Ingrid Persaud discusses love, Trinidad, and writing in dialect.
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I’m guessing that Love After Love, your new novel, borrows from Derek Walcott’s wonderful poem of the same name. If it does, could you tell me a bit about your relationship to that piece, to Walcott, and to Trinidadian literature more broadly?
If it’s thief you thiefing then take from the best. Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’, a deeply compassionate poem, suggests hope and redemption are ours if we can only love ourselves. My characters Betty, her son Solo, and their lodger Mr Chetan – an unconventional family unit – pass through real pressure but are ultimately saved by love. Now, I’m not talking about love-up kind of love. Nah. Here love, and the failure of love, takes many forms. It’s messy, committed, with each person ultimately understanding that love of the self is the foundation for healing. Only then might we obey the poet’s command: ‘Sit. Feast on your life’.
But you also asked about Trinidadian literature generally so let we face the big man: Sir Vidya. He was misogynistic, arrogant and you had a better chance of seeing God face than to hear him declare himself a Trini to the bone. That rejection cuts deep for a lot of Caribbean people. I find his fiction crucial – especially the early novels like Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas. And equally important is his contemporary Samuel Selvon. I would not have had the freedom and confidence to inhabit my voice if Selvon didn’t do his thing first in work like The Lonely Londoners. Nuff respect.
I first met you amidst the success of ‘The Sweet Sop’, which was your first short story, and which won two of the world’s biggest short-form prizes. The story, like all your writing, is in Trini dialect. In a moment when Caribbean vernaculars are being embraced in the literary world, was the success of ‘The Sweet Sop’ a particular validation of Trinidadian vernacular?
Validation? What happen? Since when is Trini English like a car-park ticket you must get stamped before you’re allowed into the literary world? It have plenty different kind of English so why we must stick to the narrow English dictated by a tiny minority? Nah. I’m not doing it. For millions of Caribbean people, I am writing in the very real English of a very real place. The characters in ‘The Sweet Sop’ were Trinis. What other voice would have been authentic?
At the same time, have you experienced resistance to this (from readers, from the publishing community, or from elsewhere)?
Love After Love land up with Faber after they mash up six other publishers who were also hungry for the book. Readers seem engaged. A good story is a good story but not everybody will like my work. To be universally loved I would have to be a hot dhalpuri roti with curry channa and maybe slight pepper.
You’ve spoken before about starting meaningfully to write when you moved to Barbados. What was it about that move that catalysed you? You now live between London and Barbados, but your literature is firmly Trinidadian. Is writing a way in which you can be at home?
I’m taking in front before in front take me. I love Barbados, and I hope they don’t ask back for their passport, but the move from London to that small rock wasn’t easy. I land up there and couldn’t find my groove in the art scene. Writing a weekly blog was my creative space and it grew from there. Although I wrote about Barbados I am a Trini. Don’t mind I haven’t lived there since I was eighteen. That is where my navel string buried. Love After Love is a love letter from self-exile to home, but without denying the very real problems of crime and governance.
Love After Love is, unsurprisingly, full of the myriad forms of love we experience. To me, we leave the novel with the sense that love for oneself is paramount, but nevertheless always beset by consternation. Could you speak a little about writing love, and how it relates to writing death – something that I know was of personal importance in ‘The Sweet Sop’?
Oh gosh, you real have me thinking of what to say that will sound profound. I ain’t go lie and tell you I have some deep insight. When I’m writing about love or death – these fundamentals of being human – all I do is give my truth. That truth may be limited but I pour all I know to be authentic into my characters. And I don’t flinch when that truth is ugly or inconvenient.
What sort of love do you feel for writing? Or is it love/hate?
I came to writing via the scenic route but if you know how glad I am to finally reach. I happy like pappy. Not that the writing gig is easy. Sometimes I work whole day and only two-three hundred words are on the page. But when writing I am at ease with myself and the world. True talk.
Finally, I want to ask about LGBTQ rights, and the figure of Mr Chetan. Trinidad and Tobago paved the way for reform of colonial-era homophobia laws in the Caribbean, but social shifts are harder-won, and systemic prejudices live large. Do you feel a duty, as a writer, to speak into this context?
Thank the lord that at least since the nineteenth century nobody does talk about the moral duties of the writer. The way I see it, my job is to lay the issues out and done with that. Mr Chetan as a gay man was open to the prejudice and violence the queer community experiences daily. I couldn’t close my eye and write as if these human-rights breaches are not happening in the Caribbean. No sir. If that helps shift attitudes then the novel has exceeded expectations.
Born in Trinidad, Ingrid Persaud won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018. She read law at the LSE and was an academic before studying fine art at Goldsmiths and Central Saint Martins. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Prospect, the Guardian, the Independent, National Geographic, Five Dials and Pree magazines.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.