Monique Roffey: Writing Advice and Recommended Reads
17th Jul 2014
Monique Roffey has written several books including Archipelago (which won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature), The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Orange Prize and Encore Award short-listed), With the Kisses of His Mouth and Sun Dog. She’s right up our street and her new book House of Ashes is out this month! Over to you Monique…
Acquiring the habit of writing
As a toddler I wrote on walls and all over my furniture and as a child I kept diaries. I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t write. It has always come naturally to me.
I took many creative writing classes once I decided to write fiction seriously, including an MA and PhD in Creative Writing, and there was also a period when I was mentored by a writer called Richard Beard, as part of a scheme run by The Jerwood Foundation and the Arvon Foundation.
I also co-directed a centre for The Arvon Foundation, which put me in contact with hundreds of writers and poets over four years. So for the early part of my writing life, I did everything I could to support the practice of writing – for that is what writing is. It needs to become a habitual practice.
This habitual practice needs to be acquired, slowly, over time, so eventually it becomes embedded in any writer’s daily consciousness. Writing then becomes a lifestyle.
Even so, I don’t write every day. Usually writing novels is something I do intensely for six months every two or three years to achieve a first draft; subsequent drafts take less energy but lots of focus too; then there are ‘downtime’ periods. But I do think about writing every day.
One of the biggest influences on my early career was that I lived with a writer for six years. I watched him do it and saw how tough he was. All these things, early on, gave me what I consider to be a kind of core strength or discipline; slowly , slowly, I acquired writerly habits and a writerly disposition.
Reading also cannot be under-estimated – to keep reading is crucial. Recently I have started to practice yoga and like writing it is a slowly acquired practice and requires discipline. Yoga compliments writing – which is so sedentary.
Contributing my papers to a library
Three of my novels are set in Trinidad and the Caribbean region. I was born in Port of Spain, opposite the cricket oval; Trinidad is my home, where my family still live. I have come and gone from Trinidad all my life – and then in my 40s I stayed for months at a time, mostly to write. Now, approaching fifty, I live there for six months of the year and mentor a group of emerging writers.
For the last fifteen years I have been keeping hard copies of my manuscripts. Over the years, it had come to quite a number of boxes. I also kept press cuttings, lots of research materials, old contracts, memorabilia. I happen to be a bit of a hoarder.
So when Alison Donnell, a Carabbeanist at Reading University announced they were looking to archive the papers of up and coming Caribbean writers, it was a timely request. I had all these boxes, and was beginning to wonder about where to store it all. Should I just throw it all away?
She came to see my collection and quickly approached the Alma Jordan Library in Trinidad, home to about 135 collections of papers of Caribbean writers. It’s called the West Indiana Collection – and it houses the papers of many famous men of letters in the Caribbean region.
My papers will be the first collection bought by the university by a Caribbean women writer. The collection goes back to the late 19th century – so that means for about two hundred years only men donated to the university. It is hard to assess why the women writers of the region have not come forward. The bias is a remarkable one and points to a kind of ‘boys club’ in the region.
While there are many women writers in the Caribbean canon, many who are well known, it’s the men, Naipaul, Walcott, Lamming, Selvon, CLR James, Lovelace et al – who have won the big prizes like the Booker, the Nobel and the Commonwealth.
In the past it’s the Caribbean’s male writers who have won the world’s attention. However, there has been a sea change in recent years. Just like every other part of the world, there are now more women writing in the region and from the Diaspora. A legion of new voices have come forward; I’m just one of them.
The New Wave of Caribbean Writing
There is a new canon of literature coming out of the Caribbean region; a second generation has now emerged. Of course this would happen; the first generation of writers are now in their late 70s. Today the region’s literary scene is like an ocean of jumping fish, lively and full of energy. I am part of this New Wave.
The New Wave is much more diverse. More women are writing and more people from different backgrounds are writing. For example, we are now hearing from Chinese-Jamaican writes, such as Kerry Young author of Pao, and also from white writers in the region and in Diaspora, such as Amanda Smyth (Black Rock, A Kind of Eden) and Hannah Lowe (Chick) and Diana McCaulay (Dog-Heart).
Loretta Collins-Klobah, originally from the USA, has lived in Puerto Rica for decades and is a fine poet, also short-listed for the Forward Prize (The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman). Vahni Capildeo (Utter, Dark & Unaccustomed Words), a relation to Naipaul is also a stunningly original new female voice and poet.
The regions new writers are not only well known in the region, but making a name for themselves in the UK and USA too. Our regional writers are becoming international, and so many more female names are getting the attention they deserve. The new cannon is much more diverse, not just in terms of race, gender and background, but sexuality – and also of course, this shows up in the themes of our work.
It is a new time in the Caribbean’s literary identity; we are making new books and we are full of new ideas.
[Pictures and interview with Monique Roffey courtesy of Elizabeth Preston at Simon & Schuster]