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.
6. What are your earliest memories of Trinidad?
A jellyfish invasion at Toco: I thought the jellyfish were bubbles and sat on a bamboo pole covered in them and was badly stung. Seeing a little Indian girl displaying a man-o-war jellyfish on her arm. Going to Maarcas with my mother when it was deserted. Iguanas racing across the rough grass. The housekeepers and their bush medicine. All of which is in the novel.
7. There is often a sense in Trinidad of parents hurriedly packing their children off to a ‘first-world’ country, the US or England. Did your parents do that with you? Was there always a plan to educate you abroad? And if so, did you resent being sent away?
Yes, there was always this plan to be sent away to boarding school in England, it was somehow supposed to be civilising. I hated it and was desperately homesick for at least six months. I was always far too lively and talkative – outgoing as Trinis are. I had to learn to tone down my act.
9. I used to dread leaving after the summer holidays – the awful drive to Piarco Airport, the sobbing at the security gate, and, finally, the acceleration on the runway and take off - when it was too late to turn back! Was leaving always a traumatic experience for you, too?
Yes, I felt the same way – years of trips to Piarco, my mother sobbing, me feeling wretched, having to adjust to my English friends who all seemed so ‘nice’ and English. I would bring them tamarind balls and salt prunes from Trinidad.
10. Do you think having a home in Trinidad and Britain, two such different islands, made you feel rootless? Where did you feel you truly belonged?
I have two passports and see this as a strength. My family home and place of birth is Trinidad. But I work and live in England. My father was English and so am I. I like both countries a lot and feel blessed I can move easily between the two.
11. Jean Rhys said, “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” When you were growing up, did you experience reading in that way? Do you feel that your desire to write came from feeling a bit like an outsider?
I was a dreamy kid who grew up on Nancy Drew, Willard Price boys’ adventure books, Mad magazine and Phantom comic books. The dreamy magical child has grown up to become the adult writer.
12. It took a little while for WWOGB to get the attention it deserved. How did the Orange short list nomination change things for you as a writer?
Some more cash is coming my way, which will buy me the time I need to write the next book. The affirmation has made me feel a gentle surge of strength.
13. When we first met, I remember the two of us talking about how difficult it is for our families to understand the writer’s life. Trinidad society is mostly very conventional, and unless you are married with children you are seen as a bit of an odd fish. Now that WWOGB has been so successful, how have people reacted? How has Trinidad responded to the novel?
Thankfully, Trinidadians and Trinidad’s literary press have liked this book. I was very rude about Patrick Manning, Trinidad’s ex PM, and everyone liked this a lot. In some ways my novel is the literary heir to Earl Lovelace’s novel, Salt, which inspired me so much I pushed the boat out a little further. I named names.
14. What are you working on right now?
I am finishing a memoir and in the late autumn will head back out to Trinidad to start another novel.