Memory & Identity: Carol Mitchell's What Start Bad a Mornin'

Memory & Identity: Carol Mitchell's What Start Bad a Mornin'

In this conversation between Klara Kalu and Cheuse Fellow, Carol Mitchell, Mitchell talks about her craft, and her debut novel, 'What Start Bad a Mornin'.  Mitchell teaches at George Mason University and Klara Kalu is in her first year MFA as a fiction writer. 

Klara Kalu: The first obvious question is, why did you become a writer?

Carol Mitchell: I have reinvented myself a few times. I started my career after my first and second degrees as an IT professional. I have an MBA from Wharton Business School. I coded. I ran a couple of businesses and I really enjoyed all of that, but in 2007, I went home it  St. Kitts (an island in the Caribbean) with my two children and they were about 6 and four at the time. I was looking for books for them to read. I couldn't find the kind of books that I wanted them to read, the books that I would have loved to read when I was growing up that portrayed the Caribbean in a very authentic way. That turned into an idea for a book. I decided to write it and that was the beginning.
I'd always written a lot of short stories for adults just for fun, but I discovered that I actually loved what I was doing. I loved writing both for children and the short stories I was doing for adults so that's how I got into writing more consistently and then into publishing my work. I was putting out these short stories and a mentor of mine who's now passed away said to me “You know you're doing a good job with these short stories, but there are things that you need to learn.” So being an academic I was like “Okay, I'll go to school.” I came to George Mason to get my MFA. I met Bill Miller who was really very encouraging, and that's the long story of how things got started and how I got started in writing as a late bloomer. (Laughs) 

KK: How much of your role do you think reading plays in writing?

CM: Oh my goodness! I think it's one of the most important things. I tell my students that all the time. I can tell the students who read and the ones who don't read from the way that they write because writing has this rhythm to it. Of course, all writing is not going to sound the same, but there's this rhythm that you kind of understand in terms of how a story builds, how a story develops and how you can how you can unravel and reveal a character. It's difficult to execute that just by somebody telling you how to do it or just by your gut. You have to read. It helps you to get ideas and then when you read your own work you can hear when it doesn't feel quite right because you're accustomed to the way that language sounds and language works. If you want yours to sound different, that's perfectly fine but you have to understand what it's like first and then you can break the rules.
Also you know, as we write we're all building on ideas and influences. Reading helps us to think things through and then add your own flavor. It's important to read first so that you understand what writing is and secondly to help you to develop some of the ideas and concepts that are rolling around in your head. I read a lot of nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction because I'm really interested in the way the world works, I guess I still have that kind of interest in IT and engineering, so I puzzle over a lot of things. That feeds into my some of my writing maybe not into this book particularly, but it feeds into some of my writing where I'm exploring myths or the way that animals behave or the way that woman's bodies work and so on. 

KK: Would your writing have been different if you grew up in America?

CM: Well, I'm trying to undo some of the things because Caribbean writing like British writing tends to lean towards being very didactic, like there's always a lesson. You know it's all about teaching children how to behave in society, the naughty girls get punished then they turn around and become good. I think in American literature, if you look at books like Catcher in the Rye, there was more exploration of the idea that somebody could be flawed and still okay. They don't have to change entirely. So, there was this didactic nature which I've had to work out of my writing. Then, there's also a formality to British and Caribbean writing which I don't love and which I've also tried to work out of my writing, in terms of the structure and language. For me, that was a barrier to reading. It was not that I couldn't understand the literature, but I just didn't enjoy reading it. I've always wanted to write literature that was just more accessible, and I think that American writing—not all of it of course–but very generally speaking, there’s more of it that is accessible than in Caribbean literature.

KK: When did you start the novel and how long did it take you to write it?

CM: It took me too long. I'm trying to work on that (laughs). I started this novel in Helon Habila’s class. He gave us a prompt and that prompt led me to start writing about Taiwo. Nothing from that prompt ends in the book but just his character. At the time, I was still searching for what I wanted to write for my thesis. Then I had another class with Courtney Brkic, and I started writing about Taiwo’s mother. He and his mother were sitting in a garden. He had brewed this tea for her from the garden and the tea was obviously poisoned. She knew that and he knew that, and she was still going to drink it because of the mother that she was. Of course, none of that happens in the book, but that was the seed for it. So that was in, I want to say that would have been maybe 2018 or 2019. The years are a blur. I finished it for my thesis in 2020, that was the first draft. When I submitted my thesis, and I found out that it was going to be available in the library, and I was like “oh my gosh, it's going to be published, and people are going to read it beforehand” and Courtney Brkic said “Don't worry, it's going to look so different when it's done.” Of course, at the time, I couldn't see that, but she was so right because I rewrote it that summer and then put it down. I worked on it again the next year, I didn’t pick it up for four or five months. That's why it took so long, I kept putting it down. I think the final draft that I was happy with was finished in 2020.

KK: There’s a scene in the book which includes political arrests that actually happen in real life. What are your views about, especially international writers that have a lot happening in their countries, incorporating significant events affecting their countries into their writing? Do you think it’s part of duty or a commitment for them?

CM: I guess it varies for me. I can say that because we haven't really had major events where I am from. I mean we've had uprisings you know. I am thinking about Grenada because I've been reading a lot about the Grenadian political situation back in the 70s when Maurice Bishop was murdered. For me, I have the liberty of choice because in St. Kitts, we haven't had significant political uprisings. If I were writing about a place where a major event really shaped the country and how it progressed then, it would be hard to ignore it. 
In terms of a duty, I don't know about that. It's complicated. I don't think there's a single answer to that question. It depends on where you're from, the history, and so on. I don't think you could be Palestinian today and really just ignore the history and the politics of their situation. That would be really difficult to do, but I imagine that a writer from a particularly troubled part of the world might want to write something more escapist occasionally. That’s part of what writing is about. We need all sorts of stories.

KK: Did you have to go back to the Caribbean to research for any part of the book?

CM: I actually didn't have to, but I ended up doing that. There's a version of this book where Amaya does not go back to Jamaica. I know it’s hard to believe, but she stays in the US, and she remembers everything here then I realized that she couldn't do that, and I started rewriting it. One of my uncles… He was very helpful to me during the research for the section that is historical. He actually had his office broken into while he was in Jamaica during that time of the political unrest, a scene that is in the book and pivotal to the plot. He passed away and I went back to Jamaica to pay my respects. That was really helpful for me in writing the section when Amaya travels to Jamaica.
I didn't have any of those experiences that she had but just in terms of the scenery and her observations. I didn't go to Black River on that trip, but I've been there before. All my children's books are set in different islands, and I've always been to the island before completing the book, but I didn't feel it was necessary for this book, like I had to go. I thought I could write it but then when I went, I realized that I actually needed to go to just to act or experience and look at entering Jamaica from a writer’s point of view. Obviously, it’s not always going to be possible to go, there's just so much on information on the Internet. You can immerse yourself in a place with the right kind of research and there are street cams in Europe where you can feel like you're walking down the streets, and things like that. There's a lot that you can do to even if you can't actually travel.

KK: There's a lot about mental health and mental illnesses going on in the book. Was it a conscious decision to write so much about this and especially how effects how it affects black people?

CM: For Taiwo, it just came in. Like I said, he was the first character came to me and when he came to me, he was autistic. I hesitated because I wasn't sure I knew or I had the right to write this autistic character but then I realized that the book wasn't about him being autistic. He was just a character who happened to be autistic, just like you might have a character who happened to be white or who happened to be, you know, a teacher and so it was just part of his being.
With respect to Amaya and Marjorie, that was deliberate because in the Caribbean, I also suspect this may resonate with you, we tend to deal with people with mental illness or trauma in a way that is very dismissive and kind of like “Oh what you worrying about that for still? You know, just get over it, man. It happens to everybody.” This attitude really bothers me, and I was thinking about that. It's not that I wanted to show or teach anything, it's just that this was on my mind. What we are losing, what hurt are we perpetuating by not dealing with mental health and taking care of our elderly people in a way that makes them have the most comfortable life. This world-shattering event happened to my main character when she was 17, and nobody said “Oh my gosh, this is so awful. What can I do to help you?” She didn't get any of that. It was just like, just keep it moving. I think that, in a way, I wanted to have people think about it and we how we deal with people who are struggling in different ways with mental health.

KK: Then the language. I mean, we all speak English, but we still have English-based languages that are local to where we are from like the Pidgin English spoken in Nigeria and the Jamaican Patois. When you write like that, in maybe dialogues, do you think you have to explain a lot or tone it down a bit so it's more understandable to a wider audience?

CM: (Laughs) That’s a question I'm going to answer a 2-hour panel in February at the AWP. I mean, it is such a complicated question, and the answer is that it depends. In my book, there isn't a lot of patois and one of the reason is that I don't speak Jamaican patois and it's difficult for me to write in it. There was a version of it that had a lot more patois and I sent it to a couple of people from Jamaica and their take on it was that it wasn't necessary to the story or the characters in the story. The characters are mainly, you know, middle class. Yes, they would speak patois but maybe not to the extent that I had included, so I dialed it back. It was not for the audience but for the authenticity of the characters and I think that is the most important thing.
I grew up reading about crumpets and snow and all sorts of things that I had no idea about and I had to figure it out. I think that people if they really want to read and they're careful readers, they will figure it out. There is a book by Curdella Forbes. It's called A Tall History of Sugar and it's got a lot of Jamaican patois in it. It has some footnotes, but it is authentic to the characters. The places where the characters were from, there was no way they were speaking standard English. I think there's something in between where you can write so that it sounds authentic, including phrases from the Caribbean, ways we would say things, not necessarily patois but a turn of phrase that people there would understand. If you use a lot of that, that helps to get the flow and the feel of the language without alienating those who don’t speak it. I worry less and less about that every writing day. 

KK: Last question, are you working on any new novels or just short stories?

CM: Oh, just in my head. (Laughs) As I said my writing is very different right now and I've been advised not to talk too much about it because it might not look anything like whatever I say to you today but the novel I am working on is turning into 100-year saga beginning like in the recent times, like 2025 or something like that and extrapolating out 100 years. It’s set in the Caribbean. I think a lot about climate change and about how the small states are impacted so much, just so disproportionately, in comparison to what they've contributed to create climate change. That really bothers me a lot and so that's what's on my mind and its feeding into my writing. It started actually as a short story that was going to be set 100 years in the future. I started to think of how did they get there, and then I was like oh, this is really interesting so that's what I'm working on right now.

KK: Alright. Thank you. I can’t wait!

CM: Thank you so much. I appreciate you taking this time.
Carol Mitchell’s What Start Bad a Mornin’ uses three interwoven narratives spanning the United States, Trinidad, and Jamaica to give voice to Amaya, an immigrant woman forced to confront her repressed memories. You can find more about her here: