Set in Forbes’s native Jamaica, A Tall History of Sugar (Akashic, Oct.) follows Moshe Fisher and his beloved protector.
What gave you the idea for the novel?
I had two ideas that I wanted to play with. One is the fairy tale form. I have always been fascinated by fairy tales. I’ve never seen them as “innocent” tales suitable for children. They’re stories of danger, really dangerous stories. I think the Brothers Grimm, for example, wrote down hidden histories, histories of haunting—all these unseen spirits lurking underground, underbrush. I wanted to write a fairy tale that was so true that you’d have to believe it was real. That way of seeing the world is also very typical in rural Jamaica, where I grew up; the boundaries between worlds are very porous, and it is true that we are haunted by the spirits of the history that began in 1494 and some that were there before.
The other idea is the politics—I’ve lived in the U.S. for 16 years, and there, of course, race is always in your face, always on the table. So I was provoked, you might say. I thought, “Well, okay, then suppose there was a person born whom you couldn’t assign to a race. What then?” So, Moshe. The rest just evolved from there.
What are the parallels between the characters of Moshe and Arrienne and the history of Jamaica?
I suppose one could say their story is to some extent a metaphor for Jamaica’s history; it’s a very historically accurate novel. But I tend to think it’s metonymic rather than metaphorical, if it is possible for fiction to be in any kind of metonymic relation to real life. It’s more that Jamaica is the frame in which such characters and events are possible. The most crucially important aspect of Moshe and Arrienne is their differentness, their unique individualities that make them not fit even where they most fit—at home. In a very contradictory way, this novel is about outliers, the “un-normal”—not abnormal, just un-normal. But mostly it is about how one loves.
Why did you choose to have the older Arrienne narrate and interject in the story?
It just made sense. I don’t believe that if you’re telling somebody else’s story that you’re simply a recorder. You’re always translating; you’re always slipping in, unconsciously, your own perspective, your own identity. The story is always compromised. We never can tell anybody else’s story in a true way, so to make it Moshe’s story, rather than somebody telling Moshe’s story, I had to make them both very closely related. I had to give them a different kind of relationship than simply the translator or the recorder. So I guess, in a way, I was seeking to put on the table the issue of the translator’s roles and voice and the politics of translation, to think about who the narrator becomes when translating.