UEA Live: celebrating Caribbean women in literature

This week, UEA Live was joined by three prolific Caribbean writers. This event celebrated UEA’s strong ties with Bocas, a writing and literary arts development organisation based in Trinidad & Tobago, and of Caribbean women writers’ contributions to literature.

Chaired by Alison Donnell, professor of Modern Literatures at UEA, the online panel introduced Guyanese-born Canadian Tessa McWatt, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA and winner of the Eccles British Library Writer’s Award 2018. She spoke about her newest addition Shame On Me which was published last year. Also within the UEA community, Trinbagonian MA Creative Writing graduate and postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing Ayanna Gillian Lloyd came to discuss her debut novel The Gatekeepers which will be released in 2022. Last but not least, Trinbagonian winner of the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018 and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017, Ingrid Persaud spoke about her second novel Love After Love, which was published earlier this year.

“That man only gave love you could feel. He cuff you down? Honeymoon. He gave you a black eye? True love in your tail. He break your hand? A love letter. He put you in hospital for a week? Love will stay the course. He take a knife and stab your leg? Til death do us part.” After hearing this excerpt of Love After Love, I was taken aback by the visceral frankness of this account of a woman’s abusive relationship with an alcoholic. Exploring themes like domestic abuse, family dynamics, hope, and love as a healer of deep-seated issues, this is a novel that can be described as a restorative account of the power of love as a guide to therapize.

On the topic of domestic abuse, Persaud shares some wise points and provoking questions for discussion: “There’s no apology, we take it for granted and we move forward […] Is it there in society already, the possibilities to change? Or is all the work really just internal?” Carrying on from this, Lloyd responds to the questions, using the characters in the novels as examples, sharing her own take on how to move forward from trauma. “They’re stuck in this loop. What has happened to them, they can’t undo it, they can’t erase it. But they can certainly look at it and say ‘I see you’… and sort of release it before moving forward.” It’s worth noting that neither writer uses the words “move on” as we hear often by those comforting victims of trauma, but rather “move forward.” Trauma is not something you can avoid and expect to flee from; it becomes part of your experience and identity, festering in the darkness but shrivelling when placed in the light.

Described by Ayanna as “a story of how death came into the world,” The Gatekeepers is told as a children’s fable of sorts, painting the tapestry of ancestry with words as brushes to help the character reconnect with her heritage. The pervading question that is resurrected throughout the novel was beautifully captured by her description on what the novel means to her, that “so much of this book is ‘what do we owe the dead?’” Building on this idea that our present is built on the aftermath of history, she spoke about her own philosophy on this concept and how the present is indivisible from the past: “we’re living amongst gods all the time and we have no idea.”

Writing also about heritage, Tessa shares her own complex ancestry. If we are indeed living amongst gods, then the gods surrounding Tessa’s life must borrow from all world religions. The questions that persist throughout her autobiographical memoir are ones that ask about belonging and identity, and how that fits in with a society that is obsessed with labelling racial identities into rigid categories. When asked about her inspiration for the memoir, Tessa replied that the book is “a response to the race-science that still persists that claims race as a biological entity and ends up wreaking havoc on a body like mine that is so mixed.” This resonates with all identities that are reduced by simplified language, saying that this way of thinking is “not a question of being, it’s a question of categorization… and how limiting that is.” The complexity of the answer to the question “what are you” depends on the complexity of who is being asked, and to demand a simple answer to this question is to demand that the person simplifies themselves for the person asking to understand.

To listen to the discussion and excerpts read by the authors, click here:

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Jim Gell

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October 2021
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