After decades of being brainwashed to believe only ‘the Queen’s English’ was acceptable, Trinidad and Tobago’s writers (along with writers in our region) are finding their own voice and being celebrated and courted for it.
The unique Trinbago English percolated between people of four continents has created a language that has withstood slavery and indenture, found humour in the saddest, most unjust spaces, and brought rhythm and depth to the English language.
Trinidad and Tobago’s bumper crop of recent titles is testimony that the Caribbean has edged its way out of the sidelines and found its rightful space in the centre of the literary world.
Trinidad-born Sir VS Naipaul, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace and Jennifer Rahim, among other celebrated writers, introduced the world to our unique Trinbagonian English.
One such recent voice is that of Trinidad-born writer Ingrid Persaud (who describes herself as a ‘late bloomer to Literature’ after careers in law and art).
Persaud’s short stories titled More Chronicles of Burke Street, commissioned by BBC producer Justine Willett, are being aired on BBC Radio 4 at19.45 weekly (voiced by Trinidad-born actress Martina Laird) and podcasted on BBC Sounds.
Willet says the series comprises “funny and moving short stories by Ingrid Persaud set on a seemingly ordinary street in Trinidad. We commissioned her to write her first series a few years ago and returned to Burke Street for a second series. It’s packed with humour and unforgettable characters.”
Persaud joins a glittering literary cast. Willet has produced other series with writers including Jon McGregor, Daisy Johnson, David Szalay, and Sarah Moss and is currently working on a series with William Boyd for October 2023.
Persaud’s vignettes set in a fictional Burke Street in Trinidad include a woman whose dog is being wooed by her dog sitter, a man arriving at his own funeral after being presumed drowned, and a woman who could not leave the scene of her home gutted by a fire.
Speaking from her home in South London, Ingrid Persaud is unapologetic about her decision to write these stories in Trini English.
“Our way of speaking English is as valid as any other English spoken in Wales, Scotland or Manchester. Trini English has found its way to the international scene. The decision by publishing houses like Bloomsbury, Faber and Penguin Random House to buy and publish titles written in Trini English is testimony to how our cadence, joy, and lyricism appeal to people beyond our region.
“We ( writers) do not believe that, as a minority, we cannot enjoy the privileges of languages that the majority enjoy. We should assume them and enjoy them with all the benefits.”
For the BBC Chronicles of Burke Street Persaud says she drew on the Caribbean literary canon, including Jennifer Rahim’s Curfew Chronicles Naipaul’s Miguel Street, and Sam Selvon’s stories for inspiration.
“The notion of community is strong within me. I went with a fictitious street. It evokes Miguel Street but is not Miguel Street. It’s my own street.”
I asked Persaud how she keeps her strong connection to Trinidad evident in the stories.
“I ask friends and family to alert me to interesting stories and dip into local newspapers. I read BC Pires’s columns. Yours is a touchstone. I go to YouTube and listen to jokes, cooking programmes, podcasts - anything to receive the beauty of language. It keeps me grounded in Trinidad.”
When hearing Persaud speak, one is struck by the catch in her voice, the love in it when she spoke of Trinidad.
“I miss hearing Trini’s voices around me constantly though I’ve not lived there since I was eighteen, the cadence and rhythm of Trini’s speech bring me the greatest joy.
“When I’m stuck in the middle of winter in London. I get on the phone with friends and family just to hear a Trini voice.
“I will always be writing about Trinidad. It’s where my heart is, where my soul is rooted. My navel string is buried in San Fernando. When you live far away, you are constantly navigating the space between what is home and what is exile.
“I’ve lived in south London much longer than Trinidad, yet I feel I am not at home here. I think about home, get rid of the binary notion of home and exile, accept that I live in these spaces between those two notions, and move easily between them, which has informed who I am today.”
Persaud won the 2020 Costa First Novel Award, the Author’s Club First Book Award 2021 and the Indie Book Award for Fiction 2021.
Ingrid Persaud’s new novel will be published in 2024 by Faber.
Ira Mathur is a Guardian columnist and the winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Literature in the category prize of nonfiction ( 2023).