Far away from Jamaica's North Coast is a place where the water doesn't sparkle and nothing moves. It's where development takes a day off. Or a few decades, maybe. New Haven in Kingston, Jamaica is a swamp that sits at the very end of the Capital's main highway. The city has forgotten about. Except for a split second when motorists glance over at a thousand rusty tin roofs cast off to the side and hidden under mangroves. This is where Roland Watson-Grant grew up. This broken place, beautiful in its own way, haunts the pages of his debut novel, Sketcher.
Sketcher takes place mostly on the soggy outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana: a swamp with its own set of rules. The narrator, nine-year old Skid Beaumont and his family are stuck in geographical limbo after his father Alrick has a drunken dream that New Orleans would expand eastwards into the wetlands. The dream fizzles, and the Beaumonts find themselves sinking in the "drainpipes of America". The swamp is "nearly near but fairly far" in proximity to the shining city of New Orleans so there's always a sense of longing in Skid. As things become desperate on the home-front, he becomes convinced that his mother can do magic spells and his artistic brother, the sketcher from the title, has the power to change the world by simply drawing things back to normal.
Is Sketcher autobiographical?
The atmosphere of the book, complete with superstitions, spells, sinkholes, crocodiles and crooks, is very similar to my childhood home. The setting definitely has autobiographical elements, except for the fact that the main characters in the book, though originally from the Caribbean, don't grow up in Kingston, Jamaica.
What made you write the book?
I've been writing down "swamp-notes" since I was seven years old: atmosphere, feelings and dangerously remarkable incidents. My family moved to the backwaters of Kingston in the 1980's which was a dark time. Jamaica was divided along political lines. Political gun battles heightened the sense of danger and ominousness all around. But I didn't want to write an autobiographical novel per se. I love to mix genres: mystery, comical, coming-of-age and tragedy so I wanted to reflect on that time very positively and let it fuel the work.
In 2011, while preparing for a short story competition I dug through some of those old notes and thought: What if you suddenly discovered the power to fix all the broken things that happened in your life? Would you? And then what?. By that time I had realized that I might have missed some of the things that happened as a result of growing up in a forgotten place. When the short story version of Sketcher became a Lightship International Prize Winner and then landed me a book deal with Alma Books, I was convinced that growing up in a swamp wasn't so bad.
So why New Orleans?
All of my immediate family and many of my childhood friends now live in the Southern United States: from Georgia to North Carolina to Louisiana and Texas. So while New Haven in Kingston, Jamaica was a great place to begin looking for inspiration, I guess my imagination needed more space for this book. So I drew on the culture of the American South, which has become a part of my experience and which I absolutely love. I specifically chose New Orleans because it has real sense of the Caribbean and like Jamaica, the city is cultural concentrate of music and magic. I also wanted to pay homage to beautiful, broken places and things and I think sums up the spirit of the book.
How else would you describe the novel?
Funny, sad, and a meeting of magic and logic.
Is there a sequel?
It's very likely. Skid Beaumont's beliefs are quite stubborn.
Sketcher is out now, published by Alma.