The bestselling, crowdfunded novelist changing the face of Caribbean literature

Anderson Tepper interviews Trinidadian author Monique Roffey and discusses her latest novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch. Read the full article at the Los Angeles Times.

Monique Roffey is one of the Caribbean’s most versatile authors, whose novels, including “Archipelago” and “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle,” range dramatically in style and subject. But the Trinidad-born author, 57, surprised even herself with her latest, “The Mermaid of Black Conch.” It came to her in a rush, she says, inspired by the legend of Aycayia, or “Sweet Voice” — an Indigenous Caribbean woman cast off her island centuries ago and condemned to exile as a mermaid.

In Roffey’s version, Aycayia is captured by American tourists in 1976 before being rescued by a Black Conch fisherman named David Baptiste. With David’s help, she gradually learns to walk and talk, to become human again — shedding her scales and tail — and even to fall in love. But there will still be “haters,” and her curse follows her on land too.

“The Mermaid of Black Conch” was a grass-roots publishing phenomenon: Published by a tiny, independent press on a shoestring budget just as the pandemic hit, it went on to win the U.K.’s 2020 Costa Book of the Year prize. Yet it’s no fluke; it joins an impressive wave of recent books by Trinidadian women writers, including Ingrid Persaud’s “Love After Love” and Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s “When We Were Birds,” which are helping redefine a literature once dominated by noisy men.

Roffey’s novel explores the complexities of Caribbean identity — Black, white, “red-brown” and shades in between — from various perspectives, including David’s journal decades later and Aycayia’s own haunting voice. “They could just hear Aycayia singing,” Roffey writes, “a sound like Africa, like the Andes, like old Creole hymnals, like shamanic icaros from a time when people healed themselves with simple herbal wisdom, when they understood all the kingdoms of the earth.” Over email, Roffey discussed the book’s magical journey, subverting mermaid tropes and the evolution of Caribbean writing.

How is “The Mermaid of Black Conch” different from your other books?

My books usually take lots of time and research before I write a word. With “The Mermaid of Black Conch,” while I did do some experimenting with voice and point of view, the story just fell out quite quickly. I’d been visiting a couple of secluded coastal spots for several years. Both these places — Grande Riviere, in the north of Trinidad, and Charlotteville, Tobago — were very alive for me. There was a mermaid dream, also, during a fishing competition in Charlotteville in 2013. Years after this dream, I began to write what is now “Black Conch.” So this book really emerged from places of my unconscious. It was an easy birth.

Yet its path to success wasn’t so easy. It was published by the legendary Peepal Tree Press as the pandemic hit.

First, I launched a Crowdfunder in September 2019 to pay for a publicity team to help the book get noticed. The Bookseller carried a story, as it’s very rare for a writer to do something like that. However, the first wave of COVID-19 hit the month the book was published. So it sank, initially, without a trace. Later, Caribbean bookstagrammers began to rave. Then it appeared on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. The rest is history. Judges who understood the nuances of a postcolonial space liked it. I think this is a lucky book. It’s had its own will and intentions. Having been rejected by every mainstream publisher in the U.K., it was on its own path. [. . .]

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