Place, Patois, and a Pinch of Politics: A Conversation with Celeste Mohammed
In her writing, Celeste Mohammed aims to dispel myths about island life and island people, and to highlight points of intersection between Caribbean and North American interests. Her debut novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, set in Trinidad, is newly out from Ig Publishing. As Mohammed describes, these linked stories speak of “community politics, class tensions, the battle of the sexes, and the role of music, song, and dance as a palliative.”
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Mohammed has lived in the United States, Trinidad, Belize, and Barbados and has had the opportunity to observe (and participate in) the Caribbean diaspora from several perspectives. Mohammed’s work has appeared in The New England Review, Litmag, Epiphany, among other places, and she is the recipient of a 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. For the past nineteen years, Mohammed has been a lawyer, but she has been making up stories all her life. In 2016, she left the legal profession and graduated from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts with an MFA in fiction. There, she and I met as fellow students.
I caught up with Mohammed via email and video call to talk about her book and its visceral sense of place, vivid language, and complicated, compelling characters.
The Rumpus: A strong sense of place pervades this novel-in-stories and provides an essential thread cinching them together, so let’s start with the obvious. Is Pleasantview a real place?
Celeste Mohammed: I expect to get that one a lot, so let’s set the record straight. To my knowledge, there is no town in Trinidad and Tobago called “Pleasantview.” Yet there are many towns which may resemble it. In particular, I held the town of Curepe, in northern Trinidad, in mind as I wrote the stories. Curepe has always been a transportation hub or crossroads. I got to know it fairly well when I did my first year at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. I was always impressed by how Curepe Junction evolved as the noisy, squalid center-point of a kind of social quadrant—the university and higher education facilities to the left, seedy barrack-type apartments to the right, the affluent Santa Margarita residential area looming above from the mountains, and bordered to the south by the highway, main road, and bus route to the rest of the country. So, in my mind, Pleasantview is Curepe.
Rumpus: Many characters in Pleasantview were born elsewhere, move to America, or are referred to by ethnicity. How does this geographical and ethnic diversity shape Trinidad and your work?
Mohammed: Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest boast is that we are a melting pot of cultures. A “rainbow country,” as we say. Movement and migration is a major aspect of our history. Like America—and more than most Caribbean islands—Trinidad has been the beneficiary, or some people would say the victim, of international immigration.
First, the Spaniards came. They were welcomed by the native Amerindians, who could not have foreseen the enslavement, disease, and decimation which lay ahead—a fate eerily similar to that of the Native American tribes up North. Then the African slaves came, not immigrants but cargo in the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the New World. Here, too, Trinidad and America share a legacy of shame and displacement. After the French Revolution, French settlers overran the island, then the British came and captured it. Then, they needed more labor for the estates, so they brought indentured workers—Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese. Then, in the early twentieth century, fleeing religious persecution and economic hardship in their homelands, the Arabs came.
Like America, Trinidad is now a society plagued by suspicions, grudges, and hurts among the various ethnic groups. Like America, there are two major political parties, substantially divided along racial lines—a fact illustrated in the story “Ides of March.”
This notion of picking up one’s baggage and moving, seeking a new home, is a central and recurring theme in my work, and in this book. Physical baggage is almost always accompanied by psychological baggage and, in many cases, the traveler fails to realize he’s carrying with him the very thing he intends to flee.
The flip side of immigration is emigration. This is how America and Trinidad are most closely connected. Trinidad is the fifth largest contributor of Caribbean immigrants, I read somewhere. In some cases, yes, the enchantments of North America were worth it. There are many very successful Caribbean immigrant stories. But, more often, as the stories “Six Months” and “Kings of the Earth” show, trying to do the right thing for your family might cost you your family.
There is another category of emigration from Trinidad which has gained international attention in recent times. Per capita, more citizens from Trinidad and Tobago have traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS than any other country in the Western Hemisphere. In essence, the largest ISIS recruitment hub in the Western Hemisphere is only a four and a half hour flight from the US capital. What, in our local socioeconomic conditions, is causing this exodus? Why are Trinis so susceptible to recruitment and radicalization? Why is there so much discontent fomenting among the people of these twin islands? Pleasantview tries to explore this.
Rumpus: How would you compare the rhetorical and observational skills necessary for the practice of law to storytelling skills?
Mohammed: To be a lawyer, you have to practice exactly the same soft skills as an author—listening and sifting through noise in order to determine, What does this person actually want? I also think that logic and a well-structured argument are key features of an engaging story. Every successful narrative advances a point of view or argument and has its own internal emotional logic. My role as the author is to keep the reader gliding along those tracks. A reader may not know the location or setting of my story, they may not be familiar with the lingo, but they intuitively understand emotional logic. As long as I don’t distract from that logic, the reader will keep reading.
Rumpus: During our time at Lesley, you once mentioned that when you first started writing you were reluctant to dive all the way into Trini dialect. Pleasantview’s stories establish voice and place in part through your effective use of patois, which delivers the rhythm and flavor of the language and the land. Could you talk about what finally convinced you to trust the departure from “standard” English?
Mohammed: “Six Months,” my first story ever published, was written partly in Trinidad Creole. When it was accepted for publication, I began to suspect that maybe what I had previously viewed as a barrier to the American literary scene, might actually not be. Then, when that very same story won a 2018 PEN/Dau award, I became very bold. Every story written after that dared to use Creole in a prominent way.
In Trinidad and Tobago, English operates on a sliding scale from the acrolect of the Queen’s English to the basilect of raw Creole. And even then, at the “raw Creole” level, there are variations: the Creole of the chive farmer in the Paramin hills carries a heavy dose of French patois; the Creole of the rice farmer in the Caroni plains is peppered with Caribbean Hindustani words. I decided to push the proverbial envelope in my writing. How “low” could I go? How much work was an American audience willing to put in for a good story? The narrative language of the character Jason in “Kings of the Earth” is probably standard in an urban lower-income setting, while Sunil’s language in “The Dragon’s Mouth” is more Indocentric. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by the publication success of both these stories.
Rumpus: What are some challenges of rendering patois believably? And, can you talk about the difference between authenticity and mimicry in doing so?
Mohammed: I never worry about mimicry. I cannot “mimic” what is already my mother tongue. But, I am concerned about authenticity. Maya Angelou once said, write it “so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” That’s easy to say, except that I am writing for two different groups of people—a local audience and an international audience. How can I make both groups “hear it”?
To reproduce all the distinctive features of Creole (pronunciation, lexicon, and grammar) would risk making the reading experience difficult, if not impossible, for a non-Trinidadian audience. I had to devise an accommodation strategy, so I studied the work of the most successful Trinidadian writer I could think of, Sir V. S. Naipaul. I saw that he focused on specific characteristics of Creole, while generally accommodating in favor of Standard English. I adopted a similar approach. My strategy is to subtly disguise Creole by according it minimal syntactical and grammatical differentiation, thereby maintaining the appearance (and eye-comfort) of Standard English but signaling the need for an accented reinterpretation of the sentence. My focus is always on replicating rhythm, rather than exact imitation.
Rumpus: What made you want to write?
Mohammed: One of the reasons I’ve always wanted to write was because I didn’t see a whole lot of books on the shelf that were being written for people like me. Caribbean literature on the shelves of bookstores in Trinidad was very limited. How many times are we going to talk about slavery? I’m so tired of the same conversation. We can talk about slavery by talking about today. If we talk about today, we are going to end up talking about the past. I was trying to write literary fiction that was accessible, that a person in Trinidad could pick up and read and enjoy for what was on the page, but that would also carry some kind of deeper message.
Next, though, I want to be writing children’s stories. I have a six-year-old, and I feel the need to use whatever platform I have, whatever toe I might have in the door of the American literary scene, for her benefit. She should be able to see herself and her culture represented [in the books she reads].
Rumpus: Which stories in Pleasantview were the most challenging to write? Were there particular characters, situations, craft elements that threw the trickiest obstacles in your way? What did you do to get over them?
Mohammed: “Home” gave me a good cutarse. Probably because I started out viewing it as a “lesbian story,” a story about a protagonist who is an Other. I was anxious to be respectful and not repeat clichés or stereotypes. I didn’t want the characters to be caricatures. So, I wrote quite timidly at first, tiptoeing around the characters. Then, maybe three years after first writing the story, I realized it was not a “lesbian story,” it was a learning-to-love-myself story. There is no Other in such a story—we have all been that person. “Home” also employs Bajan (Barbadian) patois, which is completely different to Trinidad patois, and therefore presented another cause for anxiety. I studied in Barbados for two years and developed an ear for the Bajan twang, but it is not my mother tongue. The dialogue didn’t begin to flow until I had a couple Barbadian friends look at it and comment, and make edits, so I could be sure that the authenticity and respect were there.
Rumpus: A footnote accompanies your story “Santimanitay,” explaining how extempo is a subgenre of calypso, which originated in Trinidad, and how “santimanitay” marks the end of each extempo verse. Could you elaborate on the art form and how it interacts with the way this story works?
Mohammed: Every extempo has the same tempo, the same number of bars, and ends with the singer singing “santimanitay” to signal he’s come to the end of his verse, essentially saying, “I’ve come to the end, I’ve made my point, hopefully I’ve destroyed you lyrically, and it’s your turn to answer me.” Santimanitay derives from the French phrase, “sans humanité,” or without mercy, so it’s like a dare or a challenge or throwing down of the gauntlet.
I would say extempo is closest to the music that might have been made during slavery. There are no written lyrics. You just have people face off. You have whatever instruments are at hand, and a rhythm and a simple melody, which everyone knows. Verses come off the top of their heads. During slavery, that’s how the news of the estate, the gossip of the estate, was relayed, call-and-response style. That’s also the way the slaves would settle scores and even the playing field against their white Massa.
In the story, you notice that some of the characters cope through music, singing, but also humor. In essence that is what a Trinidadian is. Trinidadians deal with bad feelings in not the healthiest ways! Dark humor goes back to slavery. How else do you cope?
Rumpus: Miss Ivy, the main character of “Santimanitay” and a recurring character throughout the book, is eccentric—always wearing her fur coat despite the tropic heat, for example—and a seer. Everyone goes to her for her future telling. The swinging balance between Miss Ivy’s reliability and unreliability amps the tension in the stories she appears in. How does this reliability dilemma contribute to what you want to say about Trinidad?
Mohammed: Around the Caribbean, Trinidadians are in equal measure loved and hated. Some call us Trickidadians. Google it. You’ll find a whole academic article by Hari D. Maharajh on the “smartman syndrome” in Trini culture. Individuals who have the ability to outsmart or hoodwink anyone display the smartman syndrome. I remember another article where Professor Selwyn Cudjoe refers to the smartman as our local hero. His whole point is that in Trinidad the highest thing, the thing most admired, is the ability of somebody to get something for nothing, the ability to pull one over. In Caribbean literature, that syndrome is typically demonstrated by a male.
I wanted to do something different. I wanted to demonstrate that same characteristic through an older woman, and I wanted to make her likable at the same time, because that’s exactly how it is. You actually want to see her succeed in fooling people. Meanwhile, she is acutely aware that she actually cannot see the future. Others are undecided. But as she explains in one of the stories, she also isn’t a conwoman. For her, it’s really about if she can help somebody by lying. I’m taking what has become a stock figure in Trinidadian literature, the smartman, and showing another way that behavior presents itself in life here.
Rumpus: In emails leading up to this interview, we discussed the strange vantage we have as writers, as outsiders looking in, even in places where we belong, because we hold an equal awareness of their contradictory identities. For me, living in the seemingly sweet, small, nostalgic university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, with its relatively recent string of serial rapes and murders of university-aged women and its more recent infamy as an epicenter of the resurgence of white supremacist violence in the US. For you, living in Trinidad, where citizens often rank as the happiest in the world, but also where a culture of violence against women thrives, highlighted recently by a string of murders and disappearances of women. Could you talk about how Trinidad’s contradictions affect your writing?
Mohammed: That question for me right now is almost serendipitous. Today is the funeral of that last girl who was murdered. It’s a complete media circus, and it’s been completely politicized. What does it say about us as a nation that we are now engaging in competitive mourning of these women? It was hurtful to hear people complaining, “Everybody’s mourning this girl because she’s Indian? What happened to the Black girl before her? No one mourned her like this.”
I was speaking to a childhood friend from Trinidad, now living in England, who said, “Men kill women everywhere. What’s the big deal?” My answer to her was, in Trinidad you hear all the gory details of the killing, but ten years will go by and you never hear anything about anyone getting convicted. That’s one difference between Trinidad and other places. It just seems their lives weren’t worth anything. Not even a verdict.
I feel a huge responsibility on me and on my writing because I don’t know of any other Trinidadian fiction writer who’s actually seated in Trinidad, in the belly of the beast. What should I say? Should I do the usual Caribbean song-and-dance tourism bit? Or should I go deeper and mention what it’s really like to live here—not just carry a Trinidadian passport—but live here, day-to-day. I’ve decided that my duty is not to engage in nostalgia or to exoticize but to represent the mood and the ethos of the current time, and the irony of how sun, sea, and sand coexist with dark shadows.
Photograph of Celeste Mohammed by Damian Luk Pat Photography.