MERMAID DREAMING: An interview with Monique Roffey
By Dione Joseph
Speaking from her home in London, Monique Roffey is still coming to terms with the fact that her most recent book has garnered such unprecedented success.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is an experimental work of literary fiction that weaves together multiple points of view that follow a series of events when a young guitar-strumming fisherman catches sight of a black mermaid. Aycayia, however, isn’t just any mermaid, she is a descendant of the Taino people, the Indigenous people of the Caribbean who made their way from the Americas through multiple waves of migrations to the chain of islands known today as the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Unfortunately for Aycayia, she has been cursed by jealous women exiled from the land to swim in the oceans forever.
Set in 1976 in a small coastal Caribbean village, this isn’t your Disney mermaid. Written in Creole, the narrative and its characters reel readers into the bloody history of the Caribbean highlighting the tensions between: the one percent white population who still continue to own much of the land and run the economy, the black population who continue to suffer from the legacies of colonisation, and the American tourists who, not unlike former colonisers, feel they can come, grab and go.
There is love, and hope, and change but also deep reflections around exile, the male gaze, sexual ambiguity and loss.
“I had my big mermaid dream in 2013, and I began writing it in 2016 and it was finished a year later.” says Roffey. “We began selling it late 2017, early 2018 and the reality was nobody wanted to buy it - I was turned down by every big mainstream publisher.”
“Nevertheless, I feel this book has experienced waves of luck,” she says. “For example, I won the Costa in January (2021) and the same day or the one next it was announced that a 100,000 people had died [from COVID-19]. When the book first began its journey out into the world, there weren't a lot of people who would take a punt on a black mermaid, especially pre BLM. It’s this rise and fall, not unlike the waves in the ocean, that have characterised her journey.”
Monique’s inspiration came in 2013 while she was living in Charlotteville, the Northern part of Tobago, a region she describes as “pristine, with no Starbucks or hotels, like the Caribbean used to be 40-50 years ago.” She was working on a different book when an eventful fishing competition.
“I watched the boats coming in and going out and the fish being hung, and looking at the hanging of the big fish, they looked like bodies, lynched bodies. Then there was a storm and a suicide in the village, some young man had hung himself over some terrible love affair that had gone awfully wrong; and some tourists had gone missing on their kayak, and it felt that the place was in the grip of a number of different currents where the supernatural was at large and bad things were happening.”
In the middle of all of this, Roffey had her mermaid dream, a dream that continued to recur for years, compelling her to make sense of the stories unfolding within her. “Soon after I found the Aycayia myth and fragments of the stories, from there characters came, the ideas, the point of view. Initially, I wanted to write it from the perspective of the mermaid but the multiple points of view works for the story.”
Roffey’s delve into mermaid mythology is not new; however, within the deliberate setting of the black mermaid as the epicentre of the novel, it is an unequivocally important shift in the literature on the subject, and even more so as literature from the Caribbean.
Born in 1965 to an Egyptian mother of Italian and Maltese descent and a British father, Roffey’s upbringing in Trinidad was characterised by change. Her parents who had arrived a decade ago in 1956 found themselves at the tail-end of the colonial era.
“My parents arrived when Black Nationalism was on the rise. Eric Williams, who was leading the Trinidad’s Peoples’ National Movement (and who later became our first Prime Minister) was campaigning at the time and it was a world in flux.”
“My mother and father both had very different feelings about the place. My mother felt very conspicuous of being a white woman when white folks were being turned back, while my father who ripped up his passport simply didn’t care. It was into that world of change and movement that I and my brothers were born - and it is a world that I continue to inhabit, between my time in the UK and back home.”
Roffey has written extensively about her experiences of growing up in the Caribbean, including her parent’s experiences (see The White Woman on the Green Bicycle) but The Mermaid of the Black Conch is the first of her books where neither she, nor any members of her family, appear in the story.
“This tiny coastal village is a small place struggling out from under the legacy of such trauma,” she says, “I want people to think about this place, love this place, think about our mermaid Acayia, her connection to her heart-mate, her fisherman lover David; Reggie, the deaf love child between Life, a black man who refuses to live in a home built by slaves, and Arcadia, a white woman, who lives with the legacy of being part of the 1% that devastated the land and its people.”
“I wanted to write something that was rich, but I’m writing into race and gender and I’m conscious of that.”
Her comments are all the more meaningful when considering that the Caribbean canon has for the most part of the last fifty years been dominated by men, including Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and V.S Naipaul. Jean Rhys’ novel The Wide Sea Sargasso, the prequel to Jane Eyre is the one obvious exception, except for the fact that her ‘mad white woman’ trope does little for the Creole woman, especially the modern Creole woman.
“I love that book [The Wide Sea Sargasso] but I’m done with mad women, mad women are suffering from trauma, and we need to start talking about that. Rhys’ character, Antoinette Cosway is a Freudian hysteric who has lost her mind. But why?”
“There’s this notion that Kenneth Ramchand explains in The West Indian Novel and its Background where he talks about the white consciousness in the region as a ‘terrified consciousness’. It’s an important concept because that notion of being ready to be killed because your ancestors were white supremacists and responsible for great carnage is exactly what leads people to live in their houses on the hills, behind high walls, with dogs and sleeping with a handgun under their pillow - just like Arcadia Rain in the novel.”
The experimental nature of the novel, according to some reviewers and judges of the book, is that it blends contemporary Caribbean life with magic realism or as Roffey puts it, the opportunity to bring mermaid mythology into the novel.
“There is a mermaid in every ocean, every culture, and in many rivers, she is just eponymous, and one of the oldest stories comes from Syria and it’s 3000 years old,” says Roffey.
“She is a pre-Christian icon of female entrapment, female sexual ambiguity, often cursed, often blamed, and she is often sacrificed. Mami Wata is a huge deity in Benin and Togo, and the Mami Wata myths also include the idea that she plunges people down into the depths, and if she decides to release them they are healed and they have supernatural gifts. These stories are all over the place and I find it fascinating that Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean have these stories - and not just in our oral narratives but in our visual arts too.”
In her book, Roffey’s mermaid emerges from the water to become a woman, she was half-fish, half-woman and then through a period of transformation becomes almost woman, only to tragically return to her mermaid form. But the emphasis Roffey makes is the amphibious nature of the mermaid: “You never see a mermaid with a t-shirt on. As the spanish say, you can’t eat them and you can’t fuck them. They are deeply symbolic of power, sexuality, invariably succumbent to the male gaze, their sexuality is sealed up and I wanted Aycayia to have that opportunity to live to the fullest extent in her short time on the land.”
Modernising the Aycayia myth and firmly locating her as a descendant of the Taino people, those who populated and re-populated the islands of the Caribbean also asserts the need to face firmly the large scale massacre that the Indigenous people faced at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors.
“Taino had chiefs and chieftains, kingdoms that were organised and peaceful, and the Spanish came and decimated the population - they boiled them alive, raped and pillaged, and those whom they didn’t kill were forced into unpaid labour in mines. We know this through an account left by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar and pro-Indian and religious activist who was horrified at the injustice and wrote a witness testimony that informs us today. “
“This is the first wave of our trauma, our first people were genocided, and it’s a terrible first contact story, but I fear it’s not an unfamiliar one.”
Bringing together these three different strands, the tensions between race and gender, the history of the Caribbean's first people and the mermaid mythology has created a novel that is ready to explore and embrace complexity and nuance - and it’s exactly the direction in which Roffey hopes Caribbean literature will continue to evolve.
“We have so many fabulous writers from our region, writer who are Black, Indo-caribbean, Irish- Caribbean, writers who are queer, writers who are heterosexual. The so-called golden era dominated by male writers and their increasingly acknowledged toxic masculinity is slowly giving way to a massive crop of women who are populating the cannon with a collection of voices coming from very different backgrounds. Just some of my favourite authors are Loretta Collins Klobah, Shivanee Ramlochan, Canisia Lubrin, Amanda Smith, Diana McCauley and so many more,” she says.
The Caribbean, which often gets glorified as an idyllic holiday hotspot with swaying palm trees and sparkling blue waters is, like Aotearoa, also a land steeped in trauma. The systematic genocide of its first peoples, the enslavement of Africans and the waves of neo-colonialism that have battered its shores have created a complex and complicated society with layers upon layers to unravel. It is still a land recovering from the onslaught of injustice, and the next wave of writers, Roffey included, are committed to unpacking the complexities of living on the islands.
She says, “People don’t often want to talk about these issues when we discuss the Caribbean but there is trauma in the lineage and that continues to manifest, there is a level of fear and torture and healing that collective consciousness is one way to help us move forward as a whole.”
The distinctiveness of The Mermaid of the Black Conch, as it joins the literary canon of works coming from the Caribbean is that it is both different but familiar, especially to those of us living in Aotearoa. From the saltwater people of the caribbean islands to the saltwater people of Aotearoa there is much to learn, love and live through as a result of these powerful narratives.
Monique will be joining Irish actor and memoirist Gabriel Byrne, and Melbourne-based Māori crime writer JP Pomare, in conversation with Paula Morris in an Auckland Writers Festival livestream event on Sunday 16 May 9.30-10.30am at the Aotea Centre in Auckland. Tickets from $12.50 available from Ticketmaster.
Dione Joseph is a writer, director and dramaturge. She has an academic and practical background in live performance and her work has an emphasis on culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Over the past ten years Dione has directed a range of productions including new dramas by contemporary writers, classics and their adaptations, experimental works, musicals, comedies and community-based theatre productions in the USA, New Zealand and Australia. She has also been active as a stage critic for both theatre and dance and has engaged with a variety of topical issues as an arts journalist.
In the past Dione has been a senior theatre critic at Australian Stage, arts editor at Melbourne City Newspaper and features writer at Aussie Theatre. Currently based in Aotearoa New Zealand, Dione writes for The Big Idea, and DANZ (Dance Aotearoa NZ) and her reviews can be found on Theatreview, Metro, the New Zealand Herald and Radio NZ.
Written by Dione Joseph. All interview remains the copyright of Black Creatives Aotearoa and may not be republished without permission.