Ira Mathur is an award-winning Indian-born Trinidadian journalist and columnist for the Trinidad Guardian. Her memoir, Love the Dark Days (2022), follows multiple generations of women as they migrate from post-Independence India to Trinidad. She was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award for her book about Nina Simone, Touching Dr Simone.
Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidadian-born writer. Her latest novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020), was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize and the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize and won the Costa Book of the Year Award 2020. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The two authors discuss the taboo of memoir-writing in the Caribbean, historic misconceptions about Trinidad and the enduring legacy of colonial rule on the island.
Memoirs rarely come out of the Caribbean, mainly because the islands are small communities where everyone is interlinked via marriage or blood. Can you talk about how you forged ahead, despite this daunting and nuanced web? Was it a case of ‘writing your truth’ over keeping quiet?
Journalism is about the story, not the storyteller, and belongs to the public. Memoir is personal. The crucial overlap between the two is a devotion to truth-telling.
My background is that of a journalist. I like connecting the dots. For example, my time with Derek Walcott was recorded as meticulously as I remembered it. But unlike journalism, I wrote this memoir like one would a diary: based on fact but deeply subjective. I excavated and examined my interiority and memory, which we all know has moments of being unreliable.
I wrote it to get a monkey off my back: to understand myself, deal with private grief, offer a record of the vanished world of the Raj to which my mother and grandmother belonged, and make sense of my life as someone balancing precariously between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Worlds while belonging to neither. I’m speaking to the divide drawn between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ in which ‘New World’ means the Caribbean and Americas ostensibly ‘discovered’ by Europeans who subsequently suppressed and erased Indigenous peoples. In this memoir, I saw more clearly than ever that the personal is political. I saw that I had a duty to share my story because I believe that our individual histories of migration and colonial violence have the thread of damage done to entire societies. Walcott thought there were as many stories in the New World as there were people and wanted. In the absence of recorded history of the people who were brought as indentured labourers and slaves to islands like Trinidad, those stories form a crucial part of our ‘New World’ identity.
As a journalist, my impulse is always towards objective truth. I am telling my subjective truth here. It’s not an act of bravery but a journalistic instinct that has stayed with me in writing this memoir. Once readers see that it’s not just about me but a story echoed in other post-colonial continents, the fear of feeling exposed disappears.
You’ve been writing this memoir for maybe twenty years on and off. For the last five years, you’ve pursued it doggedly. You’ve drafted and redrafted, hit many walls. It’s been a labour of love and persistence. Can you talk a bit about the highs and lows?
And considering that other Caribbean writers face similar taboos and constraints, what message of encouragement can you offer to other memoirists from the Caribbean?
It goes back further than twenty years. I’ve been thinking through these themes from about six when I already felt the burden of my grandmother’s stories which go back six hundred years. She told me stories as if handing me the responsibility of retelling them. I understood that I was her repository, her medium, a recorder of the past.
I have been making notes for years, but I only began writing the memoir seriously after I attended the Bocas Lit Festival in Port of Spain, run by Marina Salandy-Brown. I met you and the other writers there and attended workshops by Marlon James and sessions with Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo, Nicholas Laughlin, and Shivanee Ramlochan. I began writing seriously from then onwards, starting with short stories.
One of my writing career highlights so far was attending your workshops in Port of Spain. I initially sat around your mother’s dining table alongside other Trinidadian writers, many of whom have gone on to be published, including Ayanna Lloyd Banwo and Alake Pilgrim.
In your workshops, I realised quickly that telling narratives in the long form is almost the opposite of journalism, where all the critical information is presented in the first few lines. I was inspired by your technical knowledge of the craft and insistence on digging until it cuts.
Lows, I have discovered, are essential to this craft. Writing is a job which requires unending patience, humility and toil; there are moments when I have felt lost in the labour of my mind and doubted myself. I struggled, for example, to cohere my life lived on three continents into one narrative; how to connect the story of my ancestors who lived under the Raj and witnessed the mutiny in India to the indenture of the New World.
My advice to others is to press ahead, do many drafts of your work, dig deep, put it aside from time to time, and get it critiqued by editors, not family or close friends.
Generations of women in your family endured unhappy, arranged marriages. Trauma has been handed down over generations, yet your family is part of a ‘privileged’ elite. Can you talk about the commonality of misogyny? Does it exist across all classes?
Yes. Misogyny is a global scourge that cuts across race and class. For my grandmother – a privileged, talented, wealthy woman – it meant sacrificing a scholarship to study music in Vienna in exchange for an unhappy marriage. Her great-grandfather, an army general, forced all the women in his family to marry according to his wishes, using the women as vassals to build dynastic links with other great families.
Why must Caribbean women’s stories be documented?
Since gaining Independence from colonial rule, communities have not only had to heal the wounds of colonialism but also locate an authentic identity for those peoples who have been dislocated from their history and original culture by slavery and indenture. Caribbean women have roots in the Old World, but there has been no way of tracing where in Africa or India they come from. By insisting that English was the only accepted language of education and communication, other languages were broken, and the links to faraway continents turned flimsy.
Still, despite the many problems in the Caribbean today, gender equality has become less of an issue. Women have taken the reigns of family and community. Women in public life and education today are trailblazers. In 2022, there are eight female heads of state and prime ministers in the Caribbean. In Barbados, both the president and prime minister are women.
Caribbean women have been leading island states, from Dominica’s Dame Eugenia to Jamaica’s Portia Simpson-Miller, who served for two terms. Dominica led the way by electing its female Prime Minister in 1980. Since then, Haiti, Bermuda, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago have followed suit by electing women as prime ministers.
As Barbados’s intrepid and outspoken prime minister, Mia Mottley, said, women have had to work twice as hard to be half as noticed as men, and that obstacle has produced greater competence. The examples set by women now have set the stage to remove this burden for the next generation. Perhaps the defection of men in family life – absent fathers created out of slavery and perpetuated through that same trauma – has led to matriarchy in Trinidad and the Caribbean.
Trinidad is a diverse country, and yet in the UK, there’s an expectation that ‘true’ or ‘real’ Caribbean stories are African Caribbean. Does it feel frustrating that the UK and the outside world have such limited ideas?
It’s strange – but we Trinidadians don’t define ourselves according to what the UK thinks of us. This could come from the confidence of being an oil-rich country in the Caribbean or one that inaugurated its freedom with the iconic declaration by our first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams: ‘Massa Day Done’ [LINK: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3299402].
Perhaps that’s why two books, both entirely written in Trinidadian dialect, have recently done so well in the UK (Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love and Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s When We Were Birds).
Our identity has evolved from the percolation of having people from four continents concentrated in a tiny city, Port of Spain. We are a nation of former slaves from Africa, former indentured labourers from India, several generations of immigrants from Venezuela, planters and their descendants from Europe, traders from Syria, Lebanon and China, and professionals from Africa and India. Given this mix, it is not surprising that we demonstrate a disproportionate brilliance in every profession, in the arts, sports and literature. Trinidad has produced two Nobel Laureates in the last century, V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott (who moved to Trinidad from Saint Lucia aged twenty-three).
Because Trinidad is such a complex and talented society in the exciting phase of creating its own identity, we don’t rely on the UK and the outside world for approbation. So, no, it’s not frustrating. If anything, Trinidadians need to be less insular and care more about the world.
The outside world often reduces the Caribbean to a ‘paradise’ holiday destination. And yet child marriage was only outlawed in 2017; we are only just striking homophobic laws from the colonial statute books; Trinidad has 500 murders a year, and one in three women suffer domestic abuse. What would you say to anyone who wants to visit Trinidad?
Yes, this is all correct. Taken out of context, imperialists may say we are unfit to govern ourselves. Yet all the problems you state are born of empire. Many of our issues come out of the traumas of slavery and indentureship. Families were broken up, and institutions of power were built on violence. Up to sixty years ago, non-Christians had no access to education. It wasn’t until the 1970 Black Power Revolution that social movements started to address fundamental issues like the skewered power structure, where the people with money were white and Christian and had access to education and steady employment.
The murder numbers are frightening. They occur in specific neighbourhoods between gangs fighting for the spoils from the transhipment of illegal drugs destined for Europe and the US. The drugs originate in South America and are shipped through Central America and the Caribbean. Young unemployed men are paid in guns and drugs in exchange for transhipping services, driven by demand from Europe and the US. We realise that to stop these murders, the demand needs to be stopped, either through policing operations within countries that receive drugs or legalising those drugs, which would eradicate the illegal trade. All countries along these transhipment routes – Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala, Honduras and our neighbouring Venezuela – have the same problem. So crime is not a daily experience of all people, although people in Trinidad tend to be cautious after dark, and like all countries, there have been incidences of horrific crimes.
The new colonialism is financial exploitation. Small island states are still affected by decisions made in capitals out of our control. Whether it’s this financial exploitation, internalised trauma of racial and physical abuse, destroyed family structures, or the cumulative mental trauma of all these things – people internalise this.
Where Trinidad falls down is the accessibility of guns and the endlessly slow justice system that leaves many perpetrators unchecked. Remember, we are a young country. This year we will be sixty. We are still recovering. Until Independence, there was no system of formal secondary education for the majority of the population; that only came in the seventies with the oil money and with Dr Eric Williams’s declaration that the future of our nation was in the book bags of our children. It’s a process. Racism was baked into our psyche and culture.
Any psychiatrist will tell you individuals who suffer trauma individualise and perpetuate it. Like individuals, societies do the same, but we continue to heal, process, celebrate and survive. In terms of visiting Trinidad, it’s a phenomenon that many people, from diplomats to personal trainers, never want to leave.
I think the overwhelming impression of Trinidad is its multicultural, endlessly unravelling historical complexity and the astonishing loveliness of its landscape. I notice that it rouses extreme emotion, not dissimilar to the reaction of many who visit India. You either hate or love Trinidad, but you are never indifferent and always leave changed.
Which Caribbean writers do you read and most admire and why? Do you feel truly Caribbean?
The obvious ones. Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul. Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace, C. L. R. James. Guerrillas by Naipaul is possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. Then there’s Jamaica Kincaid, Frantz Fanon, Jean Rhys, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, Jacob Ross and Merle Hodge.
The last ten years have seen a renaissance in terms of literary talent. Why do you think we produce so many fine writers? What’s going on and why? And the current crop is 99% female. Is this some kind of feminist uprising?
I wrote about this in The Irish Times and described it like this: ‘If James Joyce thought the “cracked looking glass of a servant” was the symbol of Irish art, then Derek Walcott thought the reassembling of the shards of a vase was the remit of the New World. That’s what colonised people do.’
Just as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, and Bernard Shaw. ‘wrote back’ paving the way for Anne Enright and Sally Rooney, I think Derek Walcott, C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace and Jean Rhys wrote back. Michael Anthony, Olive Senior, and Jacob Ross write back. Claire Adam, Amanda Smyth, Alake Pilgrim, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Breanne Mc Ivor, Caroline Mackenzie, Celeste Mohammed, Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo, Barbara Jenkins, and myself, among other writers, currently subvert entrenched colonial ideas, and question the status quo. This comes at a time when women have access to education as never before.
Marina Salandy-Brown, the founder of the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad, said of the phenomenon of women writers coming out of Trinidad: ‘The writing has been happening quietly all along. We’ve let people out of their writing closets. Bocas gave them access to the publishing world, brought in writers, agents, and publishers, and created workshops and competitions for Caribbean writers. We pushed at a door that was ajar. Our stories are unique, and world readers are avid for more.’ I predict the deluge of women writing out of the Caribbean will no longer be a ‘phenomenon’. It will become commonplace.