24th February 2022
Monique Roffey was in conversation with fellow writer and University of Suffolk Lecturer, Amanda Hodgkinson. Amanda asked about the genesis of The Mermaid of Black Conch, the 2020 Costa Book of the Year. Black Conch is a fictionalised version of Monique’s native Tobago. Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘The Mermaid and the Drunks’ * influenced early scenes in her book. Monique said she had ‘dreamt’ her character ‘into being’ as an immense, powerful physical presence. She referenced the intrepid women portrayed by Egon Schiele who return the gaze of the viewer, without shame or fear.
On the dockside in Tobago, Monique had seen a massive fish hanging on a gallows-like structure and this inspired her story of another ‘fish out of water’, Aycayia, her eponymous mermaid. Monique was reminded of lynchings. She spoke of the cruel, competitive, unfair blood sport of ‘big game’ fishing, using steel rods and harnesses. Monique was reminded of lynchings. She mentioned photographs of Hemingway with his small sons and huge marlin proudly displayed as trophies. She acknowledged too echoes in her novel of familiar, ancient Caribbean myths, particularly the legend of a beautiful young woman being sent away to the sea by her ‘sistren’ because of their sexual jealousy.
Monique wanted to liberate her mermaid through erotic love; to free her sealed sex. Initially her plan was to give Aycayia the only narrative voice but that proved too ambitious and impossibly limiting. She had to ‘kill her darling’ idea and settle for lyrical, rhythmical, fragmented sections for the mermaid, using a smattering of Creole and Taino Indian words. Another protagonist, David, looks back on what happened in 1976. Now an old man, he writes in his 2015/16 journal about his tender affair with Aycayia. The third narrator is an omniscient older woman retrospectively telling the rest of the story, including the relationships of Priscilla and Porthos and Miss Rain and her lover, Life.
Monique spoke warmly about the colour and vibrancy of Tobago: its stunning natural beauty, its dependence on the sea and dramatic weather. She values its music, art and the strong sense of community. As a place of opportunity, the Caribbean attracted ‘pirates, chancers and mavericks’ but she stressed that this is also a ‘traumatised space’ with a complicated heritage. The indigenous people were abused over centuries by ruthless incomers. Monique movingly described another side of Eden, the unearthing of Amerindian remains beneath The Red House, the Tobago seat of power.
* Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks