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Ezekel Alan on Writing, Jamaica, and Disposable People

One of the images author Ezekel Alan prefers to use as a 'picture' of himself

Ekezel Alan, author of Disposable People copped the 2013 Regional Award for the Commonwealth Writers Book Prize. Currently living in Asia, mainly Thailand, he talks to Susumba in this partly candid, somewhat irreverent and entertaining interview about his novel, writing and why there are no pictures of him online.

Susumba: Who is Ezekel Alan - the man, the writer and I'm particularly curious about your fondness for cold Milo?
Ezekel Alan: I like to think of myself as a very simple person, as someone who believes in friendship and family and who tries to do more good than harm in the time he has on earth. I work hard, sleep little, and write whenever I can.

I love telling stories. I grew up on village stories, every night at home on someone’s veranda. I wrote stories and poems when I was in school but that was about it. Disposable People came out of me as a form of catharsis. I didn’t really think of it as writing a novel as much as coming to terms with some things in the past. It’s only since the recognition given to Disposable People that I’ve started seeing myself as some kind of a writer.  

Milo I have always loved. When I was young I would go with the kids in our community to Denbigh Show Ground and there were always people selling three of my favourite things: cotton candy, pepper shrimp and, of course, the Milo trucks selling perfectly made cold milo. I couldn’t get enough of it!  My wife gets embarrassed sometimes when we go out for a drink and she orders a Martini and I look fondly on the word ‘Milo’ on the menu. She doesn’t let me get away with ordering it.

S: The absence of pictures of you online has created a mystique about who you are? Is this deliberate?
EA: I am ugly. I thought I would do society a favour by not showing my face. I’ll perhaps try to find a baby picture of me to put up; that was just about the only time I was almost cute.

S: In much the same vein, there has been speculation that Ezekel Alan is a nom de plume. Is it?
EA: I once knew a boy whose name was Semen Roach. When he got older he changed it by Deed Poll. I thought it was a good decision because that was an awful name for a boy. I will talk about him in my next novel.

S: What brought you to Asia and what are you doing when not writing?
EA: I work in Asia, and only the good Lord knows what brought me here.  When I am not writing I am probably sleeping or trying to make my wife happy. Keeping a woman happy is a big job. I also spend time trying to make my kids normal. For some years now they have been going caveman and feral, so we thought of bringing them to this calmer region for the civilising influence. Nothing has worked so far. I also travel a bit.

S: Do you return to Jamaica often, and when can we expect to see you back on the rock?
EA: I get back home at least once per year, sometimes more. I should be back in Jamdown as soon as the Jamaican dollar gets back to under 100:1 or by September, whichever comes first.

Disposable People by Ezekel Alan winner of 2013 CWW Regional Book PrizeS: On Goodreads you reveal you struggled with writing Disposable People for years for fear of “dishonouring” the memory of people you grew up with. Why  did you finish?
EA: I felt I had to. A lot of things happened in that community that I needed to write about and get out of me. I also realised that I could tell those stories and still honour the people I grew up. We’ve all done things we are not proud of, but these things don’t necessarily define who we are... This doesn’t mean that I condone all or any of it, just that I better understand why some of those things happened and can still be grateful for all the large and small contributions these folks made to my own life.

S: Disposable People is set in the turbulent 1970s but do you believe the concept (of some being disposable) remains true to contemporary Jamaica?
EA: Jamaica has changed quite a lot since I was a child. The violence, of course, still remains. And it curdles the blood to think of someone who would slit the throat of an old woman sitting in her rocking chair and enjoying the simple pleasures at the end of her life. It is disturbing to know that so many people are killed so casually.... I wish we could all feel safer, both rich and poor. I also wish more people would take the time to think about the lives of the poor, and to see them as real people, not a scourge on society. Too many of us perhaps still see a child washing our windscreen in Half Way Tree as either an annoyance or a threat, rather than as a possibility.  

S: What do you love most and dislike most about Jamaica? Do you feel at all conflicted about the island and all the paradoxes that it holds?
EA: The part I dislike you can gather from my earlier responses. The part I really like: the people, the vibrant culture, the rich dialect, the energetic and erotic music, the food, the milo, and brand ‘Jamaica’. I am Jamaican and I love being Jamaican. I feel unique and proud wherever in the world I am and someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I love food at Faith’s Pen, Melrose Hill, Heroes Circle, Boston, Little Ochi, my aunties’ kitchen. By the way I hate listening to the nightly news headlines on CVM and TVJ – too depressing.

S: Why did you decide to go the route of self-publishing for Disposable People, and do you have any regrets?
EA: I didn’t know whether the novel would be accepted in the mainstream. It is very different from the norm, and includes all kinds of weird combinations of poems, drawings, stories within stories, and such. In a sense it was simply putting on paper the way I thought about life in our community. I didn’t think of it as a work of art and was genuinely surprised at the reception it got, including that really flattering review by Mary Hanna in the Jamaica Observer. I have no regrets; I will just build on this.

S: On your blog, it says you feel “pregnant” again, what will your next novel be about?
EA: It will be about Georgie. George was a childhood friend that some extraordinary things happened to. I want to tell his story in an equally extraordinary manner. I have shared a sample of the draft with a few readers and they all seem to love it. I hope to deliver the little baby sometime this year.

S: Do you intend to self-publish or will you await the knock of an agent and/or publisher?
EA: A few agents have knocked… and I opened the door and let one in. I have a weakness for polite people. Announcement to follow.

S: Would you agree that the CWW’s acceptance of self-published works adds legitimacy to self-publishing? Was that the case for Disposable People?
EA: I agree. There are hundreds of high quality self-published works out there that face the biases and prejudices associated with the label ‘self-published’. We need a civil rights movement for self-publishers; and Rastas should also stop burning fire for pork eaters.