Interview with 2018 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Carol Mitchell

Interview with 2018 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Carol Mitchell

St. Kitts-born Carol Mitchell is a first year MFA student in fiction with a passion for writing about her Caribbean home. She has written twelve books for children and her work for adult audiences has appeared in several journals including, most recently, Poui: The University of the West Indies Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing. In addition to tutoring at the George Mason Writing Center, Carol is a professional editor and works with CaribbeanReads Publishing, which focuses its work on publishing books by authors of the Caribbean. 

What have you been up to?

This summer I traveled to my home country of St. Kitts and to São Paulo, Brazil to conduct interviews with residents of Lebanese descent. My hope is to use the material to create a multi-generational novel focused on the Lebanese diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America.

What do you want to learn by the end of your time abroad?

The migration I’m learning about took place in the first half of the 20th century, long before internet and in some instances before phones. People were choosing to board boats and take 30 day journeys to countries they knew little about and whose language they did not speak, a real leap of faith. I hoped to understand the factors that motivated people to leave their home to step out into the virtual unknown. I also wanted to learn about how they assimilated, how they preserved their identities, and the choices they made to do so.

What drew you to write about the Lebanese diaspora communities in the Caribbean?

One of my close friends is of Lebanese descent and her mother migrated from Lebanon to join her husband, a man 20 years her senior who she barely knew. I’ve been wanting to tell her story for a while and when I learnt that her brother-in-law was alive in São Paulo I thought it was the perfect opportunity to compare the diverse paths the two men (my friend’s father and his brother) took. São Paulo has the largest community of Lebanese living outside of Lebanon, so juxtaposing those two experiences made a lot of sense. As it turned out, São Paulo is a general hotbed for migrants, not just from Lebanon. The city is home to about 60 migrant populations and have the largest Japanese and Italian populations outside of these countries and seem to have absorbed these cultures into the city. One of the things that surprised me the most was that people assumed I was a Paulistano, until I opened my mouth to speak. I had assumed that I would stand out, but because the population in São Paulo is so diverse, it is difficult to identify anyone as being a foreigner.

Have you met anyone on your trip who has helped push your novel towards what you want it to become?

The people of São Paulo were warm, welcoming, open, and courteous. I had many interesting interactions that will definitely shape the final product. One person who stood out was the wife of my main interview subject. She does not speak any English, I do not speak Portuguese, and her husband redirected my attempts to include her in the discussions, but we communicated with gestures and facial expressions and I got a sense of a warm fun-loving character who had experienced many challenges in her life but maintained a sense of humor and a strong sense of self. She embodied the attitude of many of the Lebanese women I met, and helped direct the way of one of my characters is developing in my head.

How has your novel changed or grown since your time abroad?

Oh in so many ways. For example, I traveled intending to research the migration of two brothers. I went in with certain ideas of the conditions they left behind--poverty and persecution--conditions that pushed them away from home. I discovered that for many the pull factor - letters from their immigrant letters promising business opportunities and success - was much more powerful for many. For others, being away from home and familiar scenes was unbearable and they returned to their families and home.

Then I met the wives of the Lebanese men and realised that even more interesting than the men who paved the way out of Lebanon were the women who joined and supported them, often trading in secure family lives in Lebanon for an unknown, but doing so with their eyes wide open. When I interviewed first generation Lebanese from St. Kitts and Brazil they all spoke of the role their mothers played in both the business and their home lives.

I learnt a lot about the way people viewed themselves within the Brazilian community. I expected that they would strive to maintain a separate community, but that did not seem to be the case. One interview subject told me that she never thought of herself as being Lebanese (she was born in Brazil) until she traveled to the US and was identified that way. Areas of the city that were once primarily inhabited by Lebanese community are now populated by diverse groups. And while the men who arrived from Lebanon tended to go home to marry (one interviewee said he wanted a wife who could cook Lebanese food), their Brazilian offspring seem happy to marry into their countrymen's families.

These discoveries have led to more questions, the answers to which will further develop my understanding of the group and strengthen my novel.