Enrico Downer was born in Barbados. In humble beginnings as his stories will attest. He attended multiple institutions of learning that began with elementary and secondary schooling on the island and continued to the University of Rio Piedras, P.R. and Ponce Technical as a recipient of a scholarship from the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) of the United States.
Rico immigrated to America in 1961 and did some courses at UWI (Univ of Wisconsin). He subsequently joined Value Line, an investment publishing firm in NYC and later was appointed International Correspondent with Airco International in NYC and Madison, Wisconsin.
From early, as an English major, he set about to explore the mystery and magic of literary expression, dabbling originally in poetry and later finding his niche in novels and short stories always steeped in historical fiction and drawn from his upbringing in a colonial society as well as from experiences living in New York, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and from travels throughout the Far East.
Rico, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. In addition to your writing, I’d also like to focus on your book There once was a Little England, released in 2012.
Q. The title of your book, There Once was a Little England, is evocative of many things, including an island aspiring, once, to be like its colonial mother country, England. How did you arrive at the title?
A. Barbados has been known as Little England for reasons that could be linked to its topographical features but more significantly to the island’s strict adherence to British traditions. There is also the fact that Barbados, in contrast to other Caribbean islands, was never conquered and occupied by any other nation beside England.
Q. the word “once” in the title mean that Barbados is no longer aspiring to be a Little England?
A. I don’t think it was ever a case of Barbadians consciously aspiring to be a Little England. As a colonial possession of England, British traditions, ethos and cultural names and holidays, etc. were deliberated imbedded in the Barbadian psyche from early schooling. As I mentioned before, the island was never under the thumb of any other power but the English. Independence came along in 1966 and put a damper on those feelings of allegiance. Moreover, as I wrote in The Lure of America: In the faded light of Great Britain’s glory the children of colonialism have fallen in love with a younger and prettier face: America.
Q. Over two hundred thousand tourists from the UK, the largest segment of Barbados tourism industry, visit the island every year. Do you think this reflects a yearning for the old days by the British, and perhaps the reason for it is the acceptance of such a connection by Barbadians themselves?
A. No, I don’t believe it reflects a yearning on the part of the British for the old days but more of an affinity for customs, sights and settings that are familiar to the English. You would be hard pressed in Barbados to find a street or a parish or a building that doesn’t have a historical English name. And then add to that English familiarity the tourists’ taste of a tropical paradise.
On the part of Barbadians there is no particular preference for tourists from one country or another.
Q. In the novel, the character Ben Carson, who works for the Englishman Thorne as his stable hand, can’t bring himself to believe his master capable of shooting David Prince. Does this reflect the conflict in Barbadian colonial society on the whole, that Barbadians found it difficult to accept their white overlords as being capable of such a crime? Was this a sort of brainwashing, in some respects? Or was it a kind of awe and reverence for the white man, as was prevalent in many colonial societies?
A. In the case of Ben Carson it was a profound sense of gratitude that clouded his reasoning. As the stable hand for his master’s beloved horses, he was favoured by Thorne and afforded possessions and conveniences not available to other servants. Thorne rewarded him with living quarters equipped with electricity and running water on the Thorne estate. This indebtedness to his master is expressed in the following: How could Thorne be capable of committing such an act against a boy one-seventh of Ben’s age. He could not bring himself to believe that the Englishman had killed the boy.
But to address your question in a broader context, British colonialism in the early 20th century tended to be less brutal than other hegemonies, often seeing to it that her institutions were passed along to her subjects in the way of education, law and a parliamentary system that endure up to this day. In fact it is arguable that such benefits contributed to the undoing of British colonialism.
Q. Social Clubs like the Barbados Water Club, the Strathclyde area, and many other institutions in Barbados, were exclusive to whites only. Is there any trace of this on the island today?
A. No, those barriers have been toppled. The only restrictions now lie in whether one can afford financially to join those institutions or live in those exclusive communities. In the book the Barbados Water Club is really The Aquatic Club which exists today and which, like many other associations, may require member sponsorship but the colour barrier is today a thing of the past.
Q. In Curly’s barber shop, Henderson Cruthers, one of the characters in the novel, commented on the benefits of English colonization: Education and Rule of Law among other things. Slim, one of the other customers says: “Is independence we want, Mr. Caruthers.” To which Caruthers replies: “Bajans not ready for independence…we need England to protect us from weselves.” What did Caruthers mean?
A. The barbershop scene was meant to illustrate the differences in perception of Independence versus Colonialist rule, the perception that prevailed between the elders and the younger folk. Henderson Caruthers was from the old school and was quite content with the status quo in light of the benefits like the steady hand of education and the rule of law. He feared that the younger folk, once the island became independent and once they became controllers of their own destiny might one day weaken those institutions with which old man Caruthers had been familiar all his life. In his words, We need England to protect us from weselves.
Q. Harold Prince, at one time in the novel, says: “Bajans don’t take to the streets…we are not agitators.” Was this symptomatic of the belief that the English brought good order, or rather that Barbadians were taught to obey the colonial masters?
A. Neither. Harold was acknowledging that there was never a seminal insurrection on the island since the riots of 1937. He was explaining the passivity of Barbadians to Mickey Norris, the newly arrived from America, who had experienced firsthand the rebellious nature of African Americans in the civil rights struggles of the 60s.
Harold explained the reason Bajans were no longer agitators. When the riot was over, my old lady got a three-shilling raise from the plantation after cutting canes from the time she was a teenager. Barbados was different from Jamaica, British Guiana and Haiti in that regard. Their rebellions had resulted in more meaningful reforms.
Q. In an early episode, village boys refer to the landlord, Thorne I assume, as a “bullah man” and spread rumours about him. “Bullah man” is obviously a reference to homosexuality, (“as if the seeds of homophobia were already ingrained in their fertile minds.”) Was this homophobia really ingrained in Barbadian society back then, and is it still extant?
A. There was a certain degree of homophobia then, as it is today, in every society. But in Barbados it was always a subject for buffoonery and derision rather than for collective hostility towards homosexuals. In any case the suspicion that one was homosexual was rooted in ignorance more than anything else. The boys who threw stones at Thorne’s guard wall were ignorant of the Englishman’s sexual preference but were nevertheless eager to brand him because they needed any reason to ridicule him.
Q. What would have caused this homophobic tendency? Did religion play a part?
A. The Anglican Church (The Church of England), which was the dominant religion of the day, did not set about to espouse homophobia or any other phobia that would be divisive in the society. The Church was more concerned with keeping its flock in check.
Q. In the post independence period, like many of the Caribbean islands, tourism gained ascendency over manufacturing and processing in Barbados. Cane fields and factories became less important. Yet, tourism has its own dependency on the “new colonial masters” of Europe and North America. When these regions have an economic downturn, so does the Caribbean. Have the islands actually transferred their economic and perhaps political dependency from England to these new overlords?
A. That dependency is not unique to Barbados. Whether an island’s economy is agricultural in nature or bolstered by manufacturing or dependent on tourism, the reality is that they are all dependent on foreign exchange from Europe, Canada and America and are negatively affected when there is a downturn in those foreign economies. Barbados’ sugar industry which was at one time a gold mine ran into stiff competition from countries like Brazil and other third world sugar-producing countries. Without a ready-set manufacturing base the island had no choice but to turn to a service industry; hence the tourist trade which was always vulnerable as we witnessed in the global recession of late.
Q. The colour advantage is referred to often in the novel, in reference to the white colonial masters attitude to Barbadians of black descent. I read about a travel writer’s observation about the West Indies on the whole, where colour is stratified even up to today. Where pure whites still have an advantage over light or fair blacks (of mixed descent), who have an edge over dark blacks. He seemed to indicate that discrimination based on colour was still rampant. What do you think? And what is it symptomatic of?
A. In Barbados, skin colour is no longer the kind of hard factor that divided the society into layers as it did in the period of the book. But class discrimination may still be rampant. Blacks may still look down their noses at less advantaged blacks and whites at less advantaged whites. I describe this in the book as “the curse of classism”.
Q. The antagonist, Englishman Thorne is placed on trial for murder and the jury consists of six whites, four half-whites and two blacks. He’s found not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence. I can see that the six whites and even the half-whites were swayed by colour. But why would the two blacks have agreed to the verdict?
A. Good question! In describing the trial of the Englishman Thorne, I alluded to the captivating impression that Barrister Cunningham had on the two blacks on the jury. I can best describe it in the following passage:
Times were different now; the fracture was now blurred by the rise into the middle class of educated Bajans like Barrister Cunningham, who could cross over to defend the other side, if for no other reason than to proclaim himself a child of the new order in a society in the process of healing itself. The jurors were impressed. The two blacks on the jury were in awe of their ascendant black brother.
Q. Was the writing profession something that struck you as something you wanted to do at an early age? If so at what age?
A. Yes, I began by dabbling in poetry which impressed no one else but one elementary teacher who encouraged me to keep reading and writing. My first attempt to join the Public Library in Bridgetown was declined by a very austere Chief Librarian who said I was much too young. (I don’t remember my age at the time). I persisted; so she placed a book under my nose and challenged me to read a whole page. In the end she relented. My first books included the British Bigglesworth series. There were no books by local authors at the time on the shelves of the Public Library.
Q. Many writers are influence by a particular period in their life. Is this how it is with you? If so, what period?
A. I am more influenced by remarkable historic events before or during my lifetime. All my stories were triggered by actual occurrences although I may stray from a true recounting of the events.
Q. Are the names of your characters in the book based on real people in the history of Barbados, or totally fictional?
A. It is interesting that you should ask this question. With a few exceptions, the characters in the book represent real people. I fictionalized the ones I considered unsavoury; but in a few cases I revealed real names. A few examples were Harry, the owner of the famed Harry’s Nitery on Lower Bay Street; Cyrus the motorcyclist patrolman, who would arrest his own mother for crossing the colour line in Strathclyde; also Piggott who owned the rum shop across from Gittens’s church. Brother Gittens was a fictional character, not to be confused with a Brother Gittens, known to me as an upright and honourable citizen in Barbados.
With regard to places in the book, I patterned The Barbados Chronicle after The Barbados Advocate. Also, as I said before, The Water Club is The Aquatic Club of those years. And of course there was no need to rename the streets and places of business.
Q. What is it in your life experience and career so far that has influenced your novel(s) and writing?
A. I would have to say my encounter with people along the way who rose up and conquered their limitations and the hurdles that lay in their way.
Q. In working on this novel, what was the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process?
A. The book is set in the decade between 1956 and 1966. I had to make a concerted effort to adhere to customs, places, and events that pertained only to that period of time.
The greatest difficulty for me was to kill off certain characters dear to me as the one who brought them to life; the ones I was sure my readers would regret their premature demise.
If your question, then, is why? Their deaths were germane to the theme of the story.
Q. How does a writer know he’s successful?
A. A writer measures his/her success by the degree by which readers grasp the significance and depth of the story. The reason that readers’ reviews are so important.
Q. Have you ever found yourself suffering from a lack of creativity, where you might have, perhaps stalled on a work in progress? If so, how did you overcome it?
A. Of course; it is the bane of every writer. I overcome it by immersing myself into a steady diet of reading. I reach out to the works of my favourite authors, even the ones I have read and reread a million times before.
Q. Is writing cathartic in any way for you?
A. The process of writing a book for me is indeed cathartic; but finishing the book is not. I often agonize over how I could have made it better.
Q. At what age did you start to read? Write? Were you a precocious reader?
A. As I mentioned before, I was at an age (which I don’t remember at the moment) when I was denied a library card at first to join the Public Library. I was thought by the Librarian to be much too young to borrow books responsibly. Precocious? Well, that might have been the opinion of the Librarian.
Q. Who’s your favourite West Indian author? What do you like most about him/ her?
A. Besides yourself of course it would have to be Caryl Phillips, a Kittitian. I like that he has lived and worked alternately in the West Indies, England, Canada and America and brings to his stories the multifarious experiences of having spent significant portions of his writing career in different cultures.
Q. What brought you to write There once was a Little England?
A. The story was influenced by a true 1950s incident in Barbados when a small boy from a working-class community was shot and killed when he trespassed on the private property of a white farmer in St. Peter. The farmer’s name was George Swayne. His defence in Her Majesty’s Court was that he mistook the boy for a monkey, whereupon the whole island erupted. The people were even more enraged when a brilliant Bajan barrister stepped forward to defend the farmer and advancing the same dehumanizing defence. That barrister was none other than Grantley Adams (later Sir Grantley Adams) who eventually became the prime minister of the West Indies Federation and ultimately one of Barbados National Heroes.
There once was a Little England is far from an actual recounting of that incident or an attempt to re-litigate the trial but is instead an allegorical fiction that borrows key elements from that historic case. The story also seeks to examine the conflict that might arise from a lawyer’s duty to a client who diminishes and denigrates his race.
But on the whole I wanted to write about the island’s travails along the road to Independence.
Q. How long did it take to write?
A. It took me nine months from cover to cover and before then three months or so to complete the research.
Q. Is there a message in the book, to the reader?
A. I was once chided by a fellow writer for not ending the story at the point of denouement where the killer was revealed to the reader. But the story was not intended to be a “whodunnit” but a story about the social ills that led up to the independence of a British colony which I covered in the final few pages.
Q. We all need a hero! Tell us about your protagonist(s)? Was there a real-life inspiration behind him or her?
A. Harold Prince and his woman Cissy Brathwaite were the principal protagonists, all victims of the racial, class and socioeconomic disparities that prevailed prior to Independence … and to some degree afterwards. Barrister Cunningham was symptomatic of the black man aspiring to rise into the realm of the privileged whites by hook or crook, even to the extent of joining with his own oppressors to negate the rights of his own people.
Q. A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book? Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it?
A. It was easy. I drew on the true story of farmer George Swayne as mentioned earlier and the vengeful murder of a young boy from a working-class community. Rightly or wrongly, Thorne was perceived in the book as the devil incarnate. That was the way Mr. Swayne was perceived by most Barbadians of that day.
Q. What kind of research did you do for this novel and how much time did it take? What were your sources?
A. Three or four months of the year that it took to write the book were devoted to research. I consulted a number of historical references including the works of Sir Hilary Beckles, FA Hoyos, Dr. Karl Watson and Andrea Stuart, among other historians. Also the writings of Barbadians George Lamming and Austin Clarke were instrumental.
Q. If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?
A. My first advice would be to write for the love of writing and not necessarily for monetary gain.
Q. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
A. Via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
There Once was a Little England
by Enrico Downer
Rico, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.
Thanks, Ken. I appreciate the offer to do the interview. It was a pleasure.