At Cambridge Common Writers, we’re always looking to showcase the many talented and accomplished alums who make up our community. In honor of Black History Month, we reached out to a few of our BIPOC authors to ask them about themselves and their writing lives.
Celeste Mohammed — Fiction, June ’16
Celeste Mohammed is a native of Trinidad and Tobago. Her debut novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, is forthcoming from Ig Publishing in May 2021. Celeste’s goal is to dispel all myths about island-life and island-people, and to highlight points of intersection between Caribbean and North American interests. Her work has appeared in The New England Review, Litmag, Kweli Journal, Epiphany, Scarlet Leaf Review, The Rumpus (X , X), among other places. She is the recipient of a 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She was also awarded the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John D Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction.
What drew you to the Lesley MFA program and what take-aways did you have from it?
Sharon Millar, who is Trinidadian, introduced me to Lesley. She graduated a few years ahead of me. In discussing her experience with the program, she mentioned that Rachel Manley taught there. Having a high opinion of Rachel’s work, I decided to explore the option further. One conversation with Steven Cramer and I was hooked.
In terms of take-aways, I am just amazed and grateful for the supportive community. From the faculty, to the student body, I have made friendships and associations which transcend the distances (cultural and otherwise) between Trinidad, where I live, and Cambridge. Lesley people do all they can to help other Lesley people, and I value that.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a particular routine or ritual to help you get into the writing zone?
No routines or rituals. I sit at my desk and type until I can’t mentally go on anymore. In the beginning of a project, I cut myself a lot of slack. I don’t expect too much of the writing, it’s going to be bad, but it’s like turning a tap that hasn’t been on in a while: you have to let the yucky, brown stuff flow out first, before you get to the clear water.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
I haven’t read a whole lot over the past year. The pandemic fell heavily on those of us who are the caregivers of the home. It sucked up so much time and energy. I was not able to read in long, relaxed stretches. Instead, I had to steal time here and there, but this is what I’ve read over the last year: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. I loved all three books for the same reason: they were dense with detail, vast in scope and technically thrilling to experience as a writer.
Why do you write and what do you like to write about the most?
It’s a cliché, but I write to understand things better. So I tend to write about relationships a lot. Not just romantic relationships. I think it is so interesting how people are constantly making tacit backroom deals with each other – subtle compromises that slide into untenable situations – and are never even aware of it. Race and class tensions also fascinate me, for much the same reasons. Why do we allow people to treat us badly? Why do we settle and surrender? How do we keep finding faith?
Who are some of your writing inspirations?
The obvious suspects for a modern short-story writer: Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri. But I continue to study and learn from V.S. Naipaul’s early work. When I am feeling uninspired, I read Derek Walcott’s Omeros, an epic book-long poem.
If you could get coffee with any writer (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Lorrie Moore, because she has such a great sense of humour and a keen eye for the inconsistencies of the human psyche.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that doesn’t have to do with writing.
My favourite show of all time is Sesame Street – the old version. I look up clips and sing along all the time with my daughter.
What are you working on now? Is there anything we can promote?
My debut novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, which was substantially written while at Lesley, is forthcoming from Ig Publishing NYC on May 4, 2021. Several Lesley faculty mentors have blurbed the book, as well as fellow alum, Candice Iloh. You can read the publisher’s official synopsis on my website here: www.thecursivem.com