Interview by Ms. Sunity Maharaj

 

  

MO DUPE* SHARLOW
*I thank you.  (Yoruba)

Outside the city of Ile-Ife, under the familiar ugili tree.
Akinjiya and Akinkanju paused awhile …..

 

Few sentences launching a West Indian novel might disorient more than this one. Like a lit match it falls into our tinderbox of assumptions, blazing its own uncharted path. So that by the time the reader takes his bearings from within the construct of the plot, surrendering eventually to its allure, much has already been lost.

This 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.

When 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.

Quietly, 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.

In 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”.

When 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.

Most people 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 know.

Sharlow, 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.

Private 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.

“Before 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”.

Some 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.”

Whatever 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.”

Finally, 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.

Interview continues:

An excerpt.

“The 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.”
     “Haba?”
     “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.

 “For 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:

 

“The 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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