About The Author
Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She finished her secondary education in Surrey before going to study English and Film Studies. She then took an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
In 2002, she became Centre Director for The Arvon Foundation, a post she held for four years; she has also taught creative writing for English PEN, the Writers' Lab, Skyros and on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, London. She is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund at Greenwich University and a member of the newly formed Caribbean Literature Action Group.
She published her first novel, Sun Dog, in 2002. Set largely in and around a Shepherd's Bush delicatessen, it features August, a pale giant of a man who knowledge about food is matched only by his ignorance about much of the rest of life. Frustrated in love, he finds himself undergoing a strange transformation that might lead to the identity of the father he never knew.
Published in 2009, her second novel, The White Woman in the Green Bicycle, was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Encore Award. George and Sabine Harwood migrate from England to new life in Trinidad. But racial segregation and the rapidly changing political climate mean that the island is not the tropical paradise they had expected. Sabine becomes secretly infatuated by the leader of Trinidad's new national party and her marriage comes under increasing strain over the decades.
This was followed in 2011, by With the Kisses of His Mouth, a provocative and at times sexually explicit memoir that was widely praised for its forthright approach to female sexuality, that followed a relationship, its break-up and odyssey of self-discovery that followed.
Her new novel takes at its starting point the 2008 flooding in Trinidad that destroyed her brother's home. Archipelago follows Gavin Weald, who leaves behind his job and his wife after a flood destroys the family home.
He sets sail on a possibly cursed boat, the Romany, with his six-year-old daughter Océan and their dog Suzy, on a trip across the Caribbean, intending to pass through the Panama Canal and fulfil a long-held dream of reaching the Galapagos Islands.
The journey from island to island brings them into contact with a diverse range of people, most of whom have their own trials to confront.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Monique talks about the feminine qualities of the sea in cultures from Hinduism to Wicca, returning to abandoned dreams and America's cultural invasion of the Caribbean.
Questions & Answers
Gavin observes that he has struggled to cope with being hurt by life in the past. Is the trip principally a cathartic escape from tragedy or does he set out with a goal in mind?
Gavin is a man who only had one plan in life - to live a small good life. It's not a bad plan at all. But the brown wave wipes it out. After the food he decides to return to his original Plan A - i.e. to go back to his home and job. When this clearly isn't going to work, he cracks. But there has been an abandoned dream, an abandoned boat, a life before marriage which he happily swapped. There is another archipelago which once occupied his interests and attention as a younger man, one he never managed to visit in his bachelorhood. So, while Gavin leaves on instinct - there has also been a long-unfulfilled dream lurking within him too. When Gavin leaves Port of Spain, he makes a snap decision - but it is also many other things: a bid to 'buy time', a decision to move sideways and get perspective, also a chance to see the world, show his daughter some of the wonders of the Caribbean. He leaves to instantly get out of the situation he is in - post-traumatic stress. The pressure and fatigue of the home/job plan and incessant rain get the better of him. His decision to flee is desperate, inspired and even necessary. While there is a goal in mind, the Galapagos, to begin with he just needs to sail away, sail West. It's only later that this unspoken goal becomes a more concrete plan and he meets Phoebe. I see his trip as a life-saving voyage, where Gavin gets to bond with nature, his daughter, to integrate his past dreams and to reclaim his adult self. Eventually, Gavin returns home, to the archipelago he left behind, a different man. It is a journey of individuation.
As we discover, there are many potential dangers to a sea voyage such as the one Gavin sets out on. Should we condemn his decision to take his six-year-old daughter, Océan, along as poor parenting?
No, Gavin is an excellent parent. But he is overweight, and his sailing skills are rusty. He does worry, though, that he has put himself out of his depth - and Océan does get injured. But during their voyage Océan's fear of the rain ceases, her trauma and loss declines, she acquires more life experience which takes her away from the trauma of losing her home and mother. She grows and expands, and is healed by the very element she is named after and which terrorised her. I think Gavin takes care of his daughter as well as he can. The safe stay-at-home option wasn't working.
The flood which destroys Gavin's home is largely the result of poor land management by developers. Is this a significant problem in the Caribbean?
Yes. Wealthy businessmen and developers can more or less build what they like where the like. Over the last thirty years Trinidad has been culturally invaded by the USA via the Internet and cable TV. As a result vulgar garish high-rise blocks of upmarket condos are everywhere now, even across the road from my family home and above my brother's house, up on the hill. Planning permission can be bought. I'm not sure there are even laws re planning permission in place.
You undertook your own boat journey, lasting several months, from Trinidad to the Panama Canal. Did this provide much detail for the book or was it of more help in creating atmosphere and mood?
Yes, I travelled extensively, by boat and by plane via the Dutch islands, Columbia, Panama and then to the Galapagos. There was no way I could write about Gavin's journey without making much of the trip myself. I had numerous adventures and accidents along the way. I travelled for ten weeks in all, spaced over five months, between November 2010 and March 2011. I also managed to be in Trinidad for carnival during this time. This book is about a man from the southern Caribbean who takes a trip of a lifetime, a way from home. He sees parts of his own back yard as well as islands which seem a world away, The Galapagos have always floated in his dreams. I needed to see what Gavin would see and so took this trip myself. My real-life trip - now that's another story!
The sea itself is a major character in Archipelago. When Gavin takes aboard Phoebe to help him navigate one of the more treacherous legs of the journey, she observes that men seem to have discrete intimacy with the ocean, offering similar challenges to a relationship with a woman. How would describe the sea's personality?
The sea is unpredictable. To sail well, a sailor must never take it for granted or take his eyes from it for too long, A good sailor responds to the winds, the sea, every shift.. sailing is a highly interactive experience. The sea is moody, majestic and strong. It is muscular and yes it bulges too; it has a womanly voluptuousness. In fact the sea has long been associated with the feminine principal in many cultures. In Greek philosophy and science the element of water was associated with emotion and intuition, in Hindu philosophy, water is associated with Chandra or the moon, and with Shukra, or Venus, who represents feelings, intuition and imagination. In Pagan and Wiccan traditions, water is also considered a feminine energy. In French the sea is gendered, la mer. I felt enormously humbled being sea, and had a keen sense of constant danger. And yet, a small craft can make it across a massive ocean. The sea is immense, bigger than a single person or many, large vessels can go down at sea. I suppose you could say it has a very challenging personality!
The entire Caribbean seems to remain politically and culturally influenced by colonial occupation. Do you think the region can ever fully reassert its own identity?
The Dutch islands are still more or less ruled by the Dutch, the French islands are 'departments' of France, so these islands still feel very attached to their former colonial rulers. But the ex-British islands, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad are very much their own place. Trinidad and Jamaica, for example, are currently celebrating 50 years since their Independence in 1962. This means they have enjoyed fifty years of an independent era, and they have had five decades to map their own progress. This is not a long time. I have been critical of this era in my last novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. But if you visit an island like Trinidad today, yes you will see remnants of its British colonial past, in street names, in its architecture, but you will also visit a nation which has become itself. What Trinidad has always been is a mestizaje society, a fusion society, where the influence of colonisers and economic migrants are intractable. The colonial influence is there, everywhere - and yet Trinidad is so culturally mixed it would be naïve and simplistic to call it an ex-British colony.
Your previous, widely acclaimed novel, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Has that affected the way you feel about your own writing or how you've approached it since?
Yes, I'm now aware that I have a readership. Some of these readers are also academics. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle has had attention from those studying the Caribbean canon and it has been seen as part of a new wave of literature coming from the region. Currently, there is a whole new generation of authors coming of age and writing about the region and they live either in the region or the Diaspora. It has been a hugely affirming experience to make a contribution to this newly emerging contemporary cannon. I recently attended The Bocas Litfest in Trinidad and got to meet many of my peers, writers and poets from Jamaica, Puerto Rica, St Lucia, and elsewhere......we all got to lay eyes on each other. There is a boom in writing coming from the Caribbean region and I'm part of it. It feels like a new era.
You've been a bookseller yourself. Did the conversations you had with customers affect your view of your role as a writer?
My bookselling days now feel a long time ago. But from those days I still remember standing in the literary fiction section and sensing that the actual temperature of the room was cooler - i.e. fewer people were browsing there. Meanwhile, the children's section, cookbooks were always busy. I guess I've always know that to have an aim to write, let alone do well writing literary fiction is a tough ambition. But it has never really put me off. The Orange Prize nomination was a major breakthrough. I cannot understand why Orange recently withdrew their support of such a major prize. Either way, writing literary fiction is a high-risk endeavour. I know every book I write will be hard to sell, it's hard to picture a safe future as a literary novelist.