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A Conversation With Ingrid Persaud

Last week, Trinidadian writer Ingrid Persaud won the 13th BBC National Short Story Award 2018 for her short story ‘The Sweet Sop’. We were delighted to attend the awards ceremony at the University of Cambridge to see Ingrid accept the award, a prize of £15,000, and chat to her afterwards – almost immediately after she came off stage.

The story, about a young Trinidadian man reunited with his absent father, is one you haven’t read before. Chocolate takes precedent, as does grief and humour and loss. It’s written in Trinidadian dialect, and the beat of the story surfaces in secret sweet wrappers, bathroom calls about Kit Kat bars, and quiet odes to choosing how to die.

KJ Orr, part of the award judging panel and a mentor to one of The Word Factory’s Apprentices this year, commented: ‘This moving story about a father-son relationship is truly memorable – at once tender and ebullient, heartbreaking and full of humour. Here’s a writer who understands the compressed, conflicted potential of the short story.’

Previously a lawyer, Ingrid is not new to writing. But she admits that this is her first short story, and says she has always been preoccupied with the power of words, both in her academic work and as a fine artist where she explored text as art. She fell in love with the short story after reading William Trevor. ‘The Sweet Sop’ previously won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017, and Ingrid’s debut novel, ‘If I Never Went Home’ (Blue China Press) was published in 2014.

The ceremony was live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, during a special programme celebrating the short story. ‘The Sweet Sop’ is available to listen to at www.bbc.co.uk/nssa, read by Leemore Marrett Junior.

Here, The Word Factory’s Carlotta Eden talks to Ingrid about winning, writing, and what’s next on the horizon.

How does it feel to win?
It’s really exciting. It’s such a big prize, so I’m really delighted for the recognition and the confidence to keep going.

Is it true that this is the first short story that you’ve written?
Yes. But it’s not that I haven’t been writing, I’ve been writing lots of things. I’ve been a lawyer so I’ve written plenty of academic work before. I was writing a blog called Notes From A Small Rock, which was 900-word essay every week for about three years. So that helped me with my skills and writing short pieces.

What inspired ‘The Sweet Sop’?
We had a lot of deaths in the family and I was trying to process it and think about what it means to have a good death, and the conversations that you might like to have before you die. This was one way of processing those emotions. But I didn’t want to write a bleak story, so I used humour to try and get at it.

Why did you think the short story was the best way for you to process those emotions?
I like the parameters of a short story; it’s much easier to write when you’ve got these rules in place that you’ve got to adhere to. I guess this was a chance to do some critical thinking and really try to hone my thoughts on the subject.

The Word Factory celebrates themes of citizenship and diversity, particularly at our Citizen Festival last year, so I have to ask: is it important to you that this story will help shine a light on new voices from Trinidad?
I’m absolutely thrilled that the BBC have chosen a story with a different voice. But I do think different voices are having their moment. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller is a beautiful work done in a dialect, mixing English with patois. There’s more out there. It’s nice that these different dialects are being welcomed.

What advice would you give writers entering a competition like this, who may find it quite overwhelming?
Well, if someone like me (everyone keeps saying I’m coming to writing late!) can do it, then anyone can. You don’t have to be writing all your life, but you need to be disciplined and write every day. You need to work at it. It’s like a muscle, the more you work it, the better you get.

What is the next step for you? Will you carry on writing stories?
Absolutely, I want to continue writing. This is what I do.