The Big Read, Brighton

Working with the Booker Prize Foundation to bring literary fiction to university students

A picture of a mermaid agains a red background with a huge orange sun.

2021 Monique Roffey

A picture of a mermaid agains a red background with a huge orange sun.The Big Read 2021 was the Costa Book Award winning The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, published by Peepal Tree Press. This year, we collaborated with New Writing South to provide an online event with the author.

We distributed free copies of the ebook to students across the university and the author, Monique Roffey, joined us for an online reading and discussion of the book on 13 May. She was interviewed by Vedrana Velickovic of the University of Brighton, in a dynamic, political and lively discussion covering everything from gender politics, diversity and communication to the mythology of mermaids. If you missed the event the interview is available to view here:

Copies are still available here – use the code BIGREAD21 to obtain a free copy:

The Mermaid of Black Conch

MA student, Lisa Hall, reflects on working on The Big Read this year:

The Mermaid of Black Conch, 2021’s Big Read and Me.

A photo of Lisa Hall

The Big Read is a wonderful scheme run at the University of Brighton to encourage students to engage with contemporary fiction. It’s a great annual event that allows students to read some new and exciting stories, and this year I was lucky enough to take part in running a couple of reading groups for it.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey was the 2021 Big Read. It is a masterpiece of writing with gorgeous prose and effortlessly emotive poetry. We are taken on a journey in the Caribbean with a fisherman named David Baptiste who falls in love with Aycayia, a woman cursed many years ago by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid. When Americans come to the island and try to capture the mythical being, David saves her and endeavours to gain her trust.

The novel explores the topics of race, colonialism, love, and othering. It rightfully won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2020 and was described by Margaret Atwood, writer of The Handmaid’s Tale, as ‘not your standard mermaid.’

In the process of my Communities of Practice module for the Creative Writing MA, I was tasked with promoting the book and reading the beginning chapters to those who may or may not have yet read it. This was an extremely rewarding experience for me, a lover of the fantastical, and I found myself feeling quite sad when the reading groups were complete.

In our first reading session, myself and a peer of mine read the opening of The Mermaid of Black Conch, giving our audience a sense of the story and its characters. It was strange, to say the least, to have done this from my bedroom and not on university grounds. Though, natural public speaking anxieties may have been slightly alleviated by the fact that I could not see my listeners. After this, we all had a casual discussion about what was heard, and the consensus was a positive one; the audience wanted to read on.

For the second session, we asked that attendees engage with the theme of this year’s Big Read: ‘a kinder world.’ We discussed where this was seen in the book, such as through David’s selflessness when it came to helping the mermaid. We then thought more about stories that have the theme of kindness and what a kinder world truly means to us all as individuals. One thought was that without the absence of kindness, kindness cannot be achieved. We must go through conflict to receive or give kindness. The discussion was stimulating, and I found myself pleasantly surprised that the simple concept of kindness can be anything but simple when truly explored.

The audience was then encouraged to share some of their own writing around a kinder world or inspired by The Mermaid of Black Conch. It was delightful to hear people’s poetry in the session and wonderful to think that through our work, we had motivated people to engage with the book and the thoughts around it enough that they had created their own writing.

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Isobel Creed • March 31, 2021

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