Author of Pleasantview, Celeste Mohammed, started writing her book to meet the demands of her MFA program. But as the collection began to take shape, Mohammed saw how ‘it could be used to provide a realistic microcosmic view of contemporary Trinidad and Tobago. In other words, a view which would challenge the narrow, exoticized portrayals of the Caribbean which are typical in popular culture.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I think my generation read what children throughout the British Commonwealth might have been reading: Enid Blyton books such as The Faraway Tree series, The Secret Seven, and The Famous Five. Later, I read Nancy Drew mystery books, Archie comics and MAD magazine. This is in addition to the reading required in school which included classic works of British and West Indian literature.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
It is difficult to pick one text. I will say that I often feel I am living inside a Gabriel García Márquez story, where Trinidad is Macondo and strange, supernatural occurrences keep interrupting the orderly reality for which I strive. Gaining some measure of international success as an author has only made that dichotomy and the feeling of surrealness even more poignant.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
The comment section of a video on Facebook where a little albino girl was given a—in my opinion, totally unnecessary and racialized—beauty make-over. I always tell myself I’m not going to read the comments on social media, then I do, and I’m horrified by what people say.
Gaining some measure of international success as an author has only made that dichotomy and the feeling of surrealness even more poignant.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently served as a judge for the fiction component of The Guyana Prize for Literature. In reading the many submissions, I got to glimpse the prevailing concerns of contemporary Guyanese writers. Although Guyana is our Caribbean neighbour, what I knew of the place was limited to media portrayals and the ‘ole-talk’ stereotypes I’d encountered while growing up. I had always heard that the Guyanese had a worse racism and political corruption problem than we do in Trinidad and Tobago, so I had expected any treatment of those topics to reflect that polarization. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuanced depictions of a multifaceted people seeking to heal and connect in new ways. Also, I was surprised to see that speculative fiction is quite popular in Guyana.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I do all of the above. In the first stage, it is natural to correct myself as I type and try to etch the images in my head onto the page. Generally, though, I work scene by scene. When I get the broad parameters of a scene on the page, I’ll go back and refine or build-out, fill in dialogue, until I feel the scene accomplishes what I think it should. Then I’ll move to the next scene. When the entire story is done, a different kind of editing—more informed, I guess—begins and will continue until I can’t find anything more to improve. (Of course, after it gets published, I always find something else!)
What was your process for writing your award-winning novel-in-stories, Pleasantview?
The book started as my thesis for the MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA. I simply picked six of the stories I had written over the two-year program and honed them into a loosely connected collection. Publishers rejected the book. A few said it was too short and the stories weren’t ‘connected enough’. I was disappointed, of course, but determined to learn from that feedback. So, in the ensuing three years, I went on to carefully plot and write three new stories which pulled the collection into what I felt was akin to a novel.
What’s the inspiration behind your book/Why did you decide to write this book?
At first, I was simply writing these stories to meet the demands of the MFA program. I had to draw from whatever was close at hand: the lives of the people I knew, the news reports I saw, the gossip I overheard. Then, as the collection began to coalesce, I saw how it could be used to provide, for the reader, a realistic microcosmic view of contemporary Trinidad and Tobago. In other words, a view which would challenge the narrow, exoticized portrayals of the Caribbean which are typical in popular culture. Hence the ironic name: Pleasantview.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about Pleasantview?
There was a lady who sent me a letter telling me I had written her life story in this book. She thanked me for highlighting the situations of abuse and said she felt as if, for the first time, she was seeing herself in literature. I cherish that reaction. It more than compensates for the few negative reactions.
Publishers rejected the book. A few said it was too short and the stories weren’t ‘connected enough’.
Which story/chapter of Pleasantview was the trickiest or most challenging chapter to write?
The chapter entitled ‘Home’ was the trickiest to write. That story seemed to haunt me for five years. I kept changing and changing it. I think, perhaps, I was overthinking the fact that I was writing an ‘other’, i.e. someone whose sexual orientation might be different to mine. In the end, I found a way to set that self-consciousness aside and just write from a place of the emotional needs that we all have in common.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
I started to miss my characters when I completed the book. I miss them because I started to care about them like real people. I had assumed this would go away in time, but it hasn’t. Just this year, I re-read Pleasantview and cried for the characters. Distance from the text has allowed me to engage with the stories in a different way and to emote as a reader. So let me take this opportunity to apologize, I didn’t mean to hurt you all. LOL.
What three books from the Caribbean should be on everyone’s bookshelf?
I would love if everyone would read Pleasantview and, either before or after, read these three titles, in this order: Minty Alley by C.L.R. James, Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul, The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. Not only are these books classics of the West Indian canon but, by providing snapshots of Trinidad society at various points throughout the twentieth century, they elucidate and provide context which proves that Pleasantview is, in fact, their progeny.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I am excited by the cadre of new female writers coming out of the Caribbean—names like Lisa Allen-Agostini, Ayana Lloyd Banwo, Alake Pilgrim, and Celia Sorhaindo are quite exciting. I’m also getting into African women writers: Francesca Ekwuyasi, and Aiwanose Odafen.
I re-read Pleasantview and cried for the characters. Distance from the text has allowed me to engage with the stories in a different way and to emote as a reader.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Gosh, I love an underdog story—particularly one where the protagonist comes up against the inherited traumas of culture and family. He/she doesn’t even have to win, I just love to see the effort and the attainment of self-awareness. That’s the type of story I’m writing currently.
What are you currently working on?
I am wrapping up a new novel-in-stories which is a kind of generational saga, inspired by my Indian heritage.
Question from Ayisha Osori: If your work would never be published, would you still write? Explain your answer.
Yes, I would still write. I continued to write after my first novel was rejected. Pleasantview was roundly rejected, I continued to write. I re-wrote that first novel, sent it out again, still rejected. I continued to write. This is not to say that I haven’t thought of giving up writing. I have, at times, been so defeated that I resolved to walk away, I even tried to, but Bob Marley was right, you can’t run away from yourself.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Being a published author is a dream come true for most, but is there any aspect of that experience which has come as an unpleasant surprise?⎈
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