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Celeste Mohammed gives a 'Pleasantview' of Trinidad

On the podcast: Celeste Mohammed ’16 portrays a side of her island nation far from pristine beaches and resorts.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

The interconnected short stories in MFA in Creative Writing alumna Celeste Mohammed's debut novel, Pleasantview, dispel the myth of Trinidad as a happy-go-lucky island nation, instead revealing it as a complex, troubled, multiracial society.  A lawyer turned writer, Celeste discusses the colorful characters in her book, growing up multiracial, writing in patois that is both authentic and readable and more.

A notebook page outlining 'Pleasantview'
An outline of stories that would become Celeste Mohammed's debut novel in stories.

About Celeste

Celeste Mohammed ’16 is a native of Trinidad and Tobago. Her goal is to dispel all myths about island-life and island-people, and to highlight the points of intersection between Caribbean and North American interests. In particular, she aims to showcase Trinidad’s entrenched political, racial, and class alliances; the generosity (and yet, cruelty) of the average Trini; the sense of optimism (and yet, harsh reality) which permeates everyday interaction; and the musicality and resonance of Caribbean creole (kriol) expression.

Her work has appeared in The New England Review, Litmag, Epiphany, The Rumpus, among other places. She is the recipient of a 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She was also awarded the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John D Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction.

She currently resides in Trinidad with her family.

Learn more about Celeste on her website.

Find all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and follow us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play Spotify or your podcast player of choice.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. Today, my guest is Celeste Mohammad. Celeste is a native of Trinidad and a graduate of our MFA in Creative Writing program. And today we're going to talk about her debut novel Pleasantview. Celeste, welcome to the show.  Hello, thank you for having me. So glad to have you.

    Celeste Mohammed

    Happy to be here.

    Georgia  

    So glad to have you to talk about your book today. But before we do that, I'd love to learn a little bit more about you, let the audience kind of meet you. So tell me a little bit about yourself. Maybe a little bit about your growing up, what you did before you came to Lesley, all that kind of good stuff.

    Celeste 

    You want me to spill the tea?  [laughs] Well, you know, I was born in Trinidad to a mixed race couple. My mother is Indian, East Indian descent, and my father is Black. And so that brought its own unique challenges, of course. We weren't growing up multiracial in a multiracial society. I was born and I grew up in South Trinidad in the what we call the second city, San Fernando. And pretty much I went, you know, pretty normal, average childhood. But I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I started like, trying to write my own little books, my own little mystery stories. And so from like, seven years old. But what we read mostly growing up in my time was a lot of British children's books. I don't know if you would know about the secret seven and the famous five and Nancy Drew.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. [laughs] Nancy Drew, I know that one. [laughs]

    Celeste 

    Yeah, my whole idea of literature and what a person should write and read was very British. Until, really, I think I really started to encounter Western literature, Caribbean literature, in high school in a different way. When I went, especially when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S Naipaul, that kind of completely changed things for me, because I was like, I really remember that being the first time I read a piece of literature that felt like it was about my life, or about the everyday life that I saw in Trinidad and not about somewhere else, you know. So

    Georgia  

    I feel like that kind of solidified my desire to be a writer. However, at the time I was growing up in in Trinidad, your parents kind of had three professions in mind: doctor, lawyer, engineer, really. I couldn't be a doctor or an engineer, because I'm terrible at math. [laughs]

    Celeste 

    So you know, I mean, I did law. It's a five-year program in Trinidad. So I did law and I practiced for 10 years after that. But the desire to be a writer never went away. In fact, I think I tried very hard to convert the practice of law and writing letters and legal memoranda and court pleadings, I tried to convert that into like creative writing. [laughs] People would be like, "You don't need to say all this, you don't need to be this descriptive. You don't need to put so much emotion into this." But I was trying to make it into something it could never be, you know? And so eventually, after 10 years of practice, I kind of had a moment when I said, "I've proven myself in this field. I've done what my parents wanted me to do. And I feel like now I need to press pause and just figure out what I want to do next." And I did, I took a year off to try to decide what I wanted to do. And in that time, I wrote, but I thought I could write back then. So I wrote this novel and I applied to Lesley and using a portion of that novel as my submission for my application. And I was quite surprised when when Steven Cramer called me and he was like, "Well, you've been accepted," and I was like, "What?"

    Georgia  

    "Uh-oh, now I have to do this." [laughs]

    Celeste 

    [laughs] "Uh-oh, now I have to show up." So, I came into the Lesley MFA program, having had another career first and never having been in the U.S education system before. And it was it was very different. It was very, especially, it's a low residency MFA. So you're coming, you're going, you're never quite sure whether you're here. [laughs] So there was a lot of getting used to stuff. But in the end, I wouldn't change a thing. I really, really enjoyed the experience. And I think the first semester was probably the hardest because you come in thinking, "Yes, I can write well," and then you realize, no, you can't. You have so much more to learn. But but by the end of it, I feel like it worked out.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, definitely. Well, and now you have a book. [laughs] So let's talk about that. So Pleasantview. It's a novel of interconnected stories that all take place in the titular town, which you've made up. It's not a real town soon, people can't go visit. I read that you published several of the stories before. So how did you begin to realize that this was going to be a cohesive? Or that they all fit together into one one book?

    Celeste 

    Right? You know, sometimes when I do these interviews, video interviews, I actually show my notebook from Lesley days. And it's one page where I actually used different colored marker pens actually and plotted out Pleasantview, because, to be honest, the two years, for me it was two and a half because I got pregnant and had to take a little time off to have my baby, so the two and a half years at Lesley, you know how it goes. You're really just trying to meet the demands of the program. So in my case, submitting at least two stories every month. So I was just writing, writing, writing, writing without thinking about linking anything. But when I sat down to pull my thesis together and had like a complete breakdown in the cafeteria, [laughs] I was like, "How am I going to do this? I don't know. How am I going to make this all into like a cohesive thesis?" And I kind of realized that thematically, maybe not in terms of characters or so but thematically, these stories were all somehow linked, you know, there was like a theme running, running through them. And so with very little tweaking, I just had to like change a couple characters, put everyone in one tone. And once I did those changes, I began to see more and more opportunity for deepening those connections and linkages. So my thesis was that six stories. And having written that through, I kind of realized where there were gaps. And so in the years following my graduation from Lesley, I wrote like three other stories, kind of to fill those gaps and fill out the collection into something more meaningful. When you say gaps, what did you feel like was missing? I mean, the story covers quite a range. Like every character is different. And there are a lot of characters. What were the holes? Or what did you want to present? It began in a different place, and it ended in a different place. And I felt that I needed to do something one story before where I was starting and probably one story afterwards. One story before in terms of that's why you have a prologue and an epilogue, because in my mind, I felt like people needed an introduction to Pleasantview the place before we began to get into certain things. And I feel like also the epilogue we needed after bringing you through Pleasantview and introducing you to all these people, I needed, at least in the last story, to not tie up loose ends because I never like to do that, but at least give you a vision of what the future looks like for some of the characters and what it will continue to look like.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So Rachel Manley, who's one of the professors at the MFA program, she wrote your forward and she wrote that "Each story in Pleasantview is a strand of a tapestry." So I thought that was a really good setup got me reading and coming into this. And I don't know anything about Trinidad, and so it was very eye opening for me. I think, probably what people think when you think Trinidad and Tobago you think beautiful beaches, a place to go on vacation, but the stories are pretty dark. There's rape, there's abuse, resentment, corruption, poverty, all of the hard things you could think about. And you say too in your bio, that you want to dispel myths about Island life and Island people. So what are the myths you're dispelling? And like what is the real Trinidad that you're presenting?

    Celeste 

    Well, you know, I think you're probably familiar with this. Chimamanda Adichie has said, in her very famous TED talk, you tell one story of people all the time, and it becomes the only story. And there's a danger in single stories, because single stories create stereotypes and stereotypes, it's not that it's not true, it's just that it's incomplete. Well, of course, she was talking about Africa and the stereotypes, that we have of Africa, you know, dark continent with poverty and lots of animals.  But I have always felt that the same logic applies to the Caribbean because I feel like we are always presented in popular culture in media, we are always presented or viewed with one lens of fancy, happy go lucky, easygoing. I will even go so far as to say, like, I feel like in the diaspora, Caribbean people are viewed as blackness light. You know, not to be taken seriously. No problems. No problems down there. You know, yeah, man. Yeah, that kind of thing. And that irritates me, like, I can't even begin to explain to you how much that has always irritated me, because people approach me, they approach Caribbean people in that vein, almost as if you're not to be taken seriously and you're not supposed to deal with heavy issues, or you're not supposed to have any issues at all, you live on a tropical island. And I think it makes light of us by casting us in that one dimensional mode.  And I feel like, if you want to appreciate us for Carnival, and for all our talents and successes, you can't fully appreciate those things. And that's what [inaudible] is about, actually, you can't fully appreciate the music and the creativity if you don't understand where it's coming from. It's coming from a place of darkness. And it's coming from a place of having to cope and having to find ways to celebrate in spite of. So, you asked me why did I write some of that stories, and that was the thinking behind [inaudible]. This is a week. That story starts as a week, and you see how these people deal with their grief. And that is the story of how my little two islands Trinidad and Tobago, that's how Carnival started, it's an outpouring of grief transmuted into music. So I feel like my job as a Caribbean writer is to treat with this subject matter seriously, not to make light of it, and not to not to write into what I would call established narratives of Caribbean. So I'm not going to write into those narrative [laughs]. I mean, those things will feature, of course, because they're part of our culture. But I don't want to write into those set narratives. I actually want to challenge them and to show that  there's a lot more going on here. It's so weird. A reader of mine, well not of min, I mean, she read the book, and she posted a comment or review online, and she actually said she did not know that patriarchy exists in the Caribbean. And I was like "Dude."

    Georgia  

    Where does it not exist? [laughs] Wow.

    Celeste 

    I mean, the fact that she would say that, I take that I've been successful in opening somebody's eyes.

    Georgia  

    Yeah definitely. And the patriarchy does play a huge role in your book, as does just the multicultural landscape there. And so that was something that I also didn't realize, like there's, Syrian, Indian and Black people all play a big part. And I was like, I literally had no idea that there would be like Syrian overlords there, like I just didn't know.

    Celeste 

    Yeah.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, it causes like a lot of animosity and strife and definitely like the Black people seem to be the ones on the bottom rung of like social and economic hierarchy.  I wonder if you would read a passage that kind of talks about this, from the chapter titled White Envelope?

    Celeste 

    Sure. This is Gail, the protagonist in White Envelope. She's Black, and she is pregnant for, the man who is keeping her is a Syrian businessman. And she has been with him for a year or so. And she's just found out that she's pregnant. And so she's saying, I wonder if I should actually start with the paragraph before?

    Georgia  

    Sure.

    Celeste 

    Just to give a little context, yeah. So she goes to visit the village to see a woman who uses the deck of cards to read the future and that kind of thing. And she's trying to find out from her whether or not Mr. H., who is her child's father, whether he will stand by her and her pregnancy or whether their relationship is over, whether she will end up alone with this child, right? If she decides to keep the child so here we go.  "I sit down on this ivy couch, and almost right away, Matthias starts sweating till they glue down on the clear plastic that's covering the cushion. While Miss Ivy knocking pan and kettle in the little makeshift kitchen, I take in the whole place. I've never been in one of these back holes apartments before. Besides, we have it neat and clean, but it's just one room. Only a wobbly fiberboard screen block it off CGL style bed. And she has a  shared toilet with Mr. Winston, the old man living next door. To the thin paneling, I hear in his TV on that Seven Day Adventists program. I wonder if he might hear what I tell him Miss Ivy. But I have worse things to worry about. If I don't change Mr H.'s mind by Monday, then I might be making baby in one of these cardboard box apartments. No, no Jesus, not my child. Not my half Syrian child. Growing up in Pleasantview hard enough if you're poor and Black. But it was if you're light skinned and have good hair, then everybody knows some high collar man they take your morass, and that you have a fine respectable Daddy who don't want you. You come like a double Jew. No, not my child."

    Georgia  

    So talk a little bit about multiculturalism and race and kind of the power dynamics in the novel. What did you want to say about about that?

    Celeste 

    Well, first of all, like you said, a lot of people when they, again, think of Caribbean, you just think of one one thing, you know, Black people not understanding that the Caribbean is not a monolith. And you have the Dutch Caribbean, the French Caribbean, you have the English, British Caribbean. Even within the British West Indies, which Trinidad and Tobago is a part of, territories have different racial makeups. So what had happened is when when Britain abolished slavery, the larger territories, places like Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, these larger territories, there was so much free arable land and forest and so that the slaves bolted off their state and found their own land, just went on and did their own farming. Ut was a shortage of labor. So these places had to engage in bringing in indentured labor from different sources. And that's how Trinidad ended up being as multicultural as it is. When they decided to import from India, It seemed the discussion is that the Indian and the indentured laborers were well suited to the climate and also to the type of work. So by now, by the early 20th century, you have the whites, you have the Blacks, you have Indians, you have some Chinese, you have all these people already. And then in the early 20th century, because of instability and so in the Middle East, you begin to have Middle Eastern immigrants coming. And the Syrians would come door to door, like little hucksters, little door to door salesman with their little suitcases selling stuff, usually fabric. And from that beginning, they are now the most wealthy class of people in Trinidad. And they control the largest percentage, if you will, of the economy. Of course, that has given rise to a lot of resentment. Those tensions and the perception of the Syrian being the interloper, the person profiting at the expense of others, and that sort of thing. All of these daily tensions that we navigate here, I wanted to bring those into the book and kind of just put them out there. This is life. This is how we view each other.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, yeah. So anybody who was just listening to the passage that you read, could hear that you wrote a lot of the book in dialect and in like a patois. Knowing that when I was going into it, I was a little terrified, because I've read some other books in the past, and I was like, "Oh, man, this could be a slog. It could take me a long time to figure out what's going on, like trying to read Shakespeare or something." [laughs] But, I really was able to get into it really easily and kind of pick up the cadence of it, like, the turns of phrases, they're just so clever, too. So how did you write in a way, because I imagine, like, if two Trinidadians were speaking, and I was just standing there, I wouldn't pick up a lot of what they were saying. I might understand words, but not get the gist. But you're writing a book that is for people beyond Trinidad, as well as folks in your home country. So how did you write in such a way that everybody would be able to understand without losing that flavor, and that essence of the language?

    Celeste 

    Right. That was something I spent the entire time at Lesley trying to figure out. It was, I would say, my major concern in the program. I had been told, and you know how it is, we go into workshop and we have our pieces workshopped. And in one or two workshops, I had been told, "Oh no, this is like, whoa, this is too much. We can't read this." And so, for me, at first, there are two things you can do when faced with a situation like that: you can be offended and be like "No, this is my culture," and blah blah blah, or you can see opportunity in it. And I eventually saw an opportunity to sort of calibrate how I was writing to be able to be like at that perfect line between authenticity and readability. So it became very fun to experiment with it while I was at Lesley and to write and say, "Okay, let me try writing a little bit more this way or this way. Let me try fanatical spellings. Let me try not doing that. Let me try a syntactical chain. Let me try different things to see how people respond." So it was almost like, I was in like a little lab experiment at Lesley. So by the time I left, I was almost there, not quite there. And then my one of my mentors, Michael Lowenthal, he commented on a piece I had written and he said, "Listen, either you go all in, or you don't go in at all. But you're being inconsistent. And nobody will follow what you're doing if you are inconsistent. Whatever you try to do, you can train your reader to follow you, but you have to be consistent." And I took his advice to heart and I started trying to find a consistent style so that I could train my reader, this is what you need to know to be able to read this book. And in the end, I'm happy with where it ended up. I did find a style that works for me. I had to study what other people have done, when I say other people, like V.S Naipaul, Sam Selvon, those, classic, those are people in the West Indian canon, if you will. But I stopped reading what other contemporary Caribbean writers were doing while I was working on this book, because I didn't want to know, how people were, what decisions they were making to deal with the issues I had. I wanted to see what the Masters had done, and then I wanted to find my own style.

    Georgia  

    Along with the dialect you have, as I said before, you do have a lot of characters in your book, and I feel like each one has their own voice. And that was really unique. And I imagine that's pretty hard to pull off as well. So where did you get your characters from? One of the people that stuck out the most to me was Miss Ivy she was mentioned earlier. And she's this older woman, she used to work for Mr. H, who's had a lot of affair. And she walks around in this tropical climate wearing the fur coat that Mrs. H gave her. I can almost imagine this older woman walking dignified down the street with a fur coat on and it's 85 degrees outside. How did these people come to you?

    Celeste 

    Well, that is another thing that people don't know about Trinidad. Like, I hesitate to speak for the entire Caribbean, but certainly in Trinidad, there is no shortage of material here. If you speak to someone who's actually living in Trinidad currently, and who has read this book, they will tell you that the book reads almost as if this is happening right now, because it is, in a sense, happening right now. Margaret Atwood has been quoted as saying, "Everything I've ever written has been true somewhere for somebody, someone at some time, something like that, right? And that's the case because Trinidad is full of characters. It was not hard to come up with these characters, because it would be as simple as looking at my own family or looking at the news. A lot that is in this book is very close to nonfiction in terms of the inspiration for it. And I laughed when you said Ms. Ivy, because everyone loves Ms. Ivy.

    Georgia  

    [laughs]

    Celeste 

    Everyone wants to talk about Miss Ivy.

    Georgia  

    She appears quite often in the book, too. Some people only basically get a chapter but she keeps popping up.

    Celeste 

    Right. And I think that's because I loved her so much. I kept putting her in and everything. But also, I think that's a testament to the fact that every, I feel maybe in the U.S, it's the same in smaller villages and towns or wherever, there's always this one woman, we would call her tanky. There's one older woman in the village who is like [inaudible] you know, who knows all the stories of everybody else, And she feels comfortable. She could tell anybody anything she wants. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    Yeah. And you just have to take it. [laughs]

    Celeste 

    [laughs] You just have to take it. Yeah

    Georgia  

    Yeah, she was great. So in the book, even though it is a novel in short stories, it's still short stories. So not all of the characters stories get wrapped up, like we don't know the fate of every person there. So I'm curious, will we see them again somewhere? Like, there's Jason, I think it was Jason, whose father had left for America and now he's kind of like flirting with Muslim extremists?

    Celeste 

    Yeah, well, I think, I don't know if they are done, but I'm done.

    Georgia  

    Okay. [laughs]

    Celeste 

    I feel like I'm pretty much done. But that story with Jason, the last story, the epilogue was really, and this is another thing I feel like North Americans are not aware of during the whole ISIS period in recent history. Most people don't realize unless you've watched one of the documentaries done by the BBC or Al Jazeera News or some other news outlet, you would not know that in the Western Hemisphere, the highest per capita number of recruits to ISIS came from Trinidad. You wouldn't know that, right? That's something you would ever hear.

    Georgia  

    I had no idea.

    Celeste 

    So when I heard that, when I learned that and we hear, we've seen all the documentaries, trying to dissect that statistic. I wondered why is that so? What is it about here? We are not the only Caribbean country with Muslim people, but what is it about her that radicalizes boys? Or makes them feel like that there is a better life for them there? And that statistic alone should tell you that the perception of the Caribbean and what is actually happening her may not be in sync.  So that is what that last story was meant to do. It was almost like me trying to explore or put myself in the mind of a young boy, looking at the kind of life he would have been living and how does somebody like that come to make those kinds of decisions. And I wanted to kind of see, not only is the this the epilogue for him, based on what you've seen before, seeing him now at 12 years old, but also, I wanted people to think of the future. If we don't address the societal forces that encourage this, then looking forward into the future, just as you look forward, and you wonder what's going to happen to him, that's the question I want to leave you with. What is going to happen to these boys?

    Georgia  

    Yeah, it's a powerful place to end the book. So I just have two more questions left. One, what are you working on next?

    Celeste 

    Well, I did go back to that novel that I had used to apply to Lesley, I did go back there now that I can write a little bit better. [laughs] So I have that on my desk. I have a couple of children's books I'm working on as well, because like I said, I had my daughter while I was at Lesley and I kind of fell, actually, during the pandemic, I could not get books in because usually I would order books from abroad. And I couldn't get any books in and I began to think You know, what? Why don't I write a story for her?" And just the same way I want to see my culture and my everyday reflected in the books I read, maybe she feels the same way. So I am working on a couple of children's books. And yeah, I have a good few things on my desk. And I did not estimate how much workbook promotion is. So I'm always having to write something for that, that kind of thing.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, I bet. I bet that's a lot of work. I know writers have to do a lot of marketing themselves these days.

    Celeste 

    Yeah. It's like having homework that never ends.

    Georgia  

    [laughs] But it's a great book. And so my other question, our last question, what advice, now that you've gone through the whole process, got your MFA, you have your first book, what advice do you give to writers or what's something you wish you had known going into this process?

    Celeste 

    Firstly, use the time at Lesley. If you're a writer, coming through the Lesley MFA program, use the time to find your voice and to get to know yourself as a writer, because, you kind of assume  "Yeah, I know myself," but you don't really know yourself as a writer unless you make the effort to know what works for you, what doesn't work for you. We often ask other people "What is your writing schedule?" Or "How do you write? When do you write?" And we try to emulate what other people are doing. But really what I feel you need to do is to really listen to yourself, listen to your own rhythms, listen to the things that are bubbling up inside of you, the things that mean something to you, that you feel like you want to talk about. And get to know yourself as a writer and go with that because you can never be anybody else. You can only ever be yourself. That's the only thing that can be consistent enough to complete a book. You know, it takes a while. And also, I would say that my writing changed for the better the day I became willing to embrace criticism. And that happened while at Lesley, too. It happened actually in my last semester at Lesley when I just prepared to assume, stop fighting and assume that everything that my mentors, everything they were telling me was right. And that changed my outlook on their feedback. I mean, in the end, I would not necessarily accept everything that they said and do everything that they said, but from starting off from the point of view of assuming that everything that they're telling me I should take on board, it changed my writing for the better. And I became somebody and I still am somebody who actually enjoys rigorous criticism from my mentors, and I look forward to it, because I have experienced now that criticism can only make my work better.

    Georgia  

    It's hard. It's hard to take criticism.

    Celeste 

    It is hard. I mean, I still cry. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Like, "Okay, maybe they're right. [laughs] Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been delightful.

    Celeste 

    Thank you for having me. It's always great to be able to be in touch with Lesley folks and to talk about the experience.

    Georgia  

    Well, I'm glad we are able to highlight it today.  Again, the book is called Pleasantview. It's available wherever books are sold. And you can check out the show notes for more information on Celeste as well as our low residency MFA in Creative Writing program. And if you're on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a nice review. If you're not on Apple Podcasts, tell a friend who likes writing and reading about the podcast. Thanks for listening and we'll be back in two weeks.