A Painful Joy: Brenda Flanagan Talks Craft

by Travis A. Everett

In 1967 Brenda Flanagan left her large family (fourteen children including herself) in Trinidad and moved to the U.S. during one of this country’s most difficult periods in history. Her risk paid off, and Flanagan has become a prize-winning author and U.S. Cultural Ambassador who travels the world. Her poetry and fiction have also brought her three National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, as well as a half dozen other distinguished fellowships and grants. Amazingly, Flanagan also finds time to teach creative writing and Caribbean and African American literatures at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Forty-four years have not removed the lovely round Trinidadian inflection in her voice, and she laughs often. One imagines she must be an energetic and encouraging teacher even as she is a brilliant artist. Even with such a busy schedule, Flanagan spoke with Barely South Review about structure, revisiting characters, and what the word “craft” means in Trinidad.

BSR: There were some differences in how you structuredYou Alone Are Dancing and Allah in the Islands—most notably instead of using just the three large sections as in the first book, you added chapters within the sections and you experimented a little bit more with narrative viewpoints and person in the latter book. I’m curious about what motivated those changes between the books?

Brenda: Right. Good question. And I really sincerely mean that. I like that question because it goes right to the heart of one of the things I wanted, quite deliberately, to do. I wanted to experiment with writing a male voice. A lot of my stories are about women—and a lot of my stories are told from a female perspective, but I wanted to see if I could write a full narrative, not solely with a single male narrator, but if I could do an authentic male voice. And I have to tell you, the first thing the editor at Peepal Tree Press said was, “Oh, I love this voice. I love this Abdul’s voice” and he’s very critical, so I knew—I always felt that it was successful. But it’s because I wanted to experiment with telling a story from a male perspective, especially that particular story.

BSR: Do you feel like the changes—adding the chapters, was that a result of something you learned between writing the two books? Was that an experiment as well? Or was that just a byproduct of adding the extra voice?

Brenda: It was a byproduct, because there’s so much secrecy about this movement that the novel concerns itself with, that I had to get an insider voice, and I had to get some outsider voices, but ultimately the story is about Beatrice. I wanted to answer the question of what happened to Beatrice.

BSR: When you wrote You Alone are Dancing, did you realize at that time that you’d be telling another story in this world?

Brenda: No, actually. No, no I didn’t. But by the end of the story I sort of felt—okay, I didn’t really, quite honestly, know Beatrice well enough. I was so busy telling the story of Rosehill, because community has always been important to me. Community in a text—as you’ll notice, if you’ve read other West Indies writers, we tend to write novels that have to do with community rather than single individuals. So I think Beatrice’s story suffered in You Alone are Dancing at the expense of the community’s story, and by the end I wasn’t quite sure that I even knew her. So perhaps somewhere in my subconscious was the notion that one day I’m going to have to try to find out a whole lot more about this girl. So when people started asking me, “What happened to her? What happened to her? Did she ever walk out of the sea?”—an ending, by the way, that I don’t think is as ambiguous as some readers appear to have believed it to be—anyways, I thought, “This is a good opportunity for me to try to answer questions I have about her as well.” And I have a full manuscript about her coming to the United States, but it never felt quite right. I always felt that there was something missing in-between. And then when I found out about this Islamic situation that actually happened in Trinidad, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to have Beatrice get involved with these people, and let’s see how that works out.”

BSR: Do you think the fact that you didn’t know you were going to be writing this book influenced your decisions on how you did plan and construct the book? Did you base the format on that of the first book, or did you see this as its own project and there just happened to be similarities in how the two were structured?

Brenda: Right, so you’re talking mainly about structure. And the structure, as you’ve indicated, was different. I mean, one narrative voice tells the story in You Alone Are Dancing, and the polyphony of voices telling the story in Allah in the Islands. But I have to tell you, I never actually deliberately say, “I’m going to tell this story in many voices.” The one thing I did was to tell part of it in Abdul’s voice. But I knew that Abdul, because he’s an outsider in Rosehill—I knew he wouldn’t be able to tell the Rosehill part of the story. So I would need Beatrice to tell her story, and I would need Miss Ann. Miss Ann is a very active opponent to what Abdul and the Haji and these other people having to do with the Islamic movement are constructing. And, because her voice is different from Beatrice’s, I wanted to be sure and have her voice, as well, distinct from the others. So, when you ask me this question it sounds as if you might be thinking it’s similar to what Joyce Carol Oates does—she sits down and she plans out—but I don’t. I don’t sit around and plan out. The stuff comes. I had sat down and written a whole version of the novel in Beatrice’s voice, and I really didn’t like it. So when I hit on Abdul’s voice, I realized, “This is what I’ve been searching for. This is what I wanted.” But I also had to have the community’s perspective, and that’s how the novel manages to be structured in the way it is.

BSR: As far as the process of revisiting these characters after a period of time—do you feel like you have any advice you could give other writers who want to write multiple books about the same characters or in the same fictional worlds about what you learned and what the challenges are?

Brenda: (Laughter) Far be it from me to give anybody any advice, because every writer is different, to tell you the truth. But I know it’s agonizing, because there are so many different voices—the problem is always to try to make each voice distinct from the other, each personality distinct from the other. Miss Ann has to sound different from Jestina or Melda. Reme has to be different from Miss Ann, certainly Abdul has to be different from Yusuf or any other characters, and what other writers would certainly have to work with is maybe not just giving them a slight tic, but also making sure the personality resonates differently on the page. And that’s not always easy. That’s living with a lot of different people for a long time in your head, and dare I say, it’s near to madness. But in the end if it works out, it works out well. I mean, somebody just wrote me—a professor from Appalachian State, and he says, “Oh my God, I love this Ann, and I want to know if Beatrice is going to meet up with Sonny in the United States” for him each voice is distinct, so you know it works when you hear from people like that. So the real problem is giving each one an individual personality, especially since they all come from the same landscape, the same language landscape. You see? So they talk the same kind of talk, but they have to talk that same talk differently. Their attitudes have to be absolutely different. And that’s really the challenge for writers I think. It’s so much easier to do a novel with two or three singular characters and maybe one protagonist shaping everything. And maybe one day I’ll get to that point where I can do it, but I’m still, maybe because I’m from the West Indies, I still think in the terms of one character influencing a lot of other people and some of those other people’s stories needing to be told as well.

BSR: How long did you spend—you mentioned you wrote a manuscript that you didn’t end up using, first—on this most recent project?

Brenda: Years and years and years. I would say, I got a fellowship to go out to Headlands, out in California, from the North Carolina Council of the Arts, and I think I went out there in 2007 or 2008, and being alone out there in that very cool place with some very unusual artists—a lot of the artists out there were installationists and I was one of only two writers—I think looking at what they were doing stimulated me to think of the novel in different ways. And I remember the decision to write it from Abdul’s voice came when I was out there. And after that it took me, because I teach, and when you’re teaching, oh dear, when you’re teaching creative-writing as well, it saps your energy. It took me about a year, I’d say, to finish it. I sent the manuscript off in June and within a few weeks the publisher said yes. In fact, I was going to take a sabbatical to get it done but I got a contract before I took the sabbatical. If I counted all the days and put them all together, it took me about a year and a half. But now, I have that novel that I had written before—now I’m working on that. I’m adjusting that. Beatrice is finally in the United States, and all of the things I had happening to her—I have to shift dates and move her from Miami to New York, but other than that, I hope to get that done this Summer.

BSR: You mentioned the inspiration you got to think about the project differently from the artists in California, did that change your brainstorming or revision processes? Did you take something permanent away from that in how you try to conceive of a story?

Brenda: You know, I wish I could point to something specific. But I know the kinds of things—these were, I call them a bunch of crazy artists, and living in my really limited space here in Davidson, I was not exposed to the kind of experimental art that these people were doing. There were artists from Poland, there were artists from all over the world, and I think I was really struck by their creativity. A different kind of creativity. A creativity that was not as smooth and finished and as ordered as I’m used to seeing when I go to museums, and even stuff around here. People were really experimenting, and so I really look on Allah in the Islands and the way it was structured as an experiment. And maybe that comes closer to what I was inspired to do by those artists out in California. Does that make sense? Because, you know, things filter into you and you’re not really sure what you can use, but it’s just their incredible, incredible creativity. I like surrealism, and there wasn’t so much in that mode, but it came as close to it as I had seen in the United States. And I was just fascinated by it, and I thought, you know, “Why don’t we write like this?” Of course, in the United States, it’s always difficult to get your work published within the United States when you write like that. At some point you just have to do what you have to do. I think that’s why I still have a British publisher. (Laughter).

BSR: So you talked a little bit earlier about the process of writing a male character. And I think that whole process of trying to write a character of the opposite gender—I wonder if you could discuss the challenges you ran up against and some of the fun parts of writing a male character?

Brenda: Oh gosh, the Male character! Also, Remind me to talk to you two short stories that people often say, “Well, these are poems,” I think I read one when I came to ODU. I think I read “Homeless in Oahu” and those short stories, I think, are much more experimental than the things I was doing in the novel. Writing a male voice. I absolutely like this young man, even though I don’t like what he is involved in. I don’t like the fact that his activities are so close to what the Haji wants him to do. The thing I like about him is his honesty. So even as I’m talking about him I’m smiling, because he turns out to be such a likable character in a situation that is not a likable situation. You understand? So, trying to do that, trying to write a likable character who is explaining to a public about a situation, an event—a historic moment in the life of this particular [ed: fictional] country, in Santabella—that a lot of people will be against, trying to make him likable was a challenge. So I had to think of how to do that. One of the ways I thought I could do it was in the way in which he relates to his ex-wife, who is a drug addict, and his mother, who tries to caution him about what he’s doing with these Muslims. And the respectable way which he treats his mother, and the way in which he treats his ex-wife, the mother of his son, who is a drug addict, makes him a much more likable person than even the Haji. So I had to look for moments where I could do these things with him, where he could be appealing. And also his respect for Beatrice. He’s very respectful toward her, and it’s not simply because of his religion—it’s because he’s that sort of young man, and he wouldn’t kiss her, or he wouldn’t touch her, or anything like that, because he’s respectful toward her. And I have to tell you this, part of why I like the challenge of creating Abdul has to do with something I’ve heard over and over and over from my students here at Davidson, and even talking to friends who read a lot—they’ll say, “I’m so tired of reading novels with horrible black men, you know, with bad black men.” Some of them trace the evolution of the bad black man to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. You know, can’t we have some novels with good black men? That was also at the back of my mind. So even though Abdul is in a bad situation, I wanted to show that he has a different kind of depth.

BSR: In preparing yourself to take on that kind of role, how did you prepare? Do you have any advice for writers preparing themselves to write an opposite-gender character?

Brenda: Well, I think you’ve got to get to know real people like that. You know? I always have a kind of, I hate the word model, but I keep in mind a good man I know—this person might not even know that I’m using him or her in this way—somebody that has features or qualities I’m particularly fond of. I think every young writer needs to have a stock of real people from whom they can draw these fictional characters. So I had seven brothers, and one of them was of Islamic faith. He was so much a believer in the religion, and I kept him in mind—I never spoke with him about it, he died some years ago, I never spoke with him about his religion, I only looked at him from afar—but I always got a sense when he talked about religion that he was a true, true believer. So I kept an image of him in mind, and I think that’s important for young writers. I encourage my students to make notes when they’re in the airport. Look at people, faces, the way they walk—make notes about people so you can use these notes later on as you try to create characters. And getting to know people—get to know people and their personalities. In a way, all writers are voyeuristic. Tom Wolfe, who wrote The Right Stuff, he’s voyeuristic in an interesting way, a way that I sometimes have problems with, but it works for him, and it should work for all writers. It does for me, I know. You ask me these questions and I have to think about these things, because I don’t usually think about them—I just write. But I know that after I go along, I have lots of notebooks. I have notebooks especially of phrases. I love words, and I have notebooks of phrases for characters to use. But, of course, then I have to construct the right character who would use that phrase, you know?

But I wanted to talk to you about those two short stories. If I’ve done anything experimental with short stories, it’s in those two short stories. People often ask me, “Why do you call them short stories? They sound like poems.” But I do call them short stories, and they are short stories because I think of them as short stories. But in terms of how they come out, the ways in which music resonates through them, the ways in which I was thinking about the characters metaphorically—I really had not done that kind of writing in terms of short stories before. You know, my short stories are almost always realistic, but in those two I think that I was using a lot more metaphors and symbols than I’d used in any other work.

BSR: Do you see yourself doing more of this experimental work in the future?

Brenda: I think I’m going to do more of those. They seem to be influenced by music, too, but mainly because I’m reading a lot of surrealist work. I’m writing a book on Eva Švankmajerová who was just an incredible surrealist writer from the Czech Republic; I’m reading a lot of her poetry and being tremendously influenced by that. Maybe that’s why she wanted me to do this book on her, because she’d read some of [my] short stories. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a surrealist writer, I think some of the things I’ve been doing lately come closer to surrealism than anything else.

BSR: You split both novels into three parts. I’m curious whether that’s a reflection of how you’d approach any story of that length, or if it was a specific decision regarding the context of this story world.

Brenda: It has to do with time. Splitting them into parts takes care of a problem of time. When something happens. I find that, almost too conveniently, if I divide the text into three parts then almost without having to announce to the reader—the division in itself is an announcement that time has passed. It’s just a way of taking care of the passage of time, really. Stuff happens over a long period, but the novel has to be collapsed into a short period within the covers.

BSR: Do you have any other craft or composition-related ideas you’d like to talk about?

Brenda: You use the word craft. People usually talk about craft in the United States. But, you know, the word craft has a different meaning in Trinidad. The word “craft” means girlfriend, lover, someone you’re trying to hook up with, somebody you’re trying to entice, somebody you’re trying to make a move on. So I think it’s a lovely way to think about writing. That this “craft,” this thing you like, that you love, this thing you’re trying to make a move on, this thing you have to work to shape—it just seems to me that the way in which the meaning resonates in Trinidad, which is quite different, and the way it resonates in the United States and elsewhere brings us all together in an odd way. If you think of craft, you know, metaphorically, that’s what we’re doing. We’re engaging in this shifting and sizing-up and deleting and adding and reshaping—and all of that is what a guy might do when he’s trying to entice this woman into his fold. I just absolutely love the word craft, in fact I was playing a couple calypsos by Lord Kitchener the other day and he talks about the craft, he saw her and what he was going to try to do. This is about writing, too! It’s a meaning we can appropriate in the United States for how we think about writing. I love writing, but it’s such a difficult thing to do, and it’s a scary thing for me. I don’t teach creative writing every term, but I usually teach it in the spring term, and it’s frightening because I’ll have about 16 to 19 students with whom I have to work individually because each of them is a different writer; even though they may all have a similar assignment they’ll each approach that assignment differently. It’s exhausting and it’s exciting and it takes all of my energy. So, although I love teaching it—I’m scared when the spring term comes around, because I know I’ll be able to get very little of my own writing done. It’s something I have to do. Maybe you’ve heard some writers say, and maybe for you too, writing poetry is akin to breathing—if you didn’t do it, you’d be dead. When I start writing something there’s a sense of excitement, there’s a thrill I feel, I start smiling, I don’t want to stop writing what the character is telling me to write. I don’t want to stop doing it. But, of course, because writing is not treated with very much respect in the United States, I have to make a living. I have to put away that joy. For me, writing is a painful joy. It’s like getting pregnant, and screaming when that kid comes out. And if you don’t feel that way, I’m not sure you’ll be able to persist with it.

BSR: That reminds me, I think Rilke said something about the experience of the creator being a feminine thing, the experience of receiving and bearing.

Brenda: But, you know, men have their own way of doing these things, too. I like to think of a man whose wife is carrying a baby feeling the same symptoms. I just got a manuscript from a student who graduated several years ago, and he wants to enter a writing program, so he just wants me to look at some of his stories. And I want to put everything aside and read his stories. I read the first page and I don’t want to put it down. I take absolute delight in what young people, young writers, are doing. There’s so much interesting stuff going on out there. If I had one wish, Travis, it would be that the people who are writing awards would look beyond New York. I think there’s a sort of cartel, and if you are not within that cartel… not much attention is paid to what is happening outside of New York. There is a major part of the country in which very little attention is paid to what writers are doing. You have to be very sexy in a New York kind of way in order for your writing to get the attention it should.

Also in this issue, a short story by Brenda Flanagan:


Travis is the founding editor of escarp, a selective, Twitter-based review of brief poetry and prose; a poetry editor for Barely South Review; and is currently being pursued by an MFA in creative writing at Old Dominion University. In his spare time, he enjoys designing, reading, writing and alphabetizing. In his not-so-spare time, he enjoys furtively reorganizing his bookshelves, closet and desk.