The Mermaid of Black Conch: Fantastical romance, Taino myth, post-colonial Caribbean

This was a mermaid book that I was excited to read just from the setting and themes alone. When I did I really enjoyed the story, the writing in a Caribbean-English was beautiful, and the themes definitely engaged me, as did some of the discussions/debates that surround the book – I’ve been inspired by a lot of ideas. There were some really creative new imaginings on classic elements of mer stories like transformation and ancient wisdom, and there were new engagements with post-colonial themes in a Caribbean context. The book’s main questions surround ideas of womanhood and internalised patriarchy and touch on race and history.

The book was written by Trinidad-born British writer Monique Roffey and published in 2020 by Peepal Tree Press who aim ‘to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK’. It won the 2020 Costa Book of the Year award.

Story

The book is set in the tiny fishing village of St Constance on the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch in 1976. David, a young fisherman waits for his catch, strumming an old guitar while he does. His music attracts Aycayia – a one thousand year old mermaid, a native Taino woman from the time the islands were inhabited by Amerindians – hundreds of years before the arrival of European colonisers and enslaved Africans. Aycayia was cursed by the women of her community because of the trouble caused by male obsession with her. She had ‘her sex’ sealed up in a fish tail and was doomed to wander the ocean forever. 

David and Aycayia meet in their spot regularly… until the island hosts its annual fishing competition – attracting boats from all over the region trying to catch the biggest marlin. Aycayia is caught and brought to shore by a father and son from Miami, who plan to sell her for millions, but she is then rescued by David. He plans to release her but he realises she’s changing form, back to the woman she was before she was cursed. So David keeps her in his home and tries to help her walk. David knows he can’t keep her secret forever, especially as some members of his community were present as crew on the American boat that caught her and would easily recognise her. There’s also a witch hunt by the Americans for the person who ‘stole’ ‘their’ mermaid. Although David has strong feelings for Aycayia and she’s starting to feel something for him, they still can’t communicate. When Aycayia meets 10 year old Reggie, a smart, creative thinker who is deaf, without many friends and knows sign language, they connect immediately. She begins to copy the sign and we all realise she has the chance to make friends and learn to communicate. 

David, along with Reggie and his mother Arcadia Rain – a white Creole land owner – all help Aycayia relearn language and readapt to human life. Danger is reintroduced through David’s neighbour, Priscilla (a character Monique Roffey describes in an interview as a ‘bad woman, a Hetaira archetype with her own agency and she’s not good’). Priscilla has a thing for David who’s never been interested in her and now loves Aycayia, so she has a vendetta against both of them. She dislikes Arcadia – ‘Miss high and white’ and when she discovers she’s helping David and Aycayia, Priscilla informs the police and the Americans. On top of that, the spirits of those who cursed Aycayia (heard as laughing voices in the air as hurricanes descend on Black Conch) are still out to get her. So, that’s as much of the story I’ll relay here… but the rest does get quite exciting as the Americans come back for Aycayia, there’s kidnapping, gun pointing and a daring rescue mission that takes place while hurricanes sweep fish from the sea and rain them down on the land, taunting the mermaid with her impending recapture by the winds and sea.

The Taino Mermaid Myth

The idea of a woman cursed because of the perceived dangers of her sexuality/ sexual allure comes from a Taino myth, at least a myth found in Cuba that has been attributed to the Taino in oral tradition. Most of us have been taught that all traces of the Taino – including their oral traditions and mythologies – were quickly destroyed by the spread of European disease and acts of genocide by colonisers (they were actually declared officially ‘extinct’ by the Spanish in 1565) but some Taino did amazingly survive these horrors and while centuries of mixing with white, black, mixed and Asian Caribbean populations means that there are unlikely to be people who are of only Taino origin, there are communities especially in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico who carry forward Taino identity, heritage and surviving culture. I found a few versions of the Aycayia myth but one from Traditions and Legends of Cienfuegos, by Adrián del Valle, 1919, was the most similar to the one used in The Mermaid of Black Conch.

It tells that Aycayia was a dancer and singer and the only survivor of a canoe wreck which killed her six sister dancers. Her singing, dancing and beauty apparently had such a grip on local men that they neglected their duties and families to go and watch her. So that was her fault obviously… and she was banished to a distant island along with an older woman. This still didn’t work because the men just took their canoes out to visit her, to give her gifts and watch her singing and dancing. Their wives and lovers back home then decided to curse Aycayia, causing a hurricane to sweep her into the sea. Some versions of the story say that she then became a lonely mermaid and that the older woman became a turtle – as they are both portrayed in The Mermaid of Black Conch.

A (pretty romanticised) painting of a Taino woman

So Aycayia’s dangerous ‘sex’ was sealed up inside a mermaid tail never to be explored and enjoyed by her… or shared with any of the husbands besotted by her. She was banished before European arrival and in the thousand years she’s been living under the sea she doesn’t realise that her people have been almost entirely wiped out, that the islands were colonised, repopulated with settlers and enslaved Africans who toiled on the islands for centuries and whose descendants are now living in the aftermath of it all. There are some awful things that happen to almost ‘initiate’ Aycayia into this new world that’s been built out of all these things – there’s the horrible capture by the Americans, the hook in the throat and the long struggle, and then as she’s brought on land she’s treated with a conflicting combination of lustful curiosity and hatred that I imagine will be familiar to a lot of women who experience being exoticised, and then this descends into horrible sexual abuse. She’s strung up with the other fish and has her status as a sellable (and stealable) object confirmed – the presets from slavery being easily reactivated… so that’s her welcome to the ‘new’ world.

When we get to hear Aycayia’s own voice there’s a sense of deep pain and confusion, but at times there’s a kind of melancholy acceptance of it all. But even after all this time and everything that’s changed, she’s still eager to regain her humanity, womanhood, identity, a place in a new community and enjoy love… if she can without the curse catching up with her. It’s in the moments where she builds up hope, and then realises the hurricane to take her back is still coming for her, that she really falls into despair and even attempts suicide. It made me think of really sad things I’ve read about how frequently the Taino turned to suicide in response to colonisation and the horrors that came with it – accounts by the colonisers show that they thought nothing of beheading Taino children just to test the sharpness of their swords.

Women’s Agency

Although there were a lot of parallels between destruction, sweeping hurricanes, and traumatic changes in the history of the Caribbean, the aspect of the curse which becomes the main focus is the idea of rivalries between women, the blame placed on them for men’s behaviour towards them and how women navigate those things. In an interview I read with Monique Roffey she explains that if you unravel female jealousy you find the patriarchy and that ‘our patriarchy is highly internalised’. There are some great discussions on this with Monique Roffey on Youtube that explain it better than I could with only my second-hand understanding, so I’ve linked a video where Monique talks to poet Nikita Gill about these themes as well as some other interviews and discussions on them, and a good review from a Trinidadian reader that offers a post-colonial perspective. I definitely recommend watching/ reading them if you’ve read the book and want to continue exploring the themes, but I’ll do my best to put across some of the key things I got from the interviews here as well.

A lot of the discussion takes place around the character of Priscilla who attacks the protagonists. Rather than competing for David’s attention she gains control of the situation and decides to basically fuck all of them, and go after the money that the mermaid is worth. The attacks that come from her aren’t only about David choosing Aycayia over her and Arcadia helping them, but are also responses to the injustice of Arcadia’s family having benefitted from a history of colonial abuse and the fact that Arcadia, as a result of this unjust benefit, is now a land owner to whom Priscilla and other black islanders have to pay rent. The context of slavery’s legacy and the history of racial abuse in the region is ever-present in the book.

But as well as internalised patriarchy, Monique emphasises Priscilla’s individuality, agency, personal character and the complexity and diversity of personalities. She said that Priscilla is the most talked about character and though she is ‘bad’ she’s complicated and ‘I hope people don’t hate Priscilla.’

I actually liked her as I am always a fan of antagonists (sometimes I am a bit on their side!) though turning David in to the police, collaborating with the mermaid hunters and saying mean things about the deaf child – even I had to dislike her a little bit. From other reviews and comments I’ve read it seems like people have really mixed feelings about Priscilla as the most prominent black female character in the book (one other had less of a presence but was much more of a likeable character, looked up to in the community, kind hearted and on side with the protagonists). Some black women commenting or in conversation expressed a love for Priscilla and the idea that strong black women can still be celebrated when they choose to be ‘bad’ or self serving in systems that otherwise work to keep them down, though some felt that despite the complications of the character being emphasised, Priscilla’s character risked portraying black women in a negative light – some thought provoking discussions have been had!

In one interview Monique says ‘All my writing, to date, has been inspired by activism and been an act of activism. They are all novels which write about women, have female central protagonists, give agency to women.’

Ernest Hemingway seems to have inspired one of the book’s antagonists – the big game fisherman and all round Miami bastard, Thomas Clayson. Thomas is determined to dominate nature and the other people around him including his ‘sissy’ son, Hank who prefers poetry to hunting and is suspected by his father of not liking girls. Monique (an Extinction Rebellion activist) used pictures of Ernest’s gruesome animal abuse and his own writing on the glorified ‘sport’ as inspiration for her villain. Is that thing he’s wearing a harness? For the fishing rod to sit in that hole? So it extends like a ginormous animal-killing penis? Someone tell me it’s not true.

Caribbean Context

One of the best things about the book is its really strong sense of place and how it totally puts you on the island among this group of characters, who Monique says are largely based on real people she knows. For me there was definitely a huge sense of familiarity – the attitudes of many of the characters, descriptions of the sea and forests, the fish market, David’s house and boat and the atmosphere of Ce Ce’s bar, it could all have been in Seychelles or, I imagine, any other small island former colony in the Caribbean or Western Indian Ocean. The fact that this island was a fictional one was great because we can all project ‘our island’ whatever it may be, but I think because of the timing of the book – 40 years ago – for people my age and younger who’s parents or grandparents still lived in the islands at around that time there’s another layer of familiarity in being ‘told about’ the islands of that time by the narrator who seems to be somebody of an older generation who lives or lived there (an older man if you listen to the audio book, but you could imagine it as someone else if you read… until the sex scene where you have to STOP imagining it’s your grandad – you’ve been warned!). One thing I enjoyed was how the book made use of the power of gossip on the small island – in the UK dropping a gossip bombshell might not work to get a police detective off your back after you’ve just committed a slew of serious crimes, but in Black Conch, or in Seychelles, you can well imagine it might – everybody knows secrets about everybody, and everybody knows you have to be tight lipped about everything (or at least be seen to act that way) and breaking the rules can cause total devastation. Another thing I liked was the specific references to to the music that’s played everywhere – Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and Aswad, which help you to feel completely present as the songs play in your head.

I read that Monique Roffey was born and raised (at least partly) in Trinidad and she’s written elsewhere about the fact that in the Caribbean she’s in a minority of people perceived as white Creole – as in born on or belonging to the culture of the island. She talks about writing what you know, so while of course most of the people where she’s from (and therefore most of the characters in her books) are black, a lot of the book’s story involves the character of Arcadia the white Creole woman who is presented as a likeable semi-protagonist – she’s done the best for her deaf son, looks out for the local mentally unwell people, lives among the black population but she’s also in a very privileged position because of her family’s colonial heritage, everyone around knows it and she’s ashamed of it. Monique says that she knows people like Arcadia and that these kinds of white Caribbean women haven’t particularly made it into literature.

Colonial Caribbean House

The background context of the book is the rising Black Consciousness and Black Power movements in recently independent and predominantly black former colonies of the 1970s, and the growing resistance against continued white or foreign ownership/control of land, finances and resources. With these historic processes in motion, pressures cause Arcadia’s partner and soon-to-be father of her son to leave her because of the humiliation of being labelled the white woman’s ‘house nigger’ – originally a derogatory term for a ‘domestic’ slave who lived and/or worked in the master’s house rather than out in the plantation/slave quarters with the majority. (House slaves received visible privileges like better living conditions but were often isolated, or rejected by wider black social groups and were at much more risk of cruelty and sexual violence by masters). Arcadia’s partner, whose name is Life, can’t live in that old colonial house and also feels that by putting this white woman first he’s giving up his potential as a young black artist at a time – maybe the first and only time – of rising opportunity. When he leaves it breaks her heart and though she comes across a very strong person, she’s living with the grief of it. In all this we are led to sympathise with both of them with a narrator giving insight to both perspectives, but with Arcadia as the much more prominent character we see more of how the event and the historic processes behind it impact her. So for me this is the first time I’ve ever encountered writing like this on a white Caribbean experience linked in a personal way to these historic Black Power/Consciousness movements, and while, hopefully, everybody understands that this isn’t THE experience to try to understand of this particular history, it is one and one I’m happy to read about, as well. Monique always emphasises writing what she knows, in one article she recognises those who say ‘do not write on our behalf’ and says that there are many things about Caribbean experience that she ‘won’t experiment with’. If you came to this book because of mermaids or (more likely for my readers interested in diverse experiences) specifically ‘Caribbean mermaids’ and you now want to read more of black and Asian Caribbean experience around the Black Power movements you could read Is just a Movie – by Earl Lovelace which includes a whole string of experiences following the Trinidad Black Power Revolution of 1970. That’s the only other novel I’ve read to touch on it – there must be more but I haven’t read them – but there’s also good history books like Black Power in the Caribbean (edited by Kate Quinn but made up of a collection of essays by diverse Caribbean historians who teach us all about the Rodney Riots, the Trinidadian Revolution, interpretations of Garveyism, Black and Asian solidarity, class dynamics and a whole lot more surrounding the movements) and of course you can listen to the political music of the time – like those few artists just listed.

But with that said, black experience of the consciousness/power movements is not limited to the character of Life in this book, and we are also invited to empathise with other black characters representing viewpoints linked to the changing attitudes of the time, like the people who live on Arcadia’s land and tell her what they think of her, the crew employed by the Americans and other characters who reject the assumed authority of the white American fisherman to form a kind of solidarity in opposition to their hunt for the mermaid thief.

1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad

Mermaid Ideas

The Goddess, per se, the matrifocal story of birth and of transformation and renewal, holism and transformation is really our first ever told story. It once had a central place in our early story telling. Slowly, this story was erased in the Bronze Age and replaced by the story of the hunt and the hero’s quest. The mermaid is a pre-Christian water Goddess. She is a 3000-year-old myth, first appearing in Assyria in the form of the Goddess Atagaris. She appears everywhere,This was an incredibly good and really enjoyable mermaid book that speaks to a lot of things I’m very interested in. I am interested in post-colonial experience of all kids including that of white Creole people, but I’m hoping for more mer-stories written from black and brown perspectives to emerge from this part of the world, and others, and will be searching for them regardless of how or by whom they’re published. though, in every ocean and some rivers: a woman who lives in the water. Humankind dreamed her up and imagined her all over the globe. The mermaid represents otherness, exile, blame, shame, beauty, sexual ambiguity, (having no genitalia). Many mermaids are associated with having a ‘sweet voice’, with singing, and most are young, and many are isolated, cursed and lonely. The mermaid represents so many ideas…..and of course I had started dreaming her too. She’s a complex loner, an outsider and a chimera. For all these reasons I was drawn to writing about her.

That was Monique’s response to the question of what mermaids mean to her. Pretty impressive but you can tell from reading the book she’s done a lot of research, and even wrote an article for the Guardian (linked below) listing some favourite mermaid books, which I was pleased to see included some of my own faves, especially The Deep. On Monique’s social media bio she proudly identifies herself as a Mermaidologist which I love, but I want to finish with a quick mention of some things that made the mermaid ideas in this book special for me.

So as I’ve written about elsewhere – mermaids, especially in African and Creole cultures, often represent connection to ancient knowledge and ancestors and that definitely comes across with Aycayia in how she’s connected to ancient Taino wisdom, magic and especially music – all things which are thought to have been lost. When she sings and dances David looks at her with an understanding that she’s connected another, shamanistic reality. On the island of Black Conch there aren’t mermaids in the folklore – only mermen which helps to separate Aycayia and our story from too many pre-existing ideas among the islanders. It’s also an interesting reversal as the mermen are seducers of women (like the ones that lure away seaweed and shellfish-collecting women in other traditions).

Aycayia’s memories of her life before the curse are always relevant through the story and it becomes more clear what exactly happened to her and why as the book progresses. As she slowly becomes a woman again she’s rediscovering or sometimes learning for the first time all different aspects of humanity and womanhood. One thing that she remembers is that there were things she was not yet allowed to know (about sex) and she discovers these things with David, who sees ‘loving’ as his calling in life. David undergoes his own transformation and he says that Aycayia’s influence helps him see ‘how to be a man’ and how to treat women well. Part of the curse was of course to deny her the possibility of sex and she liberates herself from this when she chooses to explore sex with David.

Imagine this up your nose!

The mermaid transformation to and from a human state is obviously a central theme in the mer genre and I’m always interested to see how it’s done when I read a new book that includes it – does the tail morph to legs, or shed scale by scale to reveal legs beneath? Is it painful or smooth? Messy or clean? Self induced or the result of drying out? Does the tail come back on contact with water? In Aycayia’s case her mermaid skin flakes away from her whole body slowly over a period of days or weeks. Tiny crabs and sea creatures that lived in her ears and nose crawl away and piles of living matter form around her as she sits in the bathtub shedding it all which I thought was a really cool idea. (Have you ever taken anything out of the sea and tried to keep it? When we were kids and too young to know any better my little brother secretly tried to keep some crabs in our bedroom, the poor things died pretty quick but Jesus – the smell. This scene reminded me of that). Anyway, even when Acayia’s tail is gone there are still scales flaking off other parts of her weeks later and it becomes evident that the transformation process she’s undergoing is much more than the loss of her tail, or scales. That is only the physical start of it and it continues through the book as she finds the social and sexual aspects of her womanhood – over a period of months. The final stage of the transformation comes back to a physical change – the start of her menstrual cycle. That’s the end of her other mer-human cycle and it’s then that it’s time to change back to mermaid. I think that idea was quite unique in mermaid transformations. So the mer-world has been given something quite special with this whole book and even those who only read the teen/YA stuff – you should read this one. It’s short and fast paced as well.

For me, the most important contribution of this book to mer-readers is its connecting of mermaid themes with a post-colonial island setting, shining light on some mermaid lore attached to an indigenous culture that’s too often assumed to have been lost without a trace to colonial destruction and creating from these things a totally original story with powerful messages about womanhood and humanity. I found it to be an incredibly well written and really enjoyable mermaid book that speaks to a lot of things I’m very interested in, and though I am interested in post-colonial experience of all kinds including that of white Creole people, I’m hoping for more mer-stories written from black and brown perspectives to emerge from this part of the world, and others, to add to our small, but growing collection. I will be searching for them regardless of how or by whom they’re published seeing as I doubt any of the big UK/international publishers will give us ‘another’ Caribbean mermaid book any time soon. Though maybe they will – they must have been kicking themselves when this book, signed to a small Caribbean-focused publishers, ended up winning big awards and becoming so popular.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet read this book – I recommend listening to the audio version. The language of most of the characters is referred to as ‘Black Conch Parlance’ referring to the fictional island but it’s recognisably a Caribbean-English and was nice to hear it spoken. I also enjoyed hearing all the ‘goddamn mother fuckers’ and the like spoken in an appropriately hateful voice for Thomas Clayson. But one of the best things about the audio version is that Aycayia’s beautifully written monologues are always accompanied by these really nice melodies gently plucked on a guitar.  

So as always I love hearing from other people who have read (or plan to read) the books I discuss, message or comment your thoughts. People interested in/supportive of post-colonial and black and brown experience in the mer-genre reach out, link up, make friends and I will be discussing more mer-books soon! 

P.s. Any independent mer-authors from anywhere in the world, especially those who’s work centres on post-colonial and/or black and brown experience please be in touch if you’d like me to read/discuss your books – I would love to.

Links

‘I am not extinct’ – Jamaican Tainos proudly identify.

Interview with Monique Roffey

Review with a post-colonial focus by Trinidadian Reader – Simsy Marie

Conversation with Nikita Gill and Monique Roffey

Monique Roffey’s Top 10 Mer-books

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