A Trinbagonian author publishes his first novel with a British publisher
“Trinidad moves fast,” laughed author Ayanna Lloyd Banwo. “You come home one day and you can’t park on it [side of the] Street.”
“I’m walking from City Gate and trying to get to Woodford Square…” she mused, as she tried to mentally retrace her steps to the taxi rank and some of her other familiar haunts. . “Have I forgotten things? Is this still the road?
Lloyd Banwo has been based in the UK since 2018, when she moved to read an MA in Creative Writing – and then a PhD – at the University of East Anglia.
Between studies, immersed in writing to meet her publisher’s deadlines and of course, the pandemic, she was unable to return home, and despite the thrill of being added to the growing list of Caribbean voices to be published at international by the big houses, Lloyd seems to be the most concerned about not forgetting – where she comes from, and the things and people who anchor her in this place of belonging, both temporal and physical.
The work of remembrance, of memory, is an integral part of Lloyd Banwo’s work, much of which centers on legacy, the role of ancestors and the honoring of deceased loved ones.
Named “Most Anticipated Book of 2022” by BuzzFeed and Essence Magazine, When we were birds tells the story of the unfortunate 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 whose mystical lineage she risks losing. The two protagonists meet again, and are united by their relationship to death and the dying.
Lloyd Banwo infuses folkloric elements, aspects of African spirituality and romance into a gripping tale that speaks to the importance of maintaining a connection with those who came before.
Like his characters, Lloyd Banwo’s trajectory, particularly his path to this pivotal moment in his writing career, has been impacted by the loss of loved ones.
An only child, Lloyd Banwo lost his mother, father and maternal grandmother “one after the other”, in three years, from 2013 to 2015, with one death in each of them.
Grateful for this first success, she acknowledged the unfortunate turn of events that led her there: “This shot was bought by a lot of grief and a lot of terrible things. I was just very unlucky to have been able to take the bet.
Lloyd Banwo has told how she decided to turn her life upside down in her mid-thirties and move to the UK.
“I ran out of road,” she said. “I lost my parents before I planned to [and] I was not 100% satisfied with the work 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 the way she wanted.
During this time, she honed her narrative writing skills, attended workshops, worked closely with the Bocas Lit Festival, and was able to get some of her short stories published in literary magazines such as Anomaly, Moko Magazine and Pree. (The stories can be found on the links provided.)
“I have always written,” said Lloyd Banwo. “I just didn’t have a clear idea of what to do with this writing.”
She credited the Bocas Lit Fest and the workshop groups she became involved with for helping her develop her art by providing clear and honest criticism and for sowing the seed of application to entertainment programs. creative writing in her head while she still understood the direction she was supposed to go. “I didn’t know how you got a novel published,” she says. “I was writing largely for myself.”
Lloyd Banwo felt she had nothing to lose by applying, even though she didn’t have the money to go through with it.
She was accepted into the Masters in Creative Writing program at the University of East Anglia, one of the UK’s most prestigious programs in the field, and was awarded a scholarship for tuition fees, but still had to find the funds to support themselves. Donations from GoFundMe and the help of a benefactor who cared about his work and his journey helped Lloyd Banwo achieve his goal.
Beaming with gratitude, she said, “People just believed. Bocas believed. That’s how I was able to raise enough money.
As Lloyd Banwo has said very clearly, it was death that brought her to the United Kingdom, and it was death that kept her there to complete the work she had started, even before to leave.
“I promised my dead three books. It’s a pact I made with people who are no longer there. 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 started work on her second novel, the next of the three stories she feels destined to tell. She called the work an “offering”, made to those, because of whose loss she was able to follow this particular dream.
“For some scenes, I was writing [and] it was like I wasn’t there,” she said, explaining that the words “come so easily” as if she was being aided by something outside of herself, an ancestral force. “Without trying to be too precious,” she continued, “that’s how I feel.” She said writing this work “felt like a ‘thank you’ in a very tangible way.”
Like his characters, notably the gravedigger Darwin, Lloyd Banwo is “very deeply immersed in the work of dying” and sees it as a crucial matter for the living.
“It’s memory, it’s life after death,” she says. “None of us were born to live forever, but when we remember those who died, they are alive.”
She urges people to take lineage matters seriously through the stories they tell their children and how they keep the memory of loved ones alive.
“Take care of your dead, your ancestors,” she said. “They have things to teach you, to tell you. And somewhere in there, you also have to forge your own path.
The novel, set in Trinidad, in and around the fictional city of Port Angeles, features characters who speak in a way that reflects our language, specifically our Creole, authentically.
“I’m from Trinidad, so that’s where my voice comes from,” she said. “I write in the language that Trinidadians speak every day, in a variety of registers.”
Lloyd Banwo continued, “I think my sensitivity for history has always been the indigenous cadence of the Caribbean, 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 she was asked if she was concerned that her commitment to honest representation of her people and language could alienate British readers.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “I’m more worried than [Trinbagonians] see it and think it’s not them. Your audience is the one who sees [your work] and love it.
When it comes to belonging, Lloyd Banwo still feels as connected to her sense of belonging to Trinidad and Tobago in real life as she does in her writing.
“My husband’s family is Nigerian; he was born in the UK, and if you ask him where his home is, he’ll say ‘Nigeria,'” she said. “The house changes all the time in your head; it doesn’t make sense but it does.
She maintains that for now, she still lives in Trinidad. “England is not at home,” she said resolutely. “If I’m here for another 20 years, maybe.”
When asked about being in the UK for bigger opportunities, she agrees and confirms this, adding that “it’s just about power”. She said some agents won’t even take writers seriously if they don’t live in the right place.
But with concessions and creative ideas being implemented to overcome pandemic-related hurdles, she hopes the mindsets of more publishers will soon change.
She specifically wanted to highlight two writers who were able to circumvent this and achieve the goal of being published while based at home: 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Kevin Jared Hosein, whose Devotion is slated for release in August 2022, and Caroline Mackenzie, Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017 finalist, author of A year of ugly, the rights to which were purchased by Netflix in 2020.
Propelled by “blessings, ancestral guidance, good stories and a bit of luck”, Lloyd Banwo works feverishly to create art that stays true to her beliefs and spiritual core.
When we were birds was released in February and March 2022 in the UK and US/Canada, respectively.
Pre-order the gripping novel and learn about Ayanna Lloyd Banwo through her Official page, instagram and Twitter for updates and additional information.