An Unconventional Love Story, Told In Trinidadian Dialect
Ingrid Persaud on subverting the heteronormative confines of family in her novel "Love After Love"
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Ingrid Persaud made the grandest of debuts in the literary world by winning the BBC Short Story Award in 2018 with “The Sweet Sop,” the first short story she ever wrote. After this extremely auspicious beginning, the Trinidad-born writer, whose resume includes stints in legal academia and art school in the U.K., publishes her novel, Love After Love.
In Love After Love, Betty takes in a lodger after the death of her handsome, brutal husband. Betty and her young son, Solo, grow close to Mr. Chetan, a queer man navigating the homophobic island landscape. One night, Solo overhears Betty confess a secret to Mr. Chetan. The revelation throws Solo into despair and exile to New York where his father’s brother lives. Solo remains in touch with Mr. Chetan but he refuses to speak to Betty until a tragedy strikes and Solo has to come home.
The novel, told entirely in the lyrical dialect of Trinidad, offers a close-focus picture of the island’s Indo-Caribbean community, as well as the diversity of Trinidadian culture, traditions (like Carnival), and life. The unconventional trio, who narrate the novel in turns with their distinctive voices and perspectives, endear absolutely with their desires and flaws. By the novel’s end, I felt so close to them, mostly because their voices shine—and I felt like I could hear them. I spoke to Persaud about her winning debut, multiple diasporic movements, and her favorite Caribbean storytellers.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: I would love to start with your BBC National Short Story Award. You won this in 2018 with your first ever story! How incredible? Can you tell us about this?
Ingrid Persaud: Things were rough. Within twelve months father dead, father-in-law dead and two uncles gone and dead. Grief caused all kinds of things to hold me—love, memory, regret, anger, redemption. How to write about this without depressing people? While I was there scratching my head, I came across a set of stories where people dead from eating chocolate. Yes, one of the essential food groups: chocolate. Next thing I know the son in my story was dealing forbidden chocolates to his estranged father. Look, it takes all kinds. Some deal in crack cocaine and some deal in KitKat. I had plenty fun writing “The Sweet Sop.” Chocolate was the answer to some of life’s harrowing questions. Remember what the Trini people say, laugh and cry does live in the same house.
JRR: When did you begin this novel? Tell us how you imagined this family, who is quite far from the heteronomative model. Also the title, is it a reference to the Derek Walcott poem?
IP: You know Walcott’s poem, “Love After Love”—but the rest of all you who don’t better hurry up and read it now for now. It’s a masterclass in accepting ourselves as we are: “Sit. Feast on your life.” Betty, a widow, Solo, her son, and Mr. Chetan, their lodger form an unconventional family torn apart by secrets, and we follow them as they trip and stumble towards self-acceptance. See why I had to thief the man’s title?
The book started with a short piece about a young man who deals with his emotional pain by self-harming. In that scene, he visits a sex worker. As she puts down a set of licks in his tail, the physical pain eases up his psychological anguish. Writing that scene was like posing myself a question. The rest of the novel evolved as I kept asking myself how the poor fella reached this circle of hell, and how I was going to free him.
JRR: You write about a very specific Indo-Caribbean community–in dialect. You’ve explained very little to those who might not be familiar with Trinidad or the Indo-Caribbean community.
IP: You’re talking truth. Not many writers use Trini dialect in a sustained way. And because for so long the rest of the literary establishment treated our dialect like bad English we were forever apologizing, explaining, translating. Them days done. Go through hard. Do your thing with confidence. Excellence will shine through no matter what. I bet you five dollars all them fellas from Shakespeare come down didn’t spend a minute worrying if readers would get their use of dialect. Mine is no different. Take an example:
I was liming in a Carnival fete last month and I met a real hot man. Straight away I gone bazodee. I can’t think eat. I can’t sleep. All I thinking about is he.
I’m sure as God make Moses I don’t have to translate “liming” or “bazodee”.
Of course every language has its gatekeepers and Trini dialect is no exception. Next to my laptop are no less than four dictionaries of the English/Creole of Trinidad—just in case a little doubt catch me. It’s worth taking the time to get it right. This is my love song to the place and language of my childhood.
JRR: Your background is of multiple diasporas. You were born in Trinidad, spent a lot of time in the U.K., and had a stint in Boston. I see you live between Barbados and London right now. It made me think of other writers from the Caribbean who’ve made similar journeys (V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon, to name just two). In your book, Mr. Chetan and Solo (as well as others like Mr. England) both leave and return to Trinidad. I was wondering if you could talk about this going and coming (back) in general, in your book, and how it has impacted you as a writer?
IP: In Love After Love, Betty cooks a special fish called cascadoux. Once you get past how ugly it is, you’re in for a treat. That fish sweet. And watch me—Trinis believe that if you eat cascadoux, no matter where you go in the world, all England and America, you will always return to Trinidad. No spoilers, but if you’re born on a small island sometimes the only way to flee your demons is to physically ups and leave. The trick is finding your way back and making peace with yourself.
I’ve licked down my fair share of cascadoux and hope to end my days right where I was born. But, assuming Covid-19 spare life, for now I remain in self-imposed exile, a perpetual insider/outsider. I don’t know if it’s because I am used to being in this liminal space that I have finally embraced it. I step outside the agonizing questions of identity and nationality to belong to that non-belonging. Maybe this is how we might build a place called home—as something we can carry with us.
JRR: I see that you trained as a visual artist. I wonder if you could meditate on how this visual background has influenced your writing?
IP: I was raised in an ordinary middle-class Trini home where there were three career options: doctor, lawyer, or failure. I read law at LSE and for a good long while I was an academic. But something was missing from my life. I left academia and went off to art school. I had the best time ever and learned to only wear black. Seems I am a visual thinker and although the novel is character-driven, I was always drawn back to working and reworking my descriptions—especially when Mr. Chetan or Betty were cooking.
JRR: The domestic violence that Betty experiences at the hands of her husband, Sunil, results in more violence, and manifests again with Solo’s self-harm. I was wondering if you would discuss this a little?
IP: You catch me here. See, I thought I expressly didn’t make the violence cyclical. But maybe a different truth comes out in the book. Sunil was a nasty wife-beater who should have made a jail. Rather than dwelling on the violence, his wife Betty moves on. Those who are harmed can break the cycle and lead fulfilled lives. Solo’s self-harming is something different—partly his father’s legacy, but the boy had plenty other things on his mind. I can’t say what or I will give away the whole story.
JRR: I was very struck by the character of Solo and how his innocence is shattered by the overheard revelation. I felt like you rendered his response to this betrayal so acutely. Could you talk about Solo’s creation? I see you have sons. The mother-son relationship in it seems very real.
IP: I ain’t lying. Bringing Solo alive on the page was real pressure. Anxious, teenaged boys don’t like to talk about their feelings and the only tools I have are words. Luckily, I’ve been keeping a close eye on our sons—nineteen-year-old identical twins. They are wonderful and I hope not traumatized like Solo but I’ve learned a lot from being their mama. Family attachments and how we make those systems work when things rough—that is a minefield. I’ve only scratched the surface.
JRR: Who are your favorite Caribbean writers?
IP: What happen, like you want to put me in the bamboo? If I say Naipaul, people go bawl he’s a traitor and a misogynist. If I say Sam Selvon, people will want to know if I don’t read all the new talent around. If I say Claire Adam, people will say the women them sticking together. Mention Marlon James, Kei Miller, and Lorna Goodison and people will say I favoring the Jamaicans them. Nah. You can’t trap me so.