Monique Roffey

 

1. State your name, age and profession.

My name is Monique Roffey, I’m 50 years old and I’m a writer.

 

2. How do you define yourself in terms of race, class and nationality? Do you identify with the term ‘white Creole’? How far back can you trace your family on maternal/paternal lines?

I call myself a Trinidadian-born British writer; I am of Anglo-Mediterranean blood, and born in the Caribbean. I am bi-national, in that I own both a British and Trinidadian passport. I have been coming and going to and from Trinidad all my life. I have slowly, over time, grown comfortable with the cultural split. I went to school in Trinidad and the UK and university in the UK, I part-own a small flat in London, have many British friends, and yet I call Trinidad ‘home’.

I also identify as ‘white Creole’ because I have heard this tag all my life, often in reference to me. Others have called me this, in the UK and in Trinidad, and so yes, it feels like part of my identity – at least to others. It is how I’m seen, and, on scrutiny, it does fit. In Trinidad, or ‘home’, I’m in a minority. Therefore, it is impossible not to assimilate the culture, food, language of the majority African and Indian groups in society. White people who are born in the Caribbean do not appropriate black or Indian culture; we absorb it in the air, in the water, just through the process of living.

My father was English, born of woodlander Anglo Saxon lineage. His surname and mine is Roffey, which used to be spelled ‘Roughey’ – which is the word for a ‘rough enclosure for deer’. It is an ancient English name associated with working men who could vote and who coppiced the wildwood, called the Weald, which ran across the south of England. Over the centuries ‘Roughey’ changed to Roffey and my father’s ancestors worked their way up the class ladder. My father was also Anglican. So half of me is this old English rural working class stock. I come from a line of Englishmen who tended woodland. My father came to Trinidad in 1956 to work for a shipping company called Furness Withy as a clerk. He loved Trinidad instantly and more or less traded in his passport after Independence.

My mother’s bloodline is an enigma, we don’t have the precise details. She was born in Egypt and her parents were distant cousins and they were Maltese, Italian, maybe even Lebanese; they were Catholic. Mum’s first language is French, she also spoke Arabic and still speaks Italian fluently. She learnt English at sixteen. My mother never felt the same way about Trinidad as Dad did; she was blonde and fair skinned when she arrived in the 1950s. She rode her green bicycle around Port of Spain and everyone told her she was crazy to do so; it wasn’t the done thing, especially for white women. Mum felt ill at ease in Trinidad; I think she understood, then, that she was not welcome there as a white European. My family have lived in Trinidad now for over sixty years. Me and my brother were mostly educated abroad, in England and Canada, but we have grown up coming and going all our lives to Trinidad. (I have another brother who lives in Australia; he rarely returns). My brother who lives permanently in Trinidad has married into a much more established white family and so his children are fifth or sixth generation white Trinidadian. So, technically, there are now three generations of Roffeys in Trinidad, and yet the younger Roffeys are also fifth generation white Trinidadian.

But Roffey is only one family. It’s just us. Over time, our once very English family has been creolised. My father spoke Standard English; my brother’s white children speak the local Trinidadian dialect, as does my brother. Slowly, slowly it has taken three generations for this to happen.

Trinidad is the place of my birth, my family home, the place of my father’s death and grandmother’s death, the place I return to again and again, to live, work and write. It has been an ongoing narrative, all my life. I have spent long periods away, maybe four years at a time, especially in my youth; I have even tried to leave Trinidad entirely, almost like trying to leave a lover. But I never have. I still go back; I currently live almost half the year there, if I can. I teach in Trinidad too, and mentor emerging writers, and feel that is immensely satisfying work. My mother is now elderly; I go back more and more to keep an eye on her. When she dies, I will lose my base, our home, and it feels unimaginable what that will be like, to not have an actual house to go back to.

3. Do you find yourself thinking about whiteness or race in general? Why/why not?

Yes, I think about whiteness a lot.

Today, 2015, in the UK, thanks to new research coming out of UCLA and from writers and film makers like David Olusoga , we are beginning to understand that owning slaves was much more widespread than we knew before. In the early 19th century, soon after the abolition of slavery, (1834) there was the biggest compensation package, ever, in British history, paid to ex-slave owners. In total, around 46,000 slave owners were paid something like the equivalent of 17 billion pounds for their slaves. Those who received compensation then re-invested in British industry (for example the new and modern railroads) –and so this compensation money directly impacted on the wealth of British society, and hence on the history of ALL British people. Abolition could not happen without this payout. Slave owners re-invested in industry. And the UK economy boomed. Meanwhile, the slaves, many who still had to work unpaid for another six years as ‘apprentices” received nothing, ever.

The actual math, in figures only, is mind-bogglingly unjust.

Also, critically, we are left with another type of unjust equation – how this injustice impacted on European and New World society psychologically, spiritually and emotionally.

How did those who made the wealth end up with nothing?

Why were they not seen as equal?

It’s our responsibility to face this appalling history. I see this as a dominant story – it is part of global history. Slavery was so big, and contained such evil, that this part of our past still hangs over us. Many white people, myself included, have encountered this history in the form of black rage.

My feeling is that it is not good enough for any person of my generation to conveniently disassociate, to say “it wasn’t me”, or “my family were rural working class etc, we never owned slaves”, to in some way imply that this horrendous crime had nothing to do with us, personally. If you are white, and your family has lived for three generations, or more, in the Caribbean, it is likely that in some way you are either caught up with or implicated indirectly with slavery. Just take a good look around you, at your friends, at who your family members have married; it’s right there. If not part of it, centuries ago, many of us sit uncomfortably close to slavery. We live in the remnants of slavery too. My brother, for example, lives in a place called Perseverance, on an old cocoa estate of the same name. Slavery is on top of us.

And yet disassociation is a fairly common way of dealing with slavery, of putting it in the past, for all kinds of white people, both in the Caribbean and the UK. Sadly, even though the British were once colonisers of Trinidad, it has been my experience that most English people have no idea where Trinidad is. I have often found English people to be completely ignorant of their colonial history in the Caribbean. Mass or selective amnesia.

Do I think about whiteness? Sure. How do we white people come to terms with our collective history of abusing black people? Because this history is a story that deals with the general, ‘mass’ criminality, one collective hurting another collective, one group inflicting pain on another group, it is easy for each white individual to dis-connect.

Can this history ever be dealt with? Can we, in the same way a tree might use/recycle or thrive from toxic soil, ever grow?

On a more personal level, I am white, sort of. My skin colour and physicality is not so white and this comes from my mother’s Mediterranean heritage. In the UK, people mostly see me as mixed-race. I am olive skinned and have very thick curly hair (I used to straighten it, but it is now going back to wild curls). So I have this second split, in that I identify as white; in the Caribbean I’m seen as white. But in the UK I am not seen as white. English people see me as mixed race. In common with Jean Rhys and other white Caribbean writers, I have encountered much ignorance at the hands of the British elite and establishment. The British literati and publishing world is still very dominated by a super privileged Oxbridge clique. I have been ‘exoticised’ by English men and women alike, seen as ‘colourful and interesting’, and not really one of them. In the UK, once home of Empire, I have encountered numerous reductive ideas about the Caribbean: that it is a paradise, that it is innocently beautiful, that it is backward, that it is somehow trouble free. Too often I have listened to stereotyped ideas; the Caribbean is seen only as an idyll, a place for a holiday on a beach; all of these clichés are part of my experience.

And so, I’ve had a kind of ‘double outsider’ experience. In the UK I am a bit of an oddity and sometimes exoticised, and in Trinidad I am associated with a despised marginal community, the people who prospered at the expense of others.

Because being a ‘white Creole’ has been so complex for me, I stand by it. It is not a headache – it is not a curse, it is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to figure out and understand and to claim. ‘Yes, this is who I am.”  And so, what does it mean?


3. What makes you feel that you don’t belong to local society? Can contradictory feelings of both belonging and not belonging be experienced at different times and in different places in your local environment?

As a white woman with a British accent, who comes and goes from metropolis to island state, who is perceived as mostly living in Diaspora, my experience of the local society has been mixed.

Yeah, some suspicion, and yeah one or two people have been hostile; but mostly, I come and go easily. Trinidad, unlike Barbados, in particular Port of Spain, is very fluid, socially. There is a lot of social mobility, and there is an active and thriving artistic community. This community is full of white and light skinned people and all kinds of film makers and artists who come from other parts of the world and who have settled in Trinidad. I could also give you a good length list of resident white-creole Trinidadians who are established artists, writers, academics and media people. We all know them and they are part of the mix.  I am not resident full time in Trinidad, but come and go a lot; I’ve noticed that people have been accepting of my duality. Karen Martinez, a white-Trinidadian filmmaker, has just made a documentary called Dreams in Transit which was part of the TTFF 2015. In it she interviews many Trinidadians, of all races, who, like me, have lived away from the region and returned, or who come and go a lot. It’s worth watching. You really get to see the creole fusion of Trinidad and the problematics of living in Diaspora for a time. I was glad to see I’m not the only one interviewed with a British accent. You see brown, black and white Trinis, some based in POS, others in the UK, and some who come and go, all talk about the split, or our experiences of being here and there.

Sometimes, when local Trinis hear my British accent people assume I’m a tourist or ‘from foreign’, and then I explain, “no I’m a Trini,” and then I watch a look cross their face. Usually, it is a look of acceptance. And so I go out and about in Trinidad feeling and watching this look cross people’s faces. I know I am turned over in people’s consciousness. I actually like this. I like the edginess that comes with being me. If people give me the ‘white ‘ thing I encourage them to bring it up. I want to discuss it. I own that I am privileged. In Trinidad, I teach creative writing privately, and have done for years. Most of my private students are black, I know they have had to figure out if they are happy to work with me. I teach my students and they teach me too; at times my writing group has been a kind of fringe space where apparent hostile groups can meet. The subject of race and privilege has caused much pain and fear in the past, and yet the group has continued to meet. Something in me is determined to face this race question head on; I have to face this questioning of who I am, and what my skin colour represents.

So while on the whole, I make my way in Trinidad with ease, now and then the ‘you don’t live here’ attitude has come up a lot. The ‘you aren’t really one of us’ thing has been part of my experience too, which makes me sad as there are dozens of Caribbean writers and poets, white and black and brown, living in the UK and elsewhere, and our voice is relevant. No one would say, ‘you don’t live here, your voice doesn’t count’ to a black writer or poet living in Diaspora. They are never questioned. But a white Diasporic voice is very much seen as off-message or questionable, like we don’t know the terrain well enough, or we are in no way astute or in touch enough to write about the place we call home.

Other things come in to it. Personal things. For example, the outsider thing has been with me since birth. I don’t necessarily see this as political or to do with an issue of my identity as a white woman; being an outsider has been very much who I am since childhood. I was born cross-eyed and bookish; I was both precocious as a child and a loner. So being on ‘the outside of things’ is my way default of being. I actually like it; it has been habitual. It has been part of the way I operate for most of my life.  I am comfortable with being uncomfortable out here on the margins. I don’t like being part of a group. I guess I reject groups, all groups. I don’t trust them or like them. Currently, our generation of Caribbean writers has its policemen. Having spent my life avoiding groups, I now have to avoid not just group, but those who put themselves in charge of policing the group.

My feeling is that no white person, living in Diaspora, in the region, or anywhere really self-identifies with the evils contained in slavery. We are all equally horrified. The evils of slavery are from a bygone era. And yet its legacy is still with us. We need to talk and not rage at each other. We need to come to the table sans rage. While I understand the rage, I feel it is an unstable ingredient to bring to intelligent and progressive discourse. We need to talk with temperance. We need to avoid cliché and stereotype about white people, and white people need to hear what black people are saying to us, to our faces.

This is why this project is so wonderful, a watershed. I hope it opens up a new space in this dialogue.

 

Bio:

 

Monique Roffey is award-winning Trinidadian-born writer. Her latest novel House of Ashes, based on the 1990 coup in Trinidad, was shortlisted for the COSTA Award 2015 as well as the OCM BOCAS Award 2015. Archipelago, a novel about a voyage from Port of Spain to the Galapagos, won the OCM BOCAS Award for Caribbean Literature in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Orion Award 2014.  In 2010, her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Encore Award. Her erotic memoir With the Kisses of his Mouth caused controversy and critical acclaim in 2011. She is bi-national and divides her time between the east end of London and Port of Spain. She teaches creative writing at COSTAATT and privately in Port of Spain as well as in the UK.

 

 

 

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