Kevin Jared Hosein meets me for our interview on the day V.S. Naipaul dies. The 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner is neither dismissively snide nor desperately heartbroken at Naipaul’s passing. It may seem surprising that a prominent literary son of the Trinidadian soil has no strong feelings about Naipaul, one way or another, but it’s true of Hosein, who fields my queries on the 2001 Nobel Laureate with an unperturbed equanimity. This isn’t hubris. Hosein doesn’t imagine himself superior to Naipaul’s influence or legacy. This is something else entirely: it’s the year in which Kevin Jared Hosein finds himself a household commodity, at least in homes lined with books.
“A lot of it is luck,” Hosein says baldly, referring to his success. This from a man who tried to inveigle his way into a bachelor’s degree in literature or journalism (whichever would have him), despite not having studied literature for “O”-levels. It wasn’t on offer at his secondary school, he explains, though this didn’t dampen his desire to live in worlds of books. The opposite seems to have happened: from early on, Hosein wrote prolifically and read with deep appetite. Stephen King was a childhood staple, followed by Cormac McCarthy. Ask Hosein which Caribbean book has most influenced his sensibility as both reader and writer, and he’s likely to reach for Harold “Sonny” Ladoo’s 1972 novel No Pain Like This Body. “It made me understand how diverse this whole setting is,” Hosein says, referencing the small agrarian Hindu community in which Ladoo’s brutal, uncompromising narrative unfolds.
Trinidadian and Caribbean authors find themselves in something of a golden age. In 2017, Penguin Random House’s Writers Academy named the NGC Bocas Lit Fest one of the world’s top literary festivals. The Forward Prize for the year’s best poetry collection has been awarded to Caribbean poets in a trinity from 2014 to 2016: Kei Miller, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo. Hosein’s own Commonwealth win this year is the second time in a row the international prize has been scooped by a Trinidadian: Ingrid Persaud took it last year. Betting pundits might not be blamed for setting their sights on 2019 as a crowning hat-trick for T&T talent. Though, as Hosein soberly comments, talent might be the least of the equation. He’s equally calm, stoic even, when it comes to prizes.
“I don’t ever think about winning a next prize. The prize is a validation, yes, but you can’t expect nothing from nobody.” It’s not animated cheerleading, but you shouldn’t expect that from Hosein, who doesn’t deal in false literary hope. His plans to bamboozle his way into the humanities at the University of the West Indies didn’t pan out, so he graduated in his other interests, earning a degree in biology and environmental studies. He doesn’t regret this, or think of it as a second-string career path: teaching science is his bread and butter, and it’s equipped him with ways to think more capably and clearly about his writing. Some of the ecological detail in his Commonwealth prizewinning short story, “Passage”, was lifted directly from his degree, from his own walks on forest trails.
“Passage” is a remarkable story on many fronts. Told from the perspective of a dedicated forester who goes on an unlikely mountainous quest in Trinidad’s Northern Range, it simultaneously suggests a landscape victimised by the exploits of humans, alongside a world in which nature always, ruthlessly, has the final say. Hosein’s narrative was praised for its use of the demotic. Hosein himself seems bemused by the doggedness of this particular plaudit from non-Caribbean readers, critics, and publicists: it is, after all, how we people have been writing for generations, he says. It’s telling, he points out, of how woefully under-read the literary metropolis remains in a range of Caribbean voices, despite recent bookish success emanating from our region.
This isn’t Hosein’s first rodeo with the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He’s entered six times, from 2013 to 2018. In 2015, his story “The King of Settlement 4” won the regional arm of the prize. The first story he ever entered, “The Monkey Trap”, was anthologised in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, the debut publication of Peekash Press. Hosein, who speaks at length about the handsome list of rejections he’s earned since starting to write, quantifies these six years of entries, largely populated with misses, as part of a larger goal. “No matter how good your writing is, you have to have a plan . . . a scheme.”
If “scheme” sounds like a slightly mercenary word, you should remember that this is a writer who earnestly gave great thought to sneaking into a literature degree. Still, it’s prudence, not pugilism, that’s the better part of Hosein’s endeavours in the world of writing. This dates back to his secondary school days, of showing his stories to his classmates, acquiring their feedback, and repeating the cycle. It was in form four, he says, that his work began to acquire an especially grim, menacing glint, layered with violence, tones of the macabre, and an arsenal of baleful sexual suggestion. His father, who dutifully printed off copies of the stories at work, gave him a sage kernel of advice that Hosein has never forgotten: “Even if you writing smut, keep writing. Just be careful of who you showing it to.”
Is it possible to stay right here, on these complex islands, and write your way into a sustainable career? Hosein seems to think so. It’s one point on which he is calmly optimistic. It took him two Commonwealth wins — one regional, one overall — plus three books, Littletown Secrets, The Repenters, The Beast of Kukuyo, for the world to start knowing his name. And know it they do. Hosein is awash in media requests, invitations of all sorts, and the kind of solicitations which might make an emerging writer’s head spin, and even cause an established writer’s eyes to glow green with envy. This moment, he knows, has its own capricious lifespan, and it could all turn on a dime — but he says it feels good, if startling, to be here in the epicentre of it.
It would be churlish of anyone to claim that Hosein hasn’t earned it the hard way, the long way, taking the path of patience and a Submittable queue full of red dismissals. Though so much of it is a crapshoot, Hosein softens when he offers advice to young writers. He says, “You might think it have this one path. Degree, MFA, agent. And that’s fine. But there’s lots of other paths too, and following them is like uncharted territory. Think of T&T’s unexplored genres: comedy, horror, romance, true crime. People love to read these things. They fly off the shelves, and they are so underwritten here.” Hosein’s actively taking his own advice: his current work in progress is a full-length novel, tentatively titled The Nest, set in 1970s rural Trinidad, and billed as Caribbean horror.
“Writing is like understanding something,” Hosein tells me as we part ways. “Rather than saying, “That is madness,” seek to understand it.” It’s an ultimate declaration not only of empathy, but of responsibility. Hosein understands what Naipaul understood: that to write for one man, for yourself, means you also invariably write for an island, a complicated and consuming home.