“I thought it was going to be a mid-level publication. I was just writing…It still surprising to me. He [agent] sent it out on a Monday, and by Wednesday I was getting offers. It was coming like one after the other…I was like, this is a joke? Not to belittle my own story but…” Catholic News in May was fortunate to have interviewed Kevin Jared Hosein, over whose work there was a bidding war by international publishing houses. His latest novel, Devotion, is set to be published as a major lead title in August 2022 by Bloomsbury.
Hosein, 34, grew up in Central Trinidad to a Presbyterian family, and attended Presentation College in Chaguanas where, he commented, a fraternal ethos was emphasised, regardless of religion. He has been teaching at Upper Level Education Institute, a private school in Chaguanas for the past 11 years. In the far-ranging interview, the striking notes which emerge are both his humility and his fascination with the stories around him, especially the ones in ‘darkness’ and which are deeply embedded in the local environment.
Devotion looks at an East Indian family living in barracks, with the father figure attempting to purchase land to move his family out of the barrack yard. To earn more money, he becomes a watchman for a wealthy woman whose husband has disappeared and who, she learns, was involved in a few illicit activities. In the three storylines in the novel, the father’s, his son’s and that of the wealthy wife as she tries to discover what happened to her husband, Hosein says there are the overarching themes of class, power and fate. “Many of the characters believe that their fate is not in their hands, and a lot of external powers preventing them from doing things.”
The people in the ‘darkness’
‘Darkness’ to Hosein has two connotations: the darkness of the underbelly of Caribbean society, the stories of villains, the underworld, evil; and darkness of the stories left untold, or the voids in the stories, even in the tales of the villain. “I like to get into their heads, and see why they are really like that. What really is their mindset?”. These characters he likes to follow and see, not to put them in the role of villain, but in the grey area, because nobody, he says, is born evil. All characters must want something.
He has a particular sympathy for those who are Othered, “the downtrodden, the people easy to cast aside.” They can often be reduced to mere caricature, but he wants to examine the complexity of their inner lives. In research for an article he was writing on the East Indian indentured labourers and rural life at the time, he was told by his grandfather that they did not have much money because they would spend money on rum. “I dunno if all of them was like that,” he laughed. He doubts it, “but that was what the belief was.” Hosein remembered as well, being told while young, to stay away from the squatter settlement nearby and he did, but later realised the spaces that may exist between perception and lived reality.
The authenticity of the characters in Devotion was achieved through extensive research—his chats with his grandfather and other people, and a conversation with a village council elder which lasted about four hours. He needed more than the anecdotes and aspects of the oral history, however. He needed factual information, as well. Historian Angelo Bissessarsingh (deceased) was instrumental here. Hosein learned that while some of the stories may have been exaggerated, others were accurate. There were as well, instances where the oral history may explain a recorded event.
He gave this example of a story told to him by his grandfather: a wealthy woman was walking in the village, and she fell in a pothole. One of the village boys laughed at her, and she angrily swore that half the village was going to be destroyed . What does the recorded event say? Bissesarsingh confirmed that at one point half of village adjacent to La Paille or bordering Frederick Settlement was bought. It has since been replaced by La Paille Gardens. In his conversations with the historian, Hosein discovered, “I ended up with new information, things that were never recorded.”
Landscape as character
The Trinidad landscape is more than just interesting setting. His intent was not just to build a physical world: “When I set out to write this, I wanted to write in such a way that Trinidad itself would be a character… the physicality of the land, how it undulating, how it flood, …that itself is a character, that is something you have to contend with…” The cultural landscape was also integral, “you have clashing cultures, Hindus in the barracks, Presbyterian converts in the village and sometimes they clash. The jhandis and the crucifix, right next to each other…All these would play an integral role in these characters lives.” Hosein wanted his readers, even those locally, to intimately know this Trinidad. All of the editors, during the bidding, said they were not familiar with Trinidad and Tobago, but got a solid sense of the place, and understanding of the creole.
His questioning on the environment often led to odd looks from his interviewees. He said, “I need to know what is all the physical things that you had to contend with.” His grandfather told him that sometimes the cow would stick its head through the window of the barrack in the morning: “All of these form part of the landscape.”
Rain, flooding, hot sun, all are given precedence. “How to keep warm, how to keep cool, how to keep away the mosquitos…all of that… but, it will have something universal: characters trying to survive elements.” His aim was to tell a story in a unique setting.
From the eight-year-old, whose first foray into storytelling was in creating video game stories in notebooks—and who neither liked reading nor essay writing—to author with awards under his belt, he maintains he didn’t expect it all. Simply, he just enjoys writing and having readers walk through the worlds he has built.