On Mother’s Day 2021, I sat on my couch for the entire day and read the book Pleasantview. Celeste Mohammed characterizes her debut as a novel-in-stories, but what does that mean exactly? In Caribbean literary culture, the short story format is a staple, it’s how we were taught to write stories in school and many writers begin their careers publishing books in this format.
With Pleasantview, Mohammed delves deeply into this fictional small village where quintessential Trini characters can always be found. Mohammed, a lawyer since 2001, attained her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Lesley University in Massachusetts and currently lives in Trinidad and Tobago.
I’m very honored to have Celeste as one of the inaugural authors for this interview series! Below is our conversation.
Tricia: I left Trinidad over 20 years ago so I love how contemporary yet traditional these stories are on Trinidad culture. Was writing about contemporary issues a no-brainer for you for this book?
Celeste: Definitely, it was a no-brainer. I believe that as a writer situated “in the belly of the beast,” so to speak, it was incumbent on me to address contemporary issues facing Trinbagonians—our women in particular. The challenge was how to take the contemporary and make it feel timeless, meaning, not time-bound to a particular decade or period.
Tricia: I also loved that you included the complex situation of Venezuelan immigration. But there’s so many aspects of this theme, how did you decide on the angle you wanted to highlight for Pleasantview?
Celeste: Yes, I really wanted to talk about Venezuelan immigration because it is woven into the fabric of our history, it is also (apart from COVID-19) the most topical issue for the past few years, and yet it has not been featured very often in our literature. There are many angles to the story of Venezuelan immigration, but I chose to write from the place where the emotional pull was strongest for me: the plight of the trafficked women.
Tricia: You address female homosexuality in the story Home, where Kimberley has these complex struggles. How much of her father’s attitude toward her sexuality do you feel is still present in Trinidad society?
Celeste: Fortunately, there are signs of TnT society becoming more accepting of homosexuality. However, there is still resistance—I guess there always will be, in some quarters—and I get the impression that tolerance is more forthcoming toward queer persons who are “discreet”, rather than those who are open with their sexual orientation.
Tricia: My favorite story is Santimantay, mainly because it rekindles my memories of Carnival growing up in Belmont. How did you come up with the concept of bringing ex-tempo to a wake?
Celeste: I could not conceive of my debut collection not having a musical element. Music, carnival, calypso, call-and-response, oral tradition—this is the family tree from which local storytelling is descended. Settling griefs and getting even via song is we ting, it’s in our blood. I wrote Santimanitay as an ode to those traditions. Understand too, the entire book is meant to telegraph a message to foreigners who may know us best for our music and party-hearty mentality: it all comes from a place of having to cope and to find a palliative for poverty and pain. In other words, you appreciate someone’s positive outlook more, when you understand what it costs and the negativity they have overcome.
Tricia: Miss Ivy’s character really holds many stories together. Can you describe how Miss Ivy was born in your mind and why you decided to use her specifically in multiple stories?
Celeste: I love Miss Ivy. She is the Tanty you find in every family, or in every village: the wise old eccentric woman who is equal parts revered and feared, who knows everybody’s business, who thinks she is helping by dispensing advice. I felt she would have universal appeal. She was also the perfect linch-pin around which to construct a community, which really is a craft ‘trick’ I’ve emulated from V.S. Naipaul.
Tricia: You use Trini dialect throughout Pleasantview and I remember you saying that you wanted the writing to be pleasing to the ear. Why was it important to you that your book be written in dialect?
Celeste: It is important that the stories of a people be written in the language of those people. The official language of TnT may be English but many, if not most, of us do not live our day-to-day lives strictly in Standard English. I wanted to acknowledge that fact. Also, I did not want my narrators to sit high-and-mighty above the characters, talking down to or about them; I wanted the readers to be eye-to-eye with the characters. Mostly, though, I wanted to honour the musicality and rhythm of our speech patterns.
Tricia: I often wonder if authors have an audience in mind when they write a book. Did you have one for Pleasantview?
Celeste: My idea of “audience” was not well defined at the time of writing the stories. I knew I would have a Caribbean audience and an American one—that’s it. I didn’t think beyond those broad categories. My hope was simply that the book would be published in America and enjoyed by anyone who took a chance on it.
Tricia: How do you hope to contribute to the continuation of Caribbean literature?
Celeste: I can only hope to continue to have the privilege of sharing Trinbagonian stories and culture authentically, with new groups of people. It is also important to me to dispel myths about Caribbean life and Caribbean people. We are not one-dimensional slackers. We are not Blackness Lite. We are not here solely for the amusement of international visitors. We are real and varied and deep people, we have real emotions beyond—newsflash—the desire to have sex and party, we have real problems which are just as urgent and important as those anywhere else in the world.
Tricia: Thanks for your time, Celeste. I appreciate our conversation.
Celeste: Thanks again for thinking of me, and of Pleasantview.
Photo courtesy Damian Luk Pat.