May 5, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Celeste Mohammed's novel-in-stories Pleasantview is an ambitious and empathetic exploration of lives in a Trinidadian village.
Claire Adam wrote of the book:
"In one of Chekhov's stories, a character says that every happy man should have someone who taps at his door with a little hammer, reminding him that there are unhappy people in the world. Reading Celeste Mohammed's novel-in-stories makes me think of that magical little tap - except that the door opens not to a vision of unhappiness, but to a world crammed with life that you never knew existed."
Music for the people: Pleasantview, a novel-in-stories
Everyone loves a Caribbean accent. In fact, in 2014, CNN ranked the Trinidadian accent among the top ten sexiest accents in the world . Melodious and lilting, a melange of interesting words—French, Spanish, English, and more—uttered in a unique cadence or, as some might say, a danceable rhythm. I blame the drums: the bongo and the tassa, the Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean drums which represent the two major ethnic groups of Trinidad and Tobago. Is it any wonder then, that music and the musicality of how we speak are a major influence on my fiction writing? The stories of my novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, were written to share with readers the rhythm of a people. If you want to get to know us, you have to learn our rhythm.
Maya Angelou once said, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” That perfectly expresses my intention while working on this book. In Pleasantview, one finds different ethnicities, different accents, different languages, and people code-switching at will between the basilect of raw creole to the acrolect of the Queen’s English. I hope the reader develops an ear for the differences, sees each character as an individual, but also notices that on these islands, language is a sliding scale. I also want the book as a whole to have an orchestral effect, greater than the sum of its individual voices. In literary terms, I’m echoing the clarion call made by Ella Andall in one of my favourite calypsos, “Rhythm of a People”:
People gather round, I want you listen well
To set your spirits free, I have this tale to tell.
Hear the grumbling of the drums, feel its mystic sounds
As it elevates you now to a higher ground.
Are you ready? (Are you ready for this?)
Rhythm to shake the living
Rhythm to raise the dead
Rhythm to purge the pain from your heart
Rhythm to make you laugh
Rhythm to make the soul of a people dance.
This general goal aside, there were specific stories which I wrote with the help of music. For example, the story “Six Months”, awardee of a 2018 Pen/Robert J Dau Prize for Emerging Writers, was written under the influence of the song “Deportees”, a Buju Banton classic from my high school days. Every time I’d sit to work on the story, I played that song to get into the character and mental space of an illegal Caribbean immigrant living that high materialistic life in America, but unaware that the fall’s not far behind. “Deportees” reminded me of the sense of entitlement to “share in the wealth” which many of us—those left behind—feel when our loved ones migrate; and the sense of abandonment when our box, barrel and money remittance expectations are unmet; and the derision we feel when deportees return home in dishonour:
Yuh wretch yuh! Yuh spen’ the whole ah it abroad
Squander yuh money, now yuh livin’ like dog.
There is a sex scene in “Six Months” where the protagonist, Afro-Trinidadian Luther, expresses wonder at the fact that he is “fucking a white chick”. In another story, “The Dragon’s Mouth”, Indo-Trinidadian fisherman, Sunil, is obsessed with marrying Consuela, who has been human-trafficked from Venezuela. In both cases, the Trini man’s unapologetic fascination with “white” women is revealed. Mind you, “white” could mean anything—Latina, Caucasian, Syrian, Eastern European—as long as there’s very light skin and straight hair involved (the blonder, the better, though). This is an accepted part of our culture. However for me, a dark-skinned Trini woman, to channel the levity with which our men display their prejudice and their unconscious loathing of their own mothers, sisters etc., I listened repeatedly to two songs:
“Congo Man”, a calypso classic, where The Mighty Sparrow laments:
I envy the Congo Man.
I wish I was he, I wanna shake he hand.
He eat until he stomach upset,
And I never eat a white meat yet,
and “Spanish Woman”, a soca-parang (i.e., a fusion of calypso and Venezuelan-derived folk music), in which The Baron declares,
I try all them other woman before
But them Spanish mujer is all I adore.
The epilogue of Pleasantview is entitled “Kings of the Earth”, borrowed from a Jamaican song. Jamaica’s dancehall culture took a lengthy detour into “consciousness” during the mid-to-late '90s when I was studying at The University of the West Indies. The high priest of the genre was Rastafarian, turban-wearing Sizzla, and he converted everyone my age to his Bible-thumping, kettle drum pounding, chantlike music. I think we, as a generation, were searching for something deeper in our Caribbean culture, something beyond dance and jook, wine and jam, crime and violence. At least in Trinidad, we were the generation born at the tail end of the '70s oil-boom, raised during the trauma of the '80s recession, and now watching our adulthood loom. We were desperate to believe in a higher power who would make things secure. The flip side of that: we were resentful of the older generations who had squandered our patrimony but who still sat pretty in places of authority. They would get their comeuppance, and we would be more responsible than them—we hoped.
Enter Sizzla, chanting:
Kings of the Earth
Come to yuhself
Yuh cannot chase every skirt
True Jah bless yuh with yuh wealth.
Woman of the soil, where is your meditation?
Fi de black child, the future generation.
In much the same way, Pleasantview’s Brother Omar names his youth group “Kings of the Earth”, and uses the guise of calling disaffected black boys to responsibility, then radicalizes them to his alternative ideology.
The story with the most obvious connection to music—in fact, I would call it a love letter to indigenous music—is “Santimanitay”. That word, derived from the French sans humanité, is loosely translated as “without mercy”, and is the traditional refrain to each verse of an extempo war. Extempo is a calypso artform where verses are made up on the spot, in response to a particular stimulus or challenge (picture a rap battle). This is exactly what happens in the story “Santimanitay”. The people of Pleasantview meet to mourn the death of one of the town’s prominent citizens, and they expiate their feelings through song. As a storyteller, I wanted to honour the fact that the root of all storytelling in the Caribbean is the oral tradition, the call-and-response, which survived colonialism, slavery and indentureship, into the modern day. Long before we had newspapers and social media in the Caribbean, we had the calypsonian and the chantuelle. It was their job to inform the people, to engage in social commentary, to satirize and criticize the establishment, to vent the resentments of a powerless majority by making an inside joke of polite society.
What I hope readers will take away from the story, and in fact from Pleasantview as a whole, is that the stories of a region belong not to its literati or intelligentsia, but to its ordinary people: they invent the new words, they set the pace and they make the rhythm.
Celeste Mohammed's fiction has won multiple awards, including the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John D Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New England Review, Litmag, Epiphany, and The Rumpus, among other places. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Celeste graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently resides in Trinidad with her family.