Reading and writing

Japanese writer from Trinbago discusses belonging and identity

While studying English Literature and Creative Writing in the United States, Trinidadian-born author Brandon McIvor discovered a passion for writing about his country, dealing with themes of identity, displacement and connection to one’s homeland and culture.

His short stories, with their relevant characters, offer an intimate look at the immigrant experience and garner a lot of attention, leading him to be shortlisted twice for the Small Ax Literary Prize – in 2016 and 2018 – and for the coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2020. (Read his Commonwealth Prize submission, “Finger, Spinster, Serial Killer” here.)

The native of Diego Martin spoke about his curious career as a writer of Caribbean stories, trained in New York and currently based in Ehime, Japan.

“My sister,” he said, referring to Where there are monsters Author, Breanne McIvor (herself a Commonwealth Short Story Prize finalist), “told me a lot of stories. The siblings were only a few years apart, and after a childhood spent telling stories and Breanne studying literature and writing in college, McIvor became somewhat inspired. “It was as easy as looking at her, seeing her journey and saying, ‘I like that too. “”

After school, McIvor returned home and teamed up with his sister to hone their craft. “We started a small writing circle; we would go to those open mic parties and play stuff [and] each other’s workshop [writing]. Among the group were authors Andre Bagoo and Carolyn Mackenzie, both of whom were also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

A desire for a change of pace drove McIvor to Japan, where he worked as an English teaching assistant in the JET program, which recruits native speakers from around the world to teach classes to elementary and high school students. . A year quickly turned into six, and now the 30-year-old has made Japan his home.

McIvor discussed how living abroad brings him home when it comes to his writing, explaining that many writers who live abroad make their home country the subject of their work. He remembered a tip he was given in a writing class a few years ago to “write what you know”.

He spoke from his perspective and that of other artists creating about his country from abroad as a unique perspective. “You are Trinidadian but you have lived abroad … so you have this problem of identity, where you have one foot in this world and in each other. “

Although many Caribbean writers deal with identity, each treatment of the theme is a creature in itself, seen through the prism of different realities. It is in this variety that

McIvor learned to make a voice for himself to respond to the gaps he felt in Caribbean literature. “Sometimes you read a story and there is a hole,” he said. “You say to yourself that this guy [of story] does not exist, so I will create it myself.

One can argue that personal identity is constant, but so too is the desire to adapt to where one is, and it can be difficult to determine where one ultimately stands while negotiating. a new identity.

“The more you try to establish yourself as a New Yorker, the more you lose something too [and] you don’t want to get lost as a Trinidadian, ”he said. He spoke of noticing aspects of his accent gradually changing, or of the fear that the Trinbagonian slang he used would become obsolete if he was left offline for too long.

“You’re fighting to have those two identities validated where you are and to keep what you had in the first place, where your home is,” McIvor explained.

This battle is the basis of McIvor’s news “Rum shelfWhich earned him the top finalist for the Elizabeth Nunez Award for Caribbean Writers at the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival 2021. (Another Trinbagonian, Akhim Alexis took home the top prize.) The plot centers on two men: Marlon, who “dreams of climbing the ladder from work in a supermarket in Arima to a bigger job in Arima, then in New York” and Rocco, whose notions of success and contentment are lower, and involve him to taste premium alcohol in a bar they frequent.

“You can think of both sides of the character as the two sides of a heart that you could have on your own,” McIvor said. “Wanting … to achieve things and [being] happy with what you have, special things around you.

As the two men “rely on each other for an emotional anchor,” the story explores the immigrant’s experience and what it means to be rooted in one’s country of origin. McIvor was able to squeeze part of Marlon’s experience from his own as a Trinbagonian trying to both retain his identity and assimilate into New York life.

He recognizes that feeling like a foreigner in an ethnically homogeneous country like Japan is totally different from being non-native in New York.

“If you’re in a place like New York City, you can blend in,” he said. “In Japan, it’s very obvious that I’m a foreigner. He called the feeling of being a foreigner in Japan a “continuum,” related to how one feels connected to the culture, and how long one has lived and immersed in it.

“The short answer is, I don’t feel Japanese, but I feel like Japan is my home,” he said. “I’d rather consider myself a Trinidadian living in Japan, which is a separate identity.”

The author has successfully navigated these questions of identity, acceptance, and comfort, not only in his writings, but in his personal life. McIvor is also still settled in Ehime, where he recently married and bought a house. He continues to divide his time between writing and teaching English.

McIvor has a handful of short stories in the works and is currently writing his first full novel.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson