Editor Carolyn Kuebler talks with emerging writer Celeste Mohammed, author of “Six Months” in NER 38.1, about moral grounding, voice, and her exactly-right response to one agent’s painful comment.
CK: You’re a lawyer who lives and practices in Trinidad. Why did you come to the US—specifically New England—to get an MFA? How did that come about?
CM: Back in 2012, I finished a novel and sent it to an agent. She wrote back rejecting it and she hit me with a line I’ve never forgotten: the writing was not what I’d hoped it would be. When I resuscitated myself after that killer put-down, I decided I had to improve my writing skills. I needed an MFA. I spoke to a successful Trinidadian author who had attended Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She raved about the program and how it had changed her writing. I wanted that experience. Then, when she told me Rachel Manley was one of the faculty mentors there, I was pretty much decided. I grew up reading Rachel Manley’s books. I figured any program with such an authentic Caribbean influencer would be the place for me.
CK: Your story gives us an up-close and intimate picture of how a decent, loving human being can lose his moral grounding when he leaves his home and family behind. It’s a kind of morality tale, but it’s not prescriptive. Did this story begin, for you, with a dilemma, a character, a scene? How did it develop?
CM: Some time ago, I was returning to Trinidad after an MFA residency stint in Cambridge. I was on the final leg of the trip—Miami to Trinidad—had already boarded the plane and was sitting there, watching luggage being loaded onto an adjacent plane. A bag fell off the conveyor belt. For a while, no one seemed to notice. I sat there panicking on behalf of the owner of that bag. Was it a flight to the Caribbean? Do these airline workers know how important that suitcase was to its Caribbean owner? That its contents are like life and death to his family back home? I decided right there that I wanted to write a story about that bag. After a few months and a few attempts, though, I realized that the story I was trying to tell was not about a suitcase—at least not that kind of baggage. It was about metaphysical baggage: the emotional burdens that illegal immigrants carry back and forth from the Caribbean to America; the personal trade-offs they make in pursuit of green money and a Green Card. I knew so many families—mine included—who, since the mid-1980s, had been through that trauma of losing a loved one to the enchantments of America. That’s when the idea of a kind of cautionary tale was born.
CK: I felt I could really hear Luther’s voice as I read this piece. It’s so alive on the page. But the whole story would be underlined in red if you kept the grammar check turned on while you wrote! How did you manage to turn off your own internal grammar check—or did you? Do the lawyer and the artist have to fight it out, or does this separation come easily to you?
CM: The lawyer and the artist did duke it out. What a slugfest! I grew up in a culture and education system where The Queen’s English was royal. Local Trini dialect was considered “broken English” and was only permissible in close settings where it might be spoken for emphasis or to make oneself understood by a lesser-educated person. My mother would not even let us speak raw dialect at home. The written word, however, was always treated as formal and therefore was always rendered in standard English. I then went into a profession which reinforced this bias toward the most formal, archaic English you could imagine. So when I first started writing, I stuck to that mold. But as I grew in confidence, I realized some stories—like this one—would always be lacking without the innate lyricism, musicality, and color of our local parlance. I wanted to try some of what Junot Díaz does, to strike such a balance and blend with my use of English that readers—particularly Standard English readers—engage with the authentic voice of the characters as if they are hearing it rather than simply reading it. My earliest drafts were horrible—timorous, staccato mismatches of my “proper English” voice and the characters’ “broken English” voice. With the encouragement of my writing mentors, I was eventually able to step aside and let Luther speak.
CK: You mentioned in the note you sent along with this story that it speaks to the “box-and-barrel” generation of Caribbeans who lost one or both parents to America. Can you tell us more about that, or why you wrote about it? Are the enchantments ever worth it?
CM: In the mid-’80s, Trinidad and Tobago plunged from oil boom straight into recession. People began fleeing like rats from a sinking ship, and that period culminated with a coup d’état in 1990. The term “box-and-barrel generation” was coined in later years to describe the many children who ended up being raised by grandparents or other extended family because their parents left to work in America. The term developed somewhat derogatory connotations: abandoned, undisciplined brats who had the newest toys and flashiest clothes. I know that childhood displacement and its effects firsthand. My parents tried America several times, but they always came back because my brother and I never did well without them. Other parents—uncles and aunts of mine—stayed. In some cases, yes, the enchantments of North America were worth it: there are many very successful Caribbean immigrant stories. But, more often, what I’ve seen are examples of how trying to do the right thing for your family might cost you your family.
CK: This story is technically written in second person, but the “you” here feels very much like an “I.” Why did you choose to do it that way? Did you experiment with other points of view?
CM: The story started life in the first person “I.” But it wasn’t working; something was missing. I went back to the concept board: the notion of the cautionary tale, almost like a manual of how to mess up your life. To my mind, the most memorable examples of that kind of story came from Junot Díaz and Lorrie Moore, and were written in the second person. I went back and studied their execution of that PoV. I noted the aggressive, didactic approach in Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. She achieves a mandatory tone by dropping the subject (“you”) and starting the sentence with the imperative form of the verb (“Decide that you like college life.”). This was very appropriate for a collection called “Self-Help” but not so much for my story. Díaz’s usage achieved a gentler intimacy with the reader and was closest to the tone a Trinidadian might adopt when seeking the advice of another Trinidadian, when laying out a problem by way of anecdote. I decided that was the sweet spot; that was the tone I wanted for Luther’s story.
I figured that second-person “you” would draw readers—whether Caribbean or American—into the story. I wanted it to prompt identification. To say to Americans: “Stand in these shoes and walk this mile. What would YOU do?” To say to Caribbeans: “Remember him? YOU know him, your Uncle/Father/Grandpa . . .”
CK: Will we be seeing Luther Archibald Junior again in other stories? What else are you working on?
CM: I’m just wrapping up work on turning my MFA thesis into a collection of linked short stories set in the fictional town of Pleasantview, Trinidad. Luther’s story is one of them. He gets honorable mention in one or two of the other stories but, no, he never reappears as fully as he does in “Six Months.” His sister, his mother, the evil Mr. H—those characters are more fully realized in the other parts of the collection. I’m trying to achieve something similar to V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, something akin to a novel-in-stories. I’m also trying to debunk a couple myths typically held by North Americans: that the Caribbean is all about coconut trees, carnival, rum-and-Coke; that Trinis are the happiest people in the world (apparently someone did an international survey and we won). Ultimately, I’m hoping an overarching truth emerges in this collection: you infect where you live, and where you live infects you.
CK: What other writers, musicians, artists, are you recommending these days?
CM: I don’t know about “recommending,” but these days I’m reading the collected stories of Gabriel García Márquez. I’m also rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in anticipation of the movie. For anyone who liked “Six Months” and is seeking a deeper immersion into the Caribbean experience, Marlon James is the author to pick up. I always enjoy Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill for their senses of humor and how effectively they portray characters who are socially awkward. In terms of art, Asher Mains is doing phenomenal work out on the island of Grenada. My music tastes are eclectic but, of course, I am always psyched to see Caribbean beats penetrating popular music in North America. For some personal favorites that are off the Top 40 path, I would say check out these fine examples of Trini music: Bunji Garlin’s hit “Differentology,” Machel Montano’s “Wave,” Kes The Band’s “Wotless.”
Celeste Mohammed is a lawyer, emerging writer, and mother of a two-year-old. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.