Truths beneath the crust


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Category: Reflections 24 Nov 13

It’s always interesting to watch newly arrived people to our islands. We wonder how long it will take to break them down. They start off edgy, pumping, squealing with delight at our pan and palms, taking in everything.  Then they are deflated. But we have inbuilt armour. Crusts of it. We are ready for the news of the next murder, the traffic, the bad drive, the underpaid steupsing shop girl, the disintegrating WASA pipes, the streets in the rat-infested city.  Yes, we can gyrate on a pole and fornicate with the pavement on a Carnival Tuesday, and sit demurely in a darkened church on Ash Wednesday, but we are not taking off our crusts. We are not telling you what’s in our heart. Perhaps we’ve forgotten.  Enter another sort of inhabitant.

Straddling two continents, two worlds, the writer Monique Roffey. We don’t know what to do with her.  Monique was born here in the 60s. She grew up here, went to school here as a child. She’s run wild on the sand till her hair matted into a sandy tangle of gold. She’s lived seamless days in a house by the sea. She grew up hearing her parents, young migrants from Europe and the Mediterranean in the 60s, speak about us with a sense of marvel.  Her family watched a young country unfurl into independence.  She watched her parents navigate this place. She listened.  Watched. She kept her child’s ear for conversations, intonations, language, rhythm and unconscious subconscious rhyme of our speech. She looked at the landscape through her parents’ eyes of wonder. She touched the rubbery tropical plants through their exploring hands. The senses were magnified as they are for new arrivals.

Monique Roffey’s parents came here as young people from the old world, from Europe. She knew of conversations in French drawing rooms in the 40s because her grandmother lived it and brought it to Port-of-Spain.  She knew what London was like after the war. She knows about Trinidad just after independence because her parents lived it. She has a bird’s-eye view, going back, and now on a wide canvas. She’s not attached to the rhythm of our lives here. She doesn’t have to gyrate or go to cricket or church. She won’t do what anyone expects.  We can’t ignore her because she seems to know something we don’t about us. Her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a story of ex-colonials living in Trinidad, was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her novel Archipelago won the 2013 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.  It was a regional story about floods, small island states, the sea. Now she will come out with a novel about the 1990 attempted coup, which, having read excerpts, I am convinced is Booker Prize material.  “How,” we ask, bristling, “does this white woman with an English accent, who divides her time between Trinidad and Europe, tell us about ourselves and win prizes for it?” I was grappling with this when I signed up for her creative writing workshop in Grande Riviere, where I met other fledgling writers and poets from the Caribbean. She was doing the workshop for free, to give back to Trinidad. She was supporting the initiative taken by Marina Salandy-Brown, who, as founder of the Bocas Lit Fest, Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and cofounder of the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writer’s prize, has almost single-handedly helped advance writers in this region.

Over the next few days, Monique held together workshops where people had their work critiqued by strangers. She spoke freely of her struggles as a writer, her love life (her memoir With the Kisses of his Mouth, about her midlife sexual odyssey, albeit not her best book, was hailed for its “honesty” and “bravery”), and her relationship with the world.  That first evening, to the rhythm of the waves, she picked up baby turtles mid-conversation and took them back tenderly to the sea.  She wore pyjamas to breakfast and lunch and dinner. She told us the obvious—like: nobody pulled out a book from his or her a---s; like: wealth could never buy talent. I saw a generosity in sharing her knowledge that is so rare, it made me want to weep.  She took writing very seriously— she prepared us for a discipline done in isolation over many hours, for months, over years.  Over five days I stopped wearing lipstick. The glasses came on.  It became about finding something, before we could work.  On the last day she gave us an exercise to do. She wanted us to go out on the beach and focus on one object. It could be anything.  We each chose something.  I liked the spreading almond tree.  Others chose the river, shells, a swing and coconut husks. “Look at it,” she was saying, “listen to it—even objects have a sound. Touch it. Smell it.” As we scattered towards the sea, she shouted: “—And lick it.” This resulted in much nervous laughter as we watched one another lick the river and leaves, the sand and shells.  It was an exercise in peeling off the layers, watching veils fly off, seeing into the heart of things. It’s what Monique Roffey does. It’s what she can teach us.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur