“I think it’s because of what else happens down there too,” Monique Roffey muses. “So it’s seen as kind of dark and dirty, but that’s where all our sexual energy is concentrated.” Roffey is explaining why she thinks most people are afraid to explore their bodies.
The Old Fire Station, an annexe of the National Library, in the throes of the second Bocas Lit Fest last weekend is not the most likely place for a tête-à-tête on tantric sex, one might think. However, the 46-year-old author of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is the only Trinidadian to have come within grabbing distance of the coveted £30,000 Orange prize for fiction, awarded in the UK to the best novel by a woman for the year, and she has an MA and a PhD in creative writing. So one assumes that her “hands-on” approach to sexual self-discovery is not soft porn, but, in fact, a quite literary pursuit. The result is the moving memoir With the Kisses of His Mouth, published in June last year in the UK. In truth, we should be discussing Archipelago, her latest novel, which is due to be released in July, and from which she read for the first time at the Bocas Lit Fest last Saturday. But though the plot—about a man who loses his home in a flood and decides to make his peace with the sea by sailing from Chaguaramas to the Galapagos—is exciting, the research that Roffey undertook for her 480-page “coming of middle age” memoir is even more spellbinding. Between November 2006 and June 2010, Roffey’s quest for sexual self-knowledge led her to casual sex-dating sites, Native American neo-shamanic sacred sex practices, a famous swinger’s resort and a cave in France where Mary Magdalene is said to have escaped and prayed for 30 years after the death of Christ.
Her decision to pursue sexual self-knowledge was “brave and mad,” she admits. But when she found a teacher of neo-tantra, which incorporates the ideas of the Buddha, Vedic texts, and knowledge of the chakras, she discovered the path to enlightenment. Learning to be compassionate to others and loving towards difficult people was a tricky concept to embrace at first, she says, “I was very resistant to the ideas of tantra.” But after four years of work in a room full of people, often nude, working in small groups, she found out what triggers her sexual energy and what doesn’t. For instance, people she finds attractive and people she doesn’t find attractive have almost the same effect on her: a kind of fear. “That edginess, that tension—I want you and I don’t want you. I have a very similar energy when it comes to that, so I have learnt how to be more aware of the urge to grab or push someone away. Most Westerners have no idea how to use their sexual energy.” She confessed to “behaving like a Trini woman” on a few occasions. “Trini women doh take horn easily,” she clarified. “I can still get upset and cuss men who have other partners.” Of course With the Kisses of His Mouth is not available in Trinidad. Roffey’s family, including her mother, on whom The White Woman on The Green Bicycle is based, still lives here, and it would be awkward and inappropriate to have the book readily accessible for any narrow-minded maco to pore over salaciously. “I never left Trinidad,” Roffey insists, in a quite English accent. But even so, it’s clear that she is not your typical Trini—not with all that unabashed talk about her you-know-what. This former Royal Literary Fund fellow is based in the UK—north London, to be precise—where she found the anonymity and fellow soul-searchers she needed to set off on her sexual odyssey.
Archipelago is about another kind of odyssey—one by an anti-hero, as Roffey describes the protagonist of her third novel. “This is not going to be analysed politically or socially,” she joked. (In The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Dr Eric Williams plays a starring role, and themes of racism and class difference give it literary oomph.) “It’s not as politically ambitious as the other books.” But this is Monique Roffey writing; and an easier read from the pen of this creative-writing lecturer (she hosted a three-hour workshop, “Your Life as a Memoir,” at Bocas) takes on no less a theme than climate change. In 2008, Roffey’s brother lost his home in Maraval to floods. A wall of water came down the hillside and smashed into his house, demolishing it. He was devastated. She wanted to write about the event, but didn’t know how. A year later, the idea came to her. She called up her brother, who had managed, with insurance, to rebuild his house. She remembered he used to have a boat. She asked him, if he could leave his life behind and sail off into the sunset, where would he go? “The Galapagos,” he replied. And so Roffey decided to sail to the Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles west of Ecuador, in the Pacific. She couldn’t sail and she couldn’t afford to rent a boat. Ever-brave and enterprising, Roffey found a wealthy American with a yacht, with whom she hitched a lift to Panama. Along the way she broke a toe falling off the boat and resisted the temptation to haul in a package of cocaine floating by. She arrived in the Galapagos a mere week after a tsunami hit—the result of the massive underwater earthquake off the east coast of Japan in March last year.
The hero of Archipelago, anti-hero, as she calls him, is tested time and time again, and often, he fails. “It’s an anti-hero’s quest. There’s even a scene where he goes to a brothel in Curacao and flops,” she laughs. “This is a man who suffers a catastrophe by nature, and he can’t quite accept that his whole life has been changed by the event, but it means nothing to nature. He’s basically trying to square things with nature.” The book focuses on the relationship he has with his daughter, with his wife, who is in a coma, and the sea. When he arrives in the Galapagos, with a tsunami heading his way, he realises he cannot escape nature. Even the little girl says, “Another one?” And he says, “Yes, they’re natural. Sometimes they happen when it’s too hot. How nature responds to itself sometimes. You can’t get out of this one. We’ve got to work out a way to live in harmony with the planet.” The other scary epiphany Roffey had when her brother’s house fell down was that the traditional notion of a “safe” life could be completely destroyed so easily, so quickly. She comes from a very traditional family, she says, “in the sense that they are professionals, with houses and children and dogs and cats, long-term monogamy and jobs.” She, on the other hand, lives hand to mouth, has no children—“I can’t even keep a plant alive. I had cats once and I abandoned them”—and is a dyed-in-the-wool traveller and writer. Her family thought it was a phase she was going through, but it hasn’t gone away. For someone to live the life that she leads, she needs a contrast. “They need it and I need it too. Just to say, this is what I’m not doing,” she muses. “The book is actually saying, we all need to feel safe, but we’re not. It’s as simple as that.” This then is her take on the eco-novel, and it’s a rather Trinidadian take. The hero has his epiphany, then his wife wakes up from her coma, and they fly back home for Carnival. “Which is what I did as well,” Roffey laughed. “And when I came home to play J’Ouvert, it rained. We were dancing in the streets, all cocoa-ed up and it melted. I looked up at the stars overhead and it’s four o’clock in the morning… and the rain was sweet as well.”
ABOUT THE BOOK
Archipelago will be released by Simon & Schuster on July 5 and will be launched in Trinidad on July 25. The Kindle edition is already available. With the Kisses of His Mouth is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.