Today we would like to welcome Marilyn Rodwell and to thank her for this incredibly poignant and honest interview which depicts perfectly the captivating journey she travelled on to write The Wedding Drums.
What is the inspiration behind The Wedding Drums?
I wanted to write about something unusual, interesting, and real. Something in the back of my mind needed to be voiced – the part of Trinidad that connects with Britain that people didn’t seem to know about. The bit of history that connects you and me – British Caribbean history. More specifically, the Indo Caribbean story. I came across many who were very curious – especially my student nurse friends in Wales – a long time ago. I was always pleased to tell them, and they were always interested to know. After my last child was born, I became interested in writing fiction, but I wasn’t much of a fiction reader. I decided to read A House for Mr Biswas, by VS Naipaul, a Trinidad author, and was enthralled with his depiction of comic, realistically drawn Trinidadian characters. I read a number of his books in succession, becoming quite an avid fiction reader of mainly literary and book group fiction.
I needed to write my own story. But where to start? I turned to my father, and two aunties, all in their 80’s – based in the UK and Trinidad. They welcomed my curiosity about the olden days, and talked a lot! Which really is no surprise. . . Old people are a brilliant source of primary historical research. I learnt a lot, and realised how much had been left unsaid over the years, both by my family, and by much of the Trinidad society. It seems that every new generation were all too willing leave the past behind until they grew old. People were not interested in perpetuating the memories of the difficulties and horror they experienced while young. Life had improved. But I felt that these well kept secrets really ought to be aired, instead of being lost completely.
By now, there were millions of diasporic Indians all over the world, having been transported from India to British Commonwealth countries between 1838-1917, to replace the African slaves labour after the Emancipation of Slavery in the Caribbean in 1834, finally. I knew bits and pieces, through my school days and family conversations, but weaving it together into a novel was baffling. I understood the huge hardships and injustices my grandparents and great grandparents endured, along with almost every other Indian immigrant. But I had to find a way to tell these horrific stories that weren’t just horror stories, or purely the smells and taste of the fabulous. Arranged marriage was a feature of Indian culture and religion, and that was the vehicle I chose to use as a main theme in The Wedding Drums. My characters would be already facing the conflict between East and West religion and culture.
Without giving too much away, what was the hardest part of the book to write?
By far, the beginning of the book was the most difficult. Where to start, was the biggest question. What will interest my reader, and what will hook them into wanting to keep reading? Those questions haunted me. But I started somewhere till it ended somewhere around 130, 000. I eventually realised that I had to cut something like 20,000 words from the beginning, which to me, represented my little finger! It then became easier to cut out bits until I got it down to under 100,000 words. I now know better than to overwrite.
What kind of research did you do before beginning the book?
Research was extensive. Like doing “Who Do You think You Are?” without an end. There are now many historical commentaries in both academic and other non fiction. But I also managed to get onto the email list for The Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, and attended quite a few internal seminars and International Conferences on site and around the country. Through these, I met many academics and people interested in the subject of Indentureship of Indians, and I particularly connected with a Trinidad Historian in who had traced his own genealogy and that of others, back to the Bihar area of India, and regularly visits the area. Interestingly, he says that the food flavours in the Bihar area is like Trinidad – and nothing like Indian restaurant food in the UK.
My research expanded, and I began travelling to Trinidad, regularly, revisiting familiar memories and reviving my knowledge of the place, feeling the sun, enjoy the food, and bask in the friendliness of my home country. I needed this in order to write with my heart. Apart from that, my other objective was to get as much out of my trips as possible, by talking to my aunt who was almost ninety. Through my cousin who was a student at the University of the West Indies, I was able to visit the library a few times, and buy books from their bookshop. So my research was both primary and secondary. I returned to the island five times gaining knowledge and feeling the place enough to start imagining 1917. When I published The Wedding Drums, I realised that all my research was essential to this particular book, and it enabled me to think with my head, and write from my heart. From the feedback, it appears that I might have achieved both.
How did you decide on the names for your characters and the setting for your book?
Most Indian names in those days were un-pronounceable, and I didn’t want the reader to have brain-ache and tongue-tie every time they came across them. So I chose carefully. But an agent thought the names were “too foreign” . . . and didn’t know which was male or female. This threw me for a long time. But I finally took the advice, and changed two of the names, which I am happy to have done. I realised that if it was a problem for her, it could also be a problem to some readers.
Which fictional character would you like to invite to dinner? What would you like to talk about?
I would invite Mr Clifford, the headmaster, from The Wedding Drums, to dinner. I think he would make a very easy and interesting dinner guest, who would keep the other guests entertained. He is full of knowledge about all manner of things, and he himself has an interesting family background. If you read the book, you would discover that his childhood was most intriguing, as the son of a British plantation owner in Jamaica and a female African slave, who was sold to a Trinidad plantation owner, where she worked as a domestic in a large house. This gave him access to a fantastic library in the house, where he overheard many discussions taking place, and consequently a lover of English literature. This inspired Amina, the main character to want to become a teacher. But with all his positive characteristics, Mr Clifford has a flaw.
What book do you wish you had written?
For a long time I wish I had written “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The premise is simple, yet difficult to execute. The author Harper Lee has done it so smoothly and satisfyingly. My only issue is that the father, Atticus Finch, is a little too perfect. If I were to re-write it, I’d give him a flaw . . . just a small one to demonstrate that he is human after all, yet doing everything to help a man suffering the injustice of racism, and representing him in court.
Where did your research for your book take you?
My research took me back to Trinidad a few times where friends and relatives arranged for me to meet and speak to various people with a relevant story to share – including a man who was the last descendant of the original Arawak Amerindian inhabitants. The Caribs, who were the other indigenous inhabitants, had long died out from diseases brought from the West. This man was in his eighties, yet very active. He invited me to see him at work as a masseur, very much like a chiropractic, but entailing a more complex process involving lighting candles on the client’s bare abdomen, whilst taking measurements to readjust various parts of the digestive system which was causing discomfort. It is a local alternative remedy which has worked well for decades for relaxation and abdominal discomfort.
The Wedding Drums is a very powerful and evocative book. I can imagine it had an effect writing it. How did you protect yourself?
You are absolutely right. There were times when I sat at my computer and cried. Parts of the novel brought out some deep emotions on many levels – as a human being, as a female, as a brown person, as an immigrant, and from imagining being a child and a young woman facing the difficulties of 1917 Trinidad. It made me even more empathetic for all women and girls in the world today – particularly those who are subject to terrible and unfair practices of culture and social attitudes. It took me back to being a teenager who was desperate for the world to become a just and gentler place, where everyone is respected, and had no unfair expectations placed upon them. It was important for me to highlight some of these injustices because I actually remember some of them, e.g. the corporal punishment at school. But things are not all bad. A good friend of mine faced an arranged marriage at 16, and she is very happy today. But we know that there is often a very detrimental ending to some arranged marriages.
I protected myself by loving all my main characters. I distanced myself emotionally from those who were pure evil. But I had to get into their heads and their evil hearts to understand what could motivate them to do what they did. That often took me to some very dark places which was upsetting. But whatever happened, there was one kind person who always hit the pillow with me every night for the duration of writing the novel – my 12 year old main character, Amina. She always lay on my pillow and spoke to me when I’d ask her what she was doing now – (She spoke silently. My husband never knew she was there).
What was an early experience when you learnt that language had power?
I learnt from an early age that just speaking up in itself had power. If you didn’t speak up, no one would know. If you didn’t voice your concerns, ideas, needs, no one would read your mind. But most importantly, if you didn’t speak up, you became invisible. I learnt that at the age of 11, when I challenged my History teacher who told whole class that there was no God.
‘Sir,’ I said. ‘You are wrong.
‘No, he replied. ‘You are wrong.’
‘Meet me in the school library at lunch time and I’ll prove it,’ I said.
Indeed, he did me the honour of meeting me in the library. And I used the Bible to show him how wrong he was! (I said I was 11). But I later earnt a reputation in the staffroom that it was pointless arguing with me. I later learnt that not only did language give power to the individual, but carefully chosen words could be key to all kinds of success in life.
If The Wedding Drums could be adapted into a film, who could you see playing the lead?
Wow! What a thought! Well my twelve year old girl would be someone like the main character in A Suitable Boy – Tanya Maniktala. Others would be Sanjev Bhakskar, Marc Eliot, Dev Patel, Ayesha Dharker, Adrian Lester, and so many others. A film of The Wedding Drums would be a dream come true.
If you had a theme song that played every time you walked into a room, what would it be?
That would have to be Tocata y Fuga in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. Just the sound of the organ introduction sends me to another planet!
Marilyn Rodwell was born in Trinidad and is fourth generation East Indian. Her first job was at age seventeen, teaching Maths, Health Science, and Art at a private school, followed by Government primary schools. She comes from a family of teachers and head teachers, and did Bible study every day. As a teenager, her hobbies included playing the violin and painting. She arrived in the UK at age nineteen, and after a family holiday, began student nurse training in Swansea, where there was much curiosity about her heritage and Trinidad.
After having a family, she returned to education at Coventry University studying Business Studies, after which she launched a design, manufacturing and retail company. Later she lectured in Marketing and Business, and some years after the birth of her third child, she decided to start writing fiction.
She lives in the Warwickshire countryside with her husband and spends her time doing church related activities, cooking and writing. The Wedding Drums is her first novel, and the chapter illustrations are from oil paintings, which she did at the age of thirteen. The cover is also based on one of those paintings.
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About the interviewer.
Catherine Lawless lives in Hertfordshire with her husband, daughter and their three border terriers. She writes novels, journals and children’s books. Catherine’s career started out as a singer/songwriter in a rock band. She toured extensively throughout Europe and the UK before settling down and following her childhood dream of writing books.