Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidadian-born British writer of novels, essays, a memoir and literary journalism. Her latest novel is The Mermaid of Black Conch, (April 2020). Her novels have been translated into five languages and shortlisted for several major awards and, in 2013, Archipelago won the OCM BOCAS Award for Caribbean Literature. Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Boundless magazine, The Independent, Wasafiri, and Caribbean Quarterly. She is a founding member of XRWritersRebel, and an advocate for emerging writers in Trinidad, founding St James Writers Room in 2014. She is currently Lecturer on the MFA/MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a tutor at the Norwich Writers Centre.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is available straight from Peepal Tree Press here: https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/mermaid-black-conch
Tell us how a mermaid became your central character for this book?
Easy, she swam to me in my dreams. I began to dream of her. Then, some years ago, back in 2013, I was in Tobago, for a fishing competition. Big fish were being weighed on the jetty, strung up by their tails. Wahoo, dolphin fish and the like, and it went from there. I made the leap, imaginatively; mermaids are in some way a link between the natural world and the human world.
And a little about the mermaids that you have researched?
Mermaids are pan-global and pan iconic; they exist in every ocean and many rivers. Rivers are also often named after the feminine too, e.g. The Ganges, Mother Ganga. They are a pre-Christian water Goddess. Collectively, we have dreamt them up. The first mermaid ever written about came from Syria, her name was Atagaris. She killed her lover by mistake, so the legend goes. She, a Goddess, and he a mere human, some versions of the legend say that she killed him by the power of her lovemaking. Distraught, she tried to drown herself in a lake, but the other Gods saved her and turned her into a mermaid. Mermaid stories are everywhere. Often they are very sad stories, tales of women cursed and isolated, of women who are ‘bad’, temptresses, luring sailors to their deaths, e.g. Homer’s sirens in The Odyssey. Mermaids in the 21st century have been cutesified by Disney, but the original Hans Christian Anderson story of The Little Mermaid is very dark; she agrees to cut out her tongue and gives her beautiful voice to the sea witch. When she walks, it’s with searing pain. All this she agrees to so she can meet the prince again, who treat her like a pet. Because she cannot talk, she is a kind of mute over compromised innocent, in the real story. In the end, the prince marries someone else. Tragic.
What is your mermaid a symbol of?
Water is often gendered as a feminine principle. We talk of ‘la mere’ for example. Sexual ambiguity and also the sexual objectification of women. They are also the quintessential ‘other’, a chimera, the mermaid is womxn, as a symbol of the outsider, the outcast; often she has been blamed, shamed and exiled. My mermaid is a symbol of otherness, for sure. Aycayia is indigenous, shamanic, and the target of a curse. She has been denied her rite of passage into womanhood, Eros. I decided to give the myth of Aycayia a 21st century feminist update, and let her enjoy and embrace that rite of passage, erotic love.
And how does this compare with more traditional mermaids?
To be honest, my mermaid is of the great pantheon of mermaids, an exile, a woman cursed. She is young, beauteous, talented and her own woman.
How do you personally relate to your mermaid?
Ha, ha. The mermaid c’est moi! I relate to her entirely, as a complex loner, an outsider, of hybrid identity.
Is there a Black Conch island in the Caribbean? I can see there is a Conch island.
Black Conch is another name, from way back, for the island of Tobago, or so I gather. The island I’ve conjured is loosely based on the northern tip of Tobago. Tobago has its own mermen legends, so I’ve fictionalized the island.
You write much of the spoken dialogue in Creole, how was it to do that?
While I speak with an English accent, I’ve always had Trinidadian dialect in my ear. When you know a place well, things like language are part of the knowing. My brother and his family all speak with this dialect, it feels for me like a second language, one I know intrinsically. I do speak it too, now and then.
And there are the wonderful names Nicer Country, Miss Rain and Short Leg, which contrast so tellingly with Nicholas or Thomas. These names tell a de-colonising story in themselves, don’t they?
Yes they do. Nicer Country is someone I’ve met, only briefly. His name speaks of a pastoral postcolonial idyll. Short leg is a fictional name but symptomatic of how nicknames are so common and identifying in small places and how something like a disability is treated very matter-of-factly. Life, the artist and sweetman, also has a name which speaks of independence and freedom. I know a man called Life too. Black Conch is an amalgam of parts of Trinidad and Tobago I know well, rural areas I have lived in on and off over decades.
There are also brilliant words in it – pussy bone, bite-up and many more, did you have a ball with language?
Trinidad’s Creole has its own grammar and lexicon. Words like ‘wajang’ and ‘’mamaguy’ are a well-known part of that lexicon. Pussy-bone I made up. It’s one of the fun things about being a writer, making up words. There’s a blend of forms too, in this book. I wanted the mermaid to have a voice and she speaks in free verse and uses broken English, Creole parlance and some of her own words, like canoa, jiguera, and yabisi. Lots of language thing going on in this book, for sure.
You also give Aycayia give a different voice by giving her a poetic form to speak in?
Yes. Initially, I wanted to write the whole book in the voice of the mermaid, but it wasn’t really do-able. I played around with the mermaid’s voice a lot. I wanted some of her lost lexicon to be part of it, and to capture her partial grasp of her new language, which is a Creole parlance, as well as English from books, e.g. Standard English. The mermaid has earnt American Sign Language too. Basically she speaks in a kind of free verse. No punctuation. My biggest experiment with this book was if I could pull this off.
Did you wrestle with this book or was it easy to birth? Which were the difficult stages?
I dreamt it for a very long time. I did lots of research, as usual. Then it all came quite easily, and fluidly, over about nine months. I wrote most of it in 2016. We sold it in 2018.
There are some horrifically brutal parts of the book and it felt as though you were being political – as in your activism for the earth, for the shamed in society, and for women – through this narrative.
I feel that’s by the by. I’m old fashioned about writing and feel all I really want to tell is a good story. If people want politics they can watch Channel Four news. Of course, the book is deeply political and deeply feminist, but really it’s just part of the weft of the narrative. All I really hope for is that readers fall in love with the characters and get swept along. Politics is for later reflection. When we write with myth and archetypes, we are plugged deeply into the collective unconscious, so much work is done and already there. I don’t have to point out to the reader the ‘mermaid’ is other. We already know this.
The sexuality veers between yearning and idealization to barbaric and shocking, how did you weave this thread?
Sex is part of life and we are all made from sexual coupling. I have been drawn to writing about sex, over time, in all its shadow and light. Many writers leave sex out entirely. In this book I get to give an ancient myth a 21st century update and gift to the mermaid the rite of erotic passage from virgin to lover.
How have your books based in the Caribbean – from White Woman on a Green Bicycle to House of Ashes to The Mermaid of Black Conch – changed your relationship with Trinidad where you were born and where your family still live?
I’ve spent most of the last dozen years or so, going back and forth to Trinidad, living with my mother for large chunks of time. I’ve watched my brother’s kids grow up. I’ve done lots of teaching in Trinidad and mentoring of local writers; I’ve run writing retreats out here too. And yes, four Caribbean books have emerged, too. I think Trinidadians, at first, wanted to know who I am. Trinidad did become a much bigger part of my life in my 40s and early 50s. It’s where my family live and where I was born and schooled and it has always been home. Push, pull. Yes, the book has brought me closer to Trinidad and given me time to know my place in such a complex post-colonial society.
This feels like a love story, which was also a love story for you too, did you fall in love with your mermaid during the writing?
I have never written such an out and out love story. In fact, there are two love stories here. Did I fall in love with the mermaid? For sure. I love her dearly.