Lawyer Celeste Mohammed overcomes challenges to become an award-winning writer

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

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

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

“You hear the name and look at the cover and it sounds very Caribbean and vacation-like. But what if you decide to leave the station and enter an ordinary city and meet ordinary people and see how they live? It aims to take a critical look at the contemporary Trinity and the problems we encounter at different levels of society.

The book is a work of literary fiction that contains a bit of everything – romance, action, betrayal, politics and more – but it mostly examines aspects of human nature that people don’t openly discuss.

Six of the stories were written as part of her thesis while she was studying for her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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

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

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

Celeste Mohammed must reconcile the life of an active 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 to be able to represent so many categories of people in the process.

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

“I think these wins are important, not just for me personally, but for everyone watching who falls into these categories.”

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

Ever since she was a girl in San Fernando, Mohammed wanted to be a writer but didn’t think it was something she would be allowed to do.

“Growing up in Trinidad, do you think I could have told my parents that I wanted to be a writer? They wanted me to do something they saw as lucrative and give me some independence.

As she enjoyed reading and writing, she chose a career in law, thinking that 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 knew that was not what she wanted to do. But, she completed it, was called to the bar in 2001 and practiced 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 anyone. I had done what everyone wanted me to do, I wasn’t 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 this time she started writing.

“Being a lawyer has given me the opportunity to observe people in many ways in the Caribbean. I feel like I was inspired by those experiences and the types of people I would have met when I started writing.

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

She decided to send it but no agent wanted the book. One agent, in particular, dismissed her saying the writing wasn’t what they were hoping for.

“It 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 realized I had to do it, I can’t say it was easy but it was worth it because I’m here.

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

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

However, she completed her studies and graduated in 2016.

A teacher loved the six story book and introduced her to her agent who took her on as a client.

“I was very happy because it’s very difficult to have an agent, especially in New York. She took it to several publishers. I think the book was rejected about 30 times.

“But comments from one of those rejecters indicated that they felt the six stories weren’t related enough and weren’t comprehensive enough to read as a novel. Of course, I did cried, I was destroyed but I picked myself up and worked on that, so I wrote three more stories.

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

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

Pleasantview – A Romance-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 which her agent liked but, again, no publisher picked up.

She remembers wanting to give up writing on several occasions because the rejection was too painful. She even quit writing within six months of accepting Pleasantview.

“I was like, ‘What did I do? I did everything I could. I ruined a whole career. I sometimes put my child and my family in the background. I said I would self-publish it and whatever happens will happen and then I will try to get my life back even though I didn’t know what I was going to do next.

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

“But if it’s something that’s your calling, you might stay away for a few weeks or even months, but you’ll feel so uncomfortable that you’ll always come back to it. This 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. In addition, her mother and mother-in-law helped her the first year after the birth of her daughter and looked after her when she needed time to study or write.

Still, she said she couldn’t have made it through those four years of waiting without faith in God and the belief that he was charting her course. In fact, looking back, she said God knew what he was doing because the timing was perfect.

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

Since Ig Publishing had no budget for marketing, all the marketing for the book was done on social media and it got attention. She also didn’t have to leave TT or even her home in Diego Martin to attend meetings or do interviews, but she did have several appearances in Nigeria, the UK, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

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

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

She read the book, a childhood imagination of steelpan inventor Winston “Spree” Simon, to her daughter who gave her feedback. After the edits were done, on a whim she sent it to her agent who loved it and sent it off to the editors.

He was accepted by HarperCollins Publishers and the picture book, tentatively titled Spree, is due out in the spring of 2023. She was also glad they took her advice and hired a Trinidadian illustrator.

HarperCollins also accepted a second children’s book she wrote, this time about Pitch Lake.

“I’m really passionate about bringing TT to the world. I feel like we’re such a small place and we’ve given so much to the world beyond carnival, but that’s not fully recognized.

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

“People who don’t know will call me an overnight success, but that doesn’t exist. Success is a very public thing, but failure is a private thing that you have to endure, bounce back and find ways to go around. And sometimes failure isn’t failure. It’s just a detour and I had to learn it the hard way.


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