Interview with Raywat Deonandan
November 2004
Books In Canada

Formulating Competing Dichotomies

Linda Morra Interviews Raywat Deonandan

Raywat Deonandan was born into an Indian rice-farming family in rural Guyana and relocated to Canada at the age of two. An Epidemiologist by profession, he is the author of the short story collection, Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999), which won the Guyana Prize for Best First Work, the National Book Award of the Nation of Guyana. Divine Elemental (TSAR Books, 2003) is is first novel.

LM: I remember your first book Ė a collection of short stories set in India, the Caribbean and North America and which, in some ways, were compellingly bittersweet, even nostalgic. More recently, youíve turned your attention to the novel, specifically titled Divine Elemental. What is this book about?

RD: Itís ostensibly a love story between two Canadians in a village in India. And, at the same time, itís a paranormal mystery. One reviewer called it, ďa good old fashioned ghost story,Ē while another said, ďitís about the universe.Ē I actually have a hard time describing what itís about, since the love story aspect is just a convenient cover for some interesting philosophical discussions. But if I have to constrain my answer to a single sentence, Iíll say itís about the reconciliation between science and religion.

LM: Where the idea came from?

RD: I started writing it in Guatemala, where I was visiting my sister. I was actually writing a couple of short stories. The first short story was based upon a Japanese folktale, about a woman who was transformed from a forest fox. I was writing the second story, which was more an intellectual exploration of parallels between Greek and Indian thought, when I noticed my cousin reading over my shoulder. She claimed that she was enjoying it immensely, so I took that as encouragement to keep writing.

LM: So, you actually had in mind another short story collection?

RD: Yes, and then I stepped back and looked at both stories, which were quite different from each other, and I realized that this could be the kernel of a unique novel. So I began patching the pieces together, adding up the chapters to form the novel. Then I realized the thing that I was writing was from an intellectual space in which I was trying to reconcile different aspects of my character and my experiences as both a scientist and a writer.

LM: Hm. That means there are two impulses at work Ėone impulse related to the intellectual, the other to your desire to entertain. You were clearly writing to entertain your cousin. How do you reconcile them in your book Ėor do you need to do so?

RD: I donít think thereís a need to reconcile them consciously. In order to fully appreciate or apprehend something intellectually, you must be transfixed by it and entertained by it. I have always learned best when a topic is expressed in narrative form, and so itís the way Iíve chosen to express my own intellectual curiosity.

LM: Letís talk a little about the sources for the book. You were suggesting the book grew out of an intellectual space, but perhaps you could speak more broadly about the sources you employed and the research involved in writing it.

RD: A couple of things to touch on. First, I am a professional scientist and the very idea of science appeals to me Ė and not just the experimental aspect of it, but the actual philosophy of science. Many of those who practice science, I believe, in general have a poor understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of Western science. In particular, the true nature of the scientific method Ė which begins with the observation of a phenomenon, the extraction of a theory or hypothesis, the design of an experiment to test that hypothesis, and then the extrapolation of conclusions from those experiments to describe the universe. Most of it is automatic and machine-like in many ways. A couple of those points Ė notably both the extrapolation of conclusions and the formation of hypotheses Ė require imagination, this intangible input from the human experimenter.

LM: And yet thereís an undeniable spiritual impulse at work in your book.

RD: Yes, thatís always fascinated me. The input from the human brain is of a nature which is, in many ways, religious. These serendipitous, eureka moments come from the ether and are somewhat in contradiction to what we have come to understand Western science to be Ė experimental, objective and methodical.

Thatís always fascinated me as does the idea of splicing that interpretation of Western science with an appreciation of Eastern religion, because Eastern religion in many ways also embraces some of these fantastical and reaching aspects of Western science. Eastern religion accepts that perception is the foundation for our appreciation of reality. Science recognizes that the limits to which we can appreciate a situation are defined by the instruments which we use to appreciate that situation Ė in other words, perception. I look at you, I see you, but I see you in such a way that only my eyes allow me to see you. Everything that I know about you is filtered through my senses.

LM: Like Immanuel Kantís ďCategories of the UnderstandingĒ?

RD: Yes. Eastern religion describes a universe that is filtered through the senses and therefore supposes that perhaps the true universe is unappreciable. Advanced concepts in Western science do not contradict this position. Thatís always fascinated me. Thatís one of the things in the book I tried to wrestle with.

LM: You mean the reconciliation of both the spiritual and the scientific Ė or, in point of fact, that the two are not as distinguishable as much as Western society would like them to be?

RD: I donít know if I would put it quite that way because they are distinguishable and yet they are not distinguishable Ė they can be both. And I donít mean to say that Western science is flawed. On the contrary, I think itís richer than we really can appreciate. I also want to stress that the thing that we learn from Eastern religion is that we are defined by perception, which is similar to the scientific approach, and yet most people fail to recognize the Western science gives us that same solution or interpretation.

LM: Okay, that is one of the preoccupations that I noticed in the book, with both the spiritual and the scientific. Another preoccupation I noticed was one with oral narrative and folk tales Ė that seems to inform your work, both this book and Sweet Like Saltwater.

RD: Sure. If I can talk about it in terms of mythology, I think it makes more sense. Science is a way for human beings, at least in the West, to understand and describe the universe. Prior to what we understand as Greek science, Western science, we have a state called mythology. Mythology was written by human beings as a roadmap to understand the universe through God or gods. Mythology allowed you to explain the universe, to predict happenings in the universe, and to rationalize certain observations Ė science plays this role today.

LM: Thatís the role that science performs now?

RD: Correct. The two are forever linked by a worldview. On a personal note, mythology is fascinating Ė it allows everything to seem more important than it actually might be. If you speak in mythological terms, everything seems more mystical, mysterious, and important. And thatís not a bad thing. I like to cast most interpretations in a mythological context.

LM: What would a reader find most interesting about Divine Elemental?

RD: People find different things interesting. I think the thing that I would find most interesting is the mystery. I wonít give away what that mystery is because thatís part of the fun of reading the book Ė discovering the mystery and having it somewhat solved. The second thing that I think people would find most interesting is that itís a love story. And I hope that readers can find enough resonance in the characters, the protagonists, to identify with them.

Thirdly, thereís a touch of the exotic here Ė and thatís intentional. As someone of Indian descent, Iíve chosen to place it in India because I think Iím in the unique position to appreciate both the truth of Indian life and the myth of Indian life, or the Orientalist perspective. I think a Western reader would be able to look through my eyes and be able to enjoy both the magic of the Orientalist perspective and, at the same time, be able to appreciate the truth of the scenarios.

And fourth, I think the ideas are stimulating Ė the idea that there are these competing dichotomies in the world. The dichotomies Iíve chosen to explore are modern and ancient, science and religion, human and beast, male and female, East and West.

LM: Could we go back to the point when you were addressing your ďunique positionĒ as someone of Indian descent? Did that inform your last book and did it inform this one? Would you talk a little more about that?

RD: Yeah, sure. The first book was mostly about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora and the diasporic identity that is thrust upon those who are immigrants over several generations.

LM: Was that true for you or for your parents?

RD: It was true in my case, and itís generally applicable to people in certain circumstances Ė those who come from one cultural, national tradition, and who move to a second one and then to a third one. My ancestors came from India. I was born in Guyana, and then we moved to Canada. Thatís three waystations on a journey that spans generations. That causes a degree of crisis of identity. It can be both unsettling and empowering.

LM: How so?

RD: Unsettling because itís difficult to find a resonance in one specific culture. One cannot claim to be one thing; one has to claim to be two or all three of those things. So, the first book was written as therapy, as a way of coming to grips with an identity crisis. As a result, it was a product of the heart, whereas this new book is a product of the brain. Itís very much a cerebral exercise.

Thatís not to say Divine Elemental is not passionate. It is. One hopes that the book can touch peopleís hearts as much as the previous one did. Even though itís a product of the brain, it can still have some emotional content. This idea of being of a certain nationality Ė that was the passionate essence of the first book, whereas, for the second book, it was just a window through which the reader can appreciate the world Iím trying to create; itís not the essence of the book.

LM: Sweet Like Saltwater was influenced by your cultural heritage: how does it depict the notion of cultural identity differently from Divine Elemental?

RD: Sweet Like Saltwater was all about culture and immigration and movement. It was more about identity and dividing people and the way peoples change over time as the result of being in new environments. Divine Elemental has nothing to do with that. The book is in India for a specific reason. India is a unique time and place. India is a nuclear and space power, a scientific juggernaut that produces all kinds of scientific prizewinners and yet, at the same time, the highest level of technology in many rural areas is the ox-cart. Religion permeates every aspect of life. A bus driver in India will stop at a difficult turn and pray at a shrine before completing his trip. They have idols and gods in all of their shops to bless them. Religion plays a big part in India. And yet it is also a scientific powerhouse. And this contradiction Ė seeming contradiction for it truly isnít one Ė is unique. There, itís possible to be both religious and scientific.

LM: In some ways, then, Divine Elemental is meant to be a challenge to Western culture in terms of the binary thinking that it is usually adopted.

RD: In that sense, yes, particularly as a challenge to one world view. Itís not meant to be a challenge to the modality of Western science. I think Western science is richer than we often give it credit for.

LM: This must be a contradiction for you Ė you started the interview by asserting that youíre a scientist living in Western culture, but then you talked about how much you admired India which neatly enmeshes both science and religion. So, in some ways, Divine Elemental is still a ďhearkening backĒ just like your previous book, in slightly different terms.

RD: Youíre probably right. In fact, I often Ė when I give talks Ė draw the parallel between ancient Greece and modern India. The ancient world was one great continuum, with Greece at one end and India at the other. And, according to some historians, if you want to know what ancient Greece looked like, you visit modern India Ė the pantheon of gods and so forth. I find that deeply fascinating, even moving. Not that thereís not necessarily a direct line between a world of the gods and one of science, but that thereís a continuum between those two worlds and weíre somewhere in between them.