Falling in Love Is Hard When You’re the Guardian of the Dead

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo's novel "When We Were Birds" is a magical realism love story set in Trinidad, written in Creole

Photo by Kenrick Baksh on Unsplash

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel When We Were Birds begins in the time before time and follows the uneasy truce between the living and the dead. Cigarettes are offered, liquor is poured, prayers are said, all in the hope that the buried stay buried. This is the story of Yejide, a young woman who becomes the reluctant heir of a family secret that binds her to the grave, and Darwin, a man forbidden from touching the dead who will follow to the end of the earth the woman who communes with them.  

When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

All her life, Yejide has listened to her grandmother’s creation stories, never expecting that her family—a line of powerful women—are the direct descendants of corbeaux, the birds that “devour the dead” and bring balance to the world. After her mother dies, it falls on Yejide to protect the exchange between the living and the deceased, to listen to the old dead and new dead, and to be a witness to all that has been buried. She feels the dead “rub up on her like cats.” This is a heavy and lonely path, and it feels only right—part of a necessary balance—that Yejide finds Darwin, an outsider like her. 

Darwin, raised Rasta, has taken a vow never to touch the dead, never to cut his hair, and yet hunger and certain unnamed desperations cause him to break his promises, and he gets a job digging graves. Darwin is new to Port Angeles and city life, where “everybody face set up, walking fast-fast like fire ants.” He cannot hear the dead like Yejide can (“the power belong to the women”), yet he becomes a guardian in his own right.

When We Were Birds weaves story, history, place, and the supernatural. It gives us a fictional Trinidad very much alive: the fruit vendors selling juicy papaw, the fish vendors weighing kingfish on their shiny scales, customers sticking their hands through bars to collect goods from shopkeepers, heavy dance hall bass, women in heels, boys hustling loosies. This is “a place that not only wide but have all kinda layers and hidden corners and subterranean levels that you could only find if you know where to look.” The work is lyrical, at points virtuosic (“mourning…is not a rope”) and often written in a style inflected with Trini creole. It is a love story if love is remembrance, recognition, a connection beyond words and temporality. It speaks to what it means to break a promise in order to live, and how making a promise can save our very selves.  

Annie Liontas: Yejide, our guide between the living and the dead, discovers that the stories she’s heard all her life have more truth to them than she believed. What do stories help us remember or hold onto? How does myth and story shape identity? How does storytelling help us keep the dead?

We’re living on captured land. These are colonized spaces and sites of wars. We live on burial grounds.

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo: The first instruction manuals for living as a species, as human beings, are stories. The Griots, the shamans, the people that hold the history of a tribe or a community. Stories start as a way to keep us safe. You know the one that says, “If you go down by the river in the back of the house, there’s something that lives there, it’s gonna pull you under.” Stories give us a map to navigate the physical world that we live in. To give us boundaries. To tell us how to safely cross those boundaries. It’s cultural, story. It’s song. It’s poems. It’s our first books. Or it’s a rom-com meet-cute with two people who are meeting at a bar. It invokes an entire moment and experience, a place maybe they’ve never been to, or a place that they’ve been to so often that they stop seeing it.

AL: Yejide knows the buried aren’t confined to the cemeteries: 

“It is not only headstones that make a place a burial ground. Under fancy restaurants that used to be plantation houses… under the shopping malls is layers and layers of dead—unknown, unnamed, unclaimed…”

What does it mean for Yejide to feel not only the presence of the dead, but of their buried and erased histories?  

ALB: I mean, where we’re talking—you in the US, me currently in London but psychologically in the Caribbean—we’re living on captured land. These are colonized spaces and sites of wars. We live on burial grounds, and there’s no way around that. Our dead have not always been buried or remembered properly. We don’t always even know that they’re there.

The very nature of colonialism says ‘no one was here and then someone arrived.’ We know that the islands of the Caribbean have a long, long history.

In Trinidad, at the Red House, they discovered a huge Amerindian burial ground during renovation. Construction had to stop. They had to remove the bones. They had to consult with the First Peoples to make sure that these bones would be marked properly. They brought in their holy man and woman to have a ceremony to mark this thing. Because you can’t start over, right? You can’t remove the Red House and begin again. But you can operate in a way that you are respectful and are aware that there are two things occupying this land at the same time. I think it’s important for us to not pay lip service to that. We walk around having our coffees and our wedding ceremonies and collecting death certificates and in the most benign way, burying or cremating our dead, all on borrowed land. We’re sharing that land with people who aren’t here anymore.

AL: Tell us about corbeaux.  

ALB: We say “cobo.” The black vulture. You cannot see them and not think of the stories told up and down North and South America, like Oshun who turned into a vulture to save the world. The creation story in the beginning of the novel wasn’t something that I read somewhere and it also isn’t something that I made up all on my own. It’s just all these different stories kind of blended together, my years long fascination with these spectral birds. And, of course, physically how they actually operate as scavenger birds, that they are able to take in the dead because of their unique biochemistry. Not to be poisoned or killed by eating rotting flesh. They are the cleansers of space, they’re able to transform the dead into something else.

Of course, they’re seen as bad omens like any black birds, your crow, your raven.  They’re quite awkward and ungainly. You see them sitting on a line and think, what’s going on here? You can’t help but feel a little bit creeped out when you encounter them because they’re silent. They don’t have a song. These aren’t singing birds.  

AL: Time and place are elastic on the page, from the felt presence of those who are long gone, to the ways myths collapse time, to Petronella’s assertion, “Any place is ever one place?” How are you conceptualizing time and place in When We Were Birds?   

ALB: So the thing about islands is, they lie, right? They’re small places and the colonial gaze simplifies them. The very nature of colonialism says “no one was here and then someone arrived,” and this is when time sort of begins in these islands, right? This shortening of time and simplifying of space, that is the fiction. We know that the islands of the Caribbean have a long, long history. 

And for me, just the idea that death came into the world—the oldest thing that one could imagine—that in fact there was a place that predated death, was really important for me to situate. To make time extremely long. Deep time. I remember when I was first writing out the threads of the novel, I was trying to pin the individual timelines to each other in a very close way. And I was like, no, that’s actually not right. I want that feeling of this is happening at the same time. Even Darwin at Fidelis— his experience of time in the cemetery feels different from his experience of time in the city. It’s just a more realistic measure of how we experience time. Nobody can tell me these two years have been two years. We’ve lived several lives in that period.

AL: What choices were you making as you developed the novel’s style and use of Trinidad Creole?

ALB: You know, I thought I had written this weird book in Trinidad Creole and that I’d get all this push back. When I didn’t any push back, then I got even more scared. I was like, why do these white people like this book? There is something wrong with this book!

AL: Darwin pays attention to graves nobody goes to. He sits with Mr. Julius when he returns to the grave of his wife and only friend. He thinks constantly about all of the people beneath Fidelis. Darwin is an attuned and sensitive man. The power to hear the dead belongs to the women, but how might we read the gift of Darwin’s own clairvoyance?

ALB: For me, that is so in tune with him being Rastafari. The Rastaman is, for use of a better word, a mystical figure that is attuned with spirit and one who is navigating being in the world but not being of the world. As much as him having this job in the cemetery is outside of the very traditional interpretations of the Nazarite vow, it also probably makes him the most ideal person to be sensitive to that sort of death-work. He’s not gonna just tell some old man, “get out, time to close up.”  

His masculinity and the masculinity of the other men at Morne Marie was something that I was really thinking about, too. This is a community that is supporting the domestic, the running of life because half the time these women are not in the world: they’re somewhere else. So what do we need from men in these times? What is required? What is the softness that is so valuable, but which is not seen as valuable in traditional masculinity? I think the conversation is now going there for men to see. There’s so many young men who are terrible, but there are also many who are almost paralyzed. They’re crippled by patriarchy in ways that they don’t even know. They’re really asking: “How can I be a better human being? How could I be a better ally to you? How can I be a better person to myself?” For me, Darwin was an exercise in crafting a West Indian Black man who does all of those things, but who would still throw down in fights and would still wait in a cemetery with a blade. It doesn’t make him a pushover, it makes him soft in all the ways that is human and necessary.

AL: Yejide, who has a painful and tumultuous relationship with Petronella, is a daughter grieving for a mother not yet lost. Darwin must leave his own mother for the city that took his own father. What is this book saying about how we must sometimes become other people than the ones our mothers need us to be? What is We the Birds asking us to remember about the power of all the women who came before when it says that it is a daughter that makes a mother an ancestor?  

ALB: The thing is that a mother is a woman before she’s a mother. And she’s a girl before she’s a woman. She’s had dreams and goals and ideas about who she wants to be and which, for most of her life, have nothing to do with having a child or even being the matriarch of a family. 

I sometimes wonder about this role we put on grandmothers. They are the ones that hold the family together and nobody asks Granny if she wants to do that. Suppose Granny wants to run away to Paris and drink wine and go about her business. You sometimes just fall into these gender roles of caretaking, family. And somebody has to do that work. But it doesn’t mean that we all go easily into it. 

A mother is a woman before she’s a mother… She’s had dreams about who she wants to be and which, for most of her life, have nothing to do with having.

A mother is not perfect people. They were sometimes mean, they were sometimes angry, they were sometimes tormented, they were sometimes fed up. They were doing the best that they could sometimes, and other times not really doing their best at all. But you know that that legacy is also a bunch of fed up women who wish they could have been doing something else. In our own families, I’m sure we find them. They inherit a series of choices that in some ways they had no control over. How do you look at your mother’s choices and how they affected you? For Petronella, there’s stakes if she does what she wants to do, if she just says fuck it. But in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what she’s done, and her daughter pays for the fact that Petronella feels trapped. This is a spiritual story. But so many women don’t have the luxury of choice, you just have to get on with it. The children have to eat. 

There’s a lovely picture of my grandparents on their wedding day. It looks beautiful, but my grandmother couldn’t stand the photo. I always wondered why until she got ill and was really talking her business, and she told me that all she wanted was just have a picture by herself in her wedding dress but her husband said no. Back then, there’s no camera man, you go into a photo studio as man and wife, and he’s saying, maybe, listen, we have money only for one picture, I don’t know. My grandmother deeply resented that she didn’t have a photo of herself. Just one picture. In my wedding dress. Looking nice.

AL: You set When We Were Birds in a Trinidad “with the volume turned up.” How does your home country inspire the fictional island in this novel? How do secondary characters give us the island in its complexity?  

ALB: I grew up in Diego Martin, which is a suburb outside of Port of Spain, on the Western Peninsula. Where I went to primary school, all my friends were able to walk to and from school, but I lived a little bit farther out and walking wasn’t possible. Then when I went to secondary school in Port of Spain, I wanted to live in Woodbrook. It was always this kind of in-between life, not fully suburban but not in town either. My mother grew up in Belmont, which is Bellemere in the novel. She taught at a school that was seen as a sort of a “bad school”, in East Port of Spain. She was very comfortable. I’ve always been fascinated with town. It had a glamor to me, it was exciting. It was a little bit dangerous. It was places that I knew but didn’t really know. I wish I had more freedom when I was young to be able to go about on my own and jump in a maxi. I didn’t get that until I was fully in my 20s. I think a lot of my writing of Port of Spain is from that place. I almost had to imagine it. 

Port Angeles, like Port of Spain, is a city of “characters”—the street vendors, the vagrants, the shopkeepers, the maxi conductors—and none of them are secondary, they are vital and every one of them have main character energy.

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