Ingrid Persaud: ‘I found a whole genre of stories about death and chocolate’
Illustration by Leyla Reynolds
Ingrid Persaud is a Trinidadian-born writer who is the winner of the prestigious 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. ‘The Sweet Sop’ is a delightful if harrowing account of the impact death and terminal illness can have on family relations. Bound by the sweet allure of chocolate the story bubbles and spits its way through to the final moments of a father’s life as he draws his absent son into a web of deceit and lies. In ‘The Sweet Sop’ Reggie is the addict and his son, Victor is the dealer. Ingrid found inspiration for the story in the dark underworld of espionage and the assassination of a spy poisoned by innocent Belgian chocolates laced with arsenic.
‘The Sweet Sop’ is a powerful demonstration of Ingrid’s preoccupation with the power of words and her curiosity to explore some of the most fundamental taboos that cause many of us to sweep difficult issues under the carpet in the hope that they will eventually disappear.
Ingrid describes herself as a writer with many lives. She is a descendant of indentured Indians who arrived in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean between 1838 and 1917. In that period, over half a million men, women and children were contracted to work on sugar plantations in the colonies of the British Empire after Emancipation. It is the legacy of that migration that continues to be present in Ingrid’s life not just as a writer but as a ‘global citizen’.
‘We can have links with India, Trinidad and London’, Ingrid says. ‘It’s a celebration that completely fits in with the zeitgeist that we are all global citizens. Our children are proud of their Indian ancestry; they are proud of these absolutely fearless people who may not have had much to give up but they still had the courage to go out and try something new knowing that they may never see their village again’.
It is, perhaps, this fearlessness, inherited from her ancestors, that led to her to explore new opportunities and become a global citizen in her own right. Her journey began at eighteen years old when she left her home in Trinidad to study law. However, soon after graduating she realised that she no longer had an appetite for a career as a lawyer and embarked on a new profession as a legal academic. Then, when that no longer inspired her, she became a visual artist and project manager. In 2007, she was on the move again, this time to Barbados where she started a blog called Notes From a Small Rock. This became the catalyst for her writing career and the discovery of her intellectual home as a writer.
‘I set myself the task of writing a 900 word weekly essay mainly about life in Barbados. It doesn’t sound like much but it provided structure, discipline and forced me to be more observant. Notes From a Small Rock gave me the space to experiment and get feedback from readers’.
Her debut novel, If I Never Went Home was published in 2014. I met up with Ingrid and spoke to her about her recent success, the writing process and why she felt death and chocolate made such good bedfellows in her prize winning short story. She began by telling me what ‘The Sweet Sop’ was all about.
Lainy Malkani: Congratulations on winning such a prestigious prize. You must be very proud of it.
Ingrid Persaud: Yes, it’s a nice story. It’s the story of a dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son at the end of the father’s life. The majority of the story takes place at the last stages of the father’s life. It’s about how they try to come to terms with what they have had together and how they communicate now that the father is dying.
But it’s through a very special ingredient that they develop this bond. Tell me more.
Absolutely, like most men they aren’t terrible articulate about their feelings. So they find another medium which is chocolate and it’s a forbidden sort of part of the dying father’s diet. He’s not supposed to have the chocolate – and he gets his son to be effectively his chocolate dealer and supplies him with various chocolates. It is through the giving and receiving of chocolate that they are able to discuss difficult issues and there is a twist at the end which involved chocolate.
Where did the idea to write ‘The Sweet Sop’ come from?
It came from two sources. First, I was trying to work out for myself some issues around the dying process and what constitutes a good death in the family. At the same time, I was looking at the choices we make in the last few months and years of our lives. I couldn’t find a way of processing that because it was quite depressing and clinical. Then, when I was having lunch with a few friends, I looked at the menu and saw a dessert that I have looked at a million times before, at least the name of it, which was Death by Chocolate. I suddenly started thinking ‘death by chocolate’, is there any way I can use this? I did a bit of research and found a whole genre of stories that are all about death and chocolate and that was how I came to write this story.
So you’ve added your contribution to a highly successful genre and more than that created a clever storyline from which to hang your characters. ‘The Sweet Sop’ has a sense of humour, a bit like a black comedy, and it’s also intriguing. Was this deliberate?
So, I love this story more than any of the others. It’s a memoir written by a member of the intelligence services in which he tells the story of how he tried to kill a spy with poisoned chocolates. The spy was very well protected and exceptionally well trained and the intelligence serviceman and his team had no way of getting close to him. Then it was discovered that the spy had a weakness for Belgian chocolates; that was his Achilles heel. So the intelligence service decided to introduce Belgian Chocolates into his food supply chain. However, things did not go that smoothly because after waiting for him to die for two months he just carried on going. A second box of chocolates was supplied, again they waited for him to die and still he didn’t. In the end it took six months of poisoned chocolates to kill him. The reason it took so long was because he was a very large man and the amount of poison needed to kill him off was quite a lot. I thought that this story was hilarious in some ways. Not so good for the people who died, of course, but I decided that this was the kind of story I wanted to write.
You were going through the grieving process yourself when you wrote this story. How autobiographical is it?
Well my father-in-law was dying. He died within eight months of a diagnosis of stage four-cancer. In those months there were a lot of conversations and decisions that had to take place about what are the things that you want when you die. How do you want to approach death? Most people would prefer not to discuss these things because it is such a taboo subject. It got me thinking about what I would want when I died, what I would want for the people in my life. Death is such a certainty and yet such a taboo and so I hope to do more work around breaking down taboos like that.
Did it help you with the grieving process?
Well, definitely writing is cathartic. Whether this particular story was cathartic I am not sure. But I won’t deny the fact that I write for myself. Then my own father died a few months later and so it was grief on top of grief. I don’t think I’ve really processed that yet. My father died in April.
That must have been a difficult period for you as your emotions were still so raw while you were writing. How did that affect you?
It is not the first time I have written about death and it’s not that I always write about death but it’s just that death is preoccupying me. It just seems that way.
So, you write about what you want to write about and if death is occupying your creative space at one particular time that is what you as a writer will produce. Does this help your readers to engage with you on many different levels?
I hope so, and that it gives people comfort to know that they are not alone. My own relationship with my father was quite challenging at times and so it’s not one of these perfect stories where Daddy dearest dies and you’re going to grieve over the man who was so wonderful. You have to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t brilliant and you didn’t do all the things that you could do and that nothing can be done about the situation now that he’s passed. It seems to me that you have to live with your consequences.
Let’s rewind a bit because this wasn’t your first piece of writing. Tell me how you came to write your first novel.
So I felt like at least one million people in the UK are at one time or another writing a novel. I thought everyone has a novel and so I would write mine. I was also writing a blog – called Notes from a Small Rock – I thought I could write a story about my experiences of living in Barbados but it soon became clear that it didn’t interest me enough. So, I ended up writing a book that explored issues that were important to me like family relationships, mental illness – it’s not all doom and gloom (laughs) it is quite funny in parts and yeah I wrote my book and put it out there and quickly moved on.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the year in which the system of indenture which brought your ancestors and mine to the Caribbean from India is being commemorated. As a woman born in Trinidad, what are your feelings about this anniversary?
It definitely should be marked. It was an incredible experience of migration and we continue to live with the legacy of that migration. It has created this wonderful opportunity to live as global citizens so that we can have links with India, Trinidad and London and there all meaningful in some way. For me it’s a celebration that completely fits in with the zeitgeist that we are all global citizens. That is certainly the way we brought up our children. Our children are proud of their Indian ancestry; they are proud of these absolutely fearless people who, you know, may not have had much to give up but they still had the courage to go out and try something so new knowing that they may never see their village again. They made a whole new life through hard work and I want our children to be very proud of that, and I think they are. But, they also feel very West Indian so they are not harking back to trying to be Indians; they know they are of Indian origin but they are very much West Indian Caribbean boys who also slide easily into London life and enjoy that too.
This has been published as part of a series celebrating Windrush Women. Buy tickets the launch of Issue 94 and the celebration of Windrush Women: Past and Present at the British Library here.
Lainy Malkani is a London born writer, broadcast journalist and presenter with Indo-Caribbean roots. In 2013 she set up the Social History Hub to bring the stories of ‘unsung heroes’ in society to life. Her critically acclaimed two-part radio documentary for BBC Radio 4, ‘Sugar, Saris and Green Bananas’, inspired her to write, ‘Sugar, Sugar Bittersweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers’ a collection of short stories inspired by historical archive and the memories of the descendants of indentured Indians living in the UK. Her stories span five continents from South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, Europe and the Caribbean. She has written for the British Library, the Commonwealth and the BBC. She is married with two children and lives in North West London. Her cross-cultural roots; from Britain, India and Guyana, in the Caribbean, has been a great source of her work, both as a writer and journalist. Sugar, Sugar Bittersweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers is published by Hope Road Publishing.