News: In Conversation With Ingrid Persaud

Born in Trinidad, Ingrid 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. She lives in London. Love After Love is the winner of the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.

When did you first realise you were a writer?

What a great question and difficult to answer. The first time I was called a writer was on winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. But I didn’t feel I could call myself a writer until Faber acquired Love After Love. Somewhere in the eighteen months between both events, I was working at my desk, just a normal day, and it suddenly hit me that I was finally doing what I wanted to do for the rest of life. In that unmarked moment, I realised I was a writer.

You have spoken about your travels and the sense of non-belonging you experienced in the past. Can you share a little more about this and how it influences your writing?

Since I left Trinidad at eighteen, I have lived in London and Boston. For thirteen years, I split my time between London and Barbados. Self-exile to these places means I don’t belong anywhere. This push and pull can be agonising. Yet what if we were to embrace the liminal space of non-belonging – neither insider nor outsider? Could we not step outside of nationality into that liminality to make a place called home? In the non-belonging I can look at Trinidad or London with an affection that does not blind me to the challenges faced.

What advice would you give writers about developing a strong sense of place in their work? Why is this so important?

If the writer lacks confidence in the world they are creating, how is the reader meant to suspend belief and feel for the characters? Place can be evoked by almost anything – a piece of toast, birdsong, the smell of a flower, the texture of a blanket, the sky at sunrise. For me the key is detail, accuracy and courage. Give it as you get it. It will take you home. 

What tools and techniques do you use to practice and refine your craft? How has this changed during this time?

My technique is simple – show up at your desk every single day and write. Don’t wait for the muse. She’s stuck in traffic and not sure what time she’ll get here. When I am not writing I am reading and I try to read as widely as I can – novels, essays – whatever I can get my hands on that looks interesting. During lockdown I thought I would have achieved more but I haven’t. But I keep trying one day at a time.

You have worked in two very different careers before now. How has your time in these roles informed your writing?

Growing up in a Trini-Indian household there are three career options: doctor, lawyer or failure. Like a good child, I studied law and became an academic which held me for a long time. But something was missing. In my thirties I went back to school to study fine art and much of the work I produced incorporated text. So you see, the power of language is the golden thread running through these disparate careers. Law gave me discipline and logic and art taught me the value of play. I needed both to be a writer. 

What is next for you?

I’m working on another novel. Like Love After Love it is set in Trinidad.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m working on an essay about walking the Camino and just cracked the spine of Frederic Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. Of course I would much rather be out walking in the countryside than being at home thinking about the meaning of walking. 

Which books resonates most with you?

Books with humour and honesty about the human condition are my favourites. Humour is seriously underrated.

What are some changes you want to see within the publishing industry?

I’m looking for greater equality in the publishing industry. People of colour face three challenges: they are underrepresented, underpaid and misrepresented. Fewer non-white writers are being published since 2000 than the previous two decades. Publishing houses need to examine their bias and privilege to understand why this has happened. Even worse, in the exercise of that privilege they may be guilty of promoting the second-rate work of writers who look and sound just like them. Recent events have also made us acutely aware of the pay disparity, particularly for Black women authors who are generally paid less for their work compared to every other racial grouping. Even if a person of colour manages to get a publishing deal that is fair, they then face the problem of misrepresentation. Blessed with an ethnic name and your work is quickly deemed exotic, ‘multicultural literature’ or ‘world literature’ or some other subset that relegates it to the back shelves. It’s hard to simply be considered as writing literature and to have your work compared to your peers regardless of ethnicity.

What message would you give to your younger self? 

I’d say listen to Winnie the Pooh: ‘You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.’

You can purchase a copy of Love After Love from: