Books·How I Wrote It

How her Caribbean home inspired Rachel Manley's First Novel Award-nominated book

The award-winning writer discusses her turn to fiction with the novel The Black Peacock.
Rachel Manley is a Jamaican Canadian author based in Toronto. (Cookie Kinkead, Cormorant)

Rachel Manley won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction in 1997 for her memoir Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood. She has recently turned to fiction, publishing her debut novel The Black Peacock in 2017. It is currently a finalist for the 2018 First Novel Award

The Black Peacock peers into the world of Daniel and Lethe, two writers who decided long ago to just be friends. Since their university days, Daniel has become a famous poet while Lethe is struggling to get her career off the ground. The two reunite on an island in the Caribbean to conclude the stories they have lived and written out while apart. In her own words, Manley discusses how she wrote The Black Peacock.

A love story between islands

"I'm Caribbean, so I tend to think as an islander. At one level, The Black Peacock reflects an islander's loneliness as an artist. Caribbeans don't have the resources to back artists the way Canada would have. One is much more dependent on friendships and mentors. 

"At another level, I wanted it to reflect a sense of islands, which were once federated [during the political union of the Caribbean from 1958 to 1962]. In a way, it's not just the inability of the two characters to get together, but also the inability of the islands to federate and get together — they are always at sea. A Canadian reading The Black Peacock would not pick that up at all."

The male artist paradox

"The Caribbean lives with a macho culture. The character of Lethe doesn't want to read adventure books because it seems very male. Daniel is an academic writer. He allowed literature to influence him, whereas Lethe didn't allow anything to influence her. She just reflects on what's around her. He despairs that she won't put in the elbow grease to be a writer. I wanted Daniel to reflect that stubborn ignorance of male chauvinism, to reflect that paradox of a man that could be so visionary, sensitive and modern, and yet so horribly insensitive over the whole gender question. I had so much fun writing his part. If you're watchful, you know what other people think."

Isolated lives      

"Artists live in a jugular flow that the rest of the world doesn't live in. Which is why their art speaks to them — it can interpret things in a way they can't. Daniel and Lethe are so different, and yet they love literature and writing — two artists being able to communicate at a rarefied level about life, love and beauty. Daniel admires the physical beauty of Jamaica, Lethe's country; she prefers the eastern Caribbean. They yearn for each other's islands because they cannot have each other's island. Historically and politically, they have been condemned to be their own island."   

Rachel Manley's comments have been edited and condensed.


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