Interview with Monique Roffey


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Category: Profiles 27 Apr 14


On this the final day of Bocas I interviewed Monique Roffey an award-winning Trinidad-born British writer and memoirist on writing and T&T.

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 ’77. 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 again—there 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.

You’ve 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 “A,” “B” and “C” class. If you got an A in Latin in Oxbridge class you got into the clever class.

I got an A and said “No.” I didn’t 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 didn’t 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.

What’s your bird’s eye view of T&T?

We lost our way. Dr Eric Williams wasn’t 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, Socialist— labels, yes, but with ideals. ANR Robinson’s dying is the end of that era.

Oil money became our great tragedy. There is no more idealism, no more nation-building. It’s all about managing the money. We are a flawed democracy. In a fully active democracy there are active checks and balances on institutions and I’m 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: “Why bother?”

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 didn’t 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. Bocas—a literary Caribbean festival—was spawned out of this.

The Internet opened up the world. Wrongly used, it’s a dangerous tool. It is a power tool—porous, 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. I’ve 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 discipline—and you can’t teach that. Like any practice, it’s a commitment.

It’s not about melodrama. It’s a core system of working. It’s never rocked. If you wake up one day and have cancer, that’s serious. If your boyfriend leaves, that’s minor. The work is the core.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur