Ayanna Lloyd Banwo on ghost stories, love stories, Trinidad, and grief.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
Ayanna – thanks for speaking to me. I’m going to start by doing that really horrible thing of asking what you’d call When We Were Birds, your debut novel. What is it?
You know, I think there’s a distinction between how “the algorithm” categorises a book for the market, the academic categorising of books by common themes or forms, and what the writer actually thinks they are writing. This writer was writing a book that felt true to myself as an African-diasporic person with an indigenous sense of religion and spirituality, where time is not linear, where the living and the dead are not as far from each other as perhaps we think. And so what do we call that? What category or form is that? Is it Caribbean gothic? Magical realism? Speculative fiction? Crime? Well, I suppose it’s all of that.
I think writing about Trinidad requires a very flexible hand, a very flexible sense of genre, because it’s a country that doesn’t allow you to define it very easily. And Port of Spain is a city that certainly resists any kind of box, any kind of definition. It’s not very interested in telling you what it is. And perhaps that’s why the novel had to be all those forms at once.
It’s a horrible question because, as a writer, labels are of course meaningless. That’s for the booksellers and the critics and the readers to worry about. As a writer, you don’t write into categories, you write what’s in you.
I suppose you could also say that When We Were Birds is, at the same time, a ghost story and a love story. But are ghost stories and love stories the same things anyway?
Absolutely, absolutely. I think that the reason we grieve is because we love. The reason that the dead don’t leave is because they are attached to the living. You know, both are inseparable from both. Going back to “the algorithm”: sometimes it comes up as romance, but it’s not a romance, it’s a love story – love in all its familial, erotic forms –and I suppose it’s also my love letter to Trinidad.
You mentioned the reason for which we love being the same as the reason for which we grieve. I wonder if you could talk a little about grief? You’ve spoken elsewhere about the losses in your life, and those losses happening very closely together. I suppose what we’ve been discussing about form and genre means that there’s no risk of that lazy, problematic tendency to read a writer’s biography into their fiction. But I wonder if I could ask not only how your experiences of grief have affected your book and its characters, but also how your book and its characters have affected your experience of grief?
That’s such a good question. On the conflation of writers and their stories: I think, most of the time, the issue comes when a critic conflates too directly – they say you are writing about your life, or that, you know, the character of a mother is your mother. That’s where I think it becomes lazy.
This is now my ninth year of grief, and I think how I wrote this novel is more instructive than the why I wrote it. The thing about grief is that it’s prolonged, whether you acknowledge it or not. At first, you get word that someone has died, and then there are a series of things that have to be done, right. There’s the bureaucratic element of death – the paperwork, the life insurance, the funeral costs, the death certificate. Those things have to happen, and they don’t respect how you’re feeling. And then your spirit starts to exist in different places at the same time: there’s the body and intellect, that are having to move around and get these things done; there’s the yearning for the dead, who are still quite close, hovering, not yet moved on; and there is your feeling of what happens next. It’s an intensely ghostly process, and it produces a very spectral space.
But I’m not these characters and they’re not me. I am not Yejide; Petronella is not my mother; I am not Darwin. I mean, my mother and I were in love, first of all – if I wrote my relationship with my mother, it would not be like the book’s at all. But this idea of a house where the living and the dead are existing simultaneously is very much how a family home feels after a series of deaths. I spent a lot of time in Lapeyrouse Cemetery – the cemetery that Fidelis is based on – after my mother died. I became very intense about observing things. I was looking all the time. I was standing in lines and making notes. Who was there? Who might those people have been? Who were they there for? A lot of short stories came from that period – of being in the morgue, being in the hospital, walking around Lapeyrouse. And I think some of that ended up in this novel; the grief-space impacted not so much the characters as the form and the space of the book.
How the act of writing affected my grief? That’s a harder question to answer. I have been writing this novel for nine years. And at some point I managed to cross a threshold where I was able to say This is what I’m writing. It was not about my mother, not about my grief, but an exploration of those themes and ideas. I don’t know if working on yourself or your trauma makes for very good writing for other people to read. At some point, the writing I was doing – the notes, the diary entries – gained a little distance, and they became about the world that I was making for the book. It can’t be about me working through something – that’s for my diaries and notebooks.
Sure – experience might be a part of the resource for the art, but the art isn’t simply the experience; it’s not an uncomplicated relationship.
Exactly. And that’s why I think that writers get annoyed when people assume things are simply autobiographical – not just because they assume, but because it suggests this idea that the writing was easy; that there was no craft, and that you just wrote up something that has happened to you.
Could I ask a little more about the ideas of space, and observation, and world-making? Something I found striking about the world of When We Were Birds is that it’s Trinidad, it’s Port of Spain, but it’s also really not. Everything felt as though it had moved a little – zoomed in or out, come a little closer or a little further away. The island felt enormous and yet incredibly crammed. How are the Trinidad of the book and the Trinidad outside it related?
At first, I think I had something that a lot of writers writing about home but who aren’t living at home must feel: the anxiety of forgetting. I came to the UK when I was 37. I was cooked! I was formed already! Yet I still had this niggling anxiety of forgetting: writing from the UK, I would ask myself Is this true? Is this actually how it looks? Whereas when I was at home I could just go outside and know the space I was writing.
But very quickly it stopped mattering. Because as this book developed, it became clear that its world was not Port of Spain. It was in a way, in that its psychological terrain was Port of Spain – the quality of the light in the evenings when you’re driving up the North Coast Road, the sensibility, the texture. But the geography wasn’t, because that’s not what the novel ended up requiring. The characters needed certain things of the space – Darwin’s journey from home in Dalia Street to Port Angeles needed to seem like a real journey, a big jump. And maybe the space also needed certain things of the characters.
A kind of co-creation.
Yes, exactly. You know, there are two imposed projections of islands: the idyllic island, the tourist brochure, a beach with a hotel front, a couple of people thrown in for “local colour”; and the mysterious island, the colonial gothic projection, with its people that do “strange” things, who are scary but tantalising. And both are false; both are islands seen through different colonial lenses. Islands have cities, which have the same needs and energies as cities anywhere else. And so Port Angeles and the Trinidad of the novel aren’t just different to the physical Port of Spain and Trinidad – aren’t just what the book needed – they are also very real in a way that might seem strange to some readers who do not know them: they are extremely urban, extremely cosmopolitan, with high-rises, yachts, wealth, people going for brunch, but they are also indigenous, rural, with hidden places that you only know if you know. So as much as Port Angeles is mythical and magical, that’s very much how cities are. You can’t find your way in a city just so just so; not everywhere you’re going to see and know. Some places somebody has to carry you to; some places you go there and you’ll get shot.
I’d like to talk about something maybe a bit related to space, and to your experience of being away from a space: voice. The voices of the book are just perfect. And I think writers with relationships to the Caribbean, particularly to Trinidad, are at the vanguard of saying ‘This is my voice, my language, my dialect, and I will write it’. Did putting the writerly voice of the book to paper come immediately, or was it something less straightforward than that?
I think it was both. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s extremely true that characters walk into your head talking. They announce who they are. This book was a short story at first, an in that early version Darwin was older, more weatherbeaten, more cynical. In the final version – the novel – he is younger. And in all the stages of his life, his voice came easily to me. He’s a Trinidadian and that’s how he speaks.
But none of us are free from our colonial education system. At school, I was taught to speak in standard English and to write like I was Jane Austen. But your vernacular is very different. So you’re always moving between your different Englishes and voices. I knew from the start that this was not a novel in “standard English”, but for a while I was mediating the narrative voice more than I needed to. It was uncomfortable. It felt like ventriloquism. It felt like I was putting a voice on. I kept bumping my head against a wall with that. The moment that it changed was in a workshop at UEA with Giles Foden. He was sitting and listening to me and he said, ‘Who are you worrying about? Who are you worrying for? You’re doing two things. Just go with the one that’s you. Just go for it’. And I let go of the colonial English teacher in my head. Not my English teacher – she was wonderful – but the whole system. And once I committed it was so easy. That was the language the book needed to be in.
And that’s such a liberating moment. I think one of the most important things a creative writing course, or teacher, or workshop can do is say ‘Do you’. Not to help someone ‘find’ their voice, but just to help them run with it.
Yes. Like, it’s there. It’s right there. You’re doing it already. Just keep doing it.
There’s another thing I want to say about creative writing teaching. There’s the usual discourse of whether creative writing can be taught, whether creative writing programmes are just a way to take people’s money, and so on. And it certainly has its flaws. But let’s also be very real about how publishing works. The average person who is working class, who does not live in a metropolitan publishing centre, or who doesn’t have any connections to agents and publishers – for us, the creative writing programmes become a way to access these worlds. You know? Agents not walking around giving their card to people in the road saying, ‘Hey, like to write something?’
We’ve spoken a bit about the creative writing communities and institutions you’ve been a part of in Norwich. Could we also talk a bit about Bocas?
Yes! I became aware of Bocas in 2012, very soon after the festival began. Literary festivals were things that happened in other places, and so I just showed up not knowing what to expect. And then year after year I took a chunk of vacation from work to go. Bocas was instrumental in doing what we were talking about: connecting writers to people in publishing, getting someone to look at your manuscript, finding them benefactors. So many of us benefitted from Bocas, and all the things that started happening in Trinidad around that time. Monique Roffey started running a creative writing workshop. And the Cropper Foundation Writers’ Workshop started up in Toco with Merle Hodge and Funso Aiyejina. The Ministry of Culture began running a programme called Mentoring with the Masters. All these things hadn’t happened before, and they brought a generation of writers together: Shivanee Ramlochan, Hadassah Williams, Jannine Horsford, Anna Levi – we were all there. And I feel very lucky for that.
I think Bocas is such a beacon in the literary landscape – such a consummate example of what festivals should do; something that says not ‘What do we feel we should do?’ but ‘What do writers want and need?’
Finally, could I ask you about matrilineage?
Sometimes, people say that you write books as wish-fulfilment. That you write what you want to see in the world – examples for a society or a family. One of the things I remember Earl Lovelace saying to me was ‘What are the structures that you are dismantling?’ A part of the reason that we’re doing this work is because there’s something in the world that we are challenging. If you’re just reinforcing the same structures, the same systems, the same ideologies, then why not just stay at home? Why not just stay in the other job that you’re doing? I think that, in my book, having a matriarchy, a matrilineal family, is in fact valorising something that for a long time we were told not to valorise. I hope that, in a way, it challenges by valorising, rather than just challenging.
Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is a writer from Trinidad & Tobago. She is a graduate of the University of the West Indies and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she is now a Creative and Critical Writing PhD candidate. Her work has been published in Moko Magazine, Small Axe and PREE, among others, and shortlisted for Small Axe Literary Competition and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. When We Were Birds is her first novel; she is now working on her second which will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2025. Ayanna lives with her husband in London.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Penguin Books.