Rosaliene Bacchus was born in Georgetown, Guyana. In her lifetime, she has filled the roles of Catholic nun, high school teacher, executive assistant, import-export manager, wife, and divorced mother of two sons. After living in Brazil for seventeen years, Rosaliene moved to the United States. Her short stories have been featured in the Guyana Journal Magazine. Her debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree, was published in 2019. Rosaliene lives with her sons in Los Angeles, California, where she enjoys spending time in her garden.
Rosaliene, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers.
KP. You’ve said, in your bio, that you were an early reader of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. Have those books influenced your writing, if so, please tell us how…
RB. I developed an enduring love for secrets and mystery that I have incorporated into my stories.
KP. Which is your favourite childhood book? Please share the reason behind your enthusiasm for this particular book?
RB. Before graduating to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I read all the Enid Blyton children’s books available at our public library. No book stands out in my memory.
KP. How did you arrive at the title for your book Under the Tamarind Tree? Can you explain the significance of the title to the plot of the book?
RB. As I developed the plot, the tamarind tree became the personification of the protagonist’s bitter life and the guilt he carried for the death of his younger brother, killed under a tamarind tree.
KP. Your book Under The Tamarind Tree was released in 2019. Can you tell us how long it took to write this book and get it published?
RB. It was a long journey, beginning in March 2008, of research, writing, and endless revisions that took five years, then another five years sending out query letters to literary agents and small independent publishers. Without success. In April 2019, eleven years after beginning my journey to publishing my first novel, I initiated the self-publishing process to publication.
KP. You’ve said that your fictional short stories came from events and people you’ve met along your journey through life. You have also lived a varied life as a Catholic Nun, high-school teacher, executive assistant, business-person, and writer. Can you tell us how these events and people and your life-experience so far have influenced your writing?
RB. The experience of growing up in a poor working-class multiracial family, in a racial divisive country, has shaped my vision of the world and the stories I tell.
KP. Is there a favourite among all the chapters in your book Under the Tamarind Tree? Please tell us why…
RB. Chapter Thirteen, in which the protagonist Richard Cheong must confront his surrogate mother Mama Chips, was fun to write. Mama Chips was inspired by three Afro-Guyanese women who had been important role models during my formative years. I enjoyed developing her character and endearing wisdom, born of life’s hard blows.
KP. What was the most difficult chapter to write in the book Under the Tamarind Tree? Why was that?
RB. The most difficult chapter to write did not make it into the final first draft. After a month of intense research to re-create the inter-colonial cricket match between British Guiana and Trinidad, taking place during the British military invasion on October 9, 1953, I deleted this chapter on the advice of my writers’ critique group. With little knowledge about cricket, they found the scene too slow and lacking appeal for readers. The deleted chapter became just a brief radio commentary in Chapter Two.
KP. What period of your life do you think has influenced your writing most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult? Can you expand and tell us more…
RB. I bring all my life’s experiences to my writing. It is a very intuitive process. During the creative process, I am frequently amazed at details, events, people, and dialogue that unconsciously come to mind. In Under the Tamarind Tree, the night that Richard Cheong first heard his dead brother’s voice was such an example. I was as startled as Richard! Where did that come from, I asked myself. Then I recalled that, as a child, I grew up listening to my father’s stories about hearing voices in the quiet of nighttime and sensing the presence of spirits.
KP. You’ve lived in Guyana, where you were born, Brazil where you were engaged in business, and you now reside in America. Yet your stories so far, have been mainly set in Guyana (apart from one published in 2009 set in Brazil). Any particular reason why you have not explored your second and third residences more extensively as the setting for your writing and will this come at a later stage in your life?
RB. In 2007, Guyanese-Canadian Trev Sue-A-Quan—a chemical engineer and, at the time, author of two books on the Chinese-Guyanese—invited me to contribute to his third book, Cane Rovers: Stories of the Chinese-Guyanese Diaspora (Canada, 2012). My 6400-word essay, “From Calypso to Samba,” explores my challenges of living and succeeding in Brazil. I have also shared stories on my blog, “Three Worlds One Vision,” about my life in Guyana, Brazil, and the United States.
KP. What was it that prompted your migration to Brazil in 1987?
RB. The Guyana government ban on the importation of wheat flour (1982-1986) was a great blow to my husband’s home-based pastry business. To stay in business, he began working with contraband flour, an offense punishable with jail time. In 1986, the disclosure of the government’s use of thallium poison on the sugar plantations was the last straw. We all tested positive for thallium poisoning, jeopardizing the health of our two sons, then two and four years old.
KP. Can you tell us what particular elements of Under the Tamarind Tree are based on research, personal experience, creative fiction, and what were your sources in the case of the research you did?
RB. I decided early in the writing process to structure the Cheong family’s story using the timeline of Guyana’s struggle to gain its independence from Britain and the early years of the young independent country, covering the period 1950-1970. Coming from a multiethnic family, I used my personal experience to develop the conflicts arising between the protagonist and his familial relationships and friendships among diverse ethnic groups. Research was essential to ensure authenticity of historical events and cultural differences. A list of my research resources is available at http://www.rosalienebacchus.com/writer/ResearchResources_GuyanaNovel_UndertheTamarindTree.html.
KP. How do you arrive at the names for your characters in your stories? Is there a science behind this or are names chosen randomly? Is there a connection between names and characters?
RB. Naming characters is a challenge for me. Early in my writing journey, I bought The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. I select names by their meaning, their popularity during a specific year, resemblance to a real-life personality, religion, or ethnicity. I also use nicknames, popular among the Guyanese population. I named my protagonist Richard Cheong, called Rich, after a dear American writing friend, Rich Samson, who died in October 2009. According to Trev Sue-A-Quan’s research on the Chinese in British Guiana, the surname Cheong, also spelt Cheung and Chung, is the most prevalent Chinese surname.
KP. What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing the cycle for one of your books?
RB. The most difficult part in completing a book is deciding what scenes or chapters should be cut or tightened for greater tension and pace. In Under the Tamarind Tree, I was also forced to cut a beloved character. It hurt to throw out hours spent in bringing the character to life.
KP. The cover art for Under the Tamarind Tree was done by Guyanese-Canadian artist Joan Bryan-Muss. Can you tell us something about the process of finding an appropriate artist for your book and how you both finally arrived at this particular painting for the book?
RB. I learned about Bryan-Muss’ work through the Guyanese Online blog, published by her brother Cyril Bryan. I contacted her by email about her interest on doing the cover art. I send her a 500-word synopsis of the novel and my vision for the cover art.
KP. Is your approach to writing one that encompasses a formula that might meet your reader’s expectation, or do you write to suit yourself?
RB. I write about subjects and issues important to me. While my stories may be set in a country or culture unfamiliar to readers, I focus on portraying the human condition that connects us wherever we live. I also believe that the story should be engaging and a joy to read.
KP. Your main protagonist in Under the Tamarind Tree—Richard Cheong—is male. Did you find it difficult to write from a male point of view? Please explain why or why not.
RB. Writing from the male point of view was the greatest challenge I undertook. I agonized for months about using vulgar language, commonly used by working-class Guyanese men. After working for over twelve years in Brazil in a male-dominated profession, I was well prepped to enter the male mindset. As a single working mother, in a foreign country without male support, I also had to assume full responsibility for keeping my two sons safe. Whenever I slipped up with any male-related detail, the men in my writer’s critique group were quick with feedback.
KP. Your paternal grandfather was a Chinese immigrant to what was then British Guiana. Were you close to him? Has your relationship with him influenced your writing in any way?
RB. I know nothing about my paternal grandfather. He had died long before my birth. My father and his brothers never spoke about him. Given this gaping hole in my Chinese ancestry, I had a blank canvas on which to create my fictional Cheong family.
KP. Do you subscribe/ read any magazines/journals that help you in the writing process? Can you share this with upcoming writers and tell us why you feel they are important and relevant to the writing profession?
RB. Early in my writing journey, a writer gave me a copy of the Writer’s Digest. Since then, my subscription to the magazine has been my best investment as a writer. They cover every aspect of the writing craft, getting published, and more. I also subscribe to the Poets & Writers magazine that has introduced me to America’s outstanding poets and literary writers, pushing me to never stop improving my craft.
KP. What do you consider the mark of success for a writer? How does she know she’s been successful?
RB. For me, the mark of success as a writer is to have my work read and enjoyed. When readers look forward to reading my next book, I know that I have succeeded in touching them in some way.
KP. Assuming you always think there’s room for improvement, what’s your approach to becoming a better writer?
RB. To improve my writing craft, I challenge myself with each new book. In my second novel, The Twisted Circle, to be published in 2021, I tell the story from two viewpoints: the protagonist, a young Guyanese nun of African and Indian descent, and the antagonist, a white American nun from Ohio. My third book in progress is a work of creative non-fiction.
KP. Is there a central theme in your books so far? Is there a common message to the reader?
RB. My life has been marked by loss and abandonment, a theme that runs through my debut novel. The white American nun in The Twisted Circle has also suffered great loss in her life, but this is a different kind of book: one that takes a critical look at the religious life and predator priests.
KP. If you had to do it all over again in your writing career, would you do anything different?
RB. I believe that I have done the best I could with the opportunities afforded me as an emerging Caribbean (Guyana) immigrant writer. I would have liked to be part of a Caribbean-American writers’ group here in Los Angeles. If such a group does exist, I have never been able to reach them.
KP. 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)?