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8 November 2021

Leone Ross: “Age is not a withering – it’s a revolution”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted author on magic realism, language, and why This One Sky Day took 15 years to write.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Leone Ross was born in Coventry in 1969 and migrated to Jamaica with her mother when she was six. After graduating from the University of the West Indies, Ross returned to England, and she now lives in London. Her first novel All the Blood is Red (1996) was nominated for the Orange Prize; her second novel Orange Laughter was published in 2009.

Ross’s third novel This One Sky Day (Faber & Faber) was published 12 years later, in April 2021, and is shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The book tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers on Popisho, a mythical Caribbean archipelago. On Popisho, everyone has a “cors”, a magic power that is unique to them. Xavier is a “macaenus”, an individual gifted with the ability to flavour food through his palms; Anise is a healer who learns of someone’s ailment just by touching them. Ross’s book is a work of rich and unpredictable magic realism that explores pressing contemporary themes including postcolonial politics, queer love and substance abuse.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovativeapproach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not? 

A reminder that the world, your experience within it, and especially the inside of your head is not – and certainly does not have to be – linear, organised, rational, polite, “mature”, middle class, or straight. What is “normal”? What is “the” mould? These things remind me of how I feel about the word “exotic” – what you judge to be exotic only depends on your positionality, but for many British people, the word means anything not white. I still think Cox apples and cold rain are quite exotic.

I don’t think that This One Sky Day breaks literary “convention” that much – there are beginnings, middles and ends, after all, and what’s more conventional than a hero’s journey, albeit an anti-hero chef addicted to hallucinogenic moths? It’s just that worlds and words and narrative shapes that are unfamiliar to the reader or the publishing industry – while being perfectly familiar to the writer and their own community – are often described as innovative. That being said, however we define innovation, I say: more, please. More permission to be curious and to have fun and be authentic. More space for working class, black, queer, weird, impatient, open and surreal voices.  

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This One Sky Day is set over the course of just one day – as is Rebecca Watson’s little scratch, which is also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. What did having those perimeters allow you to do with the novel, and do you think such a structure lends itself particularly well to “experimental” or “innovative” fiction? 

It allowed me to finish the damned thing! It was an entirely pragmatic choice. I published two novels in my twenties and then got terribly seized up about the form. Worried that the work was good enough, but nothing special. The only way back towards the novel was to free-write – writing without stopping or judging in one long stream. I felt like a kid, working her way through fear, lying in the park on my tummy, deliberately swinging my legs, trying to connect with my young, rebellious self who just loved words, and didn’t worry about judgement.

I felt as though I was in convalescence: all I could do was write what I saw, smelled, heard, felt, in front of me. “A dog barks.” “There is a yellow kite.” “Three people cough in unison.” Slowly, my imagination took over, unexpected connections were made, more complex ideas occurred, less angst, people began to shift and shit and dance and tell me who they were, and so their stories came, too.

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I did that for years and ended up with more than 400,000 words. A mad mountain of my 30s and 40s. Making the decision to have it all happen across one day was the saving of me. It meant I could edit it into something readable – in my 50s. I don’t think the singular day is especially innovative. It was an anchor that meant I could identify what belonged and what didn’t. 

[See also: Booker Prize-winner Damon Galgut: “South Africa is not a country that speaks with one voice”]

The literary world, particularly prize culture, often focuses on celebrating “young” authors, and equates the idea of being “new” to the industry with youth. Though perhaps that’s changing: last year’s Goldsmiths winner, M John Harrison, is in his seventies. The previous few Booker winners – Damon Galgut, Douglas Stuart and Bernardine Evaristo – are in their forties or older. I’ve read that This One Sky Day took 15 years to write, and of course it comes after a decades-long career in literature. How did age and experience affect the writing of this book, and what is lost when the industry ignores, or sidelines, older writers?  

Get your heart bruk 15 times; develop stretch marks and then more of them; change your mind about something you thought would always be true; realise that six whole years have passed and you kind of didn’t notice; begin to see all the repetition – in the elections, the TV shows, the love affairs – and let it madden you; learn to tell the damned truth; sit with someone who dies; decide not to forgive and in doing so, actually find that you’ve forgiven – or not; experience the fuck out of menopause; learn to say “no” and “yes”. Age is all of this and so much more.

Industries want youth – their flat tummies and bright eyes and heat. Don’t get me wrong – youth is lovely and the present generation will probably save us. But age is not a withering – it’s a revolution. At one point in This One Sky Day a character realises, with some awe, that the pulse of youth has simply left her face: at first she thinks the room is too dark, perhaps, or that her eyes are failing. But no, something has actually departed. And she laughs.   

I had a lot of fun reading This One Sky Day, particularly thanks to the evocative language you have created for the world of the novel: “cors”, “macaenus” etc. How did you go about putting together these words, and why was it important for you to find your own idiolect to tell this story? 

It wasn’t complex. I like sounds. I simply mixed up the varied sounds of Caribbean dialect, which is at the same time global and ancient and entirely modern. Often I made up a new word with a French root because of slave origins, or an African root because of the same reasons, or a cheeky Jamaican swear word because I knew middle-class Jamaicans would clutch their pearls and be all disapproving, or a word from the Taíno, one of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Hybridity is at the heart of the Caribbean’s bloody, creative, howling history. 

The core fixture of the novel’s magic realism is the idea of the “cors” – the unique magic power that every character has. What appealed to you about this individualised type of magic; why make each supernatural power so exclusive? 

Magic realism always uses the extraordinary to illuminate the ordinary, and vice versa. Magic comments on society’s ills and pushes against the notion of what is real, and the values that underpin our idea of that “realism”. Personally, I think everyone in the real world is born with an extra “something-something” – I don’t need to write a novel to see that.

I think it would be easier to identify and encourage that real-world individual aptitude if in 2021, we didn’t have a handful of people running off into space while others starve, and we spent the time we all have left on this earth attempting to find systems that feed, clothe, shelter and nurture the imagination of every human being. It’s past due. It’s outrageous we haven’t managed it. I guess This One Sky Day asks what would happen if we simply looked at each other as potential miracles. 

[See also: Courtney Barnett: “We overlook how important the smaller moments are”]

I have to ask you about the most surreal, and funniest moment in the novel: when all the women on the island lose their “pum-pums”. When and how did this image first occur to you? Why did it hold so much power? 

Women, imagine: you stand up, and your vulva suddenly falls away from your body, a bit like a Mac battery coming lose from the laptop, falling in one chunk onto the ground. Would you keep walking? If you had to hold it in your hand, what would you feel? Our vulvas, vaginas, clitorises, labia, are as ordinary as lungs or kidneys or tonsils, and yet the way we feel about this part of our bodies is highly complex.

The “pum-pum drop” came out of free-writing, and at first I just laughed, but then I thought, what could be more heart-attack-level serious than a vulva gone roaming in the world? How might people treat it? Men, if you met one in the street, what might you do? If your female lover threw hers through the window, would you be done with her? 

In Popisho slavery has never existed, and the only attempt at colonisation was successfully rebuffed by the inhabitants. How did writing about Popisho therefore feel? Is it a utopia? 

Nope. Popisho’s one brush with colonialism – which happens when 203 ex-slaves try to lay claim to the land and are eventually stopped by a hurricane – still leaves its taint. The emancipated may have stopped trying to govern this archipelago, but they do come with the kind of hellfire Christianity that worked to keep Caribbean minds enslaved for hundreds of years. Their religion stains this made-up land with homophobia, sexism, reductionism, judgement and fear.

That aside, Popisho pushes back, and many black readers living in the diaspora – especially those who have never grown up in majority-black countries – tell me how important it has been for them to read about a nation of people of colour that runs on wonder and joy. It’s a palpable sense of relief – what might it be to exist without the systemic realities and micro-pressures of racism? 

[See also: Isabel Waidner: “The British novel reproduces white middle-class values and aesthetics”]

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book. 

The music of pocomania, Rastafari, mento: all Jamaican folk traditions that I played incessantly for 15 years of fiddling with this beloved, annoying book. That drum, that flute. Wistful. Tender. Haunting. Rebellious. “Fly away home…” It reminds me of who I am. 

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 

Because the young adults I teach haven’t heard of nearly every person on the list since 2013, and they should. 

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why? 

I’ll be all bad and transgressive and annoying and proffer a retrospective shortlist, because I don’t believe in winners, not really, and because these six writers are much better than me at pushing the boundaries: Anthony Joseph’s The African Origins of UFOs; Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House, Helen Oyeyemi’s Peaces, Tessa McWatt’s Vital Signs and yes, I know it’s novels but I think it should be short stories and poetry too: Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular and Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 10 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November

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