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Jonestown, Kids, Gorillas & Tragic Death: Fred D'Aguiar & Children of Paradise

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I've long been fascinated by the events surrounding the Jonestown tragedy. I'm particularly interested, as a parent, in what would lead someone to poison their own child. It seems unthinkable. And yet we all know it happened. So I was drawn to Children of Paradise, and I found the treatment of this very disturbing and real-life tragedy beautiful and compelling. The New York Times said, "D'Aguiar depicts the plight of Trina and the other children with heartbreaking immediacy." So I sat down with its author, Fred D'Aguiar to talk about Jonestown, kids and how he wrote this wonderful book.

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DAVID HENRY STERRY: What was your inspiration for writing a book about the Jonestown tragedy?

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FRED D'AGUIAR: Jonestown happened in Guyana. My parents are Guyanese and I grew up there. I was in London when I heard about the murder suicides. In 1998, twenty years after the event, I wrote a long poem in an effort to understand why so many Americans ended up in such an idyllic landscape -- the Amazonian basin interior of Guyana -- only to die en masse. I made a radio program for the BBC about Jonestown in 2003 and it occurred to me that the psychology of faith had to be explored by me in a sustained work driven by character narrative rather than the lyric of the poem. I've been writing (and rewriting) the novel since then until now with breaks for poetry and plays, teaching and life. But don't ask me about my failed novels -- writers hate to air dirty laundry (this writer does).

DHS: You write from the perspective of a gorilla with shocking verisimilitude, how did you research the inner mental and emotional landscape of Adam the gorilla?

FDA: I've always believed that the danger of a reflex tendency for anthropomorphizing nature (of always seeing things in terms of our own primate and primary conceits) brings with it an over-assumption of empathy when all that is gained is a domestication of the unknown in terms of our limited, superior colonization instincts. We have an encounter but learn nothing from it. And not only a colonization of nature's prowess in terms of our limited human understanding of it but a gesture of intuitive admission that nature has a language that we need to learn in order to really function in harmony with the planet. Right now our civilization is built on using up the earth and finding some other location for the future of the species (a stupid gamble, look at Las Vegas; think of Shelley's poem Ozymandias). I've maintained my interest in nature writing from my first encounter with the works of Desmond Morris during my teens to the euphoric and vatic veneration of nature by Barry Lopez.

I wanted Adam (what's in a name?!) to be the outside figure, in the commune locked in a cage but outside the commune's reasons for being together, and in league with his Edenic surroundings as he witnesses a slice of humanity spiraling towards self-destruction. I've been to Jonestown and seen a bit of the landscape in the Amazonian region. The jungle with its rock escarpments, rivers, trees and waterfalls and flora and fauna, is a cathedral in its grandiosity (here I am anthropomorphizing but in keeping with the Romantics), it is a place of worship, a spiritual reliquary (if only we paid attention to it).

DHS: For that matter, how did you get into the mindset of a kid who was at Jonestown during one of the most unspeakable tragedies of the 20th century? And the POV of Preacher, who seems very much to be Jim Jones in this scenario?

FDA: I trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse way back in my early 20s and the work experience has remained with me ever since in the focus of my writing on the psychological and psychical aspects of a character's experience. There are writers who have helped me to frame this in my fiction. First, Wilson Harris (b.1921). His fiction reacts to the landscape as if it were a structural determinant of his prose. Meaning, when you read him you feel as if the jungle's architecture dictated his sentence structures. Harris is Guyanese and worked as a surveyor in Guyana's interior and he wrote a 1996 novel titled Jonestown, which connects the tragedies in the jungle to a tradition of dying and sacrifice going back to antiquity, to Olmec Mayan times. Second, Derek Walcott. He handles imagery with metaphoric zeal. He ties the blood rhythms of thought to a sensuous instruction gleaned from our world. Three other seminal texts have been Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps and Juan Rulfo's Pedro Marano and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.

DHS: You gave your novel the same name as a very famous film about the German occupation of France, why was that?

FDA: That happens to be my second most favorite film ever! The definite article in the title of the film means a lot. The sly mechanisms for defying despotism while it surrounds you, all rooted in art has to be instructive or my whole grain bread and peanut butter breakfast consumed this morning for its goodness is a cruel hoax. I wanted to connect with a former period of despotism in history and prompt the reader to think about children in history and how childhood is constructed and destroyed in turn and made anew by the experience of the arts.

Don't laugh, but my first most favorite film ever happens to be one I got into in my early teens -- Roots, the TV series. Yes! Don't ask me why! Ask me why! Well, Alex Haley's Roots (include the book as well) made me aware of the importance of knowing about black history and the necessity of art for a vital and examined life, and storytelling, character, landscape, emotion, intuition and persuasion as ethical frames for understanding (though puzzlement endures) and improving (though the work is never done) the world (and what a beauty it is) in a short life (and how prized).

DHS: Why do you think, in the end, people were willing to kill themselves and their children when their messianic leader told them to?

FDA: By the time the moment of murder-suicide arrived the people in the commune had experienced a prolonged period of indoctrination and torture (sleep deprivation, starvation and humiliation through public beatings and public shamings). They were at the end of their tether, nerves strung out, exhausted and ripe for manipulation. Add to that their isolation in Guyana's jungle interior from the scrutiny of the outside world and the communards entirely subjected to the maniacal will of Jones. What was left of their will had been systematically eroded by Jones' technique (think of Erving Goffman's Total Institution) of repression to a point of hypnotic obedience (though it must be said that there was resistance by some to the bitter end as proved by the group that escaped by running into the jungle). They were told to drink or be shot, some choice.

DHS: Do you outline your plot before you start writing?

FDA: No. I began this lucky artsy-fartsy life that I now lead way back in my youth when I was a hungry and angry poet (hungry for meaning, angry for justice). As a result, I continue to write from a feel (mostly of terror) and a string of images (that play havoc with my nerves). The feeling is deeply linked to the imagery. Next, I find the people in the picture who might best exemplify that mood and exude the things that I am feeling. In the case of this novel the plight of the children attacked my nerves and left me wanting to replay their probable instances of childhood before their inevitable and painful deaths.

DHS: You are also a poet and playwright. How did poetry and writing for the stage affect writing Children of Paradise?

FDA: Poetry is the art of compression, of distillation; fiction appears to expand like an accordion pulled open limitlessly for a beautiful sequence of sound and meanings. Plays speak through characters on a stage in a suspension of real time for a dramatic carve-up of time as feeling and instruction. I crave instances of articulation in all mediums depending on my mood. I blame my multi-genre body on my experience of three landscapes, my birth and long residence in the UK, my childhood spent in Guyana and the adult realities of settling for life in the US.

DHS: You were teaching at Virginia Tech when a student went on a shooting rampage. What was that like, and how did this lead to you writing about Jonestown?

FDA: April 2007 was a nightmare for me. (I'll count is as such until I die.) I lost a student who was in my Caribbean class. She was shot dead while in her French class. I happened to be on campus that morning. I have always loathed guns due to my residency in the UK where guns are blessedly rare. But after 2007 I am now so very much desirous of a ban on the possession of all firearms by private citizens -- they belong to a primitive remnant of our warlike bodies. And we have a standing army anyway. I worry about the ready availability of personal firearms and the lack of respect for mental illness. It is a serious affliction in need of structural investment by this remarkable country. But what do I know? I think the education budget should be swapped with the defense budget.

DHS: Why do you think "drinking the Kool-Aid" has become part of our everyday vernacular?

FDA: It is a cruel misnomer extrapolated from Jonestown and one of the reasons why I wrote my novel to depict resistance rather than blind obedience to messianic sadism. We apply the term to denote a total surrender to an idea or force. In Jonestown there was resistance to Jones and that is why he needed a remote location and a regime of mental and physical torture that resulted in an erosion of the will of his followers. It seems as if the media has succeeded in its cookie-cutter way of leaving the popular memory with an unimaginative phrase to represent a tragedy. I took pains in my novel to chart the stages of this breakdown of the will of the community and I showed pockets of resistance to Jones as well. The cool aid was just the final act in a play of death, along with bullets, beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation and marathon sessions of Jones's preaching that was recorded and relayed on speakers around the compound, all hours of the day and night. I wish it amounted to more than yet another example from recent history of a failed ecumenical tool.

DHS: After living with this story for so long, what are your final takeaways?

FDA: I quote as an epigraph, 1 Corinthians 13:13 and I stick with that. If I say it, people will hear the Beatles tune, "all you need is love" pah dap-pah, pah bah-dah, because it is so obvious that it precludes speech. But I'll say it anyway for the record. Love (with cooperation) is a stronger (and preferable) force to hate (and competition). The evidence for the latter is technological advancement at a price of a dying planet... some advancement when we've mortally wounded the host of all species.

DHS: What advise do you have for writers?

FDA: First, Oscar Wilde's adage that, 'advice is an excellent thing not to follow but to disregard.' Second, that they should read, read, read and get involved in something other than writing, and write, write, write. The arts of the imagination help us to understand the present and the past, and live coterminously with the planet and everything on it. Doing so should affect in positive ways what the future will be; not doing so merely accelerates our terminal decline. The literate imagination may well be our most powerful asset of our naturally inquisitive bodies and it is free. Go for it!

Fred D'Aguiar is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet. He has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry for Bill of Rights, a narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. Born in London, he was raised in Guyana until the age of twelve, when he returned to the UK. He teaches at Virginia Tech. Children of Paradise is his newest novel.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, including Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.