Luck: A Conversation with Kelvin Christopher James & a New Story – Curated by Bronwyn Mills

Kelvin Christopher James is a Trinidadian-American who writes fables, short stories, and novels. Most recently we have received another of his absorbing short stories, “Luck,” and we have taken this time to offer both the tale and an brief e-interview with the author.

I began by asking Kelvin how he he came to be in the US from Trinidad.

KCJ: My first visit to New York (my America) was in ’68. I was just out of UWI (the University of the West Indies) with a B.Sc in Chemistry & Zoology, and contracted by government’s full scholarship to teach science at North Eastern secondary school in Sangre Grande, Trinidad. I came as a tourist with my fellow grads. My buddies went to Brooklyn. From newspapers, books, & other readings, I went to Harlem. To me that’s where excitement was.

I did not find much, though, and decided to earn my cost of travel. I took 2 jobs: first, as day laborer toting debris down four stories of stairs of buildings being renovated; second, as night shift parking attendant (seven to twelve.) I made my travel costs many times over & returned home exhilarated by that fortune.

In summer of ’69 I went to Canada, and with education that qualified, was accepted/welcomed as a landed immigrant. I stayed with Trini buddies who had settled there. Not at all like Harlem; to me, it was an empty bland environment, a suburb of wide streets and quiet houses. Despite their praises of the sedate scene, to my friends’ dismay I left and returned to Harlem after a week, then spent the next three in Harlem with a girlfriend’s family. Somewhat disappointed about the trip, I returned home to teach at North Eastern College; a job I enjoyed and was good at.

In the summer of ’70 I applied for and was granted a special Teach the Caribbean (or something like that) scholarship to learn science at a Baltimore University (whose name I also forget.) The curriculum turned out to be the same I was teaching my students in North Eastern; so it was actually a relaxing vacation for which I was being well paid in US dollars. Again I returned home; this time with the impression that America was easy as kissing one’s hands, and a lurking intention to return to stay. This I did in the summer of ’71.

BGM: How did you come to be a writer after being a scientist?

KCJ:  I was always a good student, even in elementary school; at ten I won first in class for 2 years straight, then qualified for secondary education by being third in the island’s competitive exams for that opportunity. My family was not well off, and I got a job as an office boy at the government’s Central Experimental Station in Centeno. I swept floors, cleaned toilets, the bosses desks, and distributed mail to offices. I was also responsible for the rain gauge; noting daily rain fall. I had lots of down time, and always an avid reader, used it to read whatever fiction I could get, from Enid Blyton to H. Rider Haggard, to Edgar Allen Poe, to Leslie Charteris, to P G Wodehouse, and Raymond Chandler.

Meanwhile my diligence with the rain gauge caught the attention of a scientist named Gaston Percival Blair, a Black St. Lucian and Cambridge educated researcher. who employed me as his assistant, me the hands to his brainy ideas. He introduced me to the nature of scientific research, which I absorbed like water on parched soil. Eventually we were the first to discover and show the causative insect and nematode that caused Red Ring disease, which was devastating the coconut industry all over the world.

BGM:  The writing?

About the writer aspect: as a youngster I lacked local friends with whom I could discuss ideas; and I turned to penpals from the world over,  preferably folks far away from Trinidad. A lot of fiction entered these letters, and from that I learned techniques aimed at satisfying others’ curiosity. As a teacher at North Eastern helped my students who entered the school’s writing competition. They won almost all of them; sometimes first, second and third prizes.

Then, when I came to work at Harlem hospital, there was an option to study free at Columbia U, and I went on to get a Doctorate in Science Education. At the same time I wrote a number of short stories and sent them to Quarto, the school’s magazine. They were usually accepted, which only encouraged me to do more. Then my thesis advisor confided that he would have liked to have my ability of description, putting action interest into my papers. After that, I met Charles McGrath, an editor at the New Yorker, and got the same response from him. By that time I had also lost interest in the repetitive work of assessing patients’ blood chemistries, and on impulse gave up the job, deciding to write fiction. One standout scene was reading Marathon Man and figuring I do at least as well. Then I wrote ’Ties’ and had a friend enter it to the NYFA’s open competition. I won $7500 and interest from a judge, Patrick McGrath, an established author who got me an agent. After that, I just kept on going.

BGM: Tell me about your writing process:

KCJ: I can’t say exactly how I come to write a story. Usually it just occurs to me in one piece, complete. Sometimes it’s an event that promotes/brings it on. Other times it’s a memory, or a comment I hear that evokes/stimulates an episode.

I have so many prompts, I place/write my stories as fables in order to recall their essence if needed; there they keep/retain the irony I may later find necessary for a “regular” short story. However, if the fable stands on its own, as many do, I leave it be. To me many stories depend on irony, as do the fables.

Bottom line, I cannot define my creative process; and I confess to being reluctant to do so. Vie-que-vi is fine!


Luck by Kelvin Christopher James