Interview by Ms. Sunity
Outside the city of Ile-Ife, under the familiar ugili tree.
Akinjiya and Akinkanju paused awhile …..
might be a publisher’s nightmare, except that When Gods Were Slaves
compels that the bewilderment be waded through. Its characters evoke enough
loyalty and interest to quell any impulse towards abandonment. By the time
Ominira says: “Yetunde is a very long story. We all have stories to tell”,
the urge for re-engagement is peaking towards anxiety. This is not a book that
merely deserves a second reading. It is a book that leads irresistibly
back to itself, almost as if it were written in two parts.
Gods Were Slaves is the
story of a group of Africans seized by marauding traders and shipped off in
chains to work on the plantations in Trinidad. We meet them first in their tribe
in the village of Ile-Ife before the encounter with the European, before the
concept of West Indian slavery. Like Akinjiya under the seductive innocence of the beautiful Elewa, the reader waltzes through
the blissful hum of a community’s ordinary life.
intrigue begins to disturb the coquettish calm as Oba Oyedele, father to
Akinjiya and chief of the tribe, prepares for the succession. The sceptre of
divinity is to be passed on to one of his two sons, Olote or Akinjiya, sons of
his last two warring wives. His choice falls upon Akinjiya, the wayward and kind
son of his beloved Moremi. Olote, ambitious son of the jealous Tamajiro, is
spurned in the process.
revenge, Olote opens the village to the white oyinbo, the slave agent who
becomes useful in fulfilling Olote’s aspirations to power. In one bloody
moment, worlds collide at the New Yam Festival and life is forever
changed. The chief is killed, Akinkanju dies intercepting a bullet aimed at his
friend Akinjiya. The beautiful Dudu Elewa passes into the coarse hands of the
slave agent. Mischievous, confident Akinjiya, proud warrior of the tribe and
future oba is shackled with his friends and marched down to the slave
ships bound for the West Indies. “The earthly horrors of orun buruku
(hell) had begun”.
Gods Were Slaves
is the third book by Sharlow Mohammed, and excruciatingly shy and reclusive 49
year-old writer, boldly publishing his own work from his house at the end of a
grassy trace off the Longdenville main road.
who read this book, he says, assume that Sharlow is either African or must have
lived in Nigeria. He has never been to Africa. Like his other work, The
Promise – now being re-edited – When Gods Were Slaves is the
creation of a soul-immersing process spurred by the writer’s own quest to
as he signs his name, had been working on The Promise when he found
himself moving inexorably into When Gods Were Slaves. He describes The
Promise as a work which “seeks to return the pride and dignity of the (East)
Indian race” which had been “defamed” through the system of indentureship.
What he learned in that research filled him with a desperation to find out about
those who had come before as African slaves.
notes written to himself more eloquently describe the process than the reticent
Sharlow can in an interview. One such was written in December ’91, after he
had finished the manuscript of When Gods Were Slaves.
writing I had to do the old triangular route several times. From Wilson
Armistead in England, the late Omosade Awolalu in Nigeria, and Eric Williams in
the Caribbean.” Among
those he read were such abstruse books on slavery as An Unknown
Planter in the West Indies in the Art of Rearing Slaves – about
whom he notes wryly, “indeed he may well wish to be unknown”.
of the details in this novel, he feels, rectifies historical discrepancies such
as the character of Governor Picton who has been portrayed as having alleviated
the harshness of the slave code. In fact, his research and writing lead him to conclude
that such literature is too kind to Picton. But, he says, this novel is “less
interested in ferreting out historical discrepancies or farces, than in
returning the African to himself”.
In this sense, Sharlow is a writer with a mission, which also includes a Trinidadian
assignment: “Though my works are of relevance to the two major races here, you
must note their universality. It is an aim that my future novels will finally
create a way of harmonious life for all the races.”
The process of research simply plots the points of the landscape in which the
writer will roam and out of which will come the perspective for creation. For him,
the end of research marks the beginning of the real education of the writer.
“Writing searches out the truth. It seeks for justice.”
success he would achieve in this novel, he knew, would depend on the extent to
which he could slip into the lives of his African characters:
“For empathization to become significant, I had to develop an appreciation for religion and culture. I had to become African. To exist near Ile-Ife at the ending of the eighteenth century, I had to be one with the physical milieu, one with the beating of the bata drums. No fiction but reality.”
Each morning, before he wrote, Sharlow would listen to Miriam Makeba singing which he
found reinforced the African psyche. But blurring the divides between centuries,
psyches, races and worlds, brought more pain than he might ever have imagined:
“Discipline, concentration, empathization, living inside the lives of others in another era was more than exacting. So I fretted….. On evenings I levelled five truck loads of dirt ridding myself of that stress…..”
His wife, Rosemarie, a Chinese Trinidadian teacher, recalls the pain her husband endured while writing this novel. The author's own recording of that period describes the physical pain that gripped his body.
“As the days increased so did the physical pain until it spread all over the body. Each day I thought it wise to take a break on the next. There were no phobias this time but to remove myself from the bed was accompanied by excruciating pains. Getting off my chair was the same, until I began to laugh rather ecstatically at pain. I wondered at my sanity. I was gripped by the writing too, engulfed with another kind of exhilaration. The power of the word was finally mine.”
and coincidentally, came “a little miracle”: on Freedom Day, the pains
disappeared, allowing him to complete the novel in September of ’91. By then,
the novel, which he had intended to take much further, had written itself to a
logical conclusion: “I realised I could go no further as I had originally
intended. There would be no historical or logical authenticity and the
perspectives of African pride and dignity must also refer back to the beginning." Readers of When Gods Were Slaves will understand what that means.
spectators had been treated to some fine bouts of wrestling and most of the
crowd were dispersing. Since it was Akinkanju’s team which was the host, they
had prepared food and drink. And now, between bowls of stewed pepeye with
isu, and gourds of emu, the combatants chattered on more amicable
terms. These young men who would one day be called upon to be the leaders in
their villages, were aware that this had been the custom of their ancestors, and
of their fathers, and they felt proud to emulate that tradition.
“Ehen, Ajagun,” said Akinkanju, “I congratulate your skill and your strength. You surprised me.”
“Mo dupe, but I shall win at the next gidigbo.”
“No, you will not, says Akinkanju the brave."
“Haba, it is no secret how the omoges weaken Akinkanju’s strength each day,” replied the other, causing all to laugh. “Ehen, but Ajagun the warrior adds daily to his power.”
“Strength and skill are not the same,” persisted Akinkanju.
“One must depend on the next. I congratulate both your strength and your skill.”
“Mo dupe,” acknowledged the other. “Wo, Akinjiya drinks more emu than he eats pepeye or isu. Ehen, Akinjiya, because you won your fight you now wish to lose your head?”
“Ehen, Akinkanju, it is not as you think,” intervened Ifagbemi. “Akinjiya lost his head since in our village, and it is because of the kola-nut necklace he wears.”
“We all saw dudu Elewa tie it around his neck.”
“Ehen,” Onala poured emu to the teasing. “Dudu Elewa looked at us with ekun’s eyes when she guards her young.”
“Yepa,” Akinkanju mocked smugly. “Then it is dudu gan Elewa who conquered today!”
Akinjiya was feeling too proud and happy to defend himself. Since the great market-day at Ile-Ife, both his heart and his young oko did not sleep as before.”
As he finished, Sharlow found himself filled with “a profound sadness” at leaving the African family, so that when it was completed, he found himself “reluctant to use beers” to help him let go.
Beer drinking is a ritual of
excess practised by Sharlow. It commemorates his return to the land of the
living senses while releasing and relaxing him for the journey ahead. This
interview, for example, was possible only because it fell into one such break
and therefore owes a debt of gratitude to the many bottles – without them, the
shy Sharlow would probably have hidden under his bed. That is no exaggeration.
He recalls how, at the Hilton to deliver a manuscript to a literaire, he had
ducked under a table, twice, absolutely overcome by shyness.
The consequence is that this writer leads a quite remarkable existence in Longdenville where he was born and from where he grew into adult life…..
These days, as Sharlow returns to The Promise, due for publication this year, he had re-entered the world of perfection:
“As a child,” he writes in a note dated Sept. 26, 1990, “a book was an awesome, living thing. I believe my infant imagination took wings since the introduction of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. From my teens and a couple of decades later, a book was perfect or supposed to be perfect. There were books like Les Miserables, Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss….. There was Charles Dickens and the inimitable Marie Corelli. And though I read without an historical background but as a romantic, they were all perfect ….. Here then is my conception of a book – Perfect”.
When Gods Were Slaves is dedicated to George Lamming who the writer describes as a source of great support.
those whose eyes are covered as if by scales, and who would deny you, let them
know that since 1968, in London, during a coming together of librarians,
booksellers, publishers and authors, it was observed that:
failure to encourage literary talent is a form of oppression”. And for those
same whose eyes are scaled, I quote: “If this work is of the devil, it will of
itself come to nought. But if it is of God, I exhort you to desist, lest you
find yourself fighting even against God.”
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO REVIEW JULY 1993.
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