It begins, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo tells me, as so many stories do: in Belmont.
When We Were Birds, her debut novel, sits at the peak of highly-anticipated lists from international publications like the UK Observer, Buzzfeed, The Irish Times, and Good Housekeeping. Robert Jones, Jr., author of The Prophets, calls it “the kind of story that makes you want to spread your arms open wide, embrace the sky, and take flight.” Sold at auction to publishers in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada in 2020, the novel seems to have followed a gilt-paved path to success, destined to win a ravenous audience: as Hamish Hamilton editor Hermione Thompson says, when it comes to Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, “resistance is futile — prepare to discover your new favourite writer.”
Let’s go back to Belmont, first. As Lloyd Banwo reveals, this urban cultural hub in northeast Port of Spain cradled her childhood love of storytelling. “I was always writing because I was always reading, someone was always telling me a story: my grandmother told stories like breathing,” she says, conjuring memories of a fictional realm her grandmother invented, where fruit of every provenance grew magically to the perfect height for diminutively statured devourers. Interwoven with fantasy realms were Granny Yolande Granderson’s very real anecdotes of a Belmont of yore: tales from the 1920s and 30s, the maps of which often loomed larger than life. Trips back from Diamond Vale Government Primary School in Diego Martin led to Yolande’s house, where story was dispensed as both reward and refuge, a practice as instinctive as breathing.
When she was eleven years old, in the house of her other grandmother, Patricia Lloyd, Lloyd Banwo discovered Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance. What followed, aptly, was astonishment. “I was utterly amazed that language could do this in a book,” she remembers. Other titles in her voracious reading life, certainly, had left their impressions — The Island of Blue Dolphins, Harriet’s Daughter, Crick Crack, Monkey — and Lovelace’s Dragon set the whole territory of this creative imagining ablaze. In the stories she was herself writing, Lloyd Banwo would chase this freedom, this joyful audacity in which creative permission wasn’t something you needed to apply for: you only had to dare it into being.
Still, pragmatism and not literary passion typified her early pursuits in career and education alike. Shortly after graduation from Bishop Anstey High School, Lloyd Banwo returned as a teacher herself, instructing her charges in geography, and later English literature. Nestled in between teaching stints was an overwhelmingly positive undergraduate experience at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. “I might not have become a writer if I hadn’t gone to UWI,” she says, crediting the pedagogy of professors Gordon Rohlehr and Paula Morgan, as much as the strengths of the university’s robust Literatures in English degree programme itself. Writing as a career, however, lingered in the hazy distance as a nebulous concept, too out of reach for someone so solidly rooted in Trinidad. At the time, it seemed that literary careers were largely made through emigration, through a necessary uprooting from one’s terrain. Lloyd Banwo tended the topsoil of life at home instead, as a teacher and student, with careers that took tributaries into corporate communications and advertising.
Yet writing, as almost anyone with a pen-nib in this world knows, often insists on itself. In the midst of her careers, her education, and her rootedness, writing as an impetus never vanished. At around the same time she took up a blogging mantle in earnest, Trinidad’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest was also emerging. Lloyd Banwo attended her first Bocas in 2012, and thus began another incursion into this life: the enabling of a community. “Bocas was the first time I met actual writers, and had a pathway towards getting better at writing,” she reflects, summoning a workshop with David Dabydeen as one of her earliest and most pivotal festival experiences. It was at the festival, too, that she met and later attended the writing workshops of Monique Roffey, in which a robust cohort of fiction and poetry writers — including Ira Mathur, Alake Pilgrim, Jannine Horsford, Desiree Seebaran, Hadassah Williams, and the late Colin Robinson — would exchange and critique new drafts.
If living freely enables a certain kind of writing life to flourish, then Ayanna Lloyd Banwo will be the first to tell you that so, too, does death. The passing of both her parents — mother Gale first, followed by her father Ronnie, ten months after — “shook everything.” The space cleared by her parents’ deaths “opened a door,” Lloyd Banwo says, “showing you that life is very sudden, very short. If you’re going to do this thing that you always felt like you should be doing, then good lord, you should probably make serious steps to figure out how.” The circuitous but determined path she cut from that point led her to the UK’s University of East Anglia, where she earned an MA in creative writing and is currently a creative and critical writing PhD student.
When We Were Birds, previously known in its manuscript iteration as “The Gatekeepers”, is a debut many years in the making. As with most labours of intense imagination, power, and love, it’s hard for Lloyd Banwo to pinpoint the precise moment it bloomed in her mind. Long before the death of her mother, she knew she had business with Port of Spain’s Lapeyrouse Cemetery, where much of her family line is interred. Lapeyrouse is a symbolic fulcrum in When We Were Birds, barely cloaked under the alternative name of Fidelis. Make no mistake, though — as you read, you’ll be able to smell the candle residue, read the fading inscriptions on the headstones, walk the graveyard’s gridwork bordered by colonial-era mausoleums and proletarian dirt plots alike.
The writer’s craft is both ceremonial and immediate in this way, working on you like an ancient spell to which you know the words, and the ancient sounds beneath their language. The novel is both a love story and a genealogy of dispossession, a death diary folded into the pages of a magically real Trinidad here called Port Angeles. The birds in this world are harbingers of death and what lies beyond it.
“I’ve somehow managed to finesse a kind of a life: I don’t know how I did it,” Lloyd Banwo says of her current situation. “It really feels like a great fortune, the ultimate luxury.” She now resides in London with her husband, and is able to devote the bulk of her time to the work of writing. Yet none of it, as in matters of survival and dying, has come easily or outside of its own rhythms. Lloyd Banwo likens the duality of her many states — in between books, a citizen of one country resident in another, an “emerging” writer who is not necessarily “new” — as an Eshu-like straddling, one foot in the world of the living, the other deftly positioned in the land of the departed.
Depend upon it, however: in Lloyd Banwo’s fiction, those who are dead are not asleep. As for the writer’s gaze, it doesn’t crave the approval of the foreign publishing markets in which her hardcovers are set to dominate: she turns her fidelity towards home. “Is this a Trinidad my people will recognise?” Lloyd Banwo muses out loud. The answer, old as time and just as dread, is yes.