Trinbagonian author releases debut novel

Tevin Gall (Loop) speaks to Ayanna Lloyd Banwo about her forthcoming novel, When We Were Birds. Here are excerpts from the article. [Many thanks to Myriam J.A. Chancy for bringing this item to our attention. My enthusiastic congratulations to Ayanna, who I had the pleasure to meet briefly at Bocas Lit Fest a few years ago.]

[. . .] Lloyd Banwo has been based in the UK since 2018, when she relocated to read for an MA in Creative Writing–and subsequently, a PhD–at the University of East Anglia.

Between studies, being immersed in writing to meet her publisher’s deadlines and of course, the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to make it back home, and despite the thrill of being added to the growing list of West Indian voices to be internationally published by major houses, Lloyd appears to be most concerned with not forgetting–where she’s come from, and the things and people who anchor her to that place of belonging, both temporal and physical.

The business of remembering, of memory, is integral to Lloyd Banwo’s work, much of which is centred on legacy, of the role of ancestors and honouring departed loved ones.

Named a “Most Anticipated Book of 2022” by BuzzFeed and Essence MagazineWhen We Were Birds tells the story of hapless gravedigger Darwin, estranged from his mother and the Rastafarianism she raised him to follow, and Yejide, whose mother is at the end of her life and from whose lineage of mysticism she is at risk of losing. The two protagonists find each other, and become linked together by their connection to death and the dying.

Lloyd Banwo infuses folkloric elements, aspects of African spirituality and romance into a gripping narrative that speaks to the importance of maintaining a connection to those who have gone before.

Like her characters, Lloyd Banwo’s trajectory, in particular, her pathway to this pivotal moment in her writing career, was impacted by the loss of loved ones. An only child, Lloyd Banwo lost her mother, father and maternal grandmother “in quick succession”, over the course of three years, from 2013 to 2015, with one death occurring in each of those.

Grateful for this early success, she acknowledged the unfortunate turn of events that led her there: “This shot was purchased by a lot of grief and a lot of terrible things. I was just very unlucky to have been able to take the gamble.”

Lloyd Banwo told of how she decided to upend her life in her mid-thirties and move to the UK. “I ran out of road,” she said. “I lost my parents before I had planned to [and] I wasn’t 100% happy with the job I was doing.” At the time, Lloyd Banwo was working in advertising, a job that allowed her to flex her writing chops, but not exactly in the way that she wanted to.

Meanwhile, she honed her narrative writing skills, attended workshops, worked closely with the Bocas Lit Festival and was able to have some of her short stories published in literary magazines such as AnomalyMoko Magazine and Pree. (Stories can be found at the links provided.)

“I had always been writing,” Lloyd Banwo said. “I just didn’t have a clear sense of what to do with this writing.”

She credited the Bocas Lit Fest and the workshop groups she became involved with for helping her to grow her craft by providing clear and honest critique and for planting the seed of applying to creative writing programmes in her head when she was still understanding the direction in which she was meant to go. “I didn’t know how one gets a novel published,” she said. “I was largely writing for myself.”

Lloyd Banwo felt that she had nothing to lose by applying, even though she didn’t have the money to see it through.

She was accepted to the creative writing master’s programme at the University of East Anglia, one of the UK’s most prestigious programmes in the field, and awarded a scholarship for tuition, but still had to come up with the funds to support herself. GoFundMe donations and aid from a benefactor who took an interest in her work and journey helped Lloyd Banwo to achieve her goal. Beaming with gratitude, she said, “People just believed. Bocas believed. That’s how I was able to raise enough money.”

As Lloyd Banwo made it very clear, it was death that led her to the UK, and it is death that keeps her there to complete the work she began, even before leaving. “I’ve promised my dead three books. It is a pact that I’ve made with people who are not here anymore. I was given three stories when my mother died […] I came [here] with a sense of these three books and what I wanted [to accomplish].”

Although When We Were Birds will be available in February, Lloyd Banwo has already begun work on her second novel, the next of the three stories she feels destined to tell. She referred to the work as an “offering”, made to those, on account of whose loss she was able to follow this particular dream.

“For some scenes, I was writing [and] it felt like I wasn’t there,” she said, explaining that the words “came so easily” as if she was being helped along something outside of herself, an ancestral force. “Without trying to be too precious,” she continued, “that’s how I feel.” She said that writing this work “just felt like a ‘thank you’ in a very tangible way.”

Like her characters, particularly the gravedigger Darwin, Lloyd Banwo is “very deeply immersed in the work of death” and sees it as crucial business for the living. “It’s memory, it’s life after death,” she said. “None of us are born to live forever, but when we remember those who have died, they are alive.”

She exhorts persons to take the business of lineage seriously through the stories that they tell their children and how they keep the memory of their departed loved ones alive. “Attend to your dead, to your ancestors,” she said. “They have things to teach you, to tell you. And somewhere in that, you have to forge your own way too.”

The novel, set in Trinidad, in and around the fictional city of Port Angeles, features characters that speak in a manner that reflects our language, particularly our Creole, in a genuine way. “I’m from Trinidad, so that’s where my voice is from,” she said. “I write in the language that Trinidadians speak every day, in various registers.”

Lloyd Banwo continued: “I think that my sensibility for story has always been indigenous Caribbean cadence, whether [through] how a character speaks, how a story might unfold, or the kinds of things you might find [in the plot].”

The author said that she has been asked if she ever became concerned that her commitment to an honest portrayal of her people and their language could alienate the UK readership. “That doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “I’m more worried that [Trinbagonians] see it and think that it isn’t them. Your audience is whoever sees [your work] and loves it.”

On the matter of belonging, Lloyd Banwo still feels as connected to her sense of home being Trinidad and Tobago in reality as she does in her writing. [. . .] For full article, see

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