On this the final day of Bocas I interviewed Monique Roffey an
award-winning Trinidad-born British writer and memoirist on writing and
Who is Monique Roffey?
My parents were the last wave of immigrants in the colonial era. They
arrived with two suitcases and a green bicycle in 1956, the same month
Eric Williams launched the PNM. Within a year of my parents being
married, my father applied for a job in Trinidad for a four year
contract with Furness and Withy. They stayed 15 years. Left for seven
and returned for good in í77. They had four children including a baby
who died and is buried in the cemetery here. They lived through
Independence, Eric Williams, and Black Power. I remember trips to Mayaro,
Toco. I sat my 11-plus here and was set to go to Bishops, which was my
first choice when I was sent to a convent boarding school in the UK. I
was going back and forth from the UK to Trinidad from the age of 11.
My parents would drop me to Piarco. I would get on a plane. I would shut
down and leave Trinidad behind to a prison-like boarding school. There
was one telephone. We had to queue up to book calls. My parents and I
wrote thousands of letters back and forth in blue aerograms. When I came
back for three weeks for the holiday the world was vibrant againóthere
was no Ariapita Avenue, just the Pelican Inn and JBs and it was home.
And the cycle would continue. I live in England for much of the year.
But this is my home, my family live here, they never left here, my
mother lived here for 70 years. She is very English, and creolised.
Youíve written five books, been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, won
the Bocas prize last year and your new book Days of Ashes loosely based
on the events of 1990 is out soon. What shaped your writing?
I am a writer. I was writing as a child. I was a journalist before a
writer; I won an English prize at 15, the only thing I won before Bocas.
In boarding school in England, by third form they streamed us in ďA,Ē
ďBĒ and ďCĒ class. If you got an A in Latin in Oxbridge class you got
into the clever class.
I got an A and said ďNo.Ē I didnít like the look of the girls in clever
class. They looked about 45. I had a great suspicion about something so
square. Early on, I knew I didnít want that. The generosity of many
people; fellow writers in the UK; a decade-long apprenticeship that
included a PhD, an MA; living with a writer, learning his work ethic;
and running the Arvon centre.
Whatís your birdís eye view of T&T?
We lost our way. Dr Eric Williams wasnít enough. There was just him and
not enough people like him around him with a vision, clear thought,
wanting to build a proper democracy. Politics was once about ideas,
people were Labour, Conservative, Socialistó labels, yes, but with
ideals. ANR Robinsonís dying is the end of that era.
Oil money became our great tragedy. There is no more idealism, no more
nation-building. Itís all about managing the money. We are a flawed
democracy. In a fully active democracy there are active checks and
balances on institutions and Iím not sure we have that. We have hundreds
of NGOs, but not powerful independent lobbies. The press is not so free.
Unions are politically allied. Universities are government-funded. A
lack of critical thinking goes with a lack of democracy.
And as there is no money in the arts here, no support for writers,
painters, thinkers, we are not managing to hold the Government
accountable. Critical thinkers go abroad. Those that stay often think:
What is the new hope for the Caribbean?
Fifteen years ago, the Americans, the New World (of which we are a
part), and not Galileo, invented the Internet. Google didnít come out of
Vienna, but from California. It gave almost every human being on planet
inter-relatedness, information on tap, online publishing, business,
degrees. It was like oxygen to the marooned.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez just died. A great Caribbean man died. Just as
his generation is dying, our generation, people in our 40s, are given
the gift of the digital era. People in their 30s know nothing else.
Bocasóa literary Caribbean festivalówas spawned out of this.
The Internet opened up the world. Wrongly used, itís a dangerous tool.
It is a power toolóporous, crammed with opportunity, lines of
communication, generosity, support, networks, causes; it protects
whistle-blowers, can bring down governments. Look at the Arab Spring.
Soon, totalitarian states will not be able to survive the Internet. Do
you think Abu Bakr would have been able to move about freely from
Mucurapo Road to St Vincent Street in 1990 post-Internet?
What pulls you to Trinidad?
I want to give back. This is my home. There is lots of talent here. Iíve
been running workshops here for four years now; and now there is a
waiting list, people approaching me weekly. The talent is great but
every writer needs an apprenticeship period where you learn the craft
from your peers in a supportive environment. Writing is a disciplineóand
you canít teach that. Like any practice, itís a commitment.
Itís not about melodrama. Itís a core system of working. Itís never
rocked. If you wake up one day and have cancer, thatís serious. If your
boyfriend leaves, thatís minor. The work is the core.