Ingrid Persaud, Trinidad-born writer living in London, whose debut novel Love After Love published in 2020 by Faber in the UK is shortlisted for the hugely prestigious Costa First Novel Award. 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. Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love shortlisted for the Costa Prize for a Debut writer as it represents a breakthrough in the Caribbean novel while exploring universal themes of domestic violence, sexuality, and self-harm. This nomination comes at a time that appears to be a renaissance for women writers in the Caribbean, and particularly Trinidad.
From Clare Adam (Golden Child) to Ayanna Gillian Lloyd (The Gatekeepers acquired by Hamish Hamilton at auction). From Monique Roffey (also shortlisted for the Costa prize) to non-fiction writer Judy Raymond to short story writer Breanne McIvor. From Caroline Mackenzie (picked up by Netflix) to Amanda Smyth (Third novel, Fortune out in 2021). From poet Shivanne Ramlochan (shortlisted for the Forward Prize) to Vahni Capildo (celebrated poet and winner of the Forward Prize), to YA writer Lisa Allen-Agostini to Celeste Mohammed–a new generation of women writers has taken a large bite of the literary apple (helped hugely by the doyen of Bocas Lit Fest Marina Salandy-Brown) in the formerly male-dominated herculean canon of literature in Trinidad, Think Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and V S Naipaul, CLR James, Sam Selvon.
In this exclusive interview with Ira Mathur, Persaud tells us of the Trinidad that formed her, why she writes, and how she navigates the space of a Trinidadian writer living in the diaspora.
IM: Ingrid, huge congratulations for the nomination–Costa Prize for a debut writer. What do you make of this phenomenon of the rise of women writers in the Caribbean?
IP: I don’t think there’s been a rise in excellent women writers from Trinidad and the Caribbean. We are merely getting our due attention. Two Trini women on the Costa shortlist is as it should be.
The Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott once said that the Caribbean must reclaim itself ”leaf by leaf,” and this is just what Love after Love does, gloriously and unapologetically. Both your prize-winning short story and your novel are set in Trinidad, in dialect. Though colloquialism has been occasionally used by writers such as Sam Selvon and V S Naipaul, did it feel like a risky decision to write an entire novel in dialect?
A novel set in Trinidad with Trinidadian characters–how else were they going to speak? I didn’t feel I had a choice if I wanted to be authentic. And I am tired of these conversations of proper and improper English. For too long a tiny minority has dictated what constitutes proper English. This is the English that millions speak, and it is as valid as any other English. I see no reason to explain, apologise or translate.
Did you consciously set out to write about homophobia, domestic violence, and self-harm?
If I consciously thought about which grand themes/ideas I might tackle in a novel, I would be paralysed with fear. I follow the narrative that seems true to the character and the time and place they find themselves. If that means confronting dark and difficult subjects like domestic violence and homophobia, then I try not to blink. I would rather not have had to look at those issues. For a while, it meant inhabiting some dark places but I don’t portray my characters as hapless victims. Betty’s story is that of a survivor of domestic abuse. Indeed, she is a survivor because she fought back. All the characters are making choices about how to live with trauma. There is pain, but they do move forward.
You’ve lived abroad since you were 18, but you seem to write close to the bone of this society. How do you do this?
I’m a South girl and had a typical Presbyterian-Indian upbringing–Grant Memorial primary school then Naparima Girls’. We moved North, so I did A-levels at St Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain. The close friends I made in school are still a treasured part of my life. Because I write as someone in self-exile, I think of myself as occupying that liminal space of the non-belonger–neither insider nor outsider. In the non-belonging, I can look at Trinidad with an affection that does not blind me to the challenges faced.
Your novel is titled after one of Derek Walcott’s most famous poems. Why Love After Love?
The three main characters are all struggling to find some form of love, but without self-love, their quests are futile. Walcott’s poem, Love After Love speaks to this so beautifully. I wanted all the characters to embrace that final line of the poem: “Sit. Feast on your life.”
What struggles have you faced as a West Indian carving out a writing career in the UK?
While there is prejudice in the voices that get published, I’ve had a great deal of luck. Winning the BBC NSSA opened doors, and I have an excellent agent, Zoe Waldie of RCW Agency. She has championed my work and got me published by Faber. But my story is not typical. Writers of colour have shown that their voices are not reaching mainstream publishers, and when they do, the advances they command are often significantly less than their white colleagues. A lot of hard work needs to be done, including reassessing who constitutes a typical reader. In the UK people of colour may not be buying novels but they are checking them out of libraries.
How important is it after the waves of the Black Lives Matter and Me-Too movements for writers to be politically aware. Or should art and campaigning be separate?
Mercifully not since the nineteenth century has there been an expectation that writers must engage with the politics of the day. I don’t write to preach or show allegiance to any cause. But I’m politically engaged in how I live my life, and that must seep through in my work. And reading a novel is an intimate act. Where it takes you and how it challenges your assumptions about people and places is exciting. In a world where we are increasingly isolated, this engagement is critical.
What writers have had the most influence on your own writing and themes?
V S Naipaul, Sam Selvon and Toni Morrison. I devoted a few months this year rereading every Toni Morrison novel. I get courage from these writers.
What significance do you attach to prizes?
Nearly 200,000 novels are published in the UK every year and over 300,000 in the USA. Prizes are one way to shine in such a dense field. A few are also significant enough to buy time to write.
What has most surprised you about the reception of your book?
I didn’t expect to have an international gay fan club.
What would brave next steps look like for you and in your writing in this tumultuous year?
A brave step is to believe that this moment is the best and having faith that the future is bright; to keep on writing and sharing work uncertain times; to be adaptable; to live in the moment with grace and compassion.It’s easy to underestimate how radical an act all this is right now.
For more interviews with West Indian writers go to www.irasroom.org