CaribLit Talks to Ezekel Alan, Author of Disposable People
“When they locked me out I had little to do. I didn't want to go play with marbles, throw rubber bands or look for John Crow beads to decorate my carton box cars...I stood beside our house, in the rain, getting soaked, smelling the wet earth. The rain tasted bitter as it ran down my lips. Years later I realized that it was the mixture of rain, tears and resentment that I tasted...I felt I was living in another body and that this was not my life. I was trapped inside someone else's corpse...I longed for my own, [especially] my own room, to be at my own desk, surrounded by school books with my own name written in them , with a headset connected to my own radio and studying under my own desk lamp. Most of all I wanted a house of no sounds, no secrets, no strange people, no arguments.”
Excerpt from Disposable People.
Ezekel Alan's first book Disposable People, winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Writers Prize, describes a tough environment in a turbulent period in Jamaica's history. Based on actual events and set in the 1970's, Disposable People conjures gritty images of poverty, violence and bitterness through the eyes of ten-year old Kenneth Lovelace. Readers bear witness to Lovelace’s sojourn from the naïveté of his childhood to the harsh realities of his adult life. Disposable People challenges readers emotionally, causing them to reflect on the socio-economic divides in their own communities. Reviewers have called it gritty and rousing. Alan says he would add "disturbing, raw and real."
CaribLit caught up with Alan to discuss his inspiration for writing Disposable People. He now lives in Asia with his wife and children, and works as an international consultant. According to Alan, his first novel was inspired primarily by childhood memories of Jamaica.
"I’ve been haunted by these memories for a long time. I guess I just decided it was time to let it out, all of it. There comes a time in your life when you say to yourself that if you continue to act normal and don’t go mad then your entire life has been a waste. I felt I had reached that moment, when I was tired of keeping it in, tired of the ordinariness, the routine, the boredom, and seeing the same ugly people every day. I went mad and wrote. A part of me wanted it to be a tribute to my family; the other part knew it was an expression of who I truly am. "
“There comes a time in your life when you say to yourself that if you continue to act normal and don’t go mad then your entire life has been a waste.”
Alan’s early Caribbean influences hint at the humour and candour that give Disposable People much of its singular tone. “I truly enjoyed Banana Bottom and Children of Sisyphus (which I initially picked up because I thought it said Syphilis). The former I found memorable because of Claude McKay’s gift of expression, such as when he delivers unto us the young pastor who’d "descended from the dizzy heights of holiness to the very bottom of the beast.” I laughed so loud when I first read that. It was such a delightful read.
“Orlando Patterson’s opening line to Children of Sisyphus is also unforgettable, and is perhaps one of the best opening lines I’ve ever come across. I also loved Brotherman by Roger Mais, which I felt broke the mold both in terms of using a Rastafarian as a lead character as well as the freedom with which Mais used the vernacular to tell his story. It was sheer brilliance.”
The response to Disposable People have been similar. Laughter, shock and disgust, says Alan, sum up readers’ reactions. "People say thanks for openly and candidly sharing what they see as painful memories about the other side of life in Jamaica. They say it feels authentic. I get lots of emails from folks along these lines."
Alan credits humour for allowing him to convey challenging emotions without overdoing it.
“I use dark humour and subtle ironies to intensify emotion,” he says. “I leave it up to the reader to express it for the character.” There is a scene in the book when a character reflects on seeing the body of his loved one dead in a dirty morgue on a cold rusty slab. Alan's main character, Lovelace, writes in his journal:
“It was just a dead body – as proof, she did not move.”
“I had initially thought of trying to find words to convey his rage over the treatment of his loved one,” says Alan. “But I decided to end the section there, on those words. I felt I’d done enough."
Alan notes that the response from fellow Jamaican writers has been positive and supportive, mentioning Alecia McKenzie and Diana McCaulay among those who have reached out to him. “I am very grateful for their encouragement. Many aspiring writers ask for tips (none has yet asked for my number, which is how I know I am not yet truly successful.)” For those considering following his path into self-publishing, Alan notes that feedback is key and the source of the feedback is crucial.
"Get honest feedback, from people not too close to you. Do as professional a job as possible -- get your book properly edited and proofread.” Alan also encourages writers to develop and stick with a writing routine and to think outside the box in selecting story ideas. “It is tougher to compete by producing what everyone else is producing."
Alan is currently at work on his second novel. "I feel I have gotten better as a writer and I’ve figured out how to pleasure my readers a little more so I am working on something that should be hugely entertaining."
Share your thoughts on Disposable People with Alan on Twitter, @ezekelalan and check out his blog at www.ezekelalan.com.
For more on Ezekel Alan, check out his interviews with our partner Susumba and with Annie Paul.