“Compelled to Write”: An Interview with Lakshmi Persaud

• April 2011

Lakshmi Persaud was born in 1939 in Tunapuna, Trinidad. With the exception of a short period in Jamaica, she has lived in the United Kingdom since the mid-1970s. Through the  publication of four novels—Butterfly in the Wind (1990), Sastra (1993), For the Love of My Name (1999), and Raise the Lanterns High (2004)—Persaud has established herself as a significant writer in the areas of literature of the Indian diaspora and Caribbean literature; she is currently working on a fifth novel. In the following conversation, which was recorded in London in August 2009, Lakshmi Persaud discusses her writing, her influences, and her experiences of living in Trinidad and the United Kingdom. The interview has been condensed.

 

Anita Baksh: When did you start writing?

Lakshmi Persaud: Unlike a number of fellow writers who say that when they were age six or ten they knew they wanted to write, I wanted to teach. . . . It was a challenge for me to try to ensure that [I] pass on to my students the desire to want to know about our world, how we live in it, about what we have and haven’t, and to ask about how to shape our future. . . . I love teaching. It is a means of communicating a perception, an understanding of things; it is communicating with language, communicating with a motivation and an intent to enable the child to see that [education] is worth having; as I intimated I didn’t see myself as a writer, I saw myself as a good teacher, and was happy to be that.

When my last child left home for the London School of Economics, I began to have the nightmares I used to have when I was a little girl. . . . I described some of these in Butterfly in the Wind. One of the worst ones was this: I had eleven books to read for A levels literature. When you did O levels literature in those days it was about two or maybe three books, but when you did A levels it was eleven books; this substantial jump in number was too large for me. What made matters far worse was I had to change schools in order to take my A levels. . . .

Much later, when it was all behind me, whenever I was going through a bad patch I began to have this nightmare: you have a year to read twelve books, so you say to yourself that you will read one a month, and you find that six months have elapsed and you still have not begun to read. You then tell yourself you will read two books per month. Why you are not doing what you should is part of the misery of the nightmare. Then it goes on to three months, and finally you have twelve days and you say you’ll do a book a day. Well, eventually when the day of the exam comes, you find that you have not read a single book. You go to the exam and the question paper is turned down on the desk. When [the instructor] says, “You may begin,” you turn the paper over and realize that you cannot answer a single question. That’s a terrible nightmare for a teenager whose parents are depending on her to do well. I used to get up weeping, and this is how I came to writing. I thought that if I were to write about this, explaining my fears and how I felt at the time, the nightmares would leave me. While doing this, I found that the corporal punishment I had at primary school from our sadistic headmaster was oozing out too. What is fascinating is that it was only when my three children left home for university and I was on my own that these things seeped upward. . . . For the first time in years I had time to myself, to reflect and think seriously of life outside the concerns of the children, the home, their schools and the garden that all manner of fears returned to me. I soon left the incidents that were the source of my nightmares and began writing about people and things; the prevailing order of life I had experienced as a child growing up in an agricultural village. . . .

One day my husband said, “I see you’re writing a great deal. What is it that you are writing?” I replied, “It’s a very private thing, very private”; and believe it or not he said, “What could be so private that I can’t look at it?” Typical male, isn’t it? I emphasized that it was very private and I didn’t want anyone to look at it. . . . But he kept going on and on about it. One day, I got fed up and offered it to him. . . . Not long after my husband attended a conference at Warwick University, and [Jeremy Poynting] of Peepal Tree Press happened to be there. My husband went up to Poynting and said that his wife had written a novel. Would you believe it? A novel! When he came home and told me what he did, I responded, “How could you do a thing like that? I haven’t written a novel!” “The publisher would like to see it,” he replied. At that moment, I realized that I had to give the publisher the impression that my husband knew the difference between a novel and remembrances of time passed. I could see that these vivid childhood recognitions needed a structure. I did what was simplest for me; I put my experiences in chronological order. It wasn’t long before I heard from [Poynting]. When I opened the letter, it read, “Now this is the nicest thing any publisher can tell you. It doesn’t happen often.” . . . “This novel must be published and I would like to publish it.” And that’s how I started writing, to answer your question.

AB: Which writers have influenced you and your work?

LP: The one writer I am aware has influenced me . . . is Vidya Naipaul. His novel A House for Mr. Biswas is autobiographical. Before that was written, there was no substantial work of literary worth narrating the lives of Indo-Caribbean peoples. I could see the reality on the written page; you had before you the end product of someone’s creativity, in this case, an exceptionally fine writer. You see, at the beginning of his writing career . . . Naipaul believed he did not have suitable literary material, perhaps because all the novels he had studied at school and university, and had read for pleasure were from Britain, France, Spain, and the United States. In some ways, someone of his background and upbringing, thinking of writing fiction in the 1940s and1950s was on his own, for he would have had to find a path to traverse that which in some ways was virgin territory. In one of his attempts at writing a novel, he was fortunate to have given his writings to someone who said to him that what he had written was full of pretensions; this observation may have awakened him to what he should write about, which were things he knew intimately. That then would have meant his childhood, the Trinidad environment of his upbringing, his A House for Mr. Biswas. This novel made me realize that I also had material. We all have material for we are individuals with unique experiences. It is interesting to note that A House for Mr. Biswas is acknowledged as his best work of fiction.

AB: Were there English writers or any other Caribbean writers who have influenced you?

LP: I would say writers like George Orwell and George Eliot certainly; Jane Austen too, whom I studied at school. And poets like Rilke, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold. [Laughing] Whenever I want to indulge myself emotionally I read Matthew Arnold’sSohrab and Rustum.” I love poetry; the compactness of poems, saying so much succinctly and so tightly reined in, finely controlled. Music also influences me a lot. In one particular instance, in order to describe a dance I played a recording of drums to get me into the mood for writing about this dance. What I find that we cannot do in prose that music does, is the way the first few chords in a piece of music can instantly set you alight, capture its entirety; you’re held within its fold; the chords tell you what is to come. To write like that is every writer’s aim. And yet our finest most moving music holds our soul while poetry struggles to get close to it.

Writers will write about what interests them. Fiction in the multicultural Caribbean is as rich and varied as its history. Writers write about what they know well. This is inevitable. The background and the culture you were born into have a strong influence on your perception of life, at least initially; travel, reading and meeting people from all walks of life and cultures enlarge, enrich one. Of course, the human imagination enables writers to enter other spheres. When someone criticized Toni Morrison, saying that she did not have many white people in her books, Morrison said that she writes her books the way she wants to. I do the same with my books. I also try not to read people who are writing about similar scenes and places as myself because I do not want unconsciously to ever take a character or scene from anyone too close to me in place and culture. I’ll give you an example of what I fear. Janice Shinebourne wrote a scene in her book [The Last English Plantation] about a girl riding to school on her bicycle in Guyana and I had in Butterfly in the Wind a girl cycling to school. I was so glad that I had not read her book before writing mine, because my depiction of a girl riding to school on a bike is very different from hers. In Butterfly in the Wind the whole history of colonialism opens up, the architecture and function of the buildings speak as she cycles; it’s a large canvas that makes it very different from [Shinebourne’s]. If I had read her book, I would have felt inhibited to write about a girl riding to school. This is one of the reasons I try to read writers whose works are far removed from my own in many ways.

AB: Whom do you write for in terms of audience?

LP: I don’t write for anyone. When I begin to write, I don’t say that I am writing for a certain group of people. I write for anyone who wishes to read. I also write because it is therapeutic, while giving me an opportunity to look at relationships that interest me, through study and research. I write also because I feel compelled to write by the things that disturb me.

AB: Can you speak about the variety of creative genres that you use? For example, in Butterfly in the Wind you use realism, in Sastra you experiment with magical realism, For the Love of My Name is told from different narrative perspectives, and Raise the Lanterns High experiments with time and space by having the story move back and forth between contemporary Trinidad and eighteenth-century India.

LP: You are right to say that Butterfly in the Wind is in a realist mode, because it is autobiographical, mirroring much of my childhood. On the other hand, For the Love of My Name is an analogy, in the sense that events [described in the novel] mirror vividly the first three decades of an independent Guyana. . . .

For Raise the Lanterns High, I went to the British Library to do the research on sati. What encouraged me to continue to do the painstaking research and write about this human horror, encouraged and perpetuated by the priestly class, were the moving accounts of the travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . . You have used terms taken from literary criticism to describe my novels, others have used other terms such as political, political feminist, socialist and so on; you will find in the novels evidence to support however you may decide to describe them.

AB: Why depict For the Love of My Name on an imaginary island using different perspectives rather than use the realist mode?

LP: It is far easier for Guyanese or anyone to read it in this form; this is especially so for the majority in Guyana who were either silenced by fear or were silent in their complicity, not to mention the active perpetrators of this ugly time that lasted far too long for a young country in its formative stage, over three decades. The imaginary mode of fiction provides a compelling way to engage with this past; fiction makes it palatable and opens the possibility for poetry, for lyricism in the telling; the realist mode is apt to be too cold, bare facts can be clinical. And there is this other matter; all an author in the realist mode has to do is make two small errors and people begin to wonder if the whole thing is filled with errors; this feeling would be encouraged by the many who would wish the period forgotten. Fiction provides you with some measure of protection as well as liberation. Nevertheless by using an imaginary place, it is incumbent upon you to have worthy analogies.

In addition, fiction opens the gate to using metaphors, similes, fables, allegories, the imagination, and another perspective than your own. . . . Realism offers me a framework, but no more; I cannot use the realism form all the way; I am not at ease with it for highly charged political issues where the emotions rule. For the Love of My Name is symbolic; [in the novel] the island sinks. It could represent the gods’ response to hubris, or the cleansing that must take place before the new that could come with a rebirth, the upliftment of the island to the surface, to light and oxygen and bird song. Symbolism is conducive to art; the realist form is more appropriate to journalism, though, there too, we too often have the author’s imagination and perceptions energized with wishful thinking.

AB: In Butterfly in the Wind and Sastra, you portray female characters that struggle with their cultural and sexual identities; these characters mainly struggle with Indian Hindu values versus Western Christian values. Can you speak to such characters as Kamla and Sastra?

LP: Yes, that’s true. Well, in the case of Kamla, if I may put it in this abstract way, it’s consciousness expressing itself openly. This is what children do, until their parents, teachers, journalists, and politicians let them know which thoughts are acceptable and which are not allowed. I was told by a reader that one of the attractions of Butterfly in the Wind is the naïveté of the protagonist Kamla. [For example,] when Kamla goes to primary school and reads British history she feels that it is wrong that Queen Elizabeth I should be happy with the slave trade; she stands up in class and says, “That’s not right.” The teacher slams her down and says, “Shut up and sit down,” because the teacher had no answer, though there was an intelligent reply that could have been given: it being the values of the time and the way of the powerful. In those days, my primary school days, if you asked a question and the teacher had no answer, as far as the teacher was concerned, you were a nuisance to the class. We see Kamla opening up herself and trying to understand the world with a child’s limited understanding.1

AB: In both Butterfly in the Wind and Sastra, migration to the West is depicted as libratory act. Can you comment on this idea?

LP: [There is] a moment in Butterfly in the Wind at the end of the novel when [Kamla] is waving and waving to her parents and family. . . . The airhostess on the aircraft says to her impatiently, “Come along now,” and soon after we hear Kamla’s thoughts: “I was entering a world where time had a far greater significance than I was used to and where, as I learnt, it was weighed and sold on a finer scale.”2

If you notice, in the developed world time appears to move faster than in many developing countries. In the former, one has to move at a different pace. The new technology with its Blackberry and the Internet is increasing the productivity of each individual, for now we can work en route on a train, cab, or airplane. . . . We are becoming different people, different from our agricultural past when nature did set the pattern of work. Any female character of a certain age that emigrates is plunged into this new space of faster moving time. How does she adjust and adapt? For the young it’s alright, but for a mature, even educated, thinking woman, whose childhood and teenage lives have not been in this country but in countries where domestic help is plentiful, how does she adjust? You have this problem of family ties, responsibilities while simultaneously you must cope with the question that now hangs above the liberated women here: What are my rights as a human being, am I to be an exemplary mother, wife and daughter? Dare I wish to join the professions, or the wider civil service? If so, how so? What then of the traditional exemplary roles? What of the accompanying stresses and strains. . . .

AB: Would you describe your work as feminist?

LP: The definition of feminism presents a problem. The definition of feminism has changed over time; initially it was associated with the burning of bras or not wearing bras and that sort of thing. . . . If you define feminism as trying to point out difficulties inherent in being female that can be improved in all cultures, then I am a feminist. I don’t want us to have special privileges. We can fight on the same track that men are fighting on and manage well. We are as capable as the best among them. The enlightened males have long known this.

AB: What do you make of your place in Caribbean writing and in Indian diasporic writing?

LP: I do not follow these things. . . . My work has traveled to places and institutions I had not expected. This is gratifying and encouraging. . . . The fact that Warwick University did establish a fellowship in my name and that other universities are looking at my work are good things. What consumes me is the high regard and respect I have for my readers and for researchers like you; I want to give of my best. I am very much aware that my readers could be reading someone else’s work, but they have chosen mine and I want to make it worth their while. . . . This is what motivates me; nothing else.

 

Anita Baksh is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her article “Breaking with Tradition: Hybridity, Identity and Resistance” has been recently published in Bindi: The Multifaceted Lives of Indo-Caribbean Women (2011), edited by Rosanne Kanhai. Baksh’s primary research and teaching interests include Indian and Indian diaspora literature, Caribbean literature, postcolonial theory, and feminist theory. Her dissertation focuses on notions of home, identity, and nation in post-indenture Indo-Caribbean literature.

 


 1 See Lakshmi Persaud, Butterfly in the Wind (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1996), 54–55.

2 Ibid., 204.