How a Mermaid Changed Monique Roffey’s Life

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Monique Roffey tackles the region’s colonial history, environmental issues and misogyny in The Mermaid of Black Conch. – SUREASH CHOLAI

Most people can’t say a mermaid changed their life, but writer Monique Roffey certainly can.

Released around the start of the pandemic, Roffey’s sixth novel, The Mermaid of the Black Conch, came out of nowhere to win the 2020 Costa Book of the Year award.

Then there was no way to catch the mermaid.

Suzannah Lipscomb, the historian and broadcaster who presided over the Costa Prize judges, said Roffey’s novel was “utterly original – unlike anything we’ve ever read – and feels like a classic in the making. a writer at the height of his powers.”

Roffey, 55, had been writing for 20 years before his siren captured international attention. She first imagined the mermaid during a trip to Charlotteville, Tobago in 2014. After seeing a marlin caught in a fishing contest and hanging over a pier, Roffey dreamed of a mermaid drawn from the sea.

This dream made this novel different from all the others.

“It’s different from dreaming up a story,” Roffey said. “If your novel is deeply rooted in the unconscious, it lodges there.”

Later, Roffey learned the Taino legend of the seductive mermaid Aycayia with a soft voice. The dream and the myth converge in the imagination of the author.

The Black Conch Mermaid was named Costa Book of the Year in 2020. – SUREASH CHOLAI

In 2016, Roffey started writing the mermaid story. Set in 1976, in the small village of St Constance on the fictional Black Conch Island, the love story between a fisherman and a mermaid symbolizes the region’s colonial history, tackles environmental issues, exposes prejudice , jealousy and misogyny, but the romance never got bogged down. down by its multi-layered and deep meaning.

When mainstream publishers turned down Mermaid, Roffey found her a home with the small independent Peepal Tree Press, which focuses on Caribbean literature.

This mermaid, conceived in a dream, would not be abandoned.

In 2019, Roffey turned to crowdfunding to raise money for the book’s advertising campaign. The siren took an unexpected turn. When he won the Costa Prize, he started breaking down barriers. The mermaid’s love story has resonated with international readers.

“I think when you work with a legend, you prick that nerve of the collective unconscious,” Roffey said.

Still, Roffey wanted to transcend the realm of legends.

“Old stories are flawed, especially if they feature women. They will always talk about female surrender or teaching woman a lesson, or something to do with controlling women.

Roffey had the power to change that narrative.

Her mermaid has been “cursed and exiled and denied her erotic rite of passage in ancient history. I have to change that and give her a love story. She beats the curse. I’m trying to say, ‘OK. Let’s do -take her out of the sea. Give her what was denied her.

Monique Roffey first imagined the mermaid for her story The Black Conch Mermaid during a stay in Charlotteville, Tobago. – SUREASH CHOLAI

It’s easy to attribute the novel’s success to its layered layers of legend and magical realism or its themes of power and independence, but Roffey says, “I won the prize because of my cat, Fancy. It was a lucky charm, and there was a change in consciousness because I converted to Buddhism. After that, things went well for me. I am not flippant. I’m 56, something had to change.

Roffey has been studying Buddhism for four years.

“I am completely converted. I chose my own spiritual path rather than being given my religion. I tend to lift it. People aren’t interested, and I think that’s very fundamental to who I am.

She calls the success of The Mermaid a “miracle” and points out that “people didn’t start reading the book until it won the novel category of the Costa awards.

At the time, she thought, “There are gods moving furniture up there.”

Roffey had been “relieved and delighted” when Peepal Tree agreed to publish the book initially rejected by mainstream publishers.

“It’s a big publisher, but an independent publisher. I knew that the book was reserved for a small readership. I knew Peepal Tree was like the golden stamp of Caribbean literature. I felt happy to be in this kind of stable. Jeremy (Poynting, founder and director of Peepal Tree Press) is extremely good at working with Caribbean literature. I figured if I wasn’t going to get picked up by a mainstream publisher, that’s the best thing to do.

But the mermaid worked her magic.

When it was announced that Black Conch’s Mermaid had won the novel category, Roffey and his publisher estimated that the novel could sell 15,000 copies.

“And that would have been a success.”

But the mermaid continued to cross literary barriers.

Monique Roffey never gave up on her mission to publish Black Conch’s La Sirene. – SUREASH CHOLAI

“It’s like a Cinderella story. It’s like going to the ball,” Roffey said of how the mermaid rose to fame.

“We’ve sold 100,000 copies, and it’s going to be repackaged and launched in the United States,” Roffey said.

Black Conch’s Mermaid now has 13 translations and it’s headed for a movie. Now Roffey has to live with the mermaid’s success.

“You move forward as a writer over the years knowing that success on this scale is unlikely to happen, but you do it anyway, feel the fear and keep going. It’s true of the way most writers operate. They want to write at all costs. I was completely flabbergasted for months by the success of the book,” Roffey said.

“I cried when I won the Costa Prize.”

Roffey does not consider his current success as a reward for writing this one book.

“It’s about holding on for 20 years. My backlist is being reissued, and I have at least a good ten years ahead of me to write.

Financial success gives him the freedom to continue writing and elevates him to a new position of power.

“I can keep writing, and there’s a gift of karma in there as well. I can recycle some of the magic and help other writers.

She is currently judging the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

Some writers are reluctant to be classified as a certain type of writer, but not Roffey. She describes her writing as “magical realist, intersectional feminist, bicultural and binational”.

“I was born in a colonized space with European and colonial parents. I am a Buddhist. It shapes me. I wouldn’t necessarily put the Caribbean writer first, but I would also use the Caribbean to describe myself. is just not the only name tag I would put on myself.

In the canon of Caribbean literature, Roffey said she would place Black Conch’s The Mermaid as “post-modern in composition and feminist. I use a West Indian myth that is not an African myth, and why would I use an African myth I am not African.

Instead, Roffey has shaped a legend that transcends any culture.

“Mermaids are pan-global icons and underdogs. Every ocean has a mermaid; every culture has stories of mermaids.

Roffey enjoys readers’ reactions to his siren.

“It’s amazing when people read you right and have good questions. A lot of people gave me endings that I hadn’t thought of. People said, ‘Have you ever thought about turning David into a mermaid? so they can swim together?’ A lot of people say it doesn’t have a happy ending, but she doesn’t have an unhappy ending.She gets her erotic lovemaking ritual.

In the end, Roffey’s siren challenges the dynamics of traditional male/female relationships.

“It’s a book about a woman who doesn’t know the rules of modern society, so in the love story, David has to make up for it. He can’t give chase. He cannot rule it in the modern way. He could scare her. He realizes that he must wait for her.

Without hesitation, Roffey identifies his favorite scene in the book.

“The scene I’m most proud of is when she goes sexually with David. Writing a scene where a woman has sexual desire for a man is hard to imagine. We’re so conditioned by patriarchy that it’s hard to imagine what a virgin would do if she didn’t know what was wrong and what was right.

“I wanted to give her power and grace. She just has to be herself and move on with her sexual desire. I’m proud of this scene. I just hope it’s a good scene.”

Roffey is 55,000 words into a new novel which she says will “address the subject of femicide in Trinidad”.

Juggling publicity for a bestselling novel while writing a new novel can be daunting, but Roffey, who teaches creative writing classes, says, “I’ve been very lucky. I had a sabbatical from my job to write. I was able to respond to all the press and publicity for the mermaid and still had time to write.

In May, she returns for the first time in 18 months to work part-time teaching a memoir writing course. In September, she returns to teach full-time at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Last month, Roffey returned to Trinidad to visit her mother for the first time since the world was turned upside down by the pandemic. Here, she draws on her Trini roots.

“Being in Trini is important to me. Don’t tell me I’m not a Trini, that would piss me off. I was born in Trinidad and culturally split between here and England. I feel comfortable in the two places.

Like the mermaid she created, Roffey’s world knows no boundaries.


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