The sea is always one step ahead: a brief conversation with McDonald Dixon

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Monday, March 9th, 2015 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Literature, Updates

This short interview conducted by Dr. Leanne Haynes explores aspects of the writing life of novelist, poet, and dramatist, McDonald Dixon. The St. Lucian born writer discusses his current projects, the evolution of St. Lucian literature and the future of the arts on the island. Dixon recently turned 70 years old, and a group of St. Lucian writers compiled and dedicated a poetry collection to him, which in his own words, “plumbs the depths of Saint Lucian writing.” Read more here in this interview exclusively for ARC:

McDonald Dixon, born 1 October 1944, is a St. Lucian writer, actor, director, photographer, and painter. He is the author of several plays, a short story collection, Careme (2009), the novels, Season of Mist (2002), Misbegotten (2009) and Saints of Little Paradise (2012), and four collections of poetry: Pebbles: A Collection of Twenty-Nine Poems (1973), The Poet Speaks: A Collection of Poems (1980), Collected Poems 1961-2001 (2003), and Beloved Country and Other Poems (2013).

In 1994, Dixon received the Saint Lucia Medal of Merit (Silver) for meritorious service to the arts. In 2005, he was awarded the Cultural Development Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, an anthology of St. Lucian poetry was compiled by Dixon’s fellow writers and dedicated to him on his seventieth birthday.

Photo credit: Anslem Gittens. 2014.

Photo credit: Anslem Gittens. 2014.

Leanne Haynes: Mr Dixon, you mentioned you had been busy doing a re-working of your novel Season of Mist. Why did you decide to re-visit this text?

McDonald Dixon: It is an early work, it began as a nonfictional piece on the life of Flor Gayard, who was reportedly a brigand chief and took part in the brigands war. After consulting several of her contempories, including the diaries of Sir John Moore, I am resolved to believe that she is a figment from folk lore, immortalized over the years by the people. The work had several failings including somewhat overdone style. I toned down the language but did not alter the characters or the story line. After this, I will let the text rest.

LH: I remember when I came to St. Lucia and we were sitting next to one another at the Derek Walcott lecture. You said that you sometimes felt like a forgotten writer of the sixties. I often think about this remark and it makes me feel sad because your work is so fundamentally important to St. Lucia’s literary history and you have dedicated much of your creative attention to St. Lucia, its people and culture.

MacDonald Dixon and the late Seamus Heaney. Photo credit: John Robert Lee.

McDonald Dixon and the late Seamus Heaney. Photo credit: John Robert Lee.

MD: Sounds like a bout of depression. “The effluvia of endless thoughts…” I do suffer from time to time. I have always had to walk the thin line between business and art. As a consequence my work has suffered although of late I have been working hard to remedy this. It is difficult to divorce one’s self from one’s passion, but I have learned to walk parallel paths without them ever crossing. Of course this is as dangerous as a ‘menage a trois.’

LH: You’ve recently had a poetry collection, Sent Lisi, edited by Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, John Robert Lee and Vladimir Lucien, dedicated to you for your 70th birthday. It must have been very moving to learn of this special gift?

MD: I feel deeply honoured. This means more to me than receiving the Saint Lucia Cross. (although I have not been offered). Forget Knighthood, I might not be interested anyway. To all the writers which include Derek, I say, thank you, you have made 70 years worth living if only to experience moments like these.

LH: Can you tell me more about the poetry collection?

MD: I can only speak in superlatives. You must get a copy. That is not all. You must also book a flight and come to Saint Lucia to read it. This small tome plumbs the depths of Saint Lucian writing.

John Robert Lee, Jane King, Derek Walcott, Roddy Walcott, Kendel Hippolyte, and McDonald Dixon. Photo courtesy of John Robert Lee.

John Robert Lee, Jane King, Derek Walcott, Roddy Walcott, Kendel Hippolyte, and Mc Donald Dixon. Photo courtesy of John Robert Lee.

LH: You write poetry, plays, and novels. Is there a form that you gravitate towards most?

MD: I am a bit lazy, so I would say prose; short stories in particular. Ever since I read Guy de Maupassant as a boy and Somerset Maugham, I fell in love with the art form. I have published only one collection – Careme – but if time permits I expect to release some more in the future.

LH: Why do you think that the novel is a less popular form for St. Lucian writers?

MD: This is a difficult one. Most St. Lucian writers seem to gravitate to poetry. Maybe it is as a result of having as figure as huge as Derek looming over us. However there has been some interest in the novel from the days of Garth St.Omer – even Derek tried his hand at it. There is also the work of Earl Long, Cornel Charles, Michael Aubertin, Greta Bondieumaitre, and Tony Williams  who wrote a 600 pager piece – Forbidden – which I read. Kentry Jn Pierre also tried his hand at this format. Of course there is yours truly. There is a discipline associated with the novel which many young writers might shy away from but still there is a core brave enough to venture.

LH: You’re a trade consultant and a banker as well as a writer – is that correct? How do you factor in writing into your day-to-day life?

MD: I am no longer a Banker. I retired from that profession in 1994. I get up every day around 2.30 – 3.00 a.m. and write until 6.30 a. m. I have been doing this for more than 20 years. I have also been very careful to segregate my other professions and to date I have done it well.

McDonald Dixon and Derek Walcott, 2005. Photo courtesy of John Robert Lee.

McDonald Dixon and Derek Walcott, 2005. Photo courtesy of John Robert Lee.

LH: How has St. Lucian literature evolved over the years?

MD: There is a distinct link between the development of Art and Literature in the Saint Lucian context that I find difficult to disconnect, or should I say, disentangle. The richness of colour in our paintings translates into the vibrancy of our colour of saying. The sea is always one step ahead. In our work one senses the understatement to be larger than life in meaning, just as in our Creole, the casual phrase digs through the bone. There appears to be at least three distinct periods: Post Emancipation, Post World War One, with the UNIA and returning soldiers from the war and the Trade Union Movement.

Finally there is post World War Two, beginning about 1948-1949, the founding of the Saint Lucia Arts Guild and the blossoming of our artists, Derek and Garth in particular in Literature, Dunstan in Art and Leo Spar St. Helene in photography. It will not be until the 1960ties with the proliferation of secondary schools we would begin to experience an islandwide outbreak of literary creativity.

LH: What’s your view of the current arts scene on the island and what is needed to help it flourish even more so?

MD: If we can provide our youth with the guidance to discern art from mimicry that would be our first achievement, sowing the seeds of a legacy that would encompass not only the Caribbean but the world. However we live on the underbelly of the USA who exports without conscience foreign art forms, complete with accents that defeat attempts at raising our standards from a mediocrity that a majority believe to be good much to the chagrin and disappointment of our young individuals when they become exposed to the wider markets around them. We must first learn to be ourselves, then learn to create.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.