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Bocas Lit Fest founder and director, Marina Salandy-Brown

2020 was hardly a year where people would be concerned with a mermaid…or so Monique Roffey thought when she realised that the launch of her latest novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, had fallen smack in the middle of a pandemic. Like the readers of her now-six novels, the Trinidad-born British-based author was in for some magic.

She emerged as the Costa Book of the Year 2020 awardee, one of the UK’s most esteemed prizes which propelled her work into the mainstream. With over 70,000 copies sold, The Mermaid of Black Conch, published by Peepal Tree Press, is also expected to be made into a feature film.

Like Roffey’s previous works, the novel has been translated into other languages, including Japanese, Russian, Dutch and Polish. It was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2020, Rathbones/Folio Award 2021, the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021 and longlisted for the OCM Bocas Award 2021, the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Ondaatje Prize.

As a result of the book’s success, the author kept a healthy schedule of interviews this year. Last Saturday (December 4), Roffey captured the imaginations of the BBC World Service World Book Club listeners when she was featured. Every month, the popular radio programme invites a prominent author to discuss one of his or her books with its 80 million listeners across the globe.

The winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2013, for Archipelago and shortlisted for several literary awards, including the Orange Prize in Literature, 2010—a prestigious UK award for female novelists—for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and the Costa Novel Award in 2014 for House of Ashes, Roffey had often skirted literary fame in her 20-year career. She was happily surprised that especially during a pandemic, people took the time to “understand” or “find” something “in common with” her “complicated” Caribbean novel, her most daring foray into magical realism to date.

From her home in England, she recently explained to Sunday Guardian the impact of copping the Costa award for Mermaid.

“The biggest impact is that the Costa Prize has brought me into mainstream readership. As a literary writer who comes from the Caribbean and writes Creole English and Caribbean English, that is really miraculous. Our stories from the region are really particular, our English is particular and our magical realism is particular, so our work often doesn’t get to reach a wide audience and now this book has and it’s incredible,” Roffey said.

“It’s going to be translated into Japanese. Can you imagine Trini English translated into Japanese and Russian and Dutch…Polish? So for me, it’s been mind-blowing and my protagonist isn’t even human. She’s a mermaid.”

Set in 1976 in a fictional Caribbean village by the sea, The Mermaid of Black Conch combines the mythical with sobering realism. Cursed by jealous wives and left to swim in a lonely sea for centuries, a mermaid, Aycayia, is rescued from the clutches of American tourists by a fisherman, David, and their romance flourishes. Amidst a mixture of malevolent and comical characters in the village, she slowly and secretly begins to transform into a woman again, but transformation has its pains.

The idea for the novel was sparked in 2013 after Roffey witnessed a fishing competition in Charlotteville and dreamt that a mermaid had been caught. Three years later, she started writing the novel.

Born to a British father and a mother of mixed-Mediterranean ancestry who came to Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s, and having been immersed in the cultures of T&T and Britain, where she received her education after primary school, Roffey describes herself as “bicultural.” She reflects this bicultural identity in her writing.

“Like many diaspora writers who come and go, you can come to Trinidad or any other island, but you never really leave. Trinidad just doesn’t suddenly disappear. All my writer friends from Trinidad, we don’t feel we could not write about Trinidad or stop writing about Trinidad because it is such an exciting place to write about, to come from, to be part of, to make sense of. It does give a writer like me a double lens. You see the world from Trinidad and then Trinidad from the world,” she shared.

As a child, Roffey recalled spending many a day dreaming of becoming a ballerina at her parents’ home in Port-of-Spain.

“That has always stayed with me; I would still like to be a ballerina. I took dance lessons as a child and I wanted to be a professional dancer.”

With her father Alan Roffey, a columnist for the Trinidad Guardian and her family, in general, a group of avid readers, her other passions­—reading books and writing—would prevail.

“I’ve always been a reader. We didn’t have television when I was a child, so I used to read. My father used to read. I come from a family of readers. I grew up in a house full of books. If you’re exposed to literature very early on, I think that makes a difference with people who write,” she said.

An award at school would validate Roffey as a writer and become one of her most cherished accomplishments.

“I won the English prize at school. I was at a school where classes were streamed and the clever girls always won all the prizes. Then one year I won a prize and it was the only time someone who wasn’t in the clever girls’ class won. I absolutely adored Literature while I was at school,” she beamed.

As a senior lecturer in Creative Writing (MFA) at Manchester Metropolitan University, Roffey brings her Caribbean influence to her students.

“When you have knowledge of writing from a post-colonial space, that impacts on the students who possibly have no understanding of the ex-colonised world and so it does give me the opportunity to bring that awareness more into focus.

“Our colonial history in this country (UK) is not really taught, so young people grow up not really understanding. Whenever I mention that I’m from Trinidad, all people have to say is how beautiful Trinidad must be and what kind of paradise it is. Frankly, it’s very naive isn’t it?”

Roffey has been heavily involved in literary organisations in the UK and T&T. With a long track record of being an activist—she has worked for Amnesty International and is a co-founder of the environmental group Writers Rebel under the umbrella of Extinction Rebellion. Roffey has also lent her voice to the plight of emerging Caribbean writers. Promising young writers like Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Hadassah K.Williams and Alake Pilgrim have benefited from her tutelage.

She holds a deep attachment to T&T’s Bocas Lit Fest, where founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown has been “a friend and mentor” to her. Roffey was recently featured on the NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s seasonal weekly Bios & Bookmarks interview series currently accessible on their website at www.bocaslitfest.com.

“I would do anything for Bocas. I feel Bocas is one of the best things that’s come along in Caribbean literature in my lifetime and it impacted on my career.”

As a writer and particularly as a female writer, Roffey said she has learnt resilience. Despite the tough times, “something always comes along and changes the energy. You just keep going.”

And Roffey’s advice to anyone nurturing a writing talent?

“You’ve got to get yourself to a writing group and get in contact with the Bocas Literary Festival if you’re a Trini. Start networking and find yourself friends who are also emerging because there’s a lot to learn and you might as well do it in the company of people who are also trying,” she said.

Separated from family by the pandemic like many others, she is eager to reconnect in person next month with her mother and brother who live in Maraval. In the meantime, the famous author is content to work on her next offering, a novel entitled The Harrowing.