HAVING published books including the 2017 Burt Prize for Young Adult Caribbean Literature, third prize for her coming-of-age novel Home Home, Lisa Allen-Agostini will see her latest novel published in May.
Allen-Agostini worked as a journalist for over 20 years at both the Trinidad Express and Guardian.
In 2019 she partnered with Louris Martin Lee-Sing to create the Caribbean feminist stand-up comedy duo FemComTT, and also co-hosts the online chat show, The Givin’ Trouble Show.
Her debut adult novel, The Bread the Devil Knead, explores feminity, sexuality, survival, the culture of TT and the duality many people exercise to exist comfortably in different spaces.
She said the book, written in first-person creole narrative, explores the life of Alethea Lopez, a 40-year-old mixed-race business manager, whose life is further transformed after witnessing the murder of a woman by the woman’s lover.
The event opens Lopez’s eyes “to the lives of the women all around her: from her colleague Tamika, who is engaged to marry an unfaithful man, and her childhood best friend Jankie, the teenage bride of their physical education teacher, to her own mother Marcia, who allowed her to be sexually abused in exchange for the family’s financial and emotional stability.”
Allen-Agostini said the book published by UK-based Myriad Editions, will be out in May.
Asked how long it took for her to complete the book, from first to final draft, Allen-Agostini said the first draft of chapter one was sent to Wayne Brown in March 2009.
“The version that was accepted for publication was massively rewritten while I was in Grenada on a CaribLit/St George’s University residency from January-May, 2014. I did a little touch-up before submitting in March 2020.
“In May 2020 the publishers expressed interest and made the offer in September 2020.”
She said it was a labour of love, and sees it as the outcome of collaboration, without which she said the book would not have taken form.
It took shape after Allen-Agostini got the opportunity to attend a workshop led by Brown, the late columnist, poet, fiction writer and teacher who mentored many Caribbean writers. He and his work had influenced Allen-Agostini’s love for literature since she was a teenager.
“At about 19, though I was writing since I was a child, I published my first book of poetry and it came to Wayne Brown’s attention, probably because I attended Bishop Anstey High with his daughter Mariel.”
She said she got the opportunity to sit and have a conversation with Brown in 1993. At the time he was offering a writers’ workshop. But as a new mother, she could not afford to attend, though she gained confidence from hearing Brown found her work impressive.
It was not until many years later – about 2007 – that Allen-Agostini would have had close contact with Brown again.
“Toward the end of his life, about two years before he died, his daughter Mariel called me. He was offering workshops, and this time I could afford them.”
But instead of participating in a workshop, where completed work is submitted for guidance, Brown agreed to walk her through the process of a book from the beginning. Every two weeks, she had to complete another step, after which Brown would give a review and suggest approaches and techniques.
“The whole thing was conducted online, via e-mail, where he would make notes within the edits of my work.”
The book took on a more definite shape on what felt like another day of writing for her at Rituals, MovieTowne, Invaders Bay, Port of Spain.
“I sat there and started writing and the scene that came was quite traumatic to me.”
After processing it with Brown, she decided not to keep that part. But that version, which was written in standard English third-person narrative, was changed to the first-person narrative of the final product, which is written in creole.
“Coming from where (Lopez) came from, she did well for herself. She didn’t go to high school, having only completed junior sec. She worked her whole life, was tortured by her mother, raped by a family member for years and makes her way through life with the baggage of trauma. Her code-switching is a major trait of hers, showing her flexibility, though when she speaks directly it is in creole, which connects to her deepest truth.”
Asked how the structure of the story took shape, she said, “I decided I could not tell the story for her. She had to tell her own story, as horrible as it was.”
Allen-Agostini said the story of the character embodies the journey to owning one’s truest self and pushing beyond the limitations of circumstances or personality challenges. The voice of the character sounds much like her, to those who know her well and have read parts of the draft. Some said it is reminiscent of a newspaper column she wrote years ago, in dialect.
“This novel is a lot about inspiration. Looking at it now, I am happy I was guided in writing it. What feels very obvious now is that it is a story of redemption. While writing I did not understand how it would have come together.”
Because she let the story flow organically she sees the final draft as having been directed only by inspiration.
“It has bits of messages God would want people to know though it is not a religious book.”
Allen-Agostini said the book did not happen by accident: it happened because there was a lot of collaboration. She said she was grateful for the Bocas Lit Fest as an organisation, and to people who have had a positive impact on her career, such as Bocas Lit Fest founder Marina Salandy-Brown, Nicholas Laughlin of Caribbean Beat, her former editor and mentor, Newsday editor-in-chief Judy Raymond and actor Elisha Bartels, who assisted with proofreading, with emphasis on maintaining accurate use of creole. She said she was also happy to have collaborated with artist Brianna McCarthy, who designed the cover, which depicts Lopez.
“This book is not something that happened by accident and I would not have been able to do it all on my own. It happened because of the writing community. It happened because I was collaborating with a mentor.”
Allen-Agostini believes all writers and people who work in the creative industry should realise the importance of collaboration and community which gives human connection, love, and even opportunities for career growth.
To emphasise the importance of participation and collaboration she shared, in brief, how she connected with the publishers.
“The only reason I knew Myriad Editions had a call for submission was because I was on their e-mail list. And the reason I was on that list is that I was included in the book New Daughters of Africa.
“The only reason I was included in New Daughters of Africa is that the publisher Margaret Busby knew my work through Bocas Lit Fest. And that is why I will always say I fangirl for Bocas Lit Fest – because it brings opportunities to Caribbean writers and the whole ecosystem of publishing in the Caribbean.”
While it is important to seek the support of community and the assurance one gets through faith, she believes people should also ensure they show up every day for what they hope to accomplish.
On Myriad Editions’ official website, Allen-Agostini received rave reviews from Busby, the British-Ghanaian publisher, editor, writer and broadcaster. She was Britain’s youngest and first black female book publisher. Further praise came from Jamaican writers Kei Miller the OCM Bocas Prize for Fiction winner, and Jamaican writer and winner of literary awards including the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic Nalo Hopkinson.