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Interview with Ingrid Persaud, winner of the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award

Ingrid Persaud’s first short story, The Sweet Sop – about a dying father in Trinidad whose son brings him clandestine confectionary – won last year’s prestigious award. Here, she talks about chocolate as an instrument of death and love, how this story was the first she ever wrote – and what she’ll do with her £15,000 prize money.

 

The Sweet Sop is an incredibly powerful and funny story. Where did the inspiration for it come from? Had it been brewing in you for a long time?
Ultimately, writers write for themselves. Writing is my way of investigating and problem solving. I was processing the deaths of my father and my father-in-law – what it means to have a “good” death and the pain of grief. These issues will probably spill over into other writing. This story happened fairly quickly – three weeks from start to finish. I wanted to use humour and chocolate (which I love), to tell a difficult story. My research turned up loads of death by chocolate incidents, including a story about a spy poisoned by Belgian chocolates laced with arsenic. I ran with the idea of chocolate as an instrument of death, of love, of regret, of memory and maybe redemption.

 

Was it an easy story to write? What were the challenges you faced in shaping this tale?
I’m not one of the talented writers who can kick out a short story in a couple days or a novel in a few months. Writing and rewriting is hard work, but it’s what I love doing. And it’s okay that it is tough. I’m never bored. The challenge in The Sweet Sop was not to make it sickly sweet. I wanted a reconciliation, but I also wanted to give space for the underlying anger felt by both characters.

 

Why did you write in Trinidadian patois?
Writing in dialect is not new, although it seems that West Indian dialect is having a moment; with Marlon James’s Booker Prize win of A Brief History of Seven Killings, Kei Miller’s Forward poetry prize for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion and Jacob Ross’s The Bone Readers, which won the Jhalak Prize. I continue to be inspired by the pioneering work Sam Selvon did in The Lonely Londoners. It is such a robust, lyrical dialect and, of course, it’s the language of my childhood, so writing is a way of connecting. When I write in this voice it’s a love song to a place that’s both home and not home.

 

A beautiful detail about The Sweet Sop, which won the £15,000 prize in the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award in 2018, is that it was the first short story you ever wrote. Is that true? What motivated you to approach it in this way then?
It was my first short story. In the Caribbean we have a long tradition of the short story, so it seemed natural to have a go at doing one. I’m relatively new to writing and I have a lot to learn. Since then, I’ve had another short story, The Counting Up, published in Pree Magazine.

 

How did it feel to win the award?
It was an honour to be shortlisted alongside such amazing writers as Sarah Hall and Nell Stevens. I didn’t expect to win the prize as the voice in the story is so different. Do I feel I deserve it? I think it was luck that those judges, at that time, thought this story should win. It could as easily have gone to any of the five shortlisted writers.

 

How will the £15,000 prize money change your life and your writing? And does this win make you feel encouraged to continue writing short stories in the future?
The prize money is significant. It has bought writing time to complete an ongoing project. And it’s certainly an incentive to return to the short story form. The writer’s life is quiet and a prize like this is a boost. I’ve gone back to work with more confidence and resilience.

 

What is it about the short story that attracts you?
I like the discipline and intellectual rigour of working within the confines of the short story. Every word has to earn its place in the narrative. It’s immensely frustrating, but deeply satisfying when it goes well.

 

Are there any short story authors you admire or who’ve influenced your writing?
I admire Olive Senior’s work and keep going back to it. I also love reading William Trevor and George Saunders. When I’m writing intensely, I only have time to read short stories and usually dip in and out of a few collections.

 

You are a descendant of indentured Indians who arrived in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean between 1838 and 1917. What are the challenges of being a writer from Trinidad and Tobago? What are the joys?
The challenge of being an Indo-Caribbean woman writer from a small island writing in a distinctly Caribbean voice? The odds aren’t great that your voice will be heard above the crowd. But like all outsiders, I also enjoy the freedom to move around the edges, observing, and for that I am grateful.

 

Are you working on anything now?
I have just finished a novel, Love After Love which will be published in Spring 2020.

 

And finally, would you say you have a sweet tooth? Or favourite confectionery?
I have a terrible sweet tooth. All donations of Leonidas Gianduja chocs gratefully received.

 

Ingrid is a great supporter of the Word factory and will be on their 2020 programme; read The Sweet Sop here

 

Interview by Sophie Haydock