I’ve been saying this ad nauseam for a few years now: that short stories are a staple of Caribbean literature and it’s a good place to get into Caribbean books if you’re looking to start. Breanne Mc Ivor published her first collection of short stories, Where There Are Monsters, in 2019 and I discovered her book a year later.
Trinidad and Tobago culture is ripe with its ‘jumbie’ stories told to us as children by our parents and grandparents. In this collection, Breanne explores not only some of these traditional folk stories, but other societal aspects and challenges that highlights and hides that part of us that we may want hidden from others. It’s a beautiful mix of old and new explored with honesty and authenticity.
Breanne attended the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, earning master’s degrees in English and Literature and Society respectively. Her writing has been shortlisted for various prizes, including the Derek Walcott Writing Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, while winning the Caribbean Writer’s David Hough Literary Prize in 2015. She currently lives in Trinidad.
I’ve admired Breanne’s writing and literary opinions that she shares on Instagram for some time now, and when I first came up with the idea of having this interview series, she was one of the first authors I wanted to chat with. I’m very happy to have her here sharing her thoughts on her book. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Welcome Breanne! Thank you for joining me here! How have you been?
Breanne: Thank you so much for having me! I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few interviews you did and I always come away feeling closer to the author being interviewed.
Honestly, the last few months have been breathless. I feel as if so much has been going on and I’ve been trying to hold everything together. However, I also feel as if I’ve been in a good place writing-wise and I am so grateful for that.
Tricia: Let’s start with Robber Talk, my favorite story in this collection. He’s a sinister character and I want to know what was your inspiration to write about him and how did you try to put your own twist on this character?
Breanne: Well, like so many Trinis, Carnival is in my blood. I played mas as a little girl, but I never came across the traditional Carnival characters in a big way until I studied them in secondary school. As a person who works with words, I was always drawn to the Midnight Robber, a character who fights with words and whose speeches are imbued with such violence. To see a good Robber is to see theatre and literary craftmanship and the country’s history all at the same time.
Robber Talk actually started with me writing a Midnight Robber’s speech. I always wanted to write my own robber talk and after reading and re-reading some of the masters’ speeches, I decided to try writing my own. From there, I began to wonder what would happen if a Midnight Robber wasn’t just performing monstrosity. What if his robber talk allowed him to pull back the curtain on who he was in the only way that was socially acceptable? This is a story that practically wrote itself, without me plotting it out beforehand, so obviously the character was somewhere in my subconscious waiting to be put on the page.
Tricia: The title Where There Are Monsters had me thinking before I read it that the book would be a series of ‘jumble’ stories but that is absolutely not the case! Tell me how you came up with the idea of writing about monsters and how you wanted to portray them?
Breanne: Funnily enough, I wrote almost all these stories before I even thought about trying to put together a collection. It sounds like a silly thing to say now, but I just wrote one story and then another and I didn’t plan a future for them. It was just like, “Oh I’ll send this short story to a competition,” and then I’d move on to the next story. Sometimes, I didn’t even share the story publicly and I just let some members of my writing group read it and that was that.
When a friend suggested that I might have enough stories to put into a collection, that was the first time I read all my stories back-to-back. People would always tell me that I was a ‘dark’ writer, but I never really saw it until that moment. The common thread running through all my stories was that they looked at the ways people were monstrous, both big and small. So, we have folklore figures of Trinidad, like the Lagahoo, and a Midnight Robber using robber talk to ‘confess’ his crimes, but we also have the one-night stand who treats a woman badly the next day or the frenemy. I wanted to portray monsters as both OTHERWORLDLY and AWFUL, but also mundane and even routine. Because sometimes, the worst monstrosity comes from the person whose behaviour we have convinced ourselves we have to accept and live with.
Tricia: In Pembroke Street the main characters are gay men. When I was in secondary school there never were homosexual characters in books. What did you notice changing in Trinidad society that made you feel comfortable writing a short story like this?
Breanne: So, Pembroke Street is the only almost-true story in the book. The true version was told to me by a family friend who has sadly passed on now. However, he told me about being an openly gay man who wore drag in public and lived with his boyfriend in Trinidad fifty-five years ago. Even the all-male whorehouse in the story was based on a real place! His telling was the first I was hearing about this side of Trinidad existing so long ago and both he and I really wanted to tell the story.
Like you, I didn’t read about queer characters in Caribbean books when I was in secondary school. However, I don’t think there was anything in Trinidadian society that made me feel comfortable writing this story; writing it was a deeply personal exercise and I wasn’t thinking about society’s reception while I was working on it. I think that I felt comfortable writing Pembroke Street knowing how strongly it was based in the truth and knowing that the real person on whom the character of Stuart was based was reading my drafts and offering advice. I don’t think I would have attempted this story if it wasn’t steeped in authenticity. When the collection came out, my friend would read it to people he knew and tell them that it was his story and that memory will always make me smile.
Tricia: You included stories that focus on societal issues, like Red, The Boss, and Ophelia. How did you envision these stories tying into your monsters theme?
Breanne: I think that these stories tap into the everyday nature of monstrosity that I was talking about earlier, which can perhaps be more insidious. Few of us (or none of us, depending on who you ask) will have to grapple with a rogue Midnight Robber with a sinister master plan, but many of us may know what it is like to have big dreams, as the main character in Ophelia does. His poverty, compounded by the fact that his mother just lost her job and so he must support them both, makes it hard for him to pursue his goal of becoming an actor and his dream of dating Ophelia. And as the story goes on, he starts to ask himself what he would be willing to do to make his dream a reality. I think the monsters in the story are some of the people around him, including someone who tries to exploit his vulnerability to get him involved in a life of crime.
I also think that, as a writer who lives in Trinidad, I would find it impossible to write about the country and not touch on the societal issues I see around me every day. For example, Red is largely about mental health and the unfortunate idea that still persists in many parts of T&T that anyone who needs therapy is ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’. But, if you have a monster in your past like the main character does, how can you overcome these entrenched ideas? In my personal life, I have sometimes spoken to friends who have had traumatic experiences who have been reluctant to go to therapy because of the stigma surrounding it. So, for me, writing is a way to explore real life issues and, sometimes, to give a character a better, happier ending than a friend of mine had.
Tricia: Short stories are a real staple in Caribbean literature, but some authors tend to move away from it after getting into novels. Do you intend to continue writing and publishing short story collections?
Breanne: I think that, because short stories are such a Caribbean staple they’re many local authors’ entry point into writing. Plus, a novel can be daunting. But a story, 3,000–5,000 words, seemed more doable. However, having published a short story collection, I found myself wanting to move to the novel style. Maybe I have a bit more confidence in my writing now or maybe I just want to try something new. All I know is that I started writing a novel and it still hasn’t let me go, so my next book will (probably) be a novel. There’s also something wonderfully liberating about being able to build and grow my characters across a whole book!
However, I still have a lot of love for short stories. I took a break from my novel last year to write a short story and it was like returning to your old home: familiar and comfortable and welcoming. I can’t promise that I know what the future holds for me as a writer, but I will always have a special place in my heart for short stories.
Tricia: The Caribbean is having a surge of great literature, including yours. What do you want your writing to represent ultimately?
Breanne: Thank you so much for including me in that! I also see this period as a sort of renaissance of Caribbean writing and every year so many fantastic books seem to come out. I’m really happy and grateful to be working at such a fertile time.
Ultimately, I want my writing to show a part of Trinidad that I never read about when I was growing up. Trinidad is a place with a Starbucks café culture, Amazon deliveries and small businesses springing up every day. But it’s also a place buoyed by the traditional spirit of our Carnival culture, where people don’t pass the pepper to one another for fear of falling out and where supernatural stories sometimes make the news in major daily papers. I want to show a place at the intersection of all of that with humour and love but always steeped in the reality of my lived experiences.
It would be nice if people from other countries can read my books and have their ideas about the Caribbean changed and expanded. But my dearest hope is that some Caribbean people can see themselves in my stories. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was at a book club, where a young Trinidadian woman told me that she never saw herself in Caribbean stories before reading my book.
I think the beautiful thing about so many Caribbean writers working now is that we all have different experiences of the same Caribbean and, taken together, our work is a tapestry that shows our region in its many colours. It’s a huge honour to be among even a small part of that.
Tricia: Are there any other aspects of Trinidad and Tobago culture that you would like to explore in a future book?
Breanne: I feel if I were to start this list it would never stop. I think that my writing tends to come from my lived experiences. That’s not to say that my stories are ‘true’ but that everything I write about is an aspect of T&T culture that I have experienced in some way, and I feel like I want to explore further. Character is always the key for me to enter any story and so the multiplicity of ways that culture touches character continues to fascinate me. If I had to give a definitive answer though, I love eating and so I would love to write more about local cuisine.
Tricia: Thanks so much Breanne and good luck with your future books and for being on the interview series.
Breanne: Thank you so much for having me Tricia! I’m looking forward to continuing to follow along with your other interviews!
Photo courtesy Breanne Mc Ivor.