Claire Adam: “I’ve always felt, ask me where I’m from!” | Own words

Claire Adam, Trinidad-born novelist, on learning to observe, the usefulness of honest criticism, and the notion of “home” — as told to Nicholas Laughlin

  • Photo by Tricia Keracher-Summerfield, courtesy Claire Adam
  • Golden Child

I grew up in Port of Spain, the youngest of four children. My father’s Trinidadian, a doctor who lectured in medicine at the University of the West Indies. My mother is Irish. She was also trained as a doctor, but she stopped practicing after we were born.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house with a lot of books. But thinking back on it now, the books I can remember most clearly are the books we studied at school. I remember reading The Crucible [by Arthur Miller], and you know, this play is set in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1600s, about as far away from Trinidad in the 1980s as you could get. But the way it’s written, you straight away feel like you’re in the room with these people.

I’ll always remember the character Giles Corey, who wouldn’t confess to a lie. They laid planks of wood on his chest, and they kept on adding more planks, slowly crushing him, and trying to get him to confess. And his final words were, “More weight.” I remember me, as a fourteen-year-old girl in Trinidad, thinking, if it ever comes to something like that, I will try to be like Giles Corey.

My mother had grown up in Ireland, so Trinidad was new for her, and she was something of a natural scientist — she was always doing botanical drawings of flowers, leaves, seed-pods. The house was full of things like jars and ice-cream containers with caterpillars or spiders, and my mother would be making detailed drawings as the chrysalis grew and the butterfly broke its way out. It was a bit like My Family and Other Animals [the memoir by Gerard Durrell).

My mother’s most frequently repeated instruction was to observe. Sit quietly and look at something. For example, look at that spider building that web. Observe the spider. Before long, questions start occurring to you. How did that spider know to first put a thread from there to there, to support the twig she wants to build on? Where does the thread come from? My mother knew the way to get children interested is not just to feed them all the answers.

In the immediate vicinity, say, in the garden, I would observe things like flowers. I would pick flowers and look at petals, pollen, notice that some flowers close at night and open again in the morning, and some petals are papery, and some are waxy, and some bruise easily. It’s a principle or a skill that’s relevant to writing, to observe people: speech and gestures, and more broadly what people say and do to each other — actions, and consequences of actions.

We used to go to Ireland every three years to visit my mother’s family in Cork. There was the ritual of getting out the suitcases, finding all the wool sweaters — summers in Ireland felt very cold to us! We used to stay with my grandmother, and she had a huge garden out in the countryside. The landscape was so different, the colours, the way the trees grew, the physical sensation of raindrops — smaller, sharper, colder raindrops.

I suppose we were something of an oddity, when we showed up in the village in Ireland, these four brown-skinned children, but I don’t remember anything negative. We probably stood out a little, but in a good way — people were curious, but welcoming. I think when you come from a little Caribbean island and go out into the wider world, you encounter this curiosity frequently. You have to explain where you’re from, where Trinidad is, why you speak English, why you are the colour you are. I’ve never been bothered by this — on the contrary, I’ve seen it as a privilege. I’ve always felt, ask me where I’m from!

 

left Trinidad at eighteen and went to university in the States. I did physics — I found it very demanding, but I stuck it out. At Brown University, there’s no core curriculum: outside of the classes required for your major, you just take whatever courses you want. It was like being in a sweet shop! I want that, and that, and that! So I did some neuroscience, some cognitive science, I learned Italian. Literature was always on my mind. It was sort of a push-pull. Physics or literature? But I found the literature classes I took fairly baffling. They seemed to make connections that I found tenuous, and reach conclusions, and then announce the conclusions as if they were some sort of fact. Coming from physics, I just couldn’t follow this at all. I was like: you started on A, which was just a hypothesis, and we’ve ended up on Z, but nobody has ever proved that A was true in the first place!

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I lived in Ireland for a year after finishing university. I’ve always felt very welcome in Ireland, but I never introduce myself as Irish. I always explain that my mother is Irish, but I grew up in Trinidad, and I’ve been living in London for a long time: it’s a bit long-winded, but at least it’s accurate.

For years, I kept notebooks, filled with stuff — journal notes, attempts at stories, phrases, snippets. I was always writing something — that was always a sort of parallel to whatever else was happening in my life. But when I came to writing more seriously, I came at it from the point of view of rolling up my sleeves and thinking, OK, how do I figure this out. I joined various writing workshops, and I did a creative writing MA in London. I found the workshop groups very useful, because they were data. You write a piece, and you get, say, twelve responses. Some people would feel very hurt if they got bad feedback, but I never felt like that. I was like, this is great data! I said to people, don’t just tell me what you liked, tell me what you hated.

I started working seriously on my writing after I had children. I had the sense of time running out. It took about five years to write Golden Child, with longish gaps between drafts. It felt slow, and although I never seriously considered giving up, I occasionally wished I’d never started, because it was so much harder than I expected! But I knew, from reading about other writers’ experiences, that this is not at all unusual.

My agent sent Golden Child out to British publishers first, and I was settling in for a long wait, because sometimes it’s like that. But we had an offer within a couple of days, a pre-empt from Faber. And shortly after that, Hogarth offered on it in the US. It’s all been very exciting. I feel very lucky.

 

wish I had a writing routine. In practice, mostly I wash dishes, do laundry, and drive my kids around. For years, it’s been a running joke in my family that I keep setting my alarm clock for 5 am, in the hope that I can get up and do an hour’s writing before the day starts. The sad reality is that I’m just not a morning person at all.

If I make any progress on new work, it tends to be at night. I can work happily until 2 or 3 am. Things that looked chaotic and muddled at 4 pm become perfectly clear at midnight.

Writing Golden Child, I used to trawl the TT newspapers online, following links, watching YouTube videos. I usually wasn’t looking for anything specific, just trying to immerse myself in that world again. I used to download photos, and I have a file of probably hundreds of photos of Trinidadian scenes. I found this part really hard, of having to sort of mentally be in Trinidad, and sometimes feel a great longing and nostalgia — which would remain unfulfilled, because I knew I wouldn’t go back to live there — and yet physically be somewhere else.

I’ve been living outside Trinidad for over twenty years now. At first, I went back every year, and then it was every few years. But since my parents moved to London, I haven’t been back, and mentally it feels like a big shift. It’s a strange halfway position to be in — and many other people are in a similar place — of having a “home” place which is far away and kind of belongs to the past, and becoming less and less accessible as each year passes — and yet on the other hand not feeling that the place where you are currently is “home,” either. But I don’t sit here agonising about it — this has come about because of choices I have made. And it helps that this is a common experience: there are so many of us now who are in this position.

 


Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child (Faber, UK; SJP for Hogarth, US) tells the story of a family quietly surviving in rural Trinidad in the 1980s. Twin teenage brothers Peter and Paul could not be less alike. When the latter goes walking in the bush one day and doesn’t come home, his father Clyde is faced with a life-changing decision.