Science and Symbols: An Interview with Kevin Jared Hosein


Learning about my own family’s history in the Indo-Caribbean diaspora has been a slow process, excavating one piece at a time. Author Kevin Jared Hosein’s latest book, Hungry Ghosts, is dedicated to “the ancestors and everything they grew.” The novel, set in Trinidad in the 1940’s, centers on the kinds of people in history whose stories only remain in fragments.

The novel begins with four boys sealing their bond in blood and milk, adopting the corbeau, or black vulture, as their mascot. The reader adopts this form in turn, bearing witness to the joys and misfortunes of the characters. The novel is a mystery that features a quasi-haunted house atop a hill full of eclectic oddities, prose to be savored, and deeply human characters.

Hosein has authored two other books that were published in the Caribbean. The Beast of Kukuyo is a young adult mystery, and The Repenters received the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In addition to his work as a writer, Hosein is a science teacher living in Trinidad.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Hosein over Zoom about his forthcoming novel, his research process, and how the people, flora, and fauna of Trinidad are part of its landscape.


The Rumpus: Within the first few pages of the novel the ghosts of indentured workers are mentioned, almost as if they’re part of the landscape. Do you differentiate between ghost stories and mysteries as a writer or a reader? How do you think about both of those modes of storytelling?

Kevin Jared Hosein: I spent the first few years of my life in a small rural village in central Trinidad, a very Hindu village. It’s where my grandparents live. We moved to another area when I was four or five, but every weekend we used to go visit there. So every time there’s an event, there would be this oral storytelling tradition. A lot of it would focus around what we in Trinidad would call jumbies, that’s kind of like ghosts and demons and so on. It would be spoken of as fact.

As you grow up it’d be like well, the lights came on for themselves, it’d have to be something. I don’t want to use the word superstition, but I would say a lot of it was born from where we had electricity fail in the village. Darkness breeds a kind of mystery.

Ghost stories would become mysteries. We thought of it as actual ghost stories, but we would treat it as, how could this have happened? So we would have to filter the words through that kind of lens, especially me coming from a more scientific background. That is not specific to the village that I grew up in, it’s actually culturally widespread in Trinidad. It’s endemic in many areas today. Even my own parents would say you need to do this because this goddess will visit, or if you go to a graveyard you have to walk back backwards to make sure that no ghosts follow you. It’s probably good that no robbers follow you in! But it would be treated as such.

The mystery [is] to decipher where those originated, where they would have passed down from. Because it might not have started in Trinidad, it might have started in part of Eastern Africa, or parts of Southern India where the ancestors would have come from. I would say that is the link between ghost stories and mysteries. It’s inherently linked to our history and culture.

Rumpus: You mentioned your scientific background. Do you feel like your experience in science and as a science teacher impacts the way you write?

Hosein: It does in a way. I didn’t have the opportunity to study literature, so when I came into secondary school, I went to an all-boy’s Catholic school. It has changed since then, but at the time, literature wasn’t a subject that would be offered to boys. They wanted them to do science or business. That opinion has changed, thankfully, since then. (I do think though if I did do it in that academic setting I probably would’ve decided against it so it’s probably for the best.)

In terms of the scientific background, I might go off on a little bit of a tangent here. That’s ok?

Rumpus: Yeah, go for it! Absolutely.

Hosein: Ok! So in the book all of the characters, almost all of them, speak in what we call Trinidadian Creole English, or at least what I would say is my written version of it. There wouldn’t be any two Caribbean or Trinidadian books that use Creole English the same way because we never learn how to write it. We would put it in text messages and, you know, maybe in emails or Facebook posts, or WhatsApp or whatever, right? But everyone kind of has their own version of it—how to spell it, how to word it—but all of us speak it almost the same way. I mean, you have different levels of it, but you would know a Trinidadian or a Guyanese if you were to meet them.

In school, especially primary school, it was kind of shunned to write like that, to speak like that. You had to speak the Queen’s English, or the King’s English I guess, now. So when it came to me actually writing in a Trinidadian Creole English, I did it very late in life. When I first started to write, when I was a teenager, I wrote [stories set] in America. I had only been to America two times, but I would set my stuff in America and England. Basically, what I saw in the media and on TV. I would write the Hollywood versions of those things. To write in Trinidadian Creole English, to write a story set in Trinidad, I felt like I had to explain everything. To explain our words, and birds, and plants and so on.

Coming back to my scientific background now, I’ve done some scientific writing throughout university. Scientific writing is very specific, and it’s often very descriptive, especially if you’re dealing with zoology and biology—what I study—or ecology. When I was researching and writing Hungry Ghosts, what I wanted to do was to show that everything that we in Trinidad consider educated language, like scientific writing or stuff that I might find in a psychological journal, or very literary poetic prose, I wanted to blend that with our Trinidadian Creole English to show that one is not less than the other. It has a place amongst all these other things; it can be studied and can be academic. I know some people read the book and felt like, oh there’s a lot of big words in here, there’s some scientific kind of esoteric language, but I did have a purpose for that. I wanted our words mixed with all that other type of language. I would say that is maybe how my scientific background helped.

Rumpus: That’s so interesting, because I noticed when I was reading that all of the Creole words—a lot of which I recognized, though some of them are slightly different than the words used in Guyana—are not italicized. Usually in English, copyeditors will encourage you to italicize any words that are non-standard English, and that can be a fluid list of words. It depends on who you’re talking to, and if the audience is expected to recognize those words. If I were to go to a bookstore and pick up a novel, I guarantee if the word croissant is in the book, it wouldn’t be italicized. I love that it’s just included, like “baigan” is written like any other word.

Hosein: No glossary or anything like that. [With] a lot of older Caribbean books, the publishers wanted them to have a glossary. But nobody brought up the possibility of it here.

Rumpus: We’ve talked a little bit about science, and you mentioned your education and oral storytelling. Are there other forms of storytelling outside of literature and science that had an impact on the way you think about story and about writing? Like moves, TV, music, video games, anything like that?

Hosein: Oh, yeah. I love movies. I’m not sure if this is true, but some people tell me I write cinematically. I just write it as I imagine it playing out in a scene, how scenes are set, and kind of paint an image in my head.

I like to listen to music when I write—typically video game soundtracks because they’re so atmospheric. I’ll just give an example: the Elder Scrolls Skyrim soundtrack, because a lot of the time you’re just wandering around in this big open world, so the music is not really specific to any setting, but it has this kind of long, ethereal, wandering kind of feel. So for this book, that was probably on constantly to kind of get those ideas flowing.

A movie I had in my head when I was writing it was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which is a poetic, esoteric kind of movie, but still about imagery. I was thinking about how he used the images to tell an otherwise basic story, but gave it extra dimensions.

Rumpus: In terms of history, what is it about this particular period in the 1940’s in Trinidad and Tobago’s history that felt like a really rich place to set a novel?

Hosein: That specific time was when we had two superpowers on the island. We had the British and we had the Americans. The Americans were there throughout World War II and they would’ve vacated I believe sometime in the late sixties or early seventies. It was interesting at a time when both of them were there, because how the locals would’ve seen the British were like these authority figures who were almost infallible. They were very stern, strict, and appeared to be well-dressed, respected officials. To make it in Trinidad you had to emulate that behavior and style of dress and so on.

When the Americans were here, it would’ve been the navy and this was because they thought Nazi boats were in the area so they set up a base there around the capital. They built a road that kind of cut across the country and the navy was allowed to use that road, so it wasn’t a civilian road. We could kind of say it divided a certain part of the country because you had a part that was around the Americans and the more urban areas, and they were a little more developed. And there are the more rural parts like where the barracks would have been. I did find that was an interesting setting, like an actual road dividing the two.

So when both of them were there, the Americans were actually very brash and loud, and kind of the opposite of what the British were. The locals used to see that, and some of them would start emulating that because it would be like, oh the British are not infallible because now we have some Americans bossing them around. It’s almost a kind of feel-good schadenfreude kind of feeling I think some of them had. The Americans also, I think, brought with them the notion of the dream, the American Dream. You could come here and you could build yourself up, you could do what you want. They were very carefree kind of people, they had radios with loud music and they used to play with the locals. You of course had, you know, the very bad ones, but overall they were kind of the opposite of the British because they were very jovial.

What I sought to do was to put characters between, to give them that notion of a dream. I like to say this is a novel about split-second decisions, because either you go for it or you sink into the water and be forgotten.

Rumpus: I wanted to talk a little bit about your research process for this book, especially in terms of researching history.

Hosein: I think in 2016 or 2017 or so, I used to do some work for the Commonwealth Foundation. They run the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. They have an online magazine called adda, they were just starting it, and they were commissioning pieces from former entrants, and they asked me to write something about Trinidad. There’s so much to write, but at the same time I didn’t know what to write.

I had a childhood memory of dressing up—we used to put on these monster masks and go around, kind of like Halloween, what we call J’ouvert. We would take these broomsticks and make noise, and then the neighborhood people would pay us to go away. Last time I played that I would have been eleven years old. Later on, I noticed that nobody used to do it again. The practice has altogether stopped, and it’s almost as if everybody forgot it, and I was like, is this like a Mandela effect? Am I misremembering this thing I did for like eight years? Now it’s as if people vaguely remember it, so I wanted to write about that, or at least start with that.

So I said I would ask my grandparents, or my grandfather—he’s the talkative one. He was like, well things start and then stop. That was his explanation. I wanted to seek into why it ended, and one of my aunts said, well, people just got too ashamed of sending their children out to collect a few cents. It was almost like begging in a way. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but the conversation actually led to something deeper where my grandfather was talking about his childhood, and I was kind of relating it to my own. Over a period of ten to fifteen years, some things change and some does remain in a time capsule.

That first interview with him, I just gathered a lot of information. There was a story that he told me that I found completely unbelievable. In the villages there used to be a lot of floods, so people would actually carry boats in the roads and carry children to school and so on. Of course, when you have a lot of floods, you would get a lot of potholes in the road. There was this British official’s wife, and she was walking through the village, and he said that she tripped and fell, and she landed face down in a puddle of mud. She had this white dress on, so it smeared. Everybody was just kind of silent, and nobody was sure whether to help or not, so then he said this little boy started to laugh. [The official’s wife] got furious and apparently said she would order that the village be torn down because of that.

Apparently it didn’t happen, but I thought something about it was unbelievable. At the time I had a friend who was a historian, and he had a couple of books in Trinidad. His name is Angelo Bissessarsingh, but he passed away a few years ago. He never heard anything like that before, but he was aware that there was an order that was declined by some high official to raze that village, but there was no reason why, really. There was a made-up reason where it was encroaching upon something. It didn’t go through in the end.

So, what I thought was interesting was that, of course, not everything would be archived, that the story actually happened. It was as if, that [story] would’ve been lost in time if my grandfather hadn’t told it. I didn’t actually write that in the article for Commonwealth, but it remained in my head. I thought that maybe one day I could write a book with that character in it, and the book actually started with that character. Just the notion of it, someone having that high amount of privilege and power back then—it’s not like it was the 1700’s or 1800’s. This was 1940-something.

In terms of the research, a lot of it was mainly talking to people, elders, trying to extract information from them. Just me with a notepad and pen, talking for hours. A lot of people don’t like to talk about it, and I was very fortunate to find a few villagers who were quite surprised that it actually turned into a book. I don’t know what they actually thought it was going to be.

Rumpus: While I was reading, animals felt ever-present in the story. They’re pets, they’re symbols of the natural world, sometimes they’re omens of danger or disaster. How did you think about their role in the world of the story as you were writing?

Hosein: In the unedited version, there was actually a part with a cat at the barrack. The cat got edited out, and only the dog remained. It became a bit redundant, so the cat had to go. In terms of the animals and the landscape and so on, a part of me wanted to be like, well, us Trinidadians are part of the landscape too. We are kind of animals brawling and conflicting with each other all the time.

The last chapter of the book is mainly focused around the plants and animals. The book starts off with it as well, and I wanted it to seem like the land is an absolute, it is an ultimate. It’s almost as if to give a broad feeling of the island where—how can I say this—the dream of the island, the life of the island will continue. There will be others to continue the process. It’s almost as if, life will carry on, it will get better, there will be hardships. And the animals are there as a sign of that in a way, that the natural state, despite all the turmoil and hardships the characters endure, will move on.

I do see animals personifying certain emotions or ideals. The key one being what we call the corbeau, which is a black vulture. Corbeau is a French word for raven, but we call it that. It’s not our real national bird, but in a way, it is the most talked about bird in Trinidad. There’s a lot of idioms surrounding the bird, and I guess there’s one I was thinking about. It’s kind of an elitist saying, that corbeau don’t eat sponge cake, which means that you could throw out maggots and rotting food, but if you throw cake for it, it might just leave it alone. It’s as if to say that it doesn’t know what luxury is. That was something I kept in mind because we have a lot of animal idioms here. But I was thinking of it like that, as if these characters were part of the natural landscape, just like any other animal or plant.




Author photo by Mark Lyndersay

Michelle Ajodah is a writer and publishing professional based in Somerville, MA. She is originally from Larchmont, NY, and earned a BFA in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College. She is currently pursuing a Master's in Creative Writing at the Harvard Extension School. She is on Twitter @michelleajodah. More from this author →