2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner Trinidadian Ingrid Persaud Talks Writing

Writer Ingrid Persaud; photo used with her permission.

With a humourous, tender and engaging story about a father-son bond, Trinidad and Tobago-born writer Ingrid Persaud copped the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean region; she was also this year's overall winner. In “The Sweet Sop”, she masterfully explores the difficult themes of love and death without getting maudlin, and deliciously sweetens a sour relationship with all manner of chocolate.

Global Voices chatted with her about her win, her writing and Caribbean literature in general.

Global Voices (GV): Congratulations on winning this year’s Commonwealth Short Story prize (Caribbean). The narrative around your success has been that you are a “first-time author” and that you pretty much came out of nowhere to win this prize, but you have been honing your craft for a long time now. Can you tell us about your journey?

Ingrid Persaud (IP): The notion of a writer emerging fully formed is simply a version of the genius myth. I have been writing for the past five years persistently trying to understand how words slide and fall and play. I’ve written a novel and [am] working on another. I haven’t been writing short stories and the prize incentivizes me to look at this form more seriously.

My journey to writing has been circuitous. I have had two other lives. [I was] an academic lawyer and later I trained as an artist. Looking back, the thread that binds it all is the power of words.

GV: The beauty of “The Sweet Sop”, your story that so impressed the panel of judges with its originality, strength of characterisation and humour, is that it spoke of universal experiences with a distinctly Trinidadian voice. How did you accomplish that?

IP: Caribbean voices are as distinct and as easily understood as, for example, the Irish or Scottish voices we unquestioningly accept. I think this generation of writers is making a stand against the othering of Caribbean
voices as ‘patois’ or ‘first nation language’. Good stories and poems will always find a space because they speak to our common humanity. Trini humour warms my heart and I am delighted it touches others.

GV: Has blogging been useful in honing your writing skills, especially with regard to the short story format? What has it taught you as a writer?

IP: I am not a regular blogger but starting the blog was crucial to making writing a more central part of my life. We had moved from London to Barbados and I set myself the task of writing a 900-word weekly essay on this new life. It doesn’t sound like much but it provided structure, discipline and forced me to be more observant. Notes From A Small Rock gave me the space to experiment and get feedback from readers. I really ought I to feed that beast more often.

GV: Not only are you a writer, you are a parent, too. How did your family react when you won the prize, and how do you balance being a wife, mother and writer?

IP: The whole family was proud. Even our teenaged twin boys muttered something about my prize being cool. The boys are my first obligation and until they leave for university in the next year or so my world is determined
by their needs. That is my choice. The time and head space I reserve for writing is also sacred but what that looks like depends on whether it is holiday or term time or if the boys have exams. My husband is incredibly supportive of my writing as I am of his work [he's an economist]. We struggle on as a team — compromising and firefighting.

Ingrid Persaud; image used with her permission.

GV: How has social media factored into your ability to share and promote your work and connect with other Caribbean writers?

IP: I spend far too much time on Facebook and Twitter and excuse it because I live on an island that is 14 by 21 miles. It is my portal to interacting with other writers worldwide as well as my interface with news services and various publications. But I never confuse a virtual friend with the kind that turns up for lunch and you are both still talking and laughing as the moon is rising.

GV: Speaking of other writers, who inspires you?

IP: I read widely to catch a glimpse of the zeitgeist and I read strategically depending on the challenges I am trying to overcome in my own writing. For craft, Olive Senior’s work is inspiring. I re-read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying more often than I care to admit. This summer’s best find has been The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam.

GV: How do you notice Caribbean literature evolving and where does your voice fit into it?

IP: The Caribbean has a proud tradition of producing world class literature and we are continuing to do so with the authentic and unique voices of writers and poets such as Kei Miller, Vahni Capildeo, Marlon James, Barbara Jenkins, Jacob Ross and Sharon Millar. In time, when I’ve produced more work, my voice might find a space. But that is the critic’s job. My task is to keep writing.

GV: Any practical advice for aspiring regional writers, particularly female ones?

IP: Treat yourself with respect and kindness. Make your writing time sacred. When you are not writing, you should be reading. Writers are never off duty because material can come from anywhere — a chance remark or when buying bread. Maybe it is just my sieve of a memory but I recommend note taking on the go. And don’t wait for the muse. That woman woke up late this morning and is stuck in traffic. She’s coming but best you start writing now. She’ll join you later.

GV: Finally, what does winning the Commonwealth Short Story prize mean to you and how do you expect it might change the trajectory of your career?

IP: The prize has brought me in contact with some fantastic writers from around the Commonwealth — people I hope will be in my life for a long time. It has given me greater confidence and resilience to meet the demands of a writer’s life. But it also makes me a little scared that maybe the next thing I write won’t be as good.

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