Amused, this morning, to see my reference to the Sugar Sammy of Literature has made the headlines.
Q & A with novelist Phillip Ernest, part I
Phillip Ernest lives in Bengaluru, India, but was in New Liskeard, Ontario, last fall when he and I had this email exchange, which we are publishing now in the lead-up to the publication of his first novel, The Vetala, which must surely be the only Sanskrit vampire novel in Canadian literature.
November 4 - 19, 2017
Linda Leith: You were born in New Liskeard, Ontario. Is that where your family is from?
Phillip Ernest: In fact, I was born in Santa Rosa, California, but I never mention that because it isn't really real: immediately after I was born, in 1970, my father got a job teaching Latin and French in the high school in Atikokan, a mining town of six hundred in northwestern Ontario, and so we immigrated to Canada two months after I was born. My first memories, naturally, are from Atikokan, and so I generally call Atikokan my birthplace, since really it is where my life began. We moved to New Liskeard in 1974, when my father got a job teaching the same subjects at the New Liskeard Secondary School. I lived there until I left home at fifteen, and the family home is there to this day. I've been deeply and subtly shaped by my father's Americanness and my mother's Britishness, but I am as Canadian as any Canadian-born child of immigrants. Proudly Canadian: the pride has grown over years of exile, exile often being the condition in which you come to appreciate your homeland for the first time.
LL: What were your parents’ jobs there?
PE: My father initially taught Latin and French at the high school, and when Latin was cancelled not long after we arrived, only French. (New Liskeard is very near to the Quebec border - Quebec is visible across Lake Temiskaming - and the town is more than half Francophone.) When my sister (three years my junior) was old enough to begin preschool, my mother opened and ran a preschool (perhaps the region’s first) in the neighbouring town of Haileybury.
LL: Do you think your father’s knowledge of Latin had an influence on you?
PE: Not at the time, but perhaps a latent interest was planted in me by my occasional idle perusal of his old Latin books as a child. Our household was not especially literate: my parents' main cultural interests, at that point, were music, theatre, photography, and my father would no longer have had time for Latin, even if he had wanted to continue reading it for his own pleasure. And school was just prison and misery for me: outrageously, I never did learn French, not at school, not from my father, not from my Francophone best friend who lived next door. But when I met my non-guru Jiva Das in Toronto at sixteen, I soon became fascinated by the Sanskrit he knew, then by the idea of similar ancient literary languages, Greek, Latin, Chinese and Japanese. At nineteen, during my abortive one-year first go at the University of Toronto, I took the introductory Classical Greek course, and aced it, discovering that I had a talent and passion for this kind of language study. Then, in retrospect, I conceived a new respect for my father for his knowledge of Latin, and sometimes felt that there must have been something destined or inherited in my own late-blooming love of ancient literary languages.
LL: Where did you go to school?
PE: At the New Liskeard Public School. During eighth grade, I fell into a profound depression, and after graduating to the high school where my father taught, survived ninth grade until about Christmas, by which time it was obvious that I was no longer capable of schoolwork. Between that time and my flight from home fifteen months later, I was at home, sunk in inner darkness. At nineteen, I had managed to pull myself together sufficiently to undertake the Transitional Year Program at the University of Toronto, an unusual program that was originally intended to benefit First Nations and Black Canadians who had been unable to complete high school because of the problems that plague those communities, but which had later broadened its mandate to include other kinds of socially disadvantaged people. I completed this program, taking Classical Greek as my one full-fledged university course, and although I sank again thereafter, and would not be ready to return to university again until I was thirty, it was to this program that I owed my later, successful academic career.
LL: What was it that troubled you at school?
PE: I just found it boring. I got a little something out of the English-related subjects, and effortlessly did well in them. But nothing that interested me was at school: it was a meaningless bondage to me, a confinement with brutal, uncomprehending teachers and my mostly alien and uninteresting contemporaries. I read constantly throughout childhood, but without intelligence or discipline: comic books, Mad Magazine, a few pages of this or that magazine or book that happened to come to hand, though I was occasionally seized by sudden short-lived bursts of literacy, when I devoured Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea, every available volume of The Three Investigators, and novels by Steven King. This in spite of (well, really, because of) my mother's constant admonitions to read proper books. Significantly, as soon as I left home at fifteen, I began to devour entire books, and to find my way towards serious literature, initially poetry.
LL: And why was it that you left?
PE: We were an unhappy family.
LL: Was there a reason why you headed to Toronto?
PE: Leaving home at fifteen, I realized that I was unprepared for life, and that I would have to somehow survive without money while I figured out how to create some kind of life for myself. I knew very little about the world, but I understood that the only place I would be able to do this was the big city: I vaguely thought that there would be other destitute, homeless people there, and soup kitchens and hostels, and readily available unskilled work. I was right: over the course of about three years, from sixteen to nineteen, I gradually settled into the lifestyle of working poverty - conditioned by reading, periods of writing, and alcoholism - that would sustain me until I was twenty-eight, when a transformative experience turned everything upside-down.
LL: How did you turn your life around in Toronto?
PE: During this long period, my chief consolation was the belief that I would die of alcoholism within a few years. But when I was twenty-eight, I woke up one morning after a particularly desperate and tumultuous binge, and it dawned on me that if the events of the past twenty-four hours had not killed me, then the habits of the last seven years were not likely to kill me anytime soon, and I was almost certainly doomed, at this rate, to watch myself trace a decades-long path of wasting decline that would make the present moment of my life look like a heaven of possibilities. The shock of realizing that I had no choice but to live forced me to examine the beliefs that were preventing me from engaging with life. I was completely under the sway of the conviction that my mind was so severely stymied by depression, anxiety, and self-hatred that I couldn't come anywhere close to doing justice to the passions that I longed to pursue. I was not reading the books I wanted to read, I was not studying languages, I was not developing my spirituality and worldview, I was not writing, because I felt that I was unworthy to approach these things, that I would desecrate them with my touch. But in the light of this urgent new epiphany, I was able to see clearly for the first time that I was deluded, that I was not as worthless and crippled as I believed. I began to change direction rapidly within the space of a few days. The most important change was my decision to meet my parents and sister again, whom I had been terrified to even see for many years. My decision to return to university soon followed – a decision that I have long considered to be one of the great errors of my life, but as it happened, it was the factor that more than any other removed me from the scene in which I had lived for so long.
LL: Had you been in touch with your family?
PE: Over the years after I left home at fifteen, I had from time to time arranged to have shorter or longer meetings with my family – "arranged", because they were always very premeditated and self-conscious on my part. I didn't really find it that distressing to be with them when I was with them, but the long wake of agitated depression into which these meetings would plunge me afterwards, was intolerable. Again and again I tried to face the fear, but always found myself overwhelmed by the after-effect. At twenty-eight, after the epiphany I've just related, I felt that I had finally managed to reach a new level of self-understanding and self-respect, and that this time I would be able to survive a meeting, and reconcile with them. As before, the meeting shook me, but I had not been wrong: I was now ready to accept and integrate the memory and reality of the shared domestic unhappiness that had been so intolerable to me as a child, and as a not yet sufficiently mature man.
© 2018, Linda Leith
Montreal writer Linda Leith is the owner of LLP and publisher of Salon .ll.