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‘In Trinidad we always get on well with Irish people, we both love storytelling’

Ingrid Persaud on the real-life bogeyman of her new novel, coming late to writing and Trinidad’s affinity with Ireland

Following up a successful novel is a serious business, and the Trinidad-born, London-based novelist Ingrid Persaud has had the sort of knockout success already that could cause a bad case of the jitters. But when we talk via Zoom, she is cheerful, warm and expansive, and any second-novel nerves well concealed.

Persaud’s novel Love After Love (2020) was awarded the Costa Novel of the Year prize, and before that her short story The Sweet Sop – the first she had ever written – won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018. Now she has followed up those successes with her new novel, The Lost Love Songs of Boysie Singh, the energetic tale of a charismatic gangster in Trinidad in the mid-20th century, told in the voices of four women in his life.

I tell Persaud that I was part-way through the book before I realised that Boysie Singh was a real person. You can find him on Wikipedia, where his entry states, briefly but winningly – and it might have made a good blurb for the novel – that Boysie “had a long and successful career as a gangster and gambler before turning to piracy and murder”.

“Well,” she says, “growing up [in Trinidad], if you did something wrong – just a minor infraction, you didn’t eat your cereal or whatever – my parents would say, ‘Boysie Singh will come and get you’.” Singh was dead by the time Persaud was growing up – he was executed in 1957. “So he was well gone, but he had penetrated the fabric of Trinidadian society so deeply that he remained this bogeyman for decades and decades. And so I knew of him my whole life.”

Ingrid Persaud

That penetration meant Persaud’s research for the novel came in some surprising forms. She was doing an event to promote Love After Love in Barbados, and was approached by an elderly lady who asked what she was working on. Persaud told her that she was writing about Boysie Singh and researching his wife Doris. “And she said to me, ‘Ah, you don’t mean Tanty Doris?’ And it turned out she lived next door to Doris! And she remembered that she always wore stocking and gloves, and a ton of gold jewellery. And that she had her hair done in a particular plait – you know, the sort of substance that I would never have got any other way.”

Even Persaud’s own mother got in on the act. “I was a good year into writing, and my mother, who reads everything I write, as I write it, says to me, ‘Well, you know Boysie preach under we shop?’ And I was: first of all, we had a shop? And why have you kept this from me? And she said, ‘Well, you know, we don’t like to talk about Boysie.’ The implication being that if you touch him, you touch evil, you bring it home to yourself. And so she was quite happy to be silent on my bloody research! But the scene [in the novel where Boysie becomes a preacher] is very much based on her recollection outside her grandmother’s shop. So I feel it was kind of my book to write.”

The most difficult thing was writing about women at a time when women didn’t have the choices that I’ve grown up with. And you want to slap them and tell them, ‘No, don’t do that!’

The novel is Boysie’s story, but it is not told in his voice – we hear exclusively the voices of the women who were involved with him, and often harmed by him. Was it important to tell the story this way?

“Absolutely. I did many, many drafts of this book to get it right. So I never gave him a voice from the beginning, I was clear about that. He’s such a charismatic figure it would have been easy to let him take over. As I got to know the characters better, I felt really strongly that their stories were the ones that were key. But the most difficult thing was writing about women at a time when women didn’t have the choices that I’ve grown up with. And you want to slap them and tell them, ‘No, don’t do that!’ But I felt it was important to not write them with a [modern] feminist [perspective].”

Hilary Mantel makes a similar point in her recently published posthumous collection of nonfiction, A Memoir of My Former Self, where she expresses doubts about female writers who “want to write about women in the past but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them”.

“Yes,” Persaud agrees, “and it’s really hard to do. Also because you don’t believe your readers would believe you.”

There’s some unpleasant stuff in the book: Boysie can turn from charisma to violence in a moment. Is it hard to write those scenes? “You just go into a really dark space,” says Persaud. “And as it is, the way I write is super-intense [anyway]. I can easily work for 20 hours a day. It’s really awful! I just go into a hole, and all I do is the minimum sleeping and eating. So I make myself feel everything, and I come out of the process just exhausted. And I spend a month staring into the middle distance, going ‘What happened?’ And sometimes exhaustion makes you think you’ve finished [the book] when you haven’t. Twice I thought I’d finished, and I hadn’t. All I needed was a day or two of sleep!”

To this day my mother will get through three, four books a week. And what was remarkable was that she didn’t censor my reading, so I read whatever she was reading

One of the chief delights in a book full of them is the Trinidad dialect of the characters: its rhythms and musicality. Each character uses a different depth of dialect, which at its richest reads like this: “The ole talk was sweet too bad. Boysie’s wife has extra reasons to be vex. If this got in the papers she go shame plenty.” It adds texture to the telling as well as informing the characterisation of the women who narrate their stories, and it’s an approach Persaud has used right from her first story, The Sweet Sop. The stylishness of the prose feels like she had a lot of fun writing it.

“I love writing in [that Trinidad dialect],” she says. “It’s almost like I can’t help myself now. I can’t write anything straight any more. I think it’s because it’s my language. I no longer even go through the process of wondering if the reader is going to have an issue with it. I’m past apology, I’m past explanation. I’m just like: isn’t this language amazing? Why wouldn’t you want to use it? The quick-wittedness of it, the musicality, as you say. The whole world opens up in this very poetic way.”

Some readers, she says, did take issue with the dialect in Love After Love. “You have two sets of problems. You have the problems of those who are non-Trinidadian saying, ‘This isn’t quite right, you’re not writing in Standard English’. Then you have the Trinidadians saying, ‘You’re not representing all of us because we speak proper! We speak the Queen’s English!’ So you have the burden of representation. But you know what, I came to writing so late that I just don’t have enough fucks to give.”

Love After Love was published when she was 53, following a career teaching law and subsequently as a visual artist. Did this make her a better writer?

“Absolutely. [Writing] is possibly the only career that benefits from having lived life a bit. Half the time I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t get to writing earlier because I’m anxious to write all the books I have in me, but would I have written with the same compassion or sensitivity in my 20s or 30s? No, I definitely wouldn’t; I was far more arrogant about life. Then, a marriage ending, children growing up, changing careers, changing countries, they all make you more compassionate about life and everyone’s journey.”

In Trinidad we always get on well with Irish people, because we both love storytelling. Our wakes are very much like an Irish wake

What about her childhood growing up in Trinidad? Was she encouraged to read? “I was brought up by a single mother who devours books. To this day she’ll get through three, four books a week. And what was remarkable was that she didn’t censor my reading, so I read whatever she was reading. She was doing her PhD in educational psychology; I read educational psychology. When she was reading crappy romance books, I read crappy romance books. I read so much she couldn’t afford to keep up with my reading, so she had a deal with a local bookstore owner who told me, ‘If you don’t break the spine you can keep bringing the books back’.”

Trinidad has an extraordinary track record with writers, particularly at present. Claire Adam, Monique Roffey, Kevin Jared Hosein, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo and many more have been published internationally in recent years. The country – population fewer than 1.5 million – seems to punch even higher above its weight than Ireland does. What’s the secret of its success?

“I think it’s two things. One is that storytelling is absolutely privileged and prized. At any gathering, it’s the storytellers everyone wants to be with. The second is that we’ve had the legacy of [Derek] Walcott and [VS] Naipaul, and the passing of that generation opened the gates for us to come through.”

When I ask Persaud who she reads for pleasure these days, she says Colm Tóibín is “probably my favourite writer of all” and also regularly turns to Yeats’s poetry. Both Irish writers. Coincidence? “In Trinidad we always get on well with Irish people, because we both love storytelling. Our wakes are very much like an Irish wake. ‘The Irish are the blacks of Europe’ – what’s that in? [The Commitments by Roddy Doyle.] “So we feel a great affinity with the Irish people. We relate.”

The Lost Love Songs of Boysie Singh is published by Faber & Faber on April 25th