Dedicated to All the Others: Shivanee Ramlochan

Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet and essayist. Her book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. “The Red Thread Cycle”, a suite of poems from her debut collection, won a Small Axe Literary Competition Prize for Poetry (second-place). Shivanee is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Millay Arts, and Catapult Caribbean Arts Grant. Her second book, Unkillable, a non-fiction narrative of Indo-Caribbean women’s disobedience in Trinidad, is forthcoming from Noemi Press.

Shivanee is a Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine and works with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.

Episode 4: Shivanee Ramlochan, Trinidadian poet, talks about the Red Thread Cycle with Una Dedicated to All the Others: Conversations about creative process

Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet and essayist. Her book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. “The Red Thread Cycle”, a suite of poems from her debut collection, won a Small Axe Literary Competition Prize for Poetry (second-place). Shivanee is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Millay Arts, and Catapult Caribbean Arts Grant. Her second book, Unkillable, a non-fiction narrative of Indo-Caribbean women’s disobedience in Trinidad, is forthcoming from Noemi Press. Shivanee is a Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine and works with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean's largest literary festival. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.  You can find a transcript for the hearing impaired on Shivanee's page at Thingsbyuna.com Find Shivanee’s work online at www.novelniche.net, shivaneeramlochan.com, @novelniche on Twitter, FB and Instagram Find out more about: Shivanee's Leeds-based publisher Peepal Tree Press Shivanee's book reviews on Caribbean Beat Magazine. Here, a review of The Bread The Devil Knead (Myriad Editions). Shortlisted for the Women's Prize. The NGC Bocas Lit Fest  Shivanee's work in The Caribbean Review of Books Sonia Farmer's artists book The Red Thread Cycle The significance of Deya The Forward Prizes for Poetry Shivanee's Substack  Thousands of of works by different poets on the Poetry Foundation website
  1. Episode 4: Shivanee Ramlochan, Trinidadian poet, talks about the Red Thread Cycle with Una
  2. Episode 3: Hilary McCollum, writer, Fellow of the Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast, and Una in conversation. Talking feminist life writing.
  3. Episode 2. Masego Lynia, spoken word artist: poetry and conversation with artist and writer Una
  4. Episode 1. Tamsin Cook, co-director of MAFWA Theatre in conversation with Una. Talking working with women who've been through the asylum process and the need for community arts.

Find Shivanee’s work online at www.novelniche.net, shivaneeramlochan.com, @novelniche on Twitter, FB and Instagram

Find out more about:

Shivanee’s Leeds-based publisher Peepal Tree Press

Shivanee’s book reviews on Caribbean Beat Magazine. Here, a review of The Bread The Devil Knead (Myriad Editions). Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize.

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest 

Shivanee’s work in The Caribbean Review of Books

Sonia Farmer’s artists book The Red Thread Cycle

The significance of Deya

The Forward Prizes for Poetry

Shivanee’s Substack 

Thousands of of works by different poets on the Poetry Foundation website

Transcript for the deaf or hearing impaired

Shivanee Ramlochan: The Red Thread Cycle:The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning

I took to that stage knifed in, 

leaking witch hazel and chandelier bush, briar-packed by puncheon 

hard enough to fuck that three-day sickness to the cross. 

I ground the belly of my gun against his bare flank, 

against his sour stem still dripping with me. 

When the poem told me to go on my knees, I went. 

I limped past high road through the dry river gutter, my love. 

I let the glass pauper my shins. 

I lit hurricane lamps with the lucifers of the stake he splintered 

six inches inside me, six 

knuckle-fathoms deep. 

The poem says 

truss him gullet to groin with leather and lyre-wire. 

Loop the cry around your wrist 

like he wound your hair to the bedpost and knotted you there for 

         safe keeping. 

The poem says, “Give no thanks.” 

I tell it, 

flinching through the verses, fumbling for a post to push me upright. 

        I strip, 

feel spectator eyes finger the crumbled spires where my wings 

        used to be. 

There lies an ache 

in the place I was ransacked. Only this poem knows it. Each line 

          break bursts me open 

for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy 

is grating out gold halleluiahs 

beneath the proscenium of his grave.

Conversation

Una: Una SR: Shivanee Ramlochan

Una: Yes, so that’s an astonishing poem. 

SR: You know it’s the last poem in in the Red Thread Cycle and for a long time when I was writing that suite of poems, I think the last thing I was allowing myself as a writer as much as a person was any sense of comfort. I felt that those poems had to speak about sexual violence in a particular way but they didn’t leave that much room to think about survival on one’s own terms. What trying to fight for actual happiness and freedom looks like. And Deyas are very important to me; I grew up in a hybrid Hindu and Roman Catholic household and Deyas are very important objects of light and hope for the Hindu festival of Diwali and I thought you know in in many ways the imagery of the Deya has seen me through some of my hardest times so I figured why could it not be the same thing for a speaker of a poem who was trying to navigate this unfathomable violence, and so that’s where that poem really came from, that need to reach for some kind of softness and grace and light on your own terms and for that to mean… not to be anything less than a poem that seemed hard and badass and ungovernable like there’s all kinds of survival.

Una: Yeah, absolutely. And the Red Thread, it’s a very kind of complex set of individual poems that kind of work together, but as well, as I was saying to you before, I feel like I love poetry but I just don’t know very much about it. I don’t really understand how it’s made, or why it’s made the way is, and I just wondered could you sort of, could you talk me through… I think it’d be really interesting to know how it’s, how it began. How did the Red Thread series begin and how you decided to sort of position them in the way they’re positioned, where you sort of, they feel like they flow from one to the other.

SR: Yeah, when I was writing Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting, the only sense of order I had about the collection was that these poems which… I had always conceived it would be about between five and ten poems, and there are seven of them… would be the spine of the collection I had this sense of the emotional and metaphysical spine of the book, assuming they would hold it together so that even if every poem in the book wasn’t about sexual violence, and it isn’t, that these spirits of survival and tenacity and confrontation of things that people are too afraid or been told they can’t talk about, that would animate the spirit of those poems and then by extension the whole book. Ah, the first poem to be written in that series was On The 3rd Anniversary Of The Rape. When I wrote that poem, you know it’s going to sound a little bit precious maybe, but it almost felt like a visitation, I don’t think there’s been any poem in my life before or arguably since that has felt like it arrived to me almost fully formed. I still distinctly remember, and this is now going on ten years since that poem was written, the poem just arriving as a force to be absorbed and to be listened to, it felt like I was my whole body was acting as a kind of witness, saying this is something you can’t look away from and this is something you have to tell in exactly this way. So it informed a lot of the poems that came after. Sequencing them took a little more work because they don’t, the rest of them don’t appear chronologically, I sort of had to assemble the poems over years, over maybe a period of five years from first to last and written not in that order, and then figure out how they were speaking to each other, what kind of things they wanted to say about violence and sexual harm and trauma and survival to each other, because the speakers are not all the same person, no, they’re animated by different narrators with different experiences, they’re not all the same gender, they’re not all at the same place in their lives, or the same age and I think that’s important too. And I needed to listen to them and respect what they were telling me about where they needed to be in that sequence, and so The Open Mic of Every Deya kind of declared itself to need to be the final poem, to end with a certain kind of very hard one, to hope to not end in a place of despair, and you know I find that the best work I could do with poems is just to pay attention to them when they’re being drafted, when they’re finished, when they’re finished again after you decided they’re not finished and you open them up and start going through them again, just listening and paying attention being mindful that they’re my words, yes, but I made them ostensibly, but they also come from something much bigger, much, much deeper than me. 

Una: Yeah, that’s interesting, because as you say in the book Everyone Knows I am A Haunting, the stories are a collection of human experience, it’s not a… it’s not a book which is about sexual violence, although there’s a lot of violent imagery, what I’d call quite violent imagery, but of course experiencing any kind of sexual violence is part of the normal human range, it’s an extremely common experience that millions of us share, all over the world. I just I think the mixture in the book works… just extraordinarily well. I’m really interested to hear you say that the first one came out kind of fully formed, so it sounds like there was something just intuitive going on at the start and it and then it’s like a thread – I sometimes when I work with students I actually call it a thread that you’re pulling, it’s like… and I say “okay, so you’ve got this thing, now you have to follow that thread and keep following it and until it ends up somewhere” and so then it sounds like some of it arrived fully formed and then you followed the thread and more emerged…

SR: Yes 

Una: And then you had to go through a process where you had to compare one thing with another, go back and think about it, edit it, change it, reform it in relation to the first instance and then they kind of, they fell into place as an order. Is that, would you say that reflected that back? 

SR: Yeah

Una: I think this is really interesting as well for me at the moment because I’m doing some creative writing sessions with people, and a lot of people… I mean I’ve worked for a long time with students in universities, helping them with their writing, so generally I know that a lot of people feel like they have failed somehow if they… if whatever it is that they try to write or make doesn’t come out perfectly the first time. They feel somehow that’s a failure and actually it’s the… there is something sublime, isn’t there? About getting something which does kind of appear as a almost a fully formed thing but then it’s… that’s not that’s not the work!

SR: No! 

Una: That’s just the core or the seed of the work, isn’t it? And then it’s actually really hard work you have to keep going back and looking at it and if it’s an image, I mean, I often tell people to leave it on the wall so that it’s some where you’ve got to look at it as you walk past, you know? Get used to it, get used to its presence, don’t worry if you don’t like it, doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, you know? That’s not the point of making things like that. It’s the… a lot of the conversations that are coming out about this, because already it’s a difficult task to write about difficult things, isn’t it? And I think you said something about… you know one of my questions is “Is there more to say?” and I think you said something about that, didn’t you? So tell me about that. You put this book together it sounds like over about a five year period?

SR: Yeah, that’s right. 

Una: And then it came out, I can’t remember when it came out, what year did it come out? 

SR: In 2017 

Una 2017 so actually you have…

SR: It’s five years old

Una: Yeah, yeah, so go on, so what more is there to say?

SR:  it’s almost been in the world as long as it took to write, which is something, that’s something else. In October it will be officially five years, and I mean Everyone Knows I’m A Haunting, it, it… it’s hard to define what success for books looks like, which is probably true for also any work of art, you know, how do we gauge or grade what is a successful thing, but beyond what I had thought the books reception would be I think it’s safe to say that it received more attention than I thought it would, and that has been both validating and also pressure inducing because there is a almost innate expectation the work I do next will follow exactly in that vein. And it’s it’s difficult to disappoint anyone who cares about the work but particularly people who have an attachment to the group that is rooted in their own surviving sexual harm. I try to be as empathetic about that as I can be, while also realising that I can’t let it interfere with the actual work and what needs to be said. So in terms of what is next, there’s a lot of the poems continue to speak about sexual violence. I’ve had many people in the last decade now ask “when are you going to start writing happier poems?” “when are you going to stop writing about rape?” when you know people are going to think your whole life is a tragedy. You know I… I have learned to accept that kind of… feedback, let’s call it feedback, a word which is a projection of peoples own fears, their own insecurities, their own anxieties about where they are in their lives. It, erm.. sometimes it’s very well-meaning, sometimes it’s, who knows what it is, but I can’t really let it live with me where I live, in a place where I need to do my work, and I will always be writing about sexual violence I think, because it is not going anywhere, I mean the way that I write about it may change, and it is evolving but I think as long as people are being subject to, as you said, this kind of violence that affects us all in so many ways, some of us don’t even realise we’ve been sexually harmed and in our most formative years or in our unconscious experiences, I… I can’t imagine a life where I will not need to speak about this, not because I think I’m speaking for anybody else, but if people come to the work with that sensibility that is deeply humbling. The poems that have been written and published since Haunting in various journals and projects online and off, deal a lot with the act of witness. Of looking at something unflinchingly or you know, flinchingly if you want to, but… but looking about it and about woman particularly in the Caribbean woman who were subject to great sexual harm when they arrived to the Caribbean as subjects of indenture of the British Empire. a lot of those might work as personal family history, things I imagine to have been true for ancestors, and things that you also know are true but are also not spoken about, it’s a real meeting of what is factual, what is fictional, what is the kind of history that escaped the archives, but you know had to have (inaudible) and escaped deliberately because of wilful erasure and omission because certain kinds of people are allowed to tell certain stories, and I think… well, that’s what I have to do! I have to try to unearth what has been unspoken. I have to keep trying to say the difficult thing. Not because I like attention or want to be thought of as on some kind of vanguard, but because it needs to be said. And on the page at least, if nowhere else in my life, I have to… I have to do that, I have to do that work. 

Una: And is this part of… reclaiming your narrative? Because like me for example and unlike some of the other people that have interviewed for this project our stories were not big news stories, so some people have needed to reclaim the narrative from the media you know the from institutions now what you’re describing there is reclaiming your narrative from an institution – the institution of the British Empire, and I suppose that I feel that I definitely felt as I was writing Becoming Unbecoming that I was reclaiming something from the 1970s, a world which we now know… to have been an awful place but until quite recently there was a very kind of rosy, cosy view of what the 1970s was, yeah? In the UK, and it was very… it was really meaningful to me to be able to do that for myself, it was, it helped me to mop up the residue of the trauma, but my …although people knew, my trauma wasn’t a thing that was in the press, it wasn’t a public story, until I made it one.

SR: Yeah 

Una: And I just really think that you.. I mean, you’ve got some really kind of complex things there going on, haven’t you? Where you’re reclaiming something. I don’t know, talk a little bit about that. What, how… how have you remoulded it, how have you taken it back? 

SR: Well, the next book I’m working on is, is not a collection of poems it’s, its hybrid memoir, an essay collection that will be coming out in 2023 and it’s specifically about this thing we’re talking about which is disobedience in Indo-Caribbean woman, by which I look at my immediate family – it’s my grandmother, it’s my mother and myself. So writing this deeply personal family historiography is also incredibly revealing about things that have traditionally been unspoken  – how did women of certain generations defy patriarchy and then hegemony? How did they subvert it in ways that might have seemed submissive but actually weren’t? How did they use all manner of skills: social, psychological, sexual, mental, to claim and hold onto a kind of power. Doesn’t always look like power but certainly was in different ways. And it… the challenge that I face I think between writing about poetry, writing in poetry and writing non-fiction is that I have different kind of responsibility to facts, as we understand facts, particularly when I try to tell stories of people who are not me, who’re still alive. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t care about the stories of those who are dead, but those who are alive will be affected by them in a different way. And at first I will admit this… this felt insurmountable almost but I returned to the idea that if I look for the sites of truth in the work, those will always be evident and then it’s just my responsibility to tell that truth, that under examined, unexplored, unreported truth that… you know, if not for the body of work might never be spoken at all.

Una: It seems to me that poetry is, is kind of a little bit like the kind of visual arts that I’ve always been engaged in. It’s a little bit like digging for the truth, it’s like being an archaeologist and piecing together, well, digging through tiny, crumbling dirt to find it. Tiny little pieces of crumbling evidence.

SR: I like that comparison.

Una: You like that?

SR: Yeah, it also makes me think of sculpture, of making anything where you are confronted with this huge monolith and it’s your job to not just create what final form of the sculpture will be but to reveal what was already in there, like this sculpture exists inside, it’s like I’m not… making the truth. I’m making a different kind of truth, but I’m… and I think that’s also what I mean when I say I’m indebted to so much that came before me. So many traditions which… I might not agree with the vast majority of them, but they are there to be spoken about, traditions that were crucial to my ancestors who settled here in the Caribbean from India. My entire lineage, as far as I know, is entirely from the Indian subcontinent which is on the one hand a very clear thing – that you know where all of your blood comes from – it is also very complex because the history of that blood and that arrival is incredibly fraught. By empire, by indenture, and by patriarchy, and by what Indian men did to Indian women, are still doing to them, and how Indian women survive that, and there’s a huge amount of sexual violence in that history too. That… that is also, not for nothing, the least spoken about thing, because these are things that, and still are things that are often just considered par for the course, you know like spousal abuse and marital rape and things that a woman is told is just part of being a woman. No, it’s not, I refuse to accept that, I will never accept that, and so the new work is a lot about that and… I just don’t care at this point if it makes me unpopular, or if I’m like destined to be the strange, queer one in my family. That’s fine. That’s, it all seems like a very small price to pay to do this work. 

Una: Because you can only… The truth sets you free! I believe that, I really believe that the truth does that. It has set… set me free and, yeah, there is a point where to an extent you know you’re going to be careful you’re going to understand that people… everyone is human, we’re all frail, we can all fail, however in order to get to the truth you can’t kind of worry too much about upsetting people. One solution is… which was my family solution, is that they’ve never read any of my work so… so that’s always something that’s… that I never imagined, but erm… actually no that’s not true, my mum did read Becoming Unbecoming and she did join in with On Sanity, but my other relatives just… just haven’t read it, so… but I wouldn’t say anything anyway that I couldn’t live with saying, because…

SR: Yeah 

Una: You know, your… my personal integrity is important to me. By that I mean that honesty and truth and integrity kind of go together, and that’s how I know that I can make good work, that’s how I know that when, regardless of what is that making, there’s a point that can… It has to have a core of integrity to it that’s kind of unrelated to the form of the work, it’s unrelated to the context that you showing it in, it’s unrelated to whether or not you’re being paid for it…

SR: Yes.

Una: It’s the difference between making work that you can be proud of and walk away from regardless of whether anybody else likes it, isn’t it? And sort of making work for other reasons. I mean, obviously as an illustrator I do some kind of commercial work as well, you know? I just… someone comes along they say “I want you to draw this” and I draw that and say “do you like that?” and they say “I think it should be a bit, have a bit more green in it” or whatever. I go away, redraw it, bring it back, I mean there’s still a kind of integrity there actually, in fact that’s a very simple sort of contract because really my only job is to use my skill with pencils or with digital art too, to make something that they like and they’re happy with and they’re happy to pay for and go away, so there in a sense it’s a very simple contract, much more simple than the contract between an artist and the world, when you try to make work isn’t it? It’s… I think it’s really a lifetime’s work whether you like it or not.

SR: It’s true!

Una: Because once you start you can’t stop!

SR: I totally, yeah, there’s been times when I thought, what would I do if I weren’t a poet, and then life is just showing me it’s not really a question that I can ask, because if I tomorrow decided to go to Law school and become a lawyer I would still be governed by poems, they… they are an indistinguishable part, like I might as well just have no teeth, or no eyes, or no hair, like I they’re the basic parts of how I interface with the world, I don’t really have a choice. And I also think understanding that has been a true privilege, that I got to see the world in this way, and sometimes it is excruciating like sometimes the pain of carrying certain kinds of stories and experiences, and feeling them like I do. It’s agonising! But I still wouldn’t undo it, I still… I can’t imagine a different reality for myself which is not to say that the reality I have will not change and I will create art in different ways. I mean, I’m writing a book of non-fiction but I still know it’s going to be a poets book because that’s what I am. Erm, and I think it is… I feel incredibly lucky to do this work. I feel it might sound insane to feel incredibly fortunate to write about sexual violence, and sexual harm, and predation, and survival, and guilt and innocence and… all of it. All of it. I could be doing this work for the rest of my life. If I didn’t write about anything else I would still account myself deeply fortunate. Una: Yeah, I can relate to that. I do try to escape every now and again by writing about other things, because…

SR: Me too!

Una: Yeah, you think I just want to write about, I dunno, whatever. And I’ve resisted this project for quite a while because I’ve always thought that because so many people write to me, I don’t know if you get this, but I think that my book is quite approachable and accessible and perhaps in the way that your work is sort of less accessible but perhaps more complex. Erm… but I just get such a lot of letters, they’ve slowed down, but between 2015 and about 2020 hundreds and hundreds of people have contacted me to say the this happened to me. Sometimes I’m the first person that they’ve disclosed to, sometimes they’re trying to write a life story or they’re trying to draw something that’s autobiographical, and they want advice, and sometimes they just want to share and say hello and thank you I’ve just read it, and sometimes it’s because they know someone else and they want to know how, you know, what should I say? What should I do? That kind of thing so and so I’ve always thought what I really need to do, as a, you know for a long time I’ve worked, before I did this, I worked in education and specially in community education, so as a kind of informal educator, I’ve often thought,  yeah what I need to do is build a resource really, so the people have got it for free, you don’t have to pay, you know, it’s just there online, just go and watch or listen or read, and so that’s kind of what I’m building now. And I did worry that it might be heavy, you know? After, especially because it’s been a heavy couple of years hasn’t it? Wow! On top of the pandemic, it’s been really personally really heavy for me, I’ve had illness, I’ve had loss in my life, a lot of it during the pandemic, so it’s kind of, you know, thinking “do I really want to take this on right now?” But actually it has made me feel really light hearted, and so, so glad, and I just want to continue doing it for as long as I can now. And I’m totally losing the thread, because what I wanted to ask you was when you were talking about poetry and you can’t imagine, it’d be like being without teeth or haire, I loved that!

SR: Laughs

Una: What I wanted to ask you is why? Why poetry? Where did that start? Why not another art form?

SR: Great question. I grew up in a household that was very devoted to books. My mother is a… was a English language and literature teacher for her entire professional career. She is happily retired now. And so books were just always around, all kinds of books and the amazing thing about both of my parents actually is that I think they are both the most rebellious and iconoclastic people in their respective families, so you know when they came together to have the three… my brothers and I, we had tremendously leeway in certain parts of our lives about what we read, listened to, looked at. I was reading things probably… according to some people might say I shouldn’t have been reading them when I was that age, but poetry was always very much around and intrinsic to how I saw the world through my mother’s eyes and then my own. Erm,  I also grew up just having a journal of poems in my diary. I went through a serious period of time in my, in my teens when I thought I would be a serious fiction writer and applied to a fiction workshop of great renown here in the Caribbean and I was accepted to write fiction. This was in 2010. I was writing short stories at the time. But there it was a three week course on Trinidad’s North Coast, which is beautiful, near to the ocean, and I met some of the writers who now are just my closest friends and colleagues in this industry, and quite a few of them were working poets, so they were, they were actively working towards their first collections and just being there, near the sea, listening to them share their work, I felt this undeniable call, like in the centre of my chest. It was kind of like a reminder, it was like this is how you actually breathe. Like this is, like fiction is something you respect, honour and I still write a lot of prose, or fiction and non-fiction now, but poetry is the closest thing to the vein that there is. Like if I think of a word as a basic like a mathematical or scientific unit of measurement then a poem as a genre is the most instinctive instrument for me, it’s like if… this is going to be a terrible analogy: if someone told you your house was on fire and you have to run inside and rescue one thing, if a poem was a thing like next to fiction as a thing, like if they’re tools, I pick up this thing that’s called “poem” and run outside with it, without even thinking about it. That’s just, this is how it is…

Una: I really, I like that as an analogy myself because I often, I’ve found I’ve only ever been able to do a few things and they’re all artistic things and… but I have found at different periods in my life that I can’t do them simultaneously, so at times of my life I’ve been a musician, and I’m quite a good musician, well I’ve played in a lot of bands and sang, got a good voice, very musical but I find that I can’t be working as a musician and also draw, yeah? I can write, and I can draw and write at the same time, and for me I have a different problem because yeah I mean a similar kind of terrible analogy is that thing with the balloon which, you know, you’re going up in a hot air balloon, which one do you throw out? And I honestly couldn’t choose. And I’ve managed to find an art form where I can bring drawing which is my soothing activity, that’s the thing, you know when you said “it’s closest to the vein” and it’s like “feeling in your chest”, drawing just, I can draw for hours and hours, don’t het tired. I’d managed to find the thing that brings drawing and writing together but I’ve not managed to incorporate the music yet. So that’s become a hobby again. But that brings me to something important I wanted to ask because I wanted to mention this, the idea of the red thread as being a kind of very visual, for me this is a very visual thing, and it actually became an artist’s book, didn’t it? By an artist called Sonia Farmer, and I’ve linked to it in the notes. Tell me a bit about, what do you think about that? What… what, you know, you were there in the gallery I think showing it to people, so tell me what do you think about seeing your work turned into a visual thing? 

SR: Oh my goodness, I still… it’s been a couple years now since Sonia created the entire collection of seven poems and I still, when I think about it, I feel overwhelmed, with awe. I mean Sonia is also a talented poet and printmaker and visual artist from the Bahamas and I have met her quite a few times before we embarked on this collaboration and when she approached me about making the Red Thread cycle into a series of artist books I was just… flabbergasted that, that she would think my work would be worthy of it, and I knew, based on the kind of writer she was as well as kind of artist she was, that I could completely trust her to interpret the poems into individual books, because she explained that the motif of the red thread would be vital to how she interpreted the work, that it would be not very colourized but the red would be a dominant image, and then she would let the form of each poem guide the form of each handmade book, and I said I completely trust you to do this work because it is, it was to me nothing less than the creation of a new art form out of existing work. I had no oppositions to anything she made she, she kept me very much in the loop through the various stages, and I saw mock-ups of books and I saw fonts that she wanted to use, the forms that she wanted each book to take. And this… I would say culminated but that journey is not done, but in 2019 I was invited to the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas by its then curator Holly Bynoe, to be there for an installation of books in the Red Thread cycle, and to have an artist talk with Sonia. I got to hold the books and I got to see people react to them, and it was… astonishing to literally see your work come to life in a different way than you could have ever, I never envisioned it. It just reinforced the idea to me that I have come a very long way from thinking, you know, as I was a really intense teenager that there was work that I could do but could never show anyone, because these things are not to show people, which is a feeling that has kind of hounded me through a lot of my artistic life even into my very close to not writing Haunting at all. No one wants to see this work, no one wants these strange, unorthodox, queered poems, there is no space for them. But now I think how much space there is, because what is wrong with being strange and weird and unorthodox? There are so many people who are all of those things and they want to talk to you, and to do that through the poems and to do that through Sonia is an extraordinary privilege, truly, truly. Una: And I wonder if you’ve created the space for that because the more work you make, the more space there is. It’s like loving people, like it doesn’t get used up, does it? The more people you love, the bigger your heart gets, you know? So that you can love more people, and you creating the work that you made that… that nobody wants to look at as… there’s clearly an audience for it and so you’ve kind of grown a space for more of that, more of that work. It’s interesting, isn’t it, as well that they have touched a nerve with so many people? As you say, it got a lot more attention than you thought it would get, and I can understand that feeling too because I was really worried about what I was doing with Becoming Unbecoming, I mean obviously there was the fact I was writing about living people in my family, although it’s very light, and tender. There’s much more to say that I didn’t say. It was very careful about that, I was very cautious, but I was also writing about people who were not here to speak, people who have been murdered and I was doing the portraits, drawing the portraits, the 13 portraits for the end of the book and thinking “I’ve no idea whether this… I… the reason I’m doing it is because there’s no memorial to them and I want to make… I want to imagine them as if they’d survived into middle age like me, and I feel like it’s a beautiful thing to do, yeah? But other people might think this is horrifically offensive, I’ve no idea, and yet that’s not… it landed, and people were touched, even the son of one of the women who was murdered has, you know, he said that he thought it was beautiful, the portrait of his… his family actually appears on that particular portrait, so I was worried for nothing and whether I’ve created a bigger space through making that work, I don’t know, I hope so, I really hope so, I’ve definitely created something where… that people feel like they want to reach out to me and say “hey, yeah, that happened to me” “Me too!” and “I’m going to write about that as well” yeah, I mean that’s a massive responsibility for one thing, but also an enormous privilege isn’t it? To be in that position. Anyway, sorry we’re gonna run out of time at some point, but I do I want to get to the end of my sort of standard questions that I’m asking everybody to find out, and I have no idea how you’re going to answer this, about what makes your heart sing? 

SR: That is such a beautiful question, I mean, so a couple of things happened to me during the pandemic, one of them, right about the time when Trinidad and Tobago went into it’s first lockdown which was, oh April or May 2020, yes, so we all had to discover like these incredibly new ways, new ways to work and so I was deluged by… like a lot of people lost work during the pandemic, I feel like the work I had to do doubled. Like for my professional resources, which is great, but I was supremely stressed, so about a year since that initial lockdown, what happened is that I became inexplicably and severely ill, and it was about two and a half months of acute illness without proper diagnosis, which… it did result in a diagnosis and treatment that has been successful, but during that time, because there was so much covid and because Trinidad as part of the so called third world didn’t have the access to vaccines that the US, the UK and Canada did at that time. There was also no way of knowing whether I had covid or not, testing was very expensive, I mean the reality here in the Caribbean was really different to the kind of privileges that first… alleged first world countries were enjoying, with access to tests and vaccines. So I was isolating on my own,  away from my family, I’m very sick and one thing that was truly painful during that time was that I couldn’t read, I was too stressed and anxious to read anything, so when I started getting better a couple of months after and began this long road to recovery I read everything at anything so called serious things but also a huge amount of queer romance books. (laughs) So what makes my heart sing is.. is love in all of it’s ridiculous, sublime, fantastical, intense, over the topness. I know it’s a huge cliché, for people who’ve been through a serious health issue to have a renewed lease on life. I will just have to be part of that cliché, everyone who’s ever said it, because the more romance books I read the more it confirms to me the world can be a beautiful place to live in, not because we’re not full of problems, not because I think everything that happens in a queer romance book is fact, or that everything is easily explained by my romance that conquers all, but no actually it doesn’t conquer all, it doesn’t even do that in books, it just makes the situation where hope is a defining common denominator instead of despair.

Una: Yeah. 

SR And I love that, I love it. I grew up reading a lot of romance that was very heterosexual, because that’s what I had access to at the time but queer romance is so confirming not just to the existence but the audacious joy of so many people who feel themselves marginalised and othered from a world that is hostile to their very survival. In that way it shares the really common interface with survivors of sexual assault, who are also told “the world is not really for you in your current configuration, like you need to fix yourself before you re-join society. You as you are is damaged” like, they have that in common on a parallel and romance writing is a great refutation of every peace of bullshit you’ve been fed about, you need to keep your story quiet, you need to work on yourself and fix all your trauma on your own in silence, and suffer and be stoic and noble, and nobody loves you and you’re a failure. It just kind of throws all of that into the ether and celebrates love and inclusion and full acceptance and that makes me very happy. 

Una: And is that why you’re writing one? Because I’ve been reading on your Substack… you’ve only got two parts to the story, I want to know where the third part of the story is?

SR: (Laughs) That’s right!

Una:  At the top of episode one it says something about how I’m in the middle of writing a book, and is that what the next book is?

SR: No, so the next book is Unkillable which is the memoir, more essay narrative, but I’ve been writing a sapphic romance for a while now, for a few years like it’s definitely a passion project. It’s not like a cute little precious, side thing it’s something I also take very seriously, and something I’m really excited about doing. I er, maybe there was an open call for submissions for a publisher I really respect to publish queer romance and I sent in a sample chapter to them, pre pandemic, and it was, it was wonderful to get validation from them that they wanted to see more of the manuscript, and so it’s definitely work I’m going to continue doing in my most joyous hours. So as much as I have Unkillable to finish and then send it to my publisher – publication in 2023 – yes, I’m going to continue writing sapphic romance unapologetically.

Una: (Laughs) Yeah, you should, I really enjoyed it. I’ve also linked to that in the notes. Yeah, do you know, it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I wish that… I know that you do have some connections to Leeds because you’re with Peepal Tree Press, which is a Leeds based publisher, lots of people that I know actually on the, you know, “about us” kind of page, so that’s just so nice and I just wish we could meet in real life without a five hour time difference. 

SR: it’s definitely going to happen I feel like it’s on the radar. I’ve been, because of  the pandemic, I’ve been away from Leeds for so long and from the UK for so long, but up until the year of pandemic I was coming to the UK kind of once a year anyway. Somehow this year it’s been a long time, I miss Peepal Tree, being with Peepal Tree is extraordinary. What they’ve done for Caribbean writing from so far away, and I can’t wait to be with them again.

Una: Yeah, they’re really excellent publishers. Very well known around here, and doing sterling work so… so, well, thank you, thank you so much for your time, yeah, let’s meet for a coffee at some point, in Leeds, although to be brutally honest I would much rather come to Trinidad. 

SR: (Laughs) We should find a way to find a way to make that happen.

Una: so thank you thank you so much have you got anything to say to the people listening before you go?

SR: Just that I’m incredibly grateful to you for creating this space and I think what you said about making space is true. The more we make, even if were scared to do it,  even if we’re terrified, it does undeniably open up something for, not just ourselves but other people to feel like they are a part of something. And its trauma and assault and all of its attendant emotions are so difficult to hold, I think that if people know that, no, no one has their exact experience but yes, there are people who can deeply understand as much as they can of what you are going through. And they have access to those spaces, I think healing and redemption and survival will feel more tenable than they do for a lot of people and I think that what you’re doing here will truly help make that possible, so thank you for that.

Una: Yeah I really hope so. Thank you, Shivanee Ramlochan, lovely to talk to you