Author Interviews
7:51 am
Sun August 3, 2014

'Oh Gad!' Presents A Compelling Slice Of Caribbean Life

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 9:01 am

In the latest installment of our Weekend Reads series, Elizabeth Nunez, the author of books including Boundaries and Prospero's Daughter, and the co-editor of an anthology of work by female Caribbean writers, recommends the novel Oh Gad!

The book, by Joanne C. Hillhouse, takes readers to the Caribbean island of Antigua for the story of a woman returning to the island after years spent abroad. Hillhouse herself is from the island, and her close ties to the region are part of what got Nunez interested in her work.

"So few Caribbean writers actually live and write in the region," Nunez tells NPR's Arun Rath. "So many of them — you could start off with V.S. Naipaul and move on, including myself, actually — went abroad to develop their writing career, mostly because that's where the publishing industry is."

But Hillhouse still lives in the landscape she writes about. "There's such an authenticity to her story," Nunez says. "I immediately knew the people, the characters she wrote about. "


Interview Highlights

On Nikki Baltimore, the protagonist of the story

Here is a young girl whose father is American, her mother is Antiguan; and her mother decides to send her to New York to have her live with her father. Of course, her mother does that because she thinks that Nikki will have a better life. And of course Nikki, during the years she's separated from her mother and from Antigua, has this longing to reconnect, to be back in Antigua. And she comes back in time for her mother's funeral.

On the political element of the story

It's a very contemporary novel, and it deals with a very contemporary issue in the Caribbean, which is that the economy is based on tourism. To what extent do you compromise your country to let tourism flourish? And so what's at the heart of this novel is the tension between the land developers, the ones who want to put up the big hotels, the big condos for the tourists and basically saying to the people, "If we do this, you will get money," and to those who have farmed the land for a long time. There's a sacredness of the land.

And this what Joanne does so cleverly: She does not let us forget that slavery existed on Antigua. For all the blue water, for all the big sunshine, she never lets us forget the brutal history of slavery that occurred on the islands.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This summer, we started a new series called Weekend Reads in which an author tells us about a book by another writer and explains why we should read it. Today's novel takes us to the Caribbean island of Antigua. It's by Joanne C. Hillhouse, who's from that island, and it's called "Oh Gad!" Here to tell us why this book is a great read is Elizabeth Nunez. She's the author of many books, including "Boundaries" and "Prospero's Daughter," and is also the co-editor of the anthology "Stories From The Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers At Home And Abroad." Elizabeth Nunez joins us from our New York bureau. Hi, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH NUNEZ: Hi there, Arun.

RATH: So before we get into this book, tell us a little bit about the author, Joanne C. Hillhouse.

NUNEZ: Yes, I met Joanne maybe a couple of years ago. And I was really intrigued on a number of levels - one because so few Caribbean writers actually live and write in the region. You could start off with V. S. Naipaul and move on, including myself, actually - went abroad to develop their writing career, mostly because that's where the publishing industry is. So Joanne struck me as a pretty brave soul.

RATH: Nikki Baltimore is the name of the protagonist in the story.

NUNEZ: That's correct.

RATH: Tell us about the kind of person she is.

NUNEZ: Here is a young girl whose father is American. Her mother is Antiguan. And her mother decides to send her to New York to live with her father. And of course Nikki, during the years she's separated from her mother and from Antigua, has this longing to reconnect, to be back in Antigua. And she comes back, in time, for her mother's funeral. If you permit me, I would just read just a little bit about how her older sister handles her because Nikki comes back. She wants to put a beautiful tombstone on her mother's grave. And her older sister, who has remained at home taking care of the mother, is a little - a little upset with her for doing that. And so here is Audrey, who is her older sister, saying, (reading) your mother? When last you talked to she? When she was dying? How much night you sit up with she while she moan and groan? What the hell you know about she? Look, girl, you better get off of here if you know what's good for you. Nikki swiped at angry, hurt, frustrated tears. She's the only mother I had. And I never had her. If I want to give her a headstone, I will. If I want to move back to Antigua, I will.

RATH: You can really feel these people, feel the emotions. They feel very real.

NUNEZ: Yeah, this Joanne does really, really well. You hear the voice of the Antiguans who stay at home. And she maintains the dialect there. And it's also a story - a political story, in a way.

RATH: Political because of, you know, the sort of postcolonial themes that tend to run through Caribbean literature?

NUNEZ: Not necessarily in this novel. It's a very contemporary novel, and it deals with a very contemporary issue in the Caribbean, which is that the economy is based on tourism. To what extent do you compromise your country to let tourism flourish? And so what's at the heart of this novel is the tension between the land developers, the ones who want to put up the big hotels for the tourists and basically saying to the people, if we do this, you will get money, and to those who have farmed the land for a long time. There is a sacredness of the land. And this is what Joanne does so cleverly. She does not let us forget that slavery existed on Antigua. For all the blue water, for all the big sunshine, she never lets us forget the brutal history of slavery that occurred on the islands.

RATH: This experience that you describe Nikki going through when she goes back, it's a familiar thing that I think people who go back to the land of their origins sometimes experience, where you have double alienation. You feel like an outsider in your adopted country. But then, you go to what's your home or your ancestor's home, and you feel like an outsider there as well. Does she - without giving away too much, how does she work through that?

NUNEZ: I don't know if you're hearing the strains of an American accent in my voice, but when I go home - and then I have to put quotations around home - when I go back to Trinidad, people say to me, oh, you have an American accent. (Laughing) And I'm saying, wow. And then - but of course, what they are saying is I'm not picking up the innuendos. I'm not picking up the references, their accents, quite the same way. And they speak too quickly for me. And then, when I come into the United States, within 10 minutes people ask me, where are you from? You know? So that whole issue of being an outsider both within the place where you immigrated and in the place where you grew up is a strain that runs through Joanne's novel "Oh Gad!"

RATH: Elizabeth Nunez's latest book is "Not For Everyday Use: A Memoir." She joined us from our studios in New York to talk about Joanne Hillhouse's novel, "Oh Gad!" You can read an excerpt from "Oh Gad!" at our website npr.org. Elizabeth, thanks so much.

NUNEZ: Oh, you're most welcome. This was a delight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.