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Notes from an author: Ingrid Persaud on Trinidad

Returning to the Caribbean island she left at 18, the author finds the warmth of the Trini people undimmed by the onward march of progress.

By Ingrid Persaud
Published 27 Feb 2020, 06:00 GMT
Ingrid Persaud
Ingrid Persaud
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Dig and you’ll find my navel string buried deep beneath Trinidad’s soil. The southernmost in a chain of Caribbean islands stretching from Florida to Venezuela, my birthplace seemed the natural setting for my debut novel. But I’d left at 18. Evoking an authentic sense of Trinidad surely demanded more than the fleeting visits I’d managed over the decades. I wrote the first draft plagued by unease. What if the Trinidad I was so tenderly recreating on the page had vanished? Had it ever existed? Everything I’d written might be the nostalgia of a self-exile. I had to return. Readers were owed more than memory, research and Google Earth. 

While shiny new towers punctured the skyline, the birthplace of steelpan and calypso had retained its essential vibe. Imagine my relief. I stopped for gas and the pump attendant asked what I did, making conversation the way Trinis do. When I told him I was a writer, he was delighted, introduced himself as a slam poet, and invited me to his gig that weekend. I pulled out and drove south from the capital, Port of Spain, to my hometown, San Fernando, grateful that economic progress hadn’t dimmed the warmth of Trini people.

Soon it was clear I’d forgotten another warmth — the stinging midday sun. Thankfully, I spotted a street vendor advertising ‘beastly cold drinks’. Horns and car stereos blared as I crawled through yet another traffic jam. I passed several makeshift roadside stalls overflowing with fruit and veg. I bought Julie mangoes — the fruit of the gods. And after years of buying herbs in tiny plastic packets I couldn’t resist a fist full of coriander to cook with the deep purple eggplants as long as my arm. 

My novel is littered with villages, beaches, shops and monuments, and I wanted to see them all. First stop was San Fernando Hill, searching for the bench where a character picnics with his lover. I took in the view I’d been imagining from his eyes; this city I’d grown up in, on the banks of the Gulf of Paria. 

While in San Fernando, I snacked on our most popular fast food, doubles — two pieces of light, spicy, fried dough sandwiched with curry channa topped with tamarind sauce, pickled cucumber and slight pepper. 

I shadowed my fictional characters north west, crossing the rice and sugar cane fields of the Caroni Plain. Clumps of bamboo poles carrying coloured prayer flags called jhandis fronted many of the houses. My ancestors — indentured Indians from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar replacing slave labour — had brought these traditions with them. Between 1845 and 1917, 150,000 indentured workers dared cross the ‘black water’ of the oceans for the promise of a better life in Trinidad. Today, they make up nearly half the country’s population. 

I wanted to visit the Temple in the Sea. Built by a lone Hindu devotee, it now forms part of an elaborate complex, housing a grand temple on land and the 85ft-tall Hanuman Murti, a statue to the monkey god. But I was drawn to the dying embers of a funeral pyre. It could have been the funeral I’d created in the novel, except I’d omitted the shredded plastic bags, broken idols and forgotten shrines washing up on the muddy shore. 

The last stop that day was an old favourite. Caroni Bird Sanctuary is a protected, mangrove wetland formed where the Caroni River meets the Gulf of Paria. Once I got into the tour boat, the world hushed and slowed down. Trini people love an ol’ talk and ‘liming’ with friends. Here was silence as we navigated channels cut between tangled mangrove roots. We glimpsed herons, egrets and kingfishers but our captain explained there were 186 species of bird living here. 

As the sun lowered to the horizon flock after flock of brilliant scarlet ibis (our national bird) descended into the trees for the night. I stared in awe as hundreds of birds glowed like red Christmas baubles. And then I noticed something new. In the distance, pink flamingos were nesting. They’d migrated from Venezuela. Perhaps they’d followed the thousands of Venezuelan refugees who are now part of Trinidadian life. My island home continues to change but it’s still mine, no matter where I live.

Ingrid Persaud’s debut novel, Love After Love, will be published in April by Faber & Faber. She won the 13th BBC National Short Story Award for The Sweet Sop, about a Trinidadian man reunited with his absent father via the power of chocolate.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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