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Distinguished novelist helps aspiring writers discover what they want to say

Earl Lovelace has been called a master storyteller, known for his lyrical style and memorable characters.

But while he weaves beautiful tales of calypso and the Caribbean and relishes helping students find their own voices, this celebrated Trinidadian writer is somewhat hesitant to tell his own story. He’s reluctant to sit down for a formal interview and is soft spoken and understated when asked about his successes and inspiration.

Lovelace, 69, has been PLU’s distinguished writer in residence for five years and is a celebrated figure in Trinidad. But when asked about his celebrity status in his home country, he simply replies, “Well, I am a novelist.”

As a teacher the past five years at PLU, he has inspired students, who have in turn motivated him. It would be fair to say he has sometimes frustrated people, who appreciate his culture and talent, but not always his laid-back, quintessentially Trinidadian spirit. He doesn’t have voicemail, doesn’t always check his e-mail and isn’t absolutely on time.

But it is impossible to measure how much he brought to PLU, and how he has helped the university’s study-away program in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Earl Lovelace is very well-known and highly regarded in Trinidad,” said PLU President Loren J. Anderson, who traveled there last year and saw first-hand Lovelace’s influence. “He has opened doors for us down there.”

Anderson recalls meeting with an educator, who upon hearing that Anderson was from “the place where Earl Lovelace teaches” immediately gave him complete attention. He also saw how Lovelace – with a quick phone call – arranged for one of the country’s top bands to play at a party at his home to welcome Anderson.

“It’s been great to have him at PLU,” Anderson said. “It adds a kind of richness and texture to the entire community. Students have been very fortunate.”

What has brought Lovelace acclaim are his talent and his books about postcolonial Trinidad that speak to so many. His novels have won many awards, including “Salt,” which was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997, meaning it was named the best book in English speaking countries except the United States. As with his other books, it is set in Trinidad, and he explores the legacy of the struggle against enslavement and colonialism.

Always an avid reader, Lovelace discovered he wanted to write when he worked as a forest ranger and came into more intimate contact with the ordinary people who worked the land and made a living from the forest.

“That was very, very important, because it brought me into a better relationship with the people who worked the land, and gave me a greater sense of the island’s landscape and the folkways of the people,” Lovelace said.

He was 20 when he started to think about writing seriously. His motivation?

“I think I wanted to change the world,” he said. “I still want to change it.”

He wanted to write about people he knew, to give voice to those who don’t usually make it onto the pages of books – “people who have been ignored or have been seen as a generality, not in their specificity.”

“I thought if I was going to be a writer, I had to write a novel,” he said.

So he did.

That first book is still unpublished, but his next try, “While Gods Are Falling,” was published in 1965 and won the British Petroleum Independence LiteraryAward as the best book in Trinidad, and he’s had publishing success ever since.

He has written novels, stories, plays, and last fall for the first time, he saw his work brought to film. His book “Jobell and America” was turned into a movie.

Lovelace encourages aspiring writers to discover what they really want to say.

“You have to want to write, and then you have to discover what you have to say, and then you have to do a lot of work,” he said.

Lovelace, whose tenure at PLU ended last fall, said he will miss the students, who have impressed him with their intelligence and their ethics, which he says will prepare them for the complexities of the world.

“I’ve always found teaching useful because in teaching, you also learn,” he said.

He said he’s pleased to see the student body becoming more diverse. For the first time this year, a Trinidadian is studying at PLU.

Lovelace appreciates working with younger writers.

“Every generation in order to represent itself has to see the world afresh,” he said.

And he encouraged December graduates to do that when he gave the Commencement address.

“You will see the world with new wonder and awe and will step into it with exuberance…you owe it to yourself, and indeed to all of us, to break new ground, to move out, to spread your wings, to venture into areas unknown to the generations that have brought you up.”

Countless students have heeded his advice over the years.

Lovelace plans to stay involved with PLU’s Trinidad and Tobago program and meet students there.

“They are all transformed and changed,” he said “They become themselves more.”

And having complimented the students and thanking PLU for the opportunity, Lovelace decided the interview was over.

“I think you have enough,” he said. “I think I am done talking.”

So the chapter ends, but the story continues.



© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Spring 2005

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