A new Caribbean writer: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention. Also see previous post Trinbagonian-author-releases-debut-novel.] Julie Banerjee Mehta (The Telegraph India) reviews Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s When We Were Birds (Doubleday, 2022) saying, “To generations of readers who have roots in ancient cultures, the novel should make for a delightful flight.” Here are excerpts:

A new voice from Trinidad has burst upon the world literature arena with her debut novel When We Were Birds. Unabashedly different in their style and content, women writers from Trinidad and Tobago in the last few decades have been asserting their identity and forging an eclectic and burgeoning readership globally.

In February this year, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, a diasporic West Indian doctoral candidate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia, who lives in London, has quickly become the reigning flavour among the new crop. But she has some big shoes to fill. Her senior colleagues, Trinidadian Shani Mootoo, (of Out on Main Street and The Cereus Blooms at Night fame), and Jamaica Kincaid (with her iconic bildungsroman Annie John still considered one of the most touching explorations of West Indian beliefs in the spirit world, culture and womanhood), have raised the bar for new entrants.

With luminosity and courage, Banwo performs an experiment in form and substance from the very first sentence: “First thing you have to remember… is that there was a time before time”. The first chapter opens to Yejide St Bernard, the young female protagonist, listening to her grandmother’s story about a beautiful verdant Edenic forest, which is corrupted, as all paradisical places must, by greed. The novel steers the reader almost immediately to a multiplicity of readings — the story as a colonial account of possession and conquest at any cost, an ecological catastrophe of vanishing wildlife, a story about ghosts (with the endearing young lover Darwin Emmanuel working as a gravedigger in a cemetery, called Fidelis, and Yejide’s mother Petronella ceaselessly in communion with her dead sister, the spirit world pops up in the midst of the living constantly), a feminist reading where Darwin’s arthritis-ridden single mother battles poverty and pain to bring up Darwin with a strong adherence to a Rastafarian belief system and unmitigated honesty.

Like most writers who have inherited the legacy of a colonial history, the new kid on the block, Banwo, is a polyglot. She speaks several languages and puts the patois, speech or language that is non-standard, to effective use in the narrative. This lends the story a certain stamp of uniqueness of place and culture. Thus, Yejide’s mother Petronella tells her daughter the secrets that she must pass on to her daughter, when she is dying in memorable patois, a different kind of English spoken in Trinidad and Tobago: “New dead can be troublesome. Need plenty work, plenty energy to keep them in the ground.”

Banwo invokes her countryman, the celebrated Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, by giving her characters a refreshing presence with their own unique tongue to tell the story.

Banwo’s greatest success is she tightly knits stories of brutality and murder of her Black ancestors by White planters and overseers with their own voices of protest. In addition, by representing the slave narratives in patois (not standard English) she asserts their unique identity by the voice of subversion. [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/books/ayanna-lloyd-banwos-debut-novel-when-we-were-birds/cid/1864532

Also see “A remarkable story that blends urban reality and Caribbean-infused magical realism,” Kirkus Reviews, at https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/ayanna-lloyd-banwo/when-we-were-birds

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