Swallowing the Sky

An Interview with Lisa Allen-Agostini

• June 2022

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris”

 

How does the pain stored in our memories—in our cells?—express itself in our life’s garden of forking paths? Lisa Allen-Agostini’s unflinching portrait of Alethea Lopez, a Trinidadian boutique manager nearing forty, asks us to consider pain in terms of Albert Einstein’s observation that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. The Bread the Devil Knead (Myriad Editions, 2021), Allen-Agostini’s first novel for adult readers, is a patient, careful study of one woman’s ongoing transformation of anger into purpose, sadness into clarity, fear into self-protection. Late in the novel, when Alethea accepts help from a nun to guide her into and beyond a history of sexual violence, Alethea trades toxic positivity for radical honesty. “I write down everything that make me shame and everything I was glad for,” Alethea muses (244). “The first list was longer than the second one. But I still write it down.” Heaven knows what vision Alethea sees against the blank pages of the composition book Sister Michael gives her to harness the wildness of her memories.

Plotted with the urgency of a page-turner without sacrificing the complexity and contradictions of its prismatic characters, The Bread the Devil Knead—shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction—is preoccupied with interrogating the purpose, possibilities, and limits of the act of storytelling. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison observes. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”1 Some writers remind us that language at its best is a verb before a noun. By representing Alethea’s midlife journey into understanding the betrayals, omissions, and distortions repeated and reinforced by her broken, at times helpless family, Allen-Agostini encourages us to peer into those cancers we wish to ignore but that, left unchecked, have the capacity to metastasize at any moment. Writing a reflection on this novel for Moko was not a simple task; it forced me to peer directly into my own private shame.2 Doing so encouraged me to make real changes over the course of the days I savored every line of this important, vital novel. I am happy I read it; it destroyed me a little and remade me a little, and, by the time I wrote these questions for Allen-Agostini to answer over e-mail in late October 2021, what I felt, consummately, was gratitude.

 

Stephen Narain: How do you describe The Bread the Devil Knead to yourself?

Lisa Allen-Agostini: I think of it in a lot of different ways.

First, this is the book God send. I wrote this manuscript years ago. When I reread it in 2020, just prior to submitting it to Myriad Editions, I was shocked to see a whole redemptive structure built into the book—which I promise you I didn’t know about when I was writing it. Then I read in the Book of Micah: “He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”3 Which pretty much sums up the whole plot right there.

If you need further convincing of the “God’s book” thing, note that I am unrepresented and managed to sell the manuscript in an open call, and the book was published in seven months. Though published during a pandemic, book sales have been booming

It’s my “breakthrough” book, if you will. It’s my first adult novel after being the author of two young adult (YA) titles, The Chalice Project (Macmillan Caribbean, 2009) and Home Home (Delacorte, 2018). Despite how popular and lucrative the genre is, there are many readers who don’t take YA as seriously as adult fiction genres. It’s a shame because there is excellent new Caribbean writing in the genre, if I dare say so myself. Diana McCaulay’s YA books, Gone to Drift (Papillote, 2018) and Daylight Come (Peepal Tree, 2020) are brilliant; so is Shakira Bourne’s My Fishy Stepmom (Blouse and Skirt Books, 2019). Kevin Hosein’s The Beast of Kukuyo (Blue Banyan Books, 2018) is a detective story about a murdered girl, one of a growing number of Caribbean crime novels—and it’s YA.

It’s my third novel, and I think my best so far. One reviewer legit called it perfect, but I thought that was excessive. I am glad the book works, though, and I’m grateful that readers find it so meaningful.

It’s my Trinidad Creole novel. Creole as a language is close to my heart. I wrote a column in Trinidad Creole for many years, on and off, in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. It was a kind of thought experiment because I was convinced a Creole column could carry national issues, global issues, despite the fact that it’s often used as comic relief or a gimmick. If Creole speakers could talk politics—and if again they could talk politics?!—then surely a columnist could discuss weighty topics in Creole too. Standard English and Creole each have their pros and cons. I don’t know which I prefer.

I think it’s a hopeful book, in the end. I often worry readers will be triggered. There’s a lot in there, you know? A lot of violence and hurt and pain. But there’s a lot of friendship and love, too. The overwhelming response has been that readers are so happy for Alethea in the end that it was worth it to walk with her through the suffering she endures. Maybe it’s the book’s conversational tone that makes it all bearable; one reader said reading it felt like hearing a friend tell you her story in your kitchen. While I’m sorry I even had to, I’m glad I could write a book that encourages discussion of gender-based violence and child sexual abuse. People hide and lie, both victims and perpetrators, which encourages abuse to fester. Meanwhile, people in abusive relationships are dying from cutlash and buss head and bullet and car crash and Gramoxone, and survivors carry wounds they can’t even talk about because of shame. So if by writing this book I manage to get someone to begin to heal from, or to think about leaving an abusive experience, then I’m happy.

SN: What advice do you give to persons who are still overwhelmed by their memories of sexual abuse?

LA-A: I would say get support as soon as possible, even if it feels scary to tell someone else what happened or how you felt about what happened. Tell someone what happened to you, because in speaking the words you will hear them too. You will, possibly for the first time, see your abuse in context. Notice that if what happened to you had happened to a child you know now, you would never, ever blame that child for what was done to him. Realize that the child was you. Realize too that you are no longer that child.

Hold your abuser to account, or not; forgive them, or not. It’s up to you. But always remember it was never your fault, it’s over now, and you’re safe.

People minimize the effects of child sexual abuse. It was a long time ago, so it shouldn’t matter; and yet. You will hear men framing their experience as “getting break out from young” rather than saying what is the legal truth: that as a child, an adult or older person who knew better, hurt them in a way that is defined as abuse. A survivor has the right to characterize their experience however they want, but that truth remains. Confronting it is better, I’ve found.

Our memories don’t only stay in our heads. They go into our bodies. Studies have found increased incidence of gynecological disorders, mental disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders among survivors of child sexual abuse. Many years after the abuse has ended, it lives in our very tissue. I think getting our memories out is helpful. At the very least our stories ought to make communities and families more aware of the risk to children. Everybody likes to imagine it could never happen to their child, or in their family. But another truth is that it’s not unlikely at all. Rates of sexual abuse of children are very high in the region, with more than 25 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys reporting sexual abuse before they were eighteen.4 It’s an epidemic that we can affect if we are more honest in facing the problem. Meanwhile, we still have parents who get offended if you use the word vagina in their child’s presence.

SN: Lorraine Candy, a judge for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, says The Bread the Devil Knead “sounds like it could be quite depressing and haunting but is actually really funny and witty, incredibly well-written.” She calls the book “a very smart, different take on a subject matter that’s very close to a lot of women’s lives.”5 How did you maintain control during the writing of a disciplined narrative dealing with chaotic circumstances?

LA-A: When I teach writing, I tell my students that conflict is the heart of a story. Without conflict, who cares? As a writer, chaotic circumstances are my jam. That said, I’m committed to writing about Black women’s lives, their materiality, in the Caribbean space. The chaos there is often abuse.

My writing process is annoyingly meticulous. I write until I have to stop, pouring out whatever comes until time runs out or I get too tired or I reach the end of a section or a story or a chapter. Then I go back paragraph by paragraph, word by word, and fix the writing. I change, delete, rewrite, move things around. I write and edit with Google search open in the background, and I may spend hours investigating small details that I’m confident nobody cares about but me. For example, the fashion elements in The Bread the Devil Knead were thoroughly researched, down to the shape of the mannequins and the stitching on Jankie’s jeans.

My Myriad editor, Vicki Heath Silk, suggested a couple of structural changes to the manuscript, which improved it. (Vicki also did the marvelous cover design, using the image from Trinidadian artist Briana McCarthy.)

SN: How did you avoid sentimentalism?

LA-A: Years ago, when I was writing my 2009 YA novel The Chalice Project, the series editor Joanne Johnson encouraged me to write cinematically. It’s a style I enjoy, and, given the choice, I’d only write what can be observed with the physical senses. Under the late Wayne Brown’s influence, while I was writing the manuscript for The Bread the Devil Knead, I added the clinical use of detail to my writing. I was a journalist for many years, with excellent mentors, like Trinidad and Tobago Newsday editor-in-chief Judy Raymond and Trinidad Express consulting editor Lennox Grant. In journalism there is always at least the façade of objectivity; these editors taught scrupulous unbiasedness in reporting and fearless truth-telling.

Another influence toward lack of sentimentality is the writing of Cormac McCarty, particularly in the Border Trilogy. His writing is so spare and so brutal; I love it. In the first draft of my manuscript there was no interiority; everything was seen, felt, tasted, smelled, heard, and written about from a distance. It didn’t work; Commonwealth Short Story Prize–winning Trinidadian short story writer Sharon Millar, author of The Whale House (Peepal Tree Press, 2015), told me she wanted to hear Alethea’s voice, and I guess Alethea’s a kind of matter-of-fact person. I heard someone say she sounds like me. I don’t know. I from Morvant and she from El Socorro, so it’s possible. I don’t think she’s me.

SN: What lies ahead for Alethea?

LA-A: The miracles may continue, who knows? I hope that she finds joy in her work and her friendships, that her faith grows, and that her healing continues.


 

Stephen Narain is a writer and teacher based in Orlando. A graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of a John Thouron Prize for Study at Cambridge University, the Small Axe Fiction Prize, the Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing, and the Bristol Short Story Prize. In 2012, Stephen was selected for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s New Talent Showcase spotlighting the best emerging Caribbean writers.

 


Epigraph: Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris,” in The Wild Iris (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1992), 1.

[1] Toni Morrison, “Nobel Lecture,” 7 December 1993, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/.

[2] Stephen Narain, “Where Light Enters,” Moko, 7 December 2021, mokomagazine.org/wordpress/2021/12/07/wherestephennarain/.

[3] Micah 7:19 (King James version).

[4] Alessandra Guedes, “Violence against Children in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization Regional Office for the Americas, www3.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_docman&view=download&slug=violence-against-children-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean-data-and-action&Itemid=270&lang=en (accessed 27 November 2021).

[5] 2022 Women’s Prize longlist announcement, YouTube, 8 March 2022, youtu.be/j5SNTfuU6Fk.

 

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