Ingrid Persaud: “I didn’t write the book I thought I was going to write” | Q&A

Trinidad-born Ingrid Persaud, author of the novel Love After Love, talks to Caribbean Beat about her “scenic route” to a writing career and her relations with the unreliable muse

  • Photograph courtesy Ingrid Persaud

Many writers were bookish children. Were there specific books you read in childhood that sparked your ambition to write?

My mother, a single parent, only had one piece of child. She was bookish, so I copied. And she let me read anything in the house — from Mills and Boon to Piajet’s theory of cognitive development. Me and books became friends long time. Everything in my world was in a book. It’s not surprising that I am happiest resting my thoughts inside a hardback. 

You have a fascinating biography, which includes a period as a lawyer and legal scholar, followed by a career as a visual artist. How did these past versions of yourself shape your literary self? And have you stopped practising as a visual artist?

I normally look where I’m going and go where I’m looking. But with this writing gig? Ah, Lord. I took the scenic route and now I feel I’ve reached the party when the DJ’s already packing up. Not that I have regrets. With both law and art, it was a journey of clipping, curling, twisting, and stretching language and text. I use these past lives all the time. One day I’ll find time for visual art again. One day soon.

You’ve also had quite a peripatetic life, living at different times in Trinidad, Britain, the United States, and Barbados. What do national identity labels mean to you, if anything?

You see me and nationality? We don’t mix at all, at all. Inside my handbag I have three passports. Depending on how the breeze blowing, each of them countries have a reason why I belong or why we’re not true family. Plus, for a writer, nationalism can get in the way of looking deep and hard at society. One small complication, though — my navel string’s buried in south Trinidad and the pull of that is real hard to resist.

What was the seed or spark of the story you tell in Love After Love? How fast or slow, simple or complicated was its evolution?

I didn’t write the book I thought I was going to write. The first thing I wrote was the scene where Solo visits a prostitute. The book looked like it was tracking one man’s journey. Next thing I know, his mother, Betty, and their lodger, Mr Chetan, jumping up and demanding equal billing. I didn’t have a choice but to tell their story as I got it. And you see the first 20,000 words? That took a good year to polish. Once that was done, the rest of the novel flowed like the Caribbean Current and boops baps it was done in a few short months.

The Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison once said every time she thinks she’s losing a sense of the rhythm of the Jamaican voice, she picks up the phone and calls a relative in Jamaica, to just listen to the speech and soak it in. Did you have any similar technique to recapture the intricacies of the Trini voice from a distance?

If you know how glad I am that even Lorna Goodison, grand dame of poetry, sometimes needs to hear the rhythm and music of our speech to write. I do the same. I will pick up the phone and ole talk with my aunty until she mouth tired. If I ain’t able to talk to nobody, I hit up YouTube. You bound to find a Trini talking one set of foolishness.

What does a typical writing day or writing week look like for you?

It could be a Sunday or a Wednesday — I’m in front my screen ready to do the day’s thousand words. If things looking nice, and me and the muse well love up, them thousand words could get licked out by lunchtime. Sweet. But that muse is one unreliable so-and-so. Some days she’s late. Other times she’s in a corner vex with she mouth shut. Plenty times she doesn’t even bother to come to work. Those days I does let go some good cuss. But even if it took twelve or twenty hours, I don’t stop until I reach my word count.

Do you have a sense of belonging to a literary community, in London or elsewhere?

Writing is not a group activity, although some people like to get together and critique each other’s work. Peace and love, but that ain’t my style. Recently a small group of Faber authors have been meeting virtually — mainly to toast another Trini writer, Claire Adam, who has been winning a set of prizes. We’ve evolved into a supportive group of women writers, and I think of them as my community. 

Have any readers’ reactions to the novel surprised or especially pleased you?

If you know how my heart does be glad when a Trini tells me that they didn’t think their ordinary lives would be in the pages of a mainstream book. A man from Williamsville said his eyes watered when he saw his little village mentioned in the novel. 

What’s it been like ushering a novel into the world in a time of pandemic?

Every man, woman, and child on this earth has had to deal with these strange times, so a new novel launching seems insignificant. I’m glad it’s in the world. I missed having a big lime to celebrate. I didn’t get the ego boost or sales that come from having a book front and centre of a bookstore. But I was glad not to be travelling all about to events, and plenty more people were able to engage online. At my Hay Festival online event, over five thousand people tuned in. Now that’s cool.

Are you ready to say anything about the next novel?

You mad or what? Imagine I tell you and somebody who don’t like my face decide to put maljo on the next novel. All I can say is that I’m at my desk Sunday to Sunday trying a thing. 

Born in Trinidad, Ingrid Persaud read law in Britain, followed by degrees in fine art from Goldsmiths and the Central St Martin School of Art and Design in London. Following a move to Barbados, and years of successful practice as a visual artist, she gradually turned to writing. After winning the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award, Persaud’s novel Love After Love was snapped up by prestigious publisher Faber, and appeared in early 2020 to eager anticipation.

Borrowing its title from a Derek Walcott poem, Love After Love, set in San Fernando in south Trinidad, tells the story of an unlikely family: a widow, her teenage son, and the lodger who soon becomes best friend to the former and a father figure to the latter. But what seems like a perfect if unconventional domestic setup is plunged into crisis by the revelation of family secrets, and each of the three main characters must walk a difficult and sometimes contradictory path to understanding not just what love means, but how it means different things to and between different people.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.