Rabindranath Maharaj is a Trinidad-born Canadian author. He's written three collections of short stories and four novels, the most recent of which, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, was released by Knopf Canada in January. The novel is a creative, quirky, touching story about a Trinidadian boy named Samuel who, upon his mother's death, moves to Toronto to live with his father. What ensues is a series of surprises, disappointments, surreal experiences and joys, as Samuel begins to make sense of his surroundings and acclimatize to his new life. Here, Maharaj talks with us about his influences and inspirations, the importance of perception, and the similarities between immigrants and superheroes.
AbeBooks: The Amazing Absorbing Boy is your fourth novel, after Homer in Flight, The Lagahoo’s Apprentice, and A Perfect Pledge. Which of the novels was your favourite to write and why?
Rabindranath Maharaj: The Amazing Absorbing Boy was certainly the easiest to write, and I had the most fun doing so, because I tapped into the things I used to like to read as a kid, comic books and so on. Also, it is set in Toronto, where I currently work, so there was that familiarity. In contrast, A Perfect Pledge was set in Trinidad in the 1960s, and was multi-generational, and before my time, so I had to do a lot more research. It was much more dense and complex. This last one was definitely more fun to write, for me. And it dealt with things I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of years – is it impossible to define a city like Toronto, dynamic and always changing? How do the immigrants perceive it, its architecture and neighbourhoods – and whether that perception is actually different for native Torontonians than for immigrants.
Abe: What’s some of the most interesting research you’ve done for your writing?
Rabindranath Maharaj: For A Perfect Pledge I was writing about a farmer who started doing his business in the1940s and 1950s and there was a particular kind of tractor included. I wanted to know exactly how it looked and ran, but it’s an obsolete bit of machinery. So, thank God for the internet. I got in touch with an antique farm machinery dealer who had auctions and such, and spoke to the man running the place. I pretended interest in buying one, and he sent me information about the engine and horsepower and the like. That was actually very interesting.
Abe: You’ve published both novels and short stories. In which genre do you feel more at home, and why?
Rabindranath Maharaj: I’d say novels. Short stories are easier to write, though. In my last collection, The Book of Ifs and Buts, I found it difficult to focus consistently enough for the continuity of a novel because I was teaching full-time. So it manifested as a collection of short stories. That’s one of the reasons I left teaching full-time. I like immersing myself for a period of time into a character’s life, to understand who they are, and their sensibilities etc. For The Amazing Absorbing Boy, I initially wanted it to be a series of short stories but then I decided I would utilize the comic book angle, as a thread of continuity. I decided I wanted to infuse it with some of the conventions of comic books – making it episodic, chapter to chapter, but with an underlying, connected theme. I didn’t want Samuel’s adventure to be jarred and interrupted. One of the reasons I decided on the comic book aspect was the way superheroes are different - feeling like outsiders, but having their own unique, special perspective of seeing things and places that other people can’t see. I thought that translated well to the immigrant experience, in a way.
Abe: Do you get less nervous with publication after four novels? Do you read your own reviews?
Rabindranath Maharaj: I wouldn’t say I get nervous anymore. I do read my reviews, especially the first few. To me they’re important, because when I’m writing, it’s to a large extent writing instinctively. When I’m finished a book, I feel it’s complete, and I assume it’s the best book could have written at the moment. But I’ve no idea what people will focus on. That’s one of the funny things about being an author. You write the book, and you know what the main theme or message is to you, but different people can perceive it completely differently. In The Amazing Absorbing Boy, for instance, one reviewer will focus on the comic book aspect, another on the relationship between Samuel and his father; another will zoom in on whether it’s a series of love letters to Toronto, and so forth. Sometimes, what I as a writer assume to be a peripheral or secondary theme can be the main thread for a reader.
Abe: The book is sprinkled with Trinidadian terms such as Nowhereian and Mauvais langue. What is some of your other favourite Trinidadian slang?
Rabindranath Maharaj: Most of my favourites are actually in there already. Many of them are variations of French. Very close, but slightly off – the names of fruits and such are often different, as well. Trinidadians are very inventive as a people. They’ll make up slang on the spur of the moment, and nicknames, too, which is why in the book, Samuel tends to give the characters he encounters nicknames in his head. In my memory, very few people in Trinidad go by their real names – nicknames are very common and based on physical characteristics. And you know what? They’re often completely unflattering!
Abe: The Amazing Absorbing Boy references comic books and superheroes throughout. Are/were you a fan of any comics, and if so, which ones?
Rabindranath Maharaj: Initially,I liked all the DC superhero ones, even though everyone else liked Marvel. My favourites were Green Lantern and Batman. But as a young teen, I started to look at some of the Marvel characters like the X-Men, and the Inhumans, and the Fantastic Four and so on, and I felt they were better at making them more…well, better. Comics used to be so cheesy.
Abe: What were some of your favourite books as a child? Any that inspired you to become a writer?
Rabindranath Maharaj: I particularly liked Enid Blyton, the British writer – her books were many and varied, and accommodated the different stages of childhood, so I read her for a long period. Also a lot of English classics such as Gulliver’s Travels and others by Swift, and Dickens and the whole slew of British writers. Since Trinidad was a British colony, until very recently, the syllabus was set in Oxford and Cambridge.
Abe: The book has some very strong female characters, most notably that of Auntie Umbrella. What strong females in your own life have provided inspiration?
Rabindranath Maharaj: Certainly my mother. Trinidad is typically a patriarchal society in many respects, and she was a housewife in most of her life. But when you look at her you can see how far she stepped beyond that, to raise the children, be sure we were all educated, everything she was to everyone. She was very strong-willed, and always accomplished whatever she put her mind to. She generally disapproved of me reading comic books, and actually burned some of the ones which could now be valuable! This was Trinidad in the late 1960s and 70s, and people tended to look down on comics as vulgar, silly and a waste of time. And also, I used to leave them lying everywhere. To be fair, I believe she had warned me numerous times.
Auntie Umbrella is based to some extent on someone I knew – a Presbyterian which was kind of unusual in itself that village, where most people were Hindus at that time. She was actually physically like Auntie Umbrella, looking like one of the evil robots from Dr. Who. Many of the characteristics in The Amazing Absorbing Boy are extreme or exaggerated to add to the sense of wonder and displacement in Samuel, but a lot of the real people who inspired them, when they grew older, they really did become eccentric characters in their age.
Abe: What was the last good book you read?
Rabindranath Maharaj: Gate at the Stairs by American writer, Lorrie Moore. She’s a great writer. You can sense she’s a short story writer rather than a novelist, as in places it feels somewhat strung together, but she’s so great with sensory details and images and the like. I enjoyed it so much. And at the same time I read Summertime by J.M. Coetzee. I liked it. He’d written one called Boyhood which I found stronger, but I love how Coetzee is able to compress a whole slew of things into one small paragraph. He’s a master of compression. Some people find him too dry and utilitarian, too workmanlike, devoid of colour, but I quite like him. For the same reason as V.S. Naipaul – you don’t necessarily agree with what you assume might be the ideologies and beliefs inherent, but it’s impossible not to admire the writing.
Abe: What next for you?
Rabindranath Maharaj: I just sent my submission for “Quick Reads Canada”, which is a project emulating a successful program in England which recruited some well-known writers to write short stories for adults with lower-level literacy or reading challenges. They're stories with with adult themes and narrative, but a simplicity and approachability. I submitted it two days ago, and think it should be published this year.
editor's note: to learn more about Quick Reads Canada, please visit http://www.abc-canada.org/en/quickreads
Abe: What’s something you always hope an interviewer will ask you about?
Rabindranath Maharaj: Wow, that’s a very interesting question. You’ve stumped me a little. You know….it’s actually easier to think of the ones they wish they hadn’t!