live land crabs are found in the gutters and swamps of your own life, the not-so-sunny side of things, the darker more vulnerable places.” That is the whole interview done and dusted.
Now what, Roland?
These literary swamps you speak of, have you ever been afraid of what they might show you on the page when you go looking?
Basically, are there things in your life that you are too afraid to talk or write about? I ask because I gravitate towards reading creative nonfiction that does not hold back, if you know what I mean. I do not like it when I feel as though a writer held something back. I feel cheated in a way. To follow on from your analogy, I really hate it when I have been asked to get into the swamp and there are no monsters, just muddy ass swamp.
RWG: Haha. I concur. There must be a monster—or at least a nasty, old crustacean you can grab and hold up to the light. These days, I am less afraid of revealing those things I pull from the sludge. It took me years to write nonfiction and I am certain there will be cries of “muckraker” from some quarters. However, sunlight is an antiseptic and there is much to purge, not to even a score, but to speak with more and more authenticity. If I don’t, then what is my writing worth?
I appreciate readers who make contact after reading my nonfiction just to say, “Wow. I felt that.” So far I have dissected the relationship with my father and the mind-numbing doctrines of a former fundamentalist congregation in my nonfiction (My Soul Has Holes In It). It’s a catharsis, but it’s also very satisfying to reconstruct memories and deconstruct traumatic events to make sense of them.
Readers can expect me not to hold back. Africa has been part of that growth process as a writer. I felt like Nigeria was such a rich, real, grounding experience. It’s like I came home from university and had a long talk with my mother and she reminded me to speak the truth.
RN: What do you mean by authenticity when it comes to your writing? If authenticity is one measure of the worth or skill of your work, are there other barometers you use to gauge whether your work is ready for a reader’s eye?
RWG: For me, authenticity is to portray the reality and irony of being human. Here we are, a little lower than the angels, stuck between the gods and the grave—and that’s a lot to wrestle with. Writing about all that it means to be in this powerful but fragile form can take a lifetime—and you still won’t finish.
Meanwhile, there are those who would love to define what “authentic writing” should mean. A favourite of literary gatekeepers is that whatever you write should serve your country first. Writers in the so-called “third world” are somehow expected to wave their nation’s flag non-stop like Damian Marley’s hype-man. It’s as if your first duty is to your country—not your humanity—so you should perhaps write something that could double as a tourist brochure, because authenticity for these cultural Karens means to narrow down your narrative to platitudes and/or cultural cliches that fit into how the so-called “first-world” defines you.
RN: You mentioned the importance of speaking the truth; that is something that resonates with me. Regardless of the medium of storytelling I enjoy writing that feels as though it is imbued with personal, local, national, international, global, and cosmic truth. You know, the kind of thing that feels like it will resonate here on Earth and in the three closest galaxies. I love it when I come across such writing; that is what reading “The Disappearance of Mumma Dell” felt like. Man, when it was published in Granta I think I spent a whole day tweeting about it. What “place of truth” did you have to reach in order to turn that composition into a story?
RWG: “Writing that is imbued with personal, local, national, international, global, and cosmic truth.”
That is what I am dedicated to doing. Haha.
Thanks for your words on the “Mumma Dell”—I remember that tweet-storm of yours.
“Mumma Dell” was my most disciplined short story even after nearly a decade of being a published author. I think the place of truth I got to in order to conjure up that story was this: that we fear innocuous things (like ghosts), while the real dangers like environmental disaster stares us in the face and swings over our heads. I think I also came to vicariously understand Greek tragedy—how a leader or person with good intentions could fail miserably and have history peck away at their memory because of a single fatal flaw. That’s human.
RN: That tweet storm was not hype; “Mumma Dell” was the realest deal since Holyfield. It had a literary rhythm that resonated across the Atlantic. You know, like a dope Jamaican or Naija tune that you know will motivate movement wherever melanin is found—like “Finesse” by Pheelz and BNXN, which I know you bump when you lie to people you are from the continent.
RWG: Hahah. I do like “Finesse” and a whole discography of Naija Afro-pop and 90s dancehall. If “Mumma Dell” had a soundtrack, Arya Starr’s “Bloody Samaritan” would fit right in.
RN: Jokes aside, you say that “Mumma Dell” was your most disciplined story. How, in terms of craft, did its writing differ from your previous works? I know that you had an amazing interview with Annie Paul for PREE Lit where you spoke about resetting your entire approach to writing, so I guess my question is what happened during that middle stage of transition between Old Roland and New Roland that allowed “Mumma Dell” to come to the fore.
I am curious about that stage because, as you said, it occurred almost ten years after you had become a published author. What in that old life had to be let go? And what did you get in return?
RWG: Awright, let me spill some tea.
RN: I’ll get the cups and saucers.
RWG: I approached writing that story like I would a movie script. Cut it to the bone. Make the plot move. Got out my Save the Cat beat sheet and took advice from other screenwriters and film producers and created a serious story arc before I started writing. Ironically, I changed the ending two days before submitting it to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. However, all the plot points, the beats, the twists, the characters who make the plot move instead of just swimming around in it—those things were all mapped out in my head.
I also had beta readers who read all the drafts and asked me serious questions about setting and storyline and tested the punchlines. I am lucky to have friends who function like we are all part of Xavier’s School for Mutants, imbued with distinct powers that help each other become a ragtag creative force that should not be messed with. When you have another writer, a visual artist, an actress, and a cinematographer as your beta reader team, you’re in a good place.
I will admit, it was a very didactic approach, but maybe I needed that structure to go along with flying by the seat of my pants, which is how I usually write. I had to let go of the notion that there’s one way to write, and finally try out some of the conventions.
That space between Old Roland and New Roland is an interesting one. I think the best thing I remember from that valley would be me waking up after nearly ten years of being a writer and realising that I was still excited every day about what I was going to write next, regardless of any book industry glitch or personal challenge. I took on the whole hog so to speak. I watched videos on the craft like I was just beginning, invested in online masterclasses, continued my handwritten notes every day, and committed to more screenwriting, travel writing and nonfiction even as I was plotting my next novel and a short story collection. If you’re a writer, you write.
RN: That’s the whole gospel there.
RWG: Any personal issues that get in the way, they get swallowed up by the plot and become part of the story. Speaking of personal, I also decided it was time to get into the details about growing up with obeah and my arcane, fundamentalist upbringing. That was a boon.
RN: It is interesting that you took the movie script approach to write “Mumma Dell”; it is certainly cinematic in its scope. Which director would be able to bring the vision in your head to the screen?
RWG: It would be a dream team of Kevin McDonald (Last King of Scotland) and Storm Saulter (Sprinter). We could crowdfund to pay them. Haha. I think both directors have a knack of creating magic alongside the mundane, and could capture the glory in the grit that is life in River Gut. And the costumes—I am going to need suggestions for who would do wardrobe. You don’t get into a revivalism story without a costume team who understands the culture.
RN: Don’t get whoever made the costumes for Coming 2 America. That’s all I can say on that.
Moving on, I think we should talk about that “excitement to write the next thing.” Is that what, for you, represents the hunger or drive to write?
For me it is curiosity, about what could be on paper, what possibilities lie in the margins of a fresh, right-hand page. Is there a stage in your writing career when that excitement waned?
RWG: No, even when I thought it would. This writing game with its rollercoaster of triumphs and rejections can knock your enthusiasm, but somehow I have always managed to use misfortune for fuel. I always wake up with a “what if”. What if we were living in Pangea and I could get to Africa without the nauseating plane ride?
Even with a spinal injury about seven years ago when I found myself not completing thoughts, I was excited to emerge from the wheelchair with a story to tell. My first Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlisting in 2017 was a triumph for me after that ordeal.
RN: Brethren, your interview with PREE Lit, in which you spoke about your injury and your concerted return to literary form, was nothing short of inspiring.
Let’s look at your Old Roland writings. Two novels and some short stories. It isn’t like you were slouching. Sketcher and Skid have been included in Jamaican reading lists and murals dedicated to the best novels from the Rock. How did Old Roland get in the zone to produce those two novels?
RWG: We’re coming back to talking about that state of “beginner’s mind”. At the time—2013—I was just excited to write and see how crazy a story or character could get. I wasn’t afraid of anything and I was raging against what I saw as cultural gatekeeping in literary circles in my country. Add to that my newborn son who needed feeding at 3 A.M. I’d give him the bottle then get to work on the novel as soon as he went back to sleep.
You’re only a debut novelist once, my friend. As soon as you read a good, bad, racist, or indifferent review to your first novel, you are no longer naive— so try not to read too many. I read many good ones about Sketcher. Ultimately, such good reviews might make you self-conscious trying to beat yourself at your own game. Just get back to why you loved the blank page in the first page. Don’t analyse too much or you’ll end up overthinking the damn thing like Luke Skywalker trying to get his X-wing out of the Dagobah swamp.
Don’t force it. Use the Force, Luke.
RN: Listen, no interview is complete without one Star Wars reference!
So many writers I know have come to literature via copywriting or advertising. Marlon James, whose work I admire, was once a copywriter. I also did a painful stint in those trenches; you are a general and commander of troops in the word-slinging wars. Does working in the advertising industry lend you any skills that you are able to transfer to your storytelling craft?
RWG: Oh, definitely. First of all, if I may be a bit facetious, perhaps it is the absolute monotony of working on disposable product advertising day after day that compels you to do some other creative writing if only for the sake of your mental health.
That said, copywriting—especially scriptwriting for radio and television—forces you to flex those muscles that dream up scenarios, dialogue, conflict, and resolution, not to mention how to play with language. It’s a Karate Kid scenario: you think you’re doing menial things but over time you’re developing the kung-fu of concept creation and word-bending. That training will prove invaluable to a creative writing career. I have always said my writing career started by writing 30-second “short stories” every day for brands.
RN: We started this interview with your most recent literary exploits in Nigeria and worked our way back to the beginning of your writing career—well, almost. Now, looking forward, what is it that you would like to produce? I am not asking what you’re working on, that is a question I hate being asked in interviews because what I am working on at the moment might not have a direct relationship with writing. So, rather, what I am asking is what kind of work you would like to produce as Present Day Roland.
RWG: Film. More nonfiction. Maybe poetry.
RN: Poetry? Do not defile yourself like that, my brother. (He said, as he got an acceptance letter for a poem…)
RWG: Haha. No poetry then. There will be novels and short stories, no doubt, but I am deliberately broadening my audience. A writer I respect—Rémy Ngamije [RN: Oh, no…]—once said writers of colour have to keep personal momentum to beat the gravitational pull of invisibility (OK, I am paraphrasing, but he is a wise dude). Ultimately I want my work to reach viewing and listening audiences, and I want to have them laugh, cry, stop, and rethink notions about this experience of being human.
RN: This is the second time you’re making an appearance in Doek!. The last time was for a wonderful short story called “Those That Remain.” It has what I call the Roland Watson-Grant hallmarks: an investigation of cult-like religions, tense familial relationships, and a tight narrative that moves with speed and intensity from start to finish.
It has gotten me thinking about readers and how, at the very end, we are “those that remain”—with the unanswered questions, with doubts and curiosities. If you were the Right Reverend Roland Watson-Greezy of the Church of the Literatea, what would be your parting sermon?
RWG: To begin the sermon, I might borrow from the great rock legend, Prince:
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
I would remind the Church that in this congregation of billions, only spirits are invisible—all human beings are seen. Indeed, beloved, my writing—fiction or nonfiction—will always be the Gospel of All of Us.
And if in my writing, you stumble upon a wonderful character who looks and sounds and behaves like you, then perhaps we crossed paths in this life and I was so shaken or taken care of by you that I believe you should live forever among chapters and verses.
I hope that our meeting—sweet or bitter—was meant to be a medicine.
Be well, beloved. Amen, Ameen, Shalom, Selah.”