Aya de Leon interviews Breanne McIvor about her debut novel, The God of Good Looks, which has recently been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. The God of Good Looks features a rivals-to-lovers romance between two beauty influencers against the backdrop of shenanigans and high-jinks in the Trinidadian fashion industry. McIvor’s lush descriptions are informed by her background as a professionally trained makeup artist.
Aya de Leon: Although The God of Good Looks is positioned as a literary novel, and the writing has all the lovely craft a reader desires in literary fiction, I also see it as part of the conversation in crime fiction. Do you see the book in connection with the crime fiction genre?
Breanne McIvor: I love crime fiction and I love the idea of The God of Good Looks being in conversation with that genre. Of course, I would never class this book as classic crime fiction. But crime is the backdrop to my characters’ lives; murder, robberies, gang and gun warfare, white collar crime, and government corruption have all wormed their way into the national consciousness. In some ways, this is a book about how to build a life in a such a country. There are times when Bianca literally can’t leave her house because she hears gunshots in the street and Obadiah’s home life has been shaped by the threat of thievery and stray bullets.
Initially, Obadiah sees his job in the beauty industry as being totally unrelated to Trinidad’s ever-increasing crime rate. And it may seem like he has a point. Makeup and murder are two entirely separate issues. But in a society where crime stalks everyone, Obadiah ultimately has to ask whether he can or should ignore the menace.
AL: Yes. It’s character-driven, and also an integral part of the setting. In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how you were pressured to take the elements of crime out of the story to appease a white tourist gaze on the Caribbean. Can you say more about the reality of crime in Trinidad and why you insisted on authenticity?
BM: Trinidad and Tobago has the sixth highest crime rate in the world and living under a near constant threat of crime, especially violent crime, leaves an indelible impact on you. Something as simple as a strange car idling outside your house would be a reason to lock all the doors, take a picture of the license plate, and peer out the curtains to make sure you’re not about to be robbed. I lived in Trinidad until I was eighteen and it wasn’t until I went to university in England that I realized how much of my life was centered around trying to make myself a hard target for criminals. It took me a while to get used to houses without burglar proofed windows or to feel safe walking on the streets after dark.
Although I’m writing fiction, I want to represent my country as I live it. I’ve spent enough time making police reports and recovering from various crimes myself to know that it would be impossible for Bianca and Obadiah to remain untouched by crime. I wanted Trinbagonians reading to see the truth of our country reflected in this book and I wanted international audiences to know Trinidad as a real place and not as a perfectly packaged tourist brochure with all the undesirable bits edited out. I hope that this novel can be part of a conversation about the scourge of crime while leaving space for readers to think about why some people feel as if crime is their only path to a better life.
AL: Well said. Crime is the path of upward mobility for those who don’t have access via the traditional pathway, education. My third novel, The Accidental Mistress is also about a Trinidadian makeup artist who is a product of class mobility through education. It’s also a crime and a romance novel about respectability politics and the failed promise of the American dream. My character goes to a US college prep school and then to Harvard. For people of color in general and people in former British colonies in particular, education and upward mobility have been offered for generations as our path to salvation. Yet for Bianca, her UK education was a bridge to nowhere. In the book, it positions her isolation after her mother’s death as the biggest obstacle to her building a successful life after college. But I felt the novel hinting at a broader critique of the system? Can you comment on that?
BM: I think you phrased it perfectly: education is often touted as a path towards upward mobility and respectability; in Trinidad, a foreign degree is often seen as better or more prestigious than a local one. However, Bianca’s affair with Eric erases any respectability her educational background may have given her. She’s fired from her magazine job, not because she’s not good at it, but because being associated with her is social poison. Meanwhile, Eric keeps his much more prestigious job as the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development. Ultimately, power or proximity to power is more important than qualifications or abilities and it seems as if Eric is too high and mighty to experience any negative repercussions.
I think my implicit critique is the people who really understand this dynamic are often people from the upper classes. People like Eric are raised in a robust network of powerful families and often have a gilded path to success. I wanted to ask how people on the fringes of society can succeed in a system where connections are often your most valuable asset. Both Obadiah and Bianca realize that they don’t live in a meritocracy. Obadiah is a phenomenal makeup artist and Bianca is a talented editor with all the right qualifications, but those things aren’t enough to guarantee their career success. Part of their journeys is discovering how they can work together—and use any advantages they might have—to realize their dreams.
AL: I loved that thread of the novel. And how Bianca had to develop new dreams after her foreign education trajectory to success was derailed. Like Bianca, you grew up in Trinidad and were educated in England, then returned. Beyond the logistical, are there particular parts of Bianca’s emotional arc that are autobiographical?
BM: I think that, like Bianca, I’m on a journey towards loving myself. Neither Bianca nor I had lives that went the ways we hoped after moving back home; although, my experiences were vastly different from Bianca’s (thankfully!). We both went through periods of embracing unhealthy coping mechanisms but I’m doing a lot better now and I think that, by the end of the book, Bianca is too!
AL: Yes, and clearly writing is one of Bianca’s passions that develops through the book. I was really curious about her freelance writing and editing life in Trinidad. Are there any magazines in Trinidad like your fictional magazine, either the version of the publication from the beginning of the book or the version from the end?
BM: Yes! The God of Good Looks is set before Covid and, at that time, many local businesses used physical magazines as a way of reaching customers and communicating that they were elite publications. Some of those magazines were clever, insightful reads and some seemed more slapped together, like Extempo is before Bianca becomes editor. I’ve written for and edited local magazines and those experiences helped me in the creation of Extempo. Post-Covid, a lot of that magazine culture has moved online, and many magazines are no longer in print, but for a long time they were flagship publications that helped a lot of businesses.
AL: And this is part of what I find so special about this book. I was raised on the story of the twenty-something girl in the city figuring out life and love with her first job at a magazine. These are typically New York stories, and I was thrilled to see a Caribbean take on it. Did you set out to write one of these novels, or did you just look back later and realize that it had all the elements?
In the novel, Obadiah explains why he adopted his God of Good Looks persona by saying: “When I first started in this business as a stupid sixteen-year-old, I’d said shit like “all women are beautiful”. I’d practiced the barely there brand of beauty makeup that I still secretly prefer. It got me nowhere. Eventually, I realized people wanted a little less Jesus Christ and a little more Miranda Priestly.” I was definitely influenced by The Devil Wears Prada – a classic take on the story you described – and it looks like Obadiah was too.
I love the twenty-something female character with the dumpster fire life who’s working at a magazine, struggling with romance, and figuring out her identity. Bridget Jones’s Diary was another influence on my work. Funnily enough, I hadn’t read the book or seen the movie while working on my earliest drafts. However, after my agent compared The God of Good Looks to Bridget Jones, I read it in a single sitting. I was blown away by the ways my novel was so similar to a book I’d never read. Looking back, I grew up in a Bridget Jones inflected world; so, the aspects of the book that permeated popular culture were part of my consciousness. In later drafts, I was more deliberately influenced by Bridget. For example, each month has a funny and meaningful title in Bridget Jones, like ‘FEBRUARY Valentine’s Day Massacre’ and I was inspired to divide my own book into six sections with titles that are (hopefully) funny and meaningful too.
So, I was aware that I was writing my novel in the wonderful literary tradition you described. At the same time, I loved being able to locate my story firmly in Trinidad instead of New York or London. The glitz and glamor of a big city lends itself to certain plotlines. However, setting my book in Trinidad allowed me to excavate modern realities of my country. There’s a Toni Morrison quote that’s become something of a cliché in literary circles: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’d never read a book set in the Caribbean beauty industry, so I wrote it. When some early readers were surprised that a makeup artist as good as Obadiah could even exist in the Caribbean, that made me more eager to show a new face of my country to international audiences.
AL: Yes, I loved how the book was an expansion of that literary tradition, but also really disrupted it. When you set those stories in New York or London, the focus can be narrowly on the magazine and the relationships. When the setting is the heart of empire, the entire global political and economic context that makes that industry and life possible is invisible. But you can’t tell that story in the Caribbean without colliding with larger issues of colonization and how the colonial structure has created hierarchies that pit different groups of people against each other. I loved how you use POV to look at class and gender, and differences in privilege. The primary narrator is a woman who was raised upper middle class and the secondary narrator is a man who was raised in poverty. How did you intend to have gender and class intersect in the novel?
BM: For hundreds of years the Caribbean was a plantation society, and the plantation continues to echo through our present, especially influencing our attitudes about race and class. Both Bianca and Obadiah come from families who have experienced some degree of racial and class discrimination; however, Bianca’s family’s wealth meant that she was able to transcend that discrimination to a degree. Conversely, Obadiah is born into generational poverty and still feels the brunt of socially acceptable bigotry. So, in this regard, Bianca is clearly the one who has more privilege.
However, the thing that makes Bianca most vulnerable to Minister Eric Hugo and then most susceptible to slut shaming is her gender. Of course, people of all genders can experience this kind of trauma, but there is still a socially conservative tendency in the Caribbean and elsewhere to place the responsibility for sexual purity squarely on the shoulders of women. So, Bianca is blamed by the public for her affair with Eric, although he’s older, more powerful, and he’s the one who’s married. Obadiah has never had to navigate this gendered aspect of respectability politics and so he’s incredibly dismissive not only of Bianca’s relationship with Eric but of his own sister’s relationship with a more powerful, older man.
At the start of the novel, both Obadiah and Bianca are mired in their own realities, focused on the reasons that they’ve been ostracized from society. But as they get to know one another, they’re forced to confront attitudes they’ve casually held for years and interrogate privileges that they weren’t even aware they had.
The ghost of the plantation may bestow some privileges on us in the Caribbean, because of our gender, our class, or our color, but those only hold for as long as we’re willing to conform to society’s unspoken rules. So, Bianca’s respectability flies out the window once she has an affair with a married government minister. As the novel progresses, both Bianca and Obadiah realize that they have to let go of limiting, culturally entrenched ideas to really allow people to exist in all their complexity.
AL: Thinking about the book in conversation with crime fiction, I think about how adultery was a crime in the UK until the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, during which time Trinidad was a British colony. So the sexual politics in the book also have criminal roots. I also think about the MeToo movement and how Eric abuses his power in his relationship with Bianca. So, in some ways, this could be considered a crime novel that is told primarily from the POV of the victim. Bianca has clearly been victimized by sexual double standards and is a casualty of respectability politics. What were some of the dots you were wanting to connect around gender and crime?
BM: I’ve had five knee surgeries and I was recently limping due to some issues with my knee. I was in a professional context, and someone made a joke about my limp; the punchline was that my boyfriend must have gotten fed up of all my talking and beaten me up. Almost everyone laughed. I think that story is a microcosm of how certain sections of Trinidadian society normalize gender-based violence and treat crimes against women as a joke. It’s the same with sexual double standards. Bianca’s affair with Eric Hugo could have been a catalyst for hard discussions. Instead, Bianca too becomes a punchline of jokes after the affair is made public.
As a society, we sometimes undermine the legitimacy of sexual double standards or crimes against women by resorting to humor. The wider implication of this is that often, when a woman is a victim, she’s not sure if she will be taken seriously or if there is even an avenue for her to make a complaint. When Bianca is working as a model, a sleazy photographer runs his finger along her bare legs without her consent. Bianca contemplates continuing to work with him because she knows that there is no avenue for recourse and, if she were to make it an issue, she would be branded as ‘the problem’. As long as swathes of our population continue to have a casual or even mocking attitude to gender inequalities, we’ll be perpetuating a system where women are not empowered to protect their bodily autonomy or to question why their respectability is contingent on following unspoken patriarchal guidelines.
AL: Yes! All of that. Also, in terms of gender, one of the most powerful aspects of the novel for me was how Bianca’s perspective on most of the men in her life changes so drastically over the course of the novel. I don’t want to spoil too much, but some of those shifts were as powerful as a twist in a crime novel. Did you start out with that in mind, or did it just unfold with the story?
BM: I always knew that I wanted this to be a novel of emotional breakthrough and catharsis. So, I knew that Bianca would have to re-see and re-evaluate several of her relationships with men as the book progressed. However, how that happened changed dramatically as I drafted and re-drafted the novel. I recently read a beautiful Mary Oliver poem that said:
This pretty little beast, a poem
has a mind of its own.
Sometimes I want it to crave apples
but it wants read meat.
And I think that perfectly captures how sometimes the needs of a work or the needs of your characters transform what it is you thought you were writing. I thought I knew exactly how Bianca’s character arc would pan out, but my final draft was very different from my initial outline.
AL: Finally, in terms of gender, I was surprised by the fatphobia in the novel. I think my idealized version of the Caribbean is that women’s bodies are more accepted than in the US/UK. And yet we see Bianca severely restricting her eating as a model. I found myself wondering: is this about cultural influences from the US? The fashion industry worldwide? Shifts in how classism affects narratives of ideal bodies? (In previous generations, big bodies reflected resources to have abundant food. Today, slim bodies can be expensive to maintain). Can you comment on fatphobia, both in Trinidad in general and in the story in particular?
BM: “Yuh getting fat!” is a common greeting in Trinidad and it’s never said in a positive way. My friends and I have often vented to one another about how socially accepted it is for other people to make detailed and often critical comments on our bodies. The Caribbean doesn’t have a homogeneous attitude towards beauty but the Trinidad I grew up in was hardly ever body positive and while I have encountered pockets of radical self-love, those are in the extreme minority.
Certainly, in the world of local fashion, thin remains very much in. There’s a scene in the novel where Bianca is told that she has to weigh below 125 if she ever wants to make it as a model; that’s based on a real-life experience when I was told exactly the same thing. I wasn’t even modelling at the time; I was shopping for clothes and a stranger who worked in the fashion industry took it upon himself to tell me first that I could be a model and then that I would need to lose weight to succeed in a job that I’d never expressed any interest in.
I think local fatphobia can partially be a product of influences from more dominant cultures, like the US, as well as the worldwide fashion industry. But it’s not a recent phenomenon locally. Many Trinidadian women I know have been pressured to be thin by their parents and grandparents, who have all internalized the idea that beauty has a weight limit. Of course, the version of thinness has changed over time—for example, the heroin chic look of the nineties gave way to the trend that favored big booties on slim bodies—but the ideal woman has been flat-stomached for ages.
I knew that if I was writing about beauty and fashion in Trinidad, I wanted to depict the complexity of that world. So, I wanted to show makeup as an essential component of Trinidad’s Carnival creativity and the ways that fashion can help us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves. However, I also wanted to show the commodification of beauty in a patriarchal society and the ways that harmful beauty standards erode an individual’s sense of self-worth.
I put a lot of thought into how I would write Bianca’s food restrictions. I was purposefully minimal with the details because I didn’t want this book to potentially be used as a how-to for disordered eating. However, I wanted to examine the effects on a person when they are bombarded with messages that they are most physically attractive and most worthy of love when their body is forced to conform to very narrow beauty standards. I wanted to ask what it would take for someone to eventually question the traditional beauty narrative and how hard it would be to really let go of such a socially ingrained ideal.
Since the book has come out readers have been in touch—both from the Caribbean and the wider world—with stories of the ways their relationship with their bodies and with beauty is fraught and complicated. I’m both happy that Bianca’s beauty journey resonated with readers and sorry that so many of us still have to embark on these lifelong quests just so we can love ourselves as we are.
AL: The climax was so suspenseful! You really nailed the pacing and the plotting, and it unfolded almost like a thriller. I started out writing heists, and now I’m writing spy fiction. I read and watched so many different thriller stories for inspiration. Do you read heist or spy fiction? Do you watch that genre of film or TV?
BM: Thank you so much! I love a good thriller, including heists and spy fiction. I actually just finished reading Anthony Horowitz’s James Bond novel With a Mind to Kill. If you want a lesson in how to write a tight plot, read a thriller. The best thrillers build to a crescendo and you feel like you physically cannot put the book down because you have to know what happens and when you get to the ending, your heart is pounding because you suspect that the villain is going to get his comeuppance, but you’re not sure how the hero is going to pull it off. Obviously, The God of Good Looks isn’t a thriller, but I wanted the denouement to have a similar quality.
I do also love a heist or spy movie or series, for much the same reason I love the books. Recently, any films or series I watch has had some escapist element—a psychologist could probably read a lot into that—but I do love getting lost in the tropes of spy movies like nations waging shadow warfare, double agents, high speed chases and, of course, the highly trained and incredibly lethal spy.
AL: I have written in the past about Dominican author Cleyvis Natera’s work in this literary/crime borderland. Are there other Caribbean novelists writing in the hybrid crime/literary genre that you would like to tell us about?
BM: First of all, I am such a fan of Cleyvis and I highly recommend her brilliant Neruda on the Park!
For me, the don of Caribbean crime fiction is Jacob Ross. I adored The Bone Readers, which combines a police procedural with a young man’s attempt to discover which renegade policeman killed his mother. The novel is deeply rooted in Caribbean life and culture, with writing that is chef’s kiss good and a protagonist that you’ll be rooting for all the way through. The Bone Readers is the first in a four-part crime series and I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.
Marlon James’s Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings combines crime and literary writing in the most exquisite multi-generational epic. The story is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters from the ghost of a murdered politician to gang kingpins, CIA agents, drug dealers, and would-be assassins. It’s a sprawling novel knotted together by the force of these characters. At the heart of the book is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the rising tide of violence in Jamaica in the seventies and eighties.
AL: Fantastic. So here’s my final question: this is your debut novel, what’s up next for you?
BM: I’m working on something that could potentially be my next novel. My first drafts are always extraordinarily awful, sometimes I cringe when I re-read the writing! But I’m compelled to keep going; I’m so excited to see where these new characters will take me.