Lawyer Celeste Mohammed overcomes challenges to be prize-winning writer

Celeste Mohammed won awards for six of her stories before connecting them, and three more, in the novel Pleasantview..  - Photo by Damian Luk Pat
Celeste Mohammed won awards for six of her stories before connecting them, and three more, in the novel Pleasantview.. - Photo by Damian Luk Pat

After practising law for ten years, local author Celeste Mohammed decided it was time for a change. That decision led to her following her life-long dream of becoming a writer of the award-winning book Pleasantview – A novel-in-stories.

Pleasantview is a collection of nine interconnected stories mostly set in Trinidad and Tobago.

“You hear the name and look at the cover and it seems very Caribbean and vacation-like. But what happens if you decide to come off the resort and come into an ordinary town and meet ordinary people and see how they live? It’s meant to take a hard look at contemporary Trinidad and the issues we are having at different levels of society.”

The book is a work of literary fiction that has a little of everything – romance, action, betrayal, politics and more – but it mainly examines aspects of human nature that people do not openly discuss.

Six of the stories were written as her thesis while she was studying for her master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

They were published individually in various literary magazines in the US and three of them won the 2017 John D Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction, the 2018 PEN/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction.

Then, when all nine were published as Pleasantview in May 2021, it won the best novel category of the Caribbean Readers Award 2022 hosted by Rebel Women Lit, and the fiction category of the OCM Bocas Prize 2022.

Pleasantview is also on the syllabus at Emerson College, a liberal arts college in Boston, Massachusetts.

Celeste Mohammed has to balance life as a working mother and writing. - Photo by Damian Luk Pat

Mohammed is happy and proud of the accolades her work has received, but she is also proud she can represent so many categories of people in the process.

She represents Caribbean women writers, has to balance the demands of motherhood and writing, made a change from another profession, and now in her 40s made her debut “later” in life, got published by a very small company, is based in the Caribbean, and writes authentically Caribbean.

“I feel these wins are a big deal, not only for me personally but for all the people looking on who fall within those categories.”

However, neither her transition from lawyer to writer nor her road to success was simple or easy.

Since she was a girl in San Fernando, Mohammed wanted to be a writer but did not think it was something she would be allowed to do.

“Growing up in Trinidad you think I could have told my parents I want to be a writer? They wanted me to do something they saw as being lucrative and provide me with a certain amount of independence.”

Since she enjoyed reading and writing she chose a career in law, thinking a lot of both would be involved. She studied law at the University of the West Indies in TT and Barbados, as well as Hugh Wooding Law School for five years.

However, by the second year, she know it was not what she wanted to do. But, she finished it, was called to the bar in 2001 and practised law for ten years in TT, Barbados and Belize.

“Then I reached a point in my life where I felt like I had nothing to prove to anybody. I had done what everybody else wanted me to do, I was not happy, and so I needed to take a breather and figure out what I wanted to do next for myself.”

In 2011, she took a year off and during that time she began to write.

“Being a lawyer gave me the opportunity to observe people in many ways throughout the Caribbean. I feel like I drew on those experiences and the types of people I would have met when I started to write.”

So, she wrote a novel and asked around for guidance as to her next step. She was advised to either send the novel to agents to see if anyone wanted her as a client or do a master's in writing to sharpen her skills.

She decided to send it out but no agent wanted the book. One agent, in particular, rejected her saying the writing was not what they hoped for.

“That hurt me. I decided maybe I needed to learn to write better. So I applied to Lesley University not knowing what would come of it. They accepted me and I realised I actually had to do this. I can’t say that it was easy but it was worthwhile because here I am.”

Pleasantview – A novel-in-stories by local author Celeste Mohammed. - Photo courtesy Celeste Mohammed

Mohammed started her MFA in January 2014 but she got pregnant during her second semester and her daughter was born in January 2015. She took six months off because it was difficult to be a new mother and a full-time student, to have to leave her daughter to go to the US for two weeks at the beginning of each semester for classes before returning to TT to study and do assignments while breastfeeding.

However, she completed her studies and graduated in 2016.

One teacher loved the book of six stories and introduced her to her agent who took her on as a client.

“I was very happy because it’s very hard to get an agent, especially one in New York. She took it to several publishers. I think the book was rejected something like 30 times.

“But the feedback from one of those rejections said they felt the six stories weren’t connected enough and they weren’t rounded enough to read as a novel. Of course, I cried, I was destroyed but I picked myself up and worked on that so I wrote three more stories.”

Even with those adjustments, the book was still rejected by publishers.

She finally gave up and decided to self-publish because she believed Caribbean readers would enjoy the book. But in May 2020, two weeks before she put her plan in action, a small, reputable publishing company, Ig Publishing, accepted it.

Pleasantview – A novel-in-stories was released in the US in May 2021 and in the UK in September 2021.

Mohammed told WMN that in the four years of waiting for a publisher to accept Pleasantview she wrote another novel that her agent liked but, again, no publishers picked up.

She recalled wanting to give up on writing many times because the rejection was too painful. She even stopped writing in the six months before Pleasantview was accepted.

“I was like, ‘What have I done? I’ve done everything I possibly could. I’ve thrown away a whole career. I’ve put my child and family second sometimes.’ I said I would self-publish it and whatever happens, happens and then I’m going to try to pick up my life even though I didn’t know what I was going to do after.

Celeste Mohammed, author of the award-winning Pleasantview – A novel-in-stories. - Photo by Damian Luk Pat

“But if this is something that is your calling, you might stay away for a few weeks or even months but you will feel so uncomfortable that you will always go back to it. That has always been my experience.”

She thanked her very supportive husband who saw how unhappy she was in her job and had no problem with her leaving to write and study. Also, both her mother and mother-in-law helped her in the first year after her daughter’s birth and babysat when she needed time to study or write.

Yet, she said she could not have got through those four years of waiting without faith in God and the belief that he was charting her course. In fact, looking back on it, she said God knew what he was doing because the timing was perfect.

She explained that during the pandemic people were hungry for reading material, entertainment, and distractions. They were tuned in to social media, and people were more open to virtual meetings and appearances.

Since Ig Publishing did not have a budget for marketing, all marketing for the book was done on social media and it got attention. She also did not have to leave TT or even her home in Diego Martin to attend meetings or do interviews yet she had several appearances in Nigeria, the UK, Massachusetts and other places.

In addition to Pleasantview’s success, the pandemic brought about another positive development as she had difficulties getting children’s books for her daughter.

“I was kind of frustrated about it because it’s hard to keep a child interested in stuff during the pandemic. And then I had a moment where I thought, ‘You could write a book for this child if you really want to.’ So I sat down and wrote a children’s book.”

She read the book, an imagining of the childhood of the inventor of the steelpan, Winston "Spree" Simon, to her daughter who gave her feedback. When the changes were completed, on a whim, she sent it to her agent who loved it and sent it to publishers.

It was accepted by HarperCollins Publishers and the picture book, tentatively titled Spree, is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2023. She was also happy that they took her advice and hired a Trinidadian illustrator.

HarperCollins also accepted a second children’s book she wrote, this time about the pitch lake.

“I’m really passionate about taking TT to the world. I feel like we are such a small place and we have given so much to the world beyond just Carnival but it’s not fully recognised.”

Mohammed is already working on a second novel-in-stories, this time focused on a family rather than a town. She also plans to go back to the novel she wrote while waiting for Pleasantview to be published and edit it before re-sending it to her agent.

“People who don’t know will call me an overnight success but there is no such thing. Success is a very public thing but failure is a private thing you have to suffer through, bounce back from and find ways to work around. And sometimes failure isn’t failure. It’s just a detour and I’ve had to learn that the hard way.”

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