Author Q&A: Claire Adam

Golden Child (Faber, £14.99)

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Set in rural Trinidad in the 1980s, Golden Child is the story of twin boys – Peter, a genius destined for greatness, and Paul, who has always been considered odd. When Paul goes missing their father Clyde is frustrated with his troublesome child, but when the reality of his whereabouts comes to light he’s faced with a decision no parent should have to make. 

Like Peter you grew up in Trinidad and left for a prestigious university in America. Were you a golden child?
I do have those things in common with Peter, yes, but it’s not a book about me! Actually the path I took, from Trinidad to the prestigious university in America, is not at all uncommon. Every year, there’s a cohort of 18 year olds in Trinidad and Tobago who win scholarships and head off to places like Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale. But I do think many families have a golden child: the one who everyone in the family knows is going to succeed – whatever that means – and who has a sort of incandescence about them. Peter is clearly such a child, but the book also asks: what about the other child? What about the one who wasn’t ever destined for greatness? The one who lived in the shadow of their brighter sibling. The story of the quieter child, the one who seems to be in the background, is always the more interesting story.

Why is Clyde’s choice difficult and do you think readers will sympathise with him?
I think Clyde will divide readers. Some people might not empathise with Clyde at all – they might think he’s unlikeable, and that his decisions are all wrong, and that nobody would act the way he does. Other people, perhaps, know something of the loneliness that Clyde feels – they know what it is to struggle, to want more for their children than they’ve had themselves. Ultimately, he is an ordinary man, he’s like any other man in any other part of the world who’s just trying to raise a family and live a decent life. He works long hours, he saves, he makes do with little, so that his children, one day, can have more. Is that not admirable? Is that not the kind of father any of us would wish to have? I have the greatest respect for Clyde.

It‘s never stated but the book seems to be set in the 1980s. Why is this an interesting period of time in Trinidad and what has changed since then?
I chose that time simply because it’s a time I knew well, as it’s when I grew up there. It just so happens that during the 1980s there was widespread emigration out of Trinidad and Tobago, because of a recession triggered by low oil prices. That was the backdrop to a part of my childhood: people packing up and leaving, endless talk of crime and corruption being on the rise, the country being likened to a sinking ship. Things later improved economically, as oil prices went back up and the emigration settled down. Now, though, Trinidad is experiencing migration from the opposite viewpoint: Venezuelans are coming to Trinidad now, fleeing their own economic crisis, and it’s creating a new wave of turbulence in society.

Tell us about the collision of Hinduism and Catholicism in the story.
The Deyalsingh family would originally have been Hindu, but they don’t practice their religion, and they send their children to Catholic schools. I wrote about this without understanding it at first – it was a phenomenon I’d so frequently observed in Trinidad that I hadn’t even bothered to question it. What I realised later is that there is – or at least, there was, it may be different now – a hierarchy of religions in Trinidad: not all religions were deemed of equal validity, it seems. Hindu or Muslim marriages were not recognised by law, for example, but Catholic marriages were. There was a sense that Catholicism was the religion of “educated” people. Many of the top schools were run by Catholic priests and nuns, and families of any religion often put their children in these Catholic schools, often with the result that the children effectively grew up Catholic. In one respect, it’s quite sad that families felt obliged to abandon their religions and their heritage in order to educate their children. On the other hand, the result of all this is a religious harmony that might be unique to Trinidad. People often remark, with a rather beautiful simplicity, that all religions effectively worship the same God, just by different names.

How has the oil industry shaped the lives of Trinidadians?
The economy in Trinidad and Tobago is founded on oil and natural gas. It was part of the primary school curriculum to learn the basics of oil drilling and refining, and in secondary school we went on school trips to the Pitch Lake, to oil refineries and to steel and ammonia plants. Many people’s livelihoods depend directly on the local petrochemical industry and many others are working for multinational companies abroad. Ordinary Trinidadians you meet on the street can talk to you about catalytic converters and volatile hydrocarbons and by-products of the refinery process. Oil has made us rich – no doubt about it. Often, people assume that Trinidad is a poor country, but it’s not poor at all.

VS Naipaul died earlier this year. Was he an influence on you and how do you assess his influence on Trinidadian literature?
When I was writing Golden Child, I studiously avoided Naipaul – and all other Caribbean writers –  because I didn’t want to be influenced. I’m so relieved now that I did that – his voice is so strong that it would have gone straight into my ear and come out in my work. As for Trinidadian literature as a whole  – and bear in mind that any Trinidadian you ask will probably give you a different answer, and that I’m not an authority by any means – VS Naipaul feels like a mixed blessing. It’s partly thanks to him that the world takes Trinidadian literature seriously – thanks to him that my book is being taken seriously – and yet he was pretty contemptuous of Trinidad, amongst all his other sins.

Given the Caribbean‘s multiculturalism and the individual identity of the islands, is there a definitive Caribbean identity?
I have no idea! I’ve actually never even been to other Caribbean islands except to Barbados, once, for a weekend. Living in Trinidad and Tobago, it hardly seemed worthwhile to go to other islands, when everything seemed so similar to our own country – the landscape, the sea, the food, and so on. It was more interesting to go to places like the US or Europe – places that were properly different from our own islands. But often when Caribbean people of any origin get together, there’s usually a lot of laughing – that is certainly something we all have in common.

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