Kevin Jared Hosein
In Hungry Ghosts, the latest book from Caribbean writer and poet Kevin Jared Hosein, the lives and histories of two families, the Changoors and the Saroops, become intertwined with terrible consequences. Set in 1940s Trinidad, this novel reads like a haunted house tale at first, but the terrors go way beyond the creaking doors and dark shadows. This is a book steeped in superstition, disrupted by moments of violence and rich in poetic description about the landscape of central Trinidad and the people who live there. Hosein’s previous short stories, poems and books for young adults have met with critical acclaim and this is his first novel for adults.
Tell us a bit about the two households central to this novel and what you’re exploring about class divides in Trinidad.
Dalton and Marlee Changoor are an affluent, childless couple that own an estate atop a hill. Dalton married Marlee when she was still a teenager, only for her to quickly realise that much of the wealth is tied to blood, in ways both hereditary and criminal. Readers will soon learn that Marlee, though young, is more cunning than her husband would’ve realised. Hans, Shweta and Krishna Saroop are an impoverished family living in a ramshackle sugarcane estate barrack. They share the space with four other families and find themselves exposed to vermin, disease and the elements.
Hungry Ghosts opens during the July hurricane season, where the Changoor estate is mainly unaffected by the winds and rain, and the barrack is often flooded, full of rats and ready to collapse any day now. Scenarios similar to these still play out in Trinidad today, so I wished for this to illustrate not only the basics of have and have not, but the desire for ascension, as if one’s fate is kept in check by those rising waters. Hindus in particular, at that time and before, were looked down upon and alienated from the general population – their rituals, their blending of henotheistic and polytheistic beliefs, music, foods and style of dress were seen as totally alien. This was in contrast to beliefs adopted from colonists and missionaries. You could keep your old Hindu beliefs and live in squalor, or discard them for Christianity and have better opportunities. I felt like there was something that could be explored in the human condition when given such a decision. That you felt like you had an opportunity, or at least the illusion of it, to choose your fate.
What were the origins of this story?
Stories told by my grandfather and elders from the village I grew up in. I had interviewed them for an unrelated article about how village rituals changed over time, and thought that some of their anecdotes would have made for good fiction – because a lot of it certainly sounded like fiction at the time. Many ideas coalesced over time but I knew at the end of the day, I wanted a tale that would be emotive and entertaining.
Why did you choose this period in Trinidad’s history as the setting for this story?
It was a time when two superpowers had inhabited the island – the British colonialists and the American navy, stationed up north during World War II. It was also a few years following the Labour Riots. I had wanted many of the characters to occupy a distinct mindset of reckless ambition. The 1940s was a time that must have felt like a new Trinidad was being born – one where the colonial machinery was winding down and everything must have felt like a frontier to be conquered, or re-conquered. I imagined all of these characters as explorers of other potential worlds and lives, and the time seemed quite fitting for such a feeling.
What role do the supernatural and superstition play in the lives of your characters and in the book as a whole?
Hungry Ghosts had first been imagined (and written) as a horror novel, where Marlee Changoor was actually a sort of chimera that inhabited a house that fed off the flesh of the impoverished. That changed later on, of course, as I realised I didn’t need a privileged and wealthy woman to be something supernatural to evoke that sensation. It worked better, grounding her. I still kept the prose in step with some of that horror-novel energy and atmosphere however.
Her husband, Dalton, however is plagued by his own superstitions but with no real compass that we’re made aware of. He has fired all the staff from his house by the time of the story, thinking he can trust no one else. Rookmin, an elderly woman of the barrack, abides by ancient Hindu rituals, devoting herself to them and remaining one of the most sane and respected people in her group.
I suppose when writing it I was thinking of my own experiences with Hinduism. I’m not a Hindu, though I’ve grown up in a Hindu household and family. I don’t believe in the deities, but I can see the peace and joy that one can attain by devoting themselves to them. It is indeed a religion of self – one where you’re aware the deities do not need you or your worship.
What research did you do, and what techniques did you use, to bring this novel so vividly to life?
Mainly those interviews I did, as I mentioned. These weren’t limited to hard facts, though, but also what would have been common sights, sounds, past times and daily joys and struggles back then. Much of these were incorporated into the novel – though I’m aware I ran the risk of having too much in there! I had also been given notes about indentured life from a late Trinidadian historian, Angelo Bissessarsingh. There are many places in Trinidad that look like time has slowed or stood still, still busied by wilderness and decades-old customs. These places are only an hour or two away from my home, and it’s easy for me to take photos and videos for visual and auditory reference when describing scenes.
As for techniques, sometimes I write a scene and then rewrite it with a strange prompt in mind. What if this character’s entire world had slightly tilted to the left in this scene? What if the character had leeches all over their skin? What if the character had just emerged from an arctic cave before meeting this other character? It’s a strange way to write, but it helps me inhabit those characters’ emotions.
In what way is modern day Trinidad influenced and informed by its past?
Nobody had meant for us to be a civilisation – for there to be anything inter-faith or inter-racial or inter-cultured. Racism still exists, especially when politics gets involved, but I’d like to think those are just outliers. There are colonial leftovers that we could do without, however. Bureaucratic procedures and dress codes in Trinidad’s (not Tobago) government buildings remain intact that inconvenience anyone who doesn’t like to wear long pants and a suit in the blazing Caribbean sun.
I think we’re still learning and are still being informed. An elder had related a story to me during an interview – he said that when locals took over the schools from missionaries, the students did not respect anyone who wasn’t white and that didn’t speak with a British accent. So the local teachers often wore thick jackets and employed corporal punishment relentlessly to gain respect. Or fear. So we became our own enemies in that sense. We saw ourselves as inferior people from the get-go. We are powerful when we come together and it’s my hope more and more people realise this as Trinidad gets older and hopefully wiser.
To what extent can fiction help us to confront the truths about colonialism?
Through fiction, a reader can inhabit and get invested in the emotions and ambitions of characters that would have existed at such times. They can see the world from their eyes and walk beside them, through meadow and storm. What is fiction but to wake up in another person’s dreams?
Who are your literary influences?
The prose of Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Yukio Mishima, William Faulkner. The poetry of Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Kamau Brathwaite, Charles Bukowski. And a dash of essays and science writing by David Foster Wallace, Rachel Carson and Charles Darwin.
What are you working on next?
I’m making good headway into a manuscript tentatively titled Innermost, inspired by two child sibling survivors of a massacre that occurred in 1990s Trinidad. One was adopted by a wealthy family while another eventually was banished to the bushes, eventually ending up in prison. As far as I know, they never met or spoke after that. My novel explores two siblings of similar circumstances eventually crossing paths in an unnerving and unexpected way.