“I’m basically an immigrant.”
André Alexis came to Canada from Trinidad at the age of four, an age at which he was aware that he was absorbing information without necessarily understanding it. A time when everything meant something different than it meant before. In his elaborate 12-year writing project, the quincunx, Alexis says he puts you, the reader, in the position of an immigrant.
With Ring published last autumn, it completes its cycle of five novels begun with Pastoralfollowed by Giller’s winner Fifteen dogsthen The hidden keys and moonlit days. There is no pressure to read them in that order, since the chronology matters less than the formation of the quincunx itself.
“You will come back to University Avenue, the lake, the crop fields and the corn. You don’t know why we insist on it. You are now in an area, the quincunx, where you have to find out for yourself what is going on. So, I just spent 12 years trying to make you feel like I felt when I was five,” Alexis says.
Each novel also tackles a genre of fiction, with Ring inspired by the Harlequin novel. And although this is the last book to be published, Ring is the central point that ties everything together. Here, Alexis talks about the human impulse to seek the divine and how the whole quincunx is haunted.
In Ring there is a divine gift: Gwen is part of a long line of women to inherit a magic ring. She wonders if it’s really beneficial, or if it’s some kind of curse.
What interests me in the divine is that it is in fact a creative construction. There is something about our devotion to a created concept that is always dangerous, but also extremely beneficial. The divine is enormous in all five novels, including the one novel where God is not explicitly mentioned, which is The hidden keys.
You built all these patterns, echoes and resonances between the quincunx books. What is the purpose of this, beyond the pleasure of connecting everything?
I was very influenced by the Oulipo, an organization formed to combine mathematics with literature. I am not interested in most experiments produced by Oulipians. What interests me is the notion of things buried beneath the surface, partly because the hidden form is the classic argument for the existence of God. My nod to the Oulipo is the geometric layout of the novels, a nod to gardens and deities. My bet is that as a reader, you may not know what the order suggests, but you perceive it just below your level of consciousness.
Gwen gets “the weird feeling when the world is busy with the details of her life,” and as a reader, those repetitions are weird.
I hope so, because that would mean that I succeeded. This feeling of gratitude is important in the way we think about the divine, but also, in Ring, how we think about those we love or might love: a feeling that we have always been in love with them, or that there has always been something that binds us to this person. It may be illusory – it’s not a rational meaning – but this feeling of having been here before has a deeper meaning for my psyche.
You are in the process of creating an omnibus edition, bringing together the five novels. What do you find when re-reading the previous books?
I have a certain respect for André Alexis who wrote Pastoral in 2009. Every André Alexis is the master of this novel they wrote, and I’m not trying to question their authority. It’s more about me being the steward of the whole thing now. What I’m thinking about are the matches, or fixing what I feel is missing here or there. Brown’s name features throughout the novels in odd ways. This is the kind of detail that I would like to refine.
None of these novels are in the ghost story genre, but maybe they are all a ghost story of some sort.
Of course, you can talk about how the genre conventions followed by each novel actually haunt the novels themselves.
The quincunx is intensely interested in the place, and the places are haunted by our memories.
The places are absolutely haunted by your emotional experience. In places that I love, I left behind certain aspects of my life, and they are brought back when I am in those places. So it’s no surprise that the places that have haunted me the most – Ottawa, Toronto and southern Ontario, where I grew up, the only black family for miles – are huge to me. In Ring importantly, many of the places mentioned are places I’ve been with someone I was in love with at the time: around the corner of King and Jameson or in the Beaches. I was interested in the energy of remembering having been in love, because I’m writing a novel about love.
You wrote Ring while living in Berlin. When I lived there, as someone who grew up in Toronto, I was surprised at how familiar it was. What was it like writing a Toronto novel there?
It’s a really interesting side effect of trying to write the novels in different places. Ring is like the ring of Nibelungen. I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales When I was there. I was also starting to read in German. If you play a certain type of music, it influences how you hear the sound. In the same way, learning German has influenced the way I hear English, the way I think about English, and also being in Berlin has also influenced the way I think about Toronto. Ring, although obviously a Canadian novel, is in my mind a Berlin novel. It’s still deeply Canadian: when you’re not in Canada, Canada is more intensely there for you, and so it was to write Ring.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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