Monique Roffey was born in Trinidad and has lived in England and the Middle East. Her latest novel, White Woman on the Green Bicycle was short-listed for the 2010 Orange Prize for fiction.
Amanda Smyth is also Trinidadian. Her first novel, Black Rock, is set in Trinidad & Tobago and was short-listed for the McKitterick Prize. These two writers never met in Trinidad, but both in London, both with novels set in Trinidad in the 1950s being published within a few months of each other, they were bound to meet.
Here, Amanda interviews Monique and the two women share their experiences.
1. White Woman on a Green Bicycle is a very passionate novel, and your huge love for Trinidad shines through to the very end. But the relationship between George and Sabine is not always harmonious, and Trinidad, in some respects, becomes ‘the other woman.’ Was this intentional?
Trinidad is a beautiful island, which, over the centuries, has been objectified again and again. The New World, especially the Caribbean, was founded on crime, on slavery and on piracy. One could even say some kind of continual rape has been committed on the Caribbean: sugar, cocoa, oil – all have been plundered by white men from other countries. Few of the profits have filtered down to the hard-working people of the islands; it’s been “take, take, take!” as Sabine says at one point. Seen this way, Trinidad has a gender. And, of course, the hills around Port of Spain are curvaceous – they look like the voluptuous contours of a woman; a green woman.
3. Trinidad is not like the other Caribbean islands; it is not like Barbados, say, which is very touristic. Trinidad has a very different pulse: it is an industrial country with large reserves of oil, natural gas and agriculture. Do you think people respond to Trinidad in quite an extreme way?
Most tourists want boutique hotels and flat turquoise sea and no interaction whatsoever with local culture, let alone history or politics. Trinidad is the wrong island to come to for those things. I think it’s an amazing place to visit – and maybe yes, you either love it or hate it.
4. For such a tiny island, Trinidad has produced some big literary talent: VS Naipaul, CLR James, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace, Michael Anthony, Lawrence Scott; Derek Walcott wrote some of his best poetry there. And there are many strong writers coming out of Trinidad now: Raymond Ramcharitar, Vahni Capildeo, Anthony Joseph….
And yet, I always feel that Trinidad does not encourage or look after its writers. It seems the only way to succeed is to get published abroad, to leave. Is that your experience?
Trinidad does not look after its cricketers either – where is our cricket school? Anyone who wants to do well, whether it’s in sport or the arts, goes away to try and improve. The trouble is, they often don’t return. The brain drain or talent drain is an ongoing problem, yes. I feel a sense of guilt about this myself and am soon returning for six months. I want to try and keep returning for periods of time so I can feed back, maybe even teach or help nourish local literary talent.
5. Race permeates every aspect of Trinidad life; it’s like a fault line running through the island. How important is it for this story that is a white woman on a green bicycle? How different would the story be if it were someone of Asian or African descent? Asian Woman on a Green Bicycle, or African Woman on a Green Bicycle?
The whiteness of the woman is a point I’m making about the reversal of the gaze between master and slave. Once people of African descent were not allowed to look at or speak to the wives of their white masters – it was punishable by lashes from the whip. Now, it’s pay-back time. Sabine finds it impossible to withstand the gaze of the African people; one man calls her a “lousy white pig”. The look from the person on the street, the black man or woman, is one of mute contempt; and it feels terrible – so much so that Sabine stops riding her bike. White people, especially white women, do not ride their bikes around Port of Spain because of this invisible and latent contempt. Slavery is an old wound that has never healed.