A Mermaid’s Tale
The Mermaid of Black Conch, the new novel by Trini author Monique Roffey, is a magical realist fable drawing on an ancient legend to explore themes of identity, migration, history and love. Enjoy an extract from this immersive new book, then discover what inspired her with our exclusive interview
David Baptiste’s dreads are grey and his body wizened to twigs of hard black coral, but there are still a few people around St Constance who remember him as a young man and his part in the events of 1976, when those white men from Florida came to fish for marlin and instead pulled a mermaid out of the sea. It happened in April, after the leatherbacks had started to migrate. Some said she arrived with them. Others said they’d seen her before, those who’d fished far out. But most people agreed that she would never have been caught at all if the two of them hadn’t been carrying on some kind of flirty-flirty behaviour.
Black Conch waters nice first thing in the morning. David Baptiste often went out as early as possible, trying to beat the other fishermen to a good catch of king fish or red snapper. He would head to the jagged rocks one mile or so off Murder Bay, taking with him his usual accoutrements to keep him company while he put his lines out – a stick of the finest local ganja and his guitar, which he didn’t play too well, an old beat-up thing his cousin, Nicer Country, had given him. He would drop anchor near those rocks, lash the rudder, light his spliff and strum to himself while the white, neon disc of the sun appeared on the horizon, pushing itself up, rising slow slow, omnipotent into the silver blue sky.
David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, silver-grey sea, its stark hues of turquoise not yet stirred. Plain so, the mermaid popped up and watched him for some time before he glanced around and caught sight of her.
“Holy Mother of Holy God on earth,” he exclaimed. She ducked back under the sea. Quick quick, he put down his guitar and peered hard. It wasn’t full daylight yet. He rubbed his eyes, as if to make them see better.
“Ayyy,” he called across the water. “Dou dou. Come. Mami wata! Come. Come, nuh.”
He put one hand on his heart because it was leaping around inside his chest. His stomach trembled with desire and fear and wonder because he knew what he’d seen. A woman. Right there, in the water. A red-skinned woman, not black, not African. Not yellow, not a Chinee woman, or a woman with golden hair from Amsterdam. Not a blue woman, either, blue like a damn fish. Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerindian. Or anyway, her top half was red. He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts, and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell. A merwoman. He stared at the spot of her appearance for some time. He took a good look at his spliff; was it something real strong he smoke that morning? He shook himself and gazed hard at the sea, waiting for her to pop back up.
“Come back,” he shouted into the deep greyness. The mermaid had held her head up high above the waves, and he’d seen a certain expression on her face, like she’d been studying him.
But nothing happened. Not that day. He sat down in his pirogue and, for some reason, tears fell for his mother, just like that. For Lavinia Baptiste, his good mother, the bread baker of the village, dead not two years. Later, when he racked his brain, he thought of all those stories he’d heard since childhood, tales of half and half sea creatures, except those stories were of mermen. Black Conch legend told of mermen who lived deep in the sea and came onto land now and then to mate with river maidens – old time stories, from the colonial era. The older fishermen liked to talk in Ce-Ce’s parlour on the foreshore, sometimes late into the night, after many rums and too much marijuana. The mermen of Black Conch were just that: stories.
It was April, time of the leatherback migration south to Black Conch waters, time of dry season, of pouis trees exploding in the hills, yellow and pink, like bombs of sulphur, the time when the whoreish flamboyant begins to bloom. From that moment, when that red-skinned woman rose and disappeared as if to tease him, David ached to see her again. He felt a bittersweet melancholy, a soft caress to his spirit. Nothing to do with what he’d been smoking. That day, a part of him lit up, a part he’d no idea was there to light. He had felt a sharp stabbing sensation, right there in the flat part between his ribs, in his solar plexus.
“Come back, nuh,” he said, soft soft and gentlemanlike after his mother-tears had dried and his face was tight with the salt. Something had happened. She had risen from the waves, chosen him, a humble fisherman.
“Come, nuh, dou dou,” he pleaded, this time softer still, as if to lure her. But the water had settled back flat.
Next morning, David went to the exact same spot by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay and waited for several hours and saw nothing. He smoked nothing. Day after, the same thing. Four days he went out to those rocks in his pirogue. He cut the engine, threw out the anchor, and waited. He told no one what he had seen. He avoided Ce-Ce’s parlour, the property of his kind- hearted, bigmouth aunt. He avoided his cousins, his pardners in St Constance. He went home to his small house on the hill, the house he’d built himself, surrounded by banana trees, where he lived with Harvey, his pot hound. He felt on edge. He went to bed early so as to rise early. He needed to see the mermaid again, to be sure that his eyes had seen correctly. He needed to cool what had become an inflammation in his heart, to pacify the buzz that had started up in his nervous system. He had never had this type of feeling, certainly not for no mortal woman.
Then, day five, around six o’clock, he was strumming his guitar, humming a hymn, when the mermaid showed herself again.
This time she splashed the water with one hand and made a sound like a bird squeak. When he looked up he didn’t frighten so bad, even though his belly clenched tight and every fibre in his body froze. He stayed still and watched her good. She was floating port side of his boat, cool cool, like a regular woman on a raft, except there was no raft. The mermaid, with long black hair and big, shining eyes, was taking a long suspicious look at him. She cocked her head, and it was only then David realised she was watching his guitar. Slow slow, so as not to make her disappear again, he picked it up and began to strum and hum a tune, quietly. She stayed there, floating, watching him, stroking the water, slowly, with her arms and her massive tail.
The music that brought her to him, not the engine sound, though she knew that too. It was the magic that music makes, the song that lives within every creature on earth, including mermaids. She hadn’t heard music for a long time, maybe a thousand years, and she was irresistibly drawn up to the surface, real slow and real interested.
That morning David played her soft hymns he’d learnt as a boy, praising God. He sang holy songs for her, songs which brought tears to his eyes, and there they stayed, on this second meeting, a small patch of sea apart, watching each other – a young, wet-eyed Black Conch fisherman with an old guitar, and a mermaid who’d arrived on the currents from Cuban waters, where once they talked of her by the name of Aycayia.
Interview with Monique Roffey
The award-winning Trinidad-born author speaks to Paul Bloomfield about the inspirations for her new novel, and how its locations, people and relationships reflect her experiences in the Caribbean
Where is the island of Black Conch?
When I was thinking about this mermaid story, I knew I was venturing into magical realism. The mermaid Aycayia is a metaphor for exile, for otherness, for a lot of other things. So I was writing about this incredibly magical creature, and I thought: why not put her on an island that I’m also going to magic up? But Black Conch is based broadly on the northern end of Tobago, where I write a lot and I know well. [Like the village of St Constance on the fictional Black Conch] it’s owned by a white landowner. And it’s very, very quiet, old Caribbean.
How did you come across the story of Aycayia, the mermaid?
My mermaid arrived through dreams and ideas. I had a mermaid in mind for a long time, then found Aycayia while trawling the internet. You know, there are mermaid stories all over the world, and there are mermaid stories all over the Caribbean. There’s a famous Orisha mermaid spirit called Mami Wata, in parts of the Caribbean called Maman de l’Eau. These are African Yoruba deities, and I was very conscious of my whiteness, and how I would position myself in relation to these deities. So I left them alone. But there are also stories of mermaids – or, rather, mermen – in Tobago, probably made up by the colonials, though god knows which colonials. Tobago has famously changed hands many times.
Many people have painted mermaids, too. An artist in Carriacou, Canute Calliste (1914-2005), painted mermaids for years, and swore he saw them. But I found stories of Caribbean mermaids in Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Trinidad, you name it – the image of the mermaid is all over the Caribbean. What I liked about Aycayia is the story of female jealousy, of banishment. And also many mermaids have this story – of being cursed, banished, they sing, they’re entrapped, there’s a punishment. There was something about isolation and exile, that was where I wanted to go.
And this was a Taíno legend. Mermaid legends are very old, two or three thousand years old – pre-Christian, pre-Columbus. There’s a lot in my book about what these islands looked like before anyone got there, before the Europeans arrived, before any humans – the innocence of the islands. So Aycayia represents a shamanic culture, in which people were still incredibly civilised and knew how to live in the world.
I didn’t want to write a political book about Taíno culture, because that’s not my book to write. But I wanted to bring a woman from way back, who has a whole different set of knowledge. As I write, she can read the kingdom of the air, the kingdom of the sea, she can talk to trees. She arrives back on land in 1976, and she realises: yes, there are still trees, things are the same in some respects.
Is there a subtle but deliberate environmental thread in the book?
Well, I was writing about a creature coming from the sea, so yes. I have vivid memories of Tobago from when I was in my teens, of the tide going out and the beach studded with upturned conch, and you could just pick them up. And I remember Pigeon Point being empty. There were no beach chairs, there was one little bar where you could buy chips and flying fish maybe, and a few little huts. There was still coral, and you could go swimming. Today, there are jetskis, loud reggae, it’s all changed. Consumer capitalism has come to the Caribbean. We’ve got problems with reefs dying, we’ve got lionfish everywhere eating all the fish. Our environment has been decimated in my lifetime. So yes, that’s there in the book. You can’t live in the Caribbean and not think about these issues.
What was the significance of setting the story in 1976?
The 70s was the time of Black Power, and feminism, and uprising. I also needed a time before mobile phones and internet. If a mermaid were caught now, it would be a global sensation. So I needed to set it at the end of an island where there was a Polaroid camera but nobody’s got a phone, they can’t prove they’ve caught the mermaid. And the Caribbean was still innocent then. It was the last decade of innocence, because in the 80s things started to change, with cheap flights and so on. So in the 1970s, places like northern Tobago were really quiet, really rural, and very few tourists. It was the last time you could have gone to the Caribbean, picked conch up from the sand, you know.
How did you create the character of the mermaid Aycayia?
Well, you know, she’s 3,000 years old, so she’d be very different! I wanted somebody who was young, and somebody who’d been denied her rite of passage into romantic love, somebody who was innocent but also had agency, and who had a whole different temperament, a whole different way of looking at the world, coming from a very shamanic culture.
It’s not really hard to imagine how a person from another era would try to fit in. She’s also a big metaphor for the ‘other’, passing as human – for people of colour, anyone who’s been treated as less than human. People of Black Conch are trying to sell her, and they don’t see the parallel with slavery, with how their forebears would have been sold – they don’t see her humanity, how we could all do it to each other.
You write about a community rife with complicated relationships. Is that drawn from personal experience?
It’s a microcosm. Even in Trinidad, a much bigger island, everybody’s related. You don’t go far without stumbling across a friend’s sister, brother, cousin, and Tobago’s even smaller, there’s so much intermarriage, intermingling of blood.
Also, it’s not just about black and white, but also about relationships between the ‘master in the big house’ and the village. It’s all being mixed up. It’s very common for people of colour to have the name of people who used to own slaves, and for brown or black children to be in white families, and for children to be in some way hidden, extended families. The whole thing is what I know of the Caribbean – not all happy little nuclear families, but like a much broader spectrum of relationships between people.
Arcadia Rain, the white landowner, has a complex relationship with the villagers. Is she based on someone real?
She definitely reflects a character who I know. Obviously a woman like her, who owns a lot of land, is going to have a historic connection to the perpetrators of slavery. In Black Conch, her family bought and built the estate after emancipation, and never owned slaves, but she understands she’s still part of the systemic privilege of owning land and exercising that level of power.
She’s not European – she’s Creole. So she hasn’t got anywhere else to go – she’s not going to disappear, she’s going to stay there, because it’s all she knows. She doesn’t just own the land – she’s OF the land. And also, she’s something of a conservationist. She’s trying to give away as much of the land as possible. And she’s also been badly hurt by love, and had a child. She keeps to herself, she’s isolated, because she knows she represents a figure of hatred to some, but tries to exercise the power she has fairly. So I wanted to write towards a woman like that, who’s going to represent power, whom people could easily resent.
The connection between Miss Rain and her former lover, Life, is the master-slave relationship – a familiar dynamic. He’s a free man in his own right, saying to her – as he has many times – this can’t work for me. We’re not equal, and it’s not just that we’re not equal – it’s historic. They’ve loved each other before they were adults. I wanted this to be more than just a love story that they could walk away from, that they could just throw in the towel and say: OK, it’s too difficult. I think their love story needed to be pre-adult consciousness – they’ve been passionate about each other from the get-go, before they could understand things in the world of power, before she inherited the house, before they knew what power was. Their love story lies in this reckless teenage passion. And of course when she inherited the house, that all changed, and she could never get that back or make him happy, so he needed to leave. This is about power. And eventually, she sort of wins the argument. Love or history, that’s what she says – why does history have to live over love? This is the choice they have. Call me old-fashioned, but love does conquer all!
Even Aycayia gets to love, even if just for a while, and even if it breaks her heart and that of her lover, David.
You talk about Aycayia being a metaphor for exile – in what sense?
There’s a Cari-global community of people from the Caribbean, and some of us don’t live at home, and there is a sort of sense of exile for us. And there are lots of people forced into exile who are economic migrants. But also, if you have light skin, you are among the 1% and you are an outsider in the wider community of the Caribbean.
Finally, what do you like to do when you’re at home in Trinidad?
Port of Spain is such a complex metropolis these days, my life in London and my life in Trinidad are like for like. I do lots of yoga – one thing that’s really developed in Port of Spain over the past decade or so has been the big yogi community, and there’s good yoga in Trinidad. There’s great nightlife, of course. Drink! is a great bar and bistro in Woodbrook. I go to More Vino for good wine and sushi. And also on the Avenue, I go for lunch at Veni Mangé, which does great Creole food.
Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. three of her novels are set in Trinidad and the Caribbean region. Her new book The Mermaid of Black Conch is published by Peepal Tree Press (www.peepaltreepress.com). Visit www.moniqueroffey.com