An interview with Leo Robson for The New Statesman.
The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novelist on her sixth novel The Mermaid of Black Conch, the power of myths and why there are no rules in literature.
The novelist Monique Roffey was born in Trinidad and educated both there and in the UK. Her distinctive body of work explore themes of colonialism and decolonisation through mythography and magic realism, starting with Sun Dog in 2002. Also known as a creative-writing teacher, Roffey is a former centre director of the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon – a setting and milieu that provided the backdrop for her memoir, With the Kisses of his Mouth (2011). She is currently a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and established the St James Writers’ Room in Port of Spain. Her second novel, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009), appeared on the shortlists for both the Orange Prize and the Encore Award (for best second novel). Its successor, Archipelago (2012), received the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; House of Ashes (2014) appeared on the shortlist for the Costa Book Awards.
Her sixth novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, is set on a fictional Caribbean island and concerns Aycayia, a beautiful mermaid, the victim of an ancient curse who is pulled from the sea by an American father and son during a fishing competition, and her relationship with David, the local fisherman who rescues and shelters her. This is Roffey’s first appearance on the shortlist for the Goldsmiths Prize.
Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?
To encourage writers to be themselves and to resist mainstream concerns from publishers. Readers come in all forms, and there’s a massive readership out there for original, experimental, sometimes genre-defying work. Many of the world’s most famous literary writers – think Salman Rushdie, William Golding, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys – flout conventional narrative forms. Rhys even dares “write back” to an established canonical work. These writers have made up their own thing. I always knew, from the get-go, that the job of a writer is to think and be independent. We are bearers of culture and it’s our job to write how we wish, not how others think we need to write. General rule of thumb: there are no rules.
Were you conscious of the need to escape certain kinds of narrative, to use a variety of literary techniques in order to tell this story?
No, I’ve written three other novels where form is broken up in order to make a complex and composite whole. Breaking up form is something I err towards, generally. One of my novels, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, also uses multiple points of view, and then I actually chopped it in half and stuck it back together end to end so there are two endings. What works less well for me is an A-Z plot that follows one character, one point of view, one story from beginning to end. I’ve also written books like this, but a lot needs to happen. I favour a more fragmented, montage approach to fiction; I’ve learnt from writers like Ondaatje and Le Guin, who are great experimenters and world-builders. A non-linear plot, a pastiche of voices and possibilities, feels closer to how I experience my life. For me, life is made up of numerous influential voices and ideas: Buddhist dharma; the Caribbean lexicon; the tarot; text-speak; the secular world of London; the East End and its mosques and multiple immigrant histories, a part of London with its own vernacular… My life feels utterly fluid and diverse and yet works as a whole. So, everyday life shows me a non-linear from and that it’s utterly viable to compile a novel in the same way, to reflect this. Many writers have done this, not just me. The enemy of any story, in my view, is the episodic: this happened and then that happened, etc. A “picaresque plot” is, for me, like being driven into a bad dream.
Do you feel that forms of fantasy, myth or magical realism are unusually well-suited to stories about oppression?
Yes, mostly because old myths are from an ancient and overtly patriarchal worldview; they need a good feminist rewrite.
One of the most striking elements of the book is how the events it describes have themselves become the stuff of history, or myth. Could you talk a little about the decision to set the book in 1976 and to offer excerpts from David’s journal?
The events in the book are fact and fiction merged. The island of Black Conch is fictional but an amalgam of rural/coastal parts of Trinidad and Tobago I know. The island itself, the annual fishing competition, the benevolent white landowner – all taken from what I know. The era of the 1970s, in the Caribbean, was a time of revolution and nation-building; it was a time of independence from the colonial powers, a time of Black Power and radical leaders. I wanted the story to be set against this backdrop. I wanted it to be a modern story, [but] not so modern as 2020, when a mermaid would have been filmed on an iPhone and then gone viral. In order to pull this story off, she needed the cover of the pre-digital age. The 1970s in the Caribbean was an exciting time; Bob Marley was in his heyday, there was Black Power, Stokely Carmichael, the NUFF [National Union of Freedom Fighters], Eric Williams and CLR James.
You have acknowledged the influence of Neruda’s poem “Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks” and of work by Márquez and Hemingway. What role did these play in the evolution of the novel, and were there any other pieces of art, literature or music that were important in the writing?
I always loved Neruda’s poem, and indeed it is a microcosm of the Taino legend of Aycayia that this novel is based on. It writes of male violence and contempt for a woman, one who is very unusual and innocent. In my novel, an American man stubs out his cigarette on Aycayia’s stomach and then urinates on her and then tries to copulate with her, seeing her as some kind of freak as she hangs lynched on the jetty. I admit this is directly stolen from/inspired by Neruda’s poem. Hemingway’s marlin catch scene spans chapters in Islands in the Stream. I know nothing of big game fishing and so he was my go-to authority. Books are made up of other books. In the Caribbean, we have numerous mermaid legends and dozens of fine artists have painted mermaids, most notably Canute Caliste from Carriacou. In the Caribbean, and the Americas, the mermaid is very much part of our lore, folk art, fine art and story-telling.
The mermaid, Aycayia, suffers a wide range of oppressions. Was the idea of a figure who brings out all kinds of suspicion and strong negative feelings in others crucial to the inception of her character?
This is a book based on a legend, about a woman who is cursed by other women to live out the rest of her life as half-human. Her youth, beauty and talent are all irksome and so she is punished and banished. A lot of my novel comes from the skeleton plot and injustice of this original story. Also, the mermaid per se isn’t my invention. She is an eponymous global myth risen from our collective unconscious, and she swims in almost every river on earth and certainly every sea. Any mermaid is ambiguous, inherently diverse, original and complicated. As a character, Aycayia does lots of work for me, as she is already so embedded in the collective psyche. We know who she is. I don’t have to write anything too didactic or polemical. The conflict is all there; her history is one we all know. She is entrapped. Old myths, globally, are full of half-human creatures; they breach the divide of the human and animal, and symbolise humans as very close to the natural word. Modern humanity thinks we are above the natural world but we are not; we are part of it. The mermaid in my book also has a shamanic consciousness; she relates to and reads the natural world implicitly. She represents a time when human consciousness was more in sync with nature. The mermaid here is a character who does an awful lot of work for me, without me having to write a word. We understand her tragedy. She’s an outcast and the quintessential outsider.
Were you ever tempted not just to expand the novel form but to abandon it altogether?
This novel is what this is, how it came out. It’s a long-form, book-length novel. This book was never an epic poem or a memoir or creative nonfiction or anything else. It mixes forms, but even so, it’s a novel.
What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? And why?
The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton, published in 2018, was a stunning novel about climate change, written in three time frames, evolving a language of its own spoken by future feral people. Kitch, in 2018, a novel by Anthony Joseph, also deserved to be on this list; a totally stunning piece of work which flips form – riding a fine line between non-fiction and fiction – is very musical and also non-linear. Girl, Woman, Otheris also radical and experimental in composition and language. I see Bernardine Evaristo as a deeply experimental writer, in all her books. Everything she does is radical and challenges mainstream ideas about what the novel should look like.