Sunday Guardian’s Bookshelf celebrates the work of Trinidadian translator and writer Caroline Mackenzie, whose debut novel One Year of Ugly (published in 2020 by Borough Press & HarperCollins UK) was optioned by Netflix.
Mackenzie, who was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and winner of the 2018 Small Axe Short Fiction Prize, says “writing and storytelling” is a “compulsion” and “genetic hardwiring” as members of her blood family are “incapable of telling a “succinct” anecdote.
“The more twists, turns, and tangents, the better. My German grandmother was a compulsive writer and among the best (if factually questionable) storytellers. I remember sitting at her antique typewriter, enraptured by the sensation of the keys. Their clack-clack-clacking evoked some visceral, unnameable emotion.
“I loved the fluid motion of my hands across the keyboard, watching words appear in neat rows, my thoughts suddenly tangible and exposed. It was like a painter first picking up a brush or a musician first strumming a guitar. I’d found my medium.”
Mackenzie, who is clearly as much a raconteur as she is a writer–hilarious, touchingly candid, self-deprecating, and clever, writes to “vent” perceived injustices, to “celebrate what makes life, in all its absurdity, gorgeous and unmissable”. But mostly “because writing is magic”.“At eight, my fuel was the unjust denial of sweets. When I wrote One Year Of Ugly in my late 20s, it was over the xenophobia against the Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad.”
Now, at 36, Mackenzie is writing on how “unequal domestic and parenting load impacts women’s careers, especially in the arts”.
The following is an extract from Mackenzie’s short story commissioned by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2023 for reproduction granted exclusively to the Sunday Guardian.
She Make to Moko “Let’s take a little look, shall we? I know it’s their bedroom at 2:59 am, circumstances in which anyone might expect a little privacy, but that’s the time and place it happens–every night since Birdie told Johnny Boyokay, let’s do it. As the clock strikes three you see Birdie’s eyes open wide. Pop! Same thing every night. There’s Johnny Boy next to her, peacefully farting in his sleep, he and his bowels oblivious to the panicked questions clang-clang-clanging in Birdie’s brain: How? How will I be able to do it? How? And even if Johnny Boy could hear, what would he say anyway? Birdie knows: Why you hottin’ your head for? Woman make to Moko. Words Birdie has been hearing her whole life but never really taking on. Until now. Because now it’s her turn. In This Place, women had become Moko for as long as anyone could remember. Only women.Woman make to Moko. That’s how the saying went. And it was a privilege, too, they said, for women to be able to don Stilts, to be up-front-and-centre in the Cultural Programme, keeping Traditions and Culture intact. Some said Moko was the only thing any woman should ever want to be. And why not, when they were so magnificent up there in a world of their own, some Moko so skilled they could pirouette and pas-de-bourrée, stretch their otherworldly, neverending legs in elegant adages, swirling silhouettes against the spotlights of every Cultural Event in This Place. Men were responsible for making and maintaining the Stilts, and as Partners, men would attach their Stilts to the women, a painful process involving bolts and screws, a fair bit of gore … sometimes femur-sized syringes of anaesthesia. (You forget the pain eventually, they said. And then is bliss once you find your stride.) The men would be there when the woman stood Stilted for the first time, wobbling and uncertain, frightened of falling with each new step, but already in love with the feel of treetops skimming her shoulders, the freshness of unpolluted breeze way up high above the Free Walkers, who weren’t only men but other women too. Some women had no interest in becoming Moko, but wound up Moko anyway—usually because they got drunk with a man who offered Stilts they couldn’t resist. They adapted eventually. No choice. But all Moko, no matter how they’d wound up Stilted, took pride in their role in the Cultural Programme; everyone knew the grace, strength, and stamina it took to live and perform on Stilts. This, their love of walking tall, feeling their Stilts as a true extension of their being, was what created an instant bond among Moko. That and the bitching. Get a few Moko together and you could count the minutes before they’d start ranting about their unencumbered Partners, the men who got to admire and applaud their Stilts at the Cultural Events, slap on some fresh varnish every now and then, but never have to endure the burden of moving through life Stilted. Because wondrous as it was to be up there, it was also a huge pain in the ass to never walk free again. But once Moko, always Moko.” End of Extract.
Caroline Mackenzie’s writing has been widely published including in Red magazine, Stylist, MACO Caribbean Living, and MACO People. In 2005 Mackenzie won a National Open Scholarship and earned a Master’s in Scientific, Medical and Technical Translation from Imperial College London.
Ira Mathur is a Guardian columnist and the winner of the non-fiction OCM Bocas Prize for Literature 2023. (www.irasroom.org) Email firstname.lastname@example.org