No Qualifiers. Just a Writer.
An Interview With Krystal A. Sital
Rajiv Mohabir: Sita-Ram. Krystal, congratulations on your debut memoir Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, being published this year by W.W. Norton! It’s such a win for our community of Caribbean people and for those of us with Indian heritage as well. The book cycles through tendernesses between mothers and daughters, domestic violence that results from the intersections of patriarchy and postcolonial subjectivity, and healing. I couldn’t put it down and saw so much of my own familial stories reflected in the experiences that you write about. Why do you feel as though memoir is the form for these stories? Can you talk about what you had to wager, in terms of truth-telling and family sensitivities, in order to create such a work of staggering power?
Krystal A. Sital: Thank you so much for such exuberance when you talk about this book. It’s bittersweet when I hear people say they found themselves in these pages. While that’s the goal for many writers — to connect with people on such an intimate level — in a book like this one, it’s hard to hear because it’s coming from a place of loss and sacrifice, violence and hate. I feel that ache deeply when someone says those words to me. And for the record, the entire book isn’t all dark. There is beauty and humor throughout. Light is necessary and there in life but these things are oftentimes hard won, like in this book for instance.
When I first started writing this book, I didn’t even know what memoir was. I had every intention of writing as much of it as truthfully as possible and filling in the gaps with fiction. But life has plans for us in the same way we seem to want to plan life and the person who would become my undergrad mentor and thesis advisor is one you would call a memoir aficionado. That’s what her specialty is at NJCU (where I went to school in Jersey City) and it’s under her guidance I learned I didn’t have to write and eventually publish it as fiction.
The more memoir pieces I wrote, the more I began to understand the power of this type of nonfiction writing. It represents timelessness in writing and its importance in history. Memoir is micro history. We, not just as readers, but as researchers, human beings in search of an individual truth, often look to these first-hand accounts to truly understand what it meant to live during a certain time. When I’m trying to make sense of what is happening in our time, in our world, I turn to well written, well researched, first hand accounts. Why then wouldn’t we do that for history? Through memoir we explore and preserve narratives often omitted from history books. There is something about a well-crafted memoir piece, essay, or book that can delve into my soul and live on as a part of me forever. Writing nonfiction is taxing work — on the self, family, mentally, physically, emotionally. I engage with it much differently than I do fiction.So to shorten this answer a bit, I believe I was in such awe of memoir once I discovered its existence, its introspection, that I threw myself into preserving this story in a nonfiction form and it has given me so much.
I was so focused on collecting these stories from my grandmother and mother, while also having ernest conversations with other people throughout the Caribbean and maintaining rigorous fact checking on everything they told me, that I never thought about the fallout. I think I also had that luxury because I had the full support of both my mother and grandmother. They are central to this book and I know having that kind of support and love from the people who will be characters in your memoir is not always the case. I wrote their truths as well as my own without thinking of or about anyone else. I worked very hard to create a space where they would never question what they wanted to say to me but instead said everything as it came to them. When it comes to women like my mother and grandmother, few people have thought about them, few people have thought to ask their history, to record their lives, women’s lives, and so I wrote this book as our truths, the ones often erased from history.
RM: Thank you for reminding me that there is great joy, also in these pages! It’s so easy to get lost in the dark when considering domestic violence and migration, that there is personal joy that keeps us going as readers--and moreover as people. I love the idea of “micro history” and how we connect through various ways of truth telling. You seem to accomplish this with your story frames, which sometimes involve a backdrop some kind of cooking, as though food preparation is a Caribbean space of not only passing on food culture but also the substance and nourishment of “story.” I was wondering what for you is the connection between “story,” personal history, and food?
KAS: This question was a bit difficult for me because the three, though different, have converged. While story, personal history, and food didn’t and couldn’t connect initially because there was so much to process and tame, it was necessary for them to come together in the end. And not just come together but become fused. And now that it has, separating it again has been an intriguing thought process.
My grandfather’s accident is the impetus for this book. The story’s roots take hold there and blossom once I begin my journey with my mother and grandmother through their personal histories. The first story as you see early on in the book, comes hard and fast over a meal borne of necessity. My mom had to cook that meal for her sanity at that point in her life. I know it’s a common thread in immigrant stories but my mother’s natural environment is the kitchen. She loves to cook. The act of it brings her serenity and pleasure. Even what comes after — feeding her family, nourishing us, sustaining us — is pure ecstasy for her. Often, after concocting a meal that has taken her a very long time, she will sit down and watch us eat, not because she’s too tired to partake (though I’m sure that’s a part of it too!) but because she loves the transformation a good, solid meal can make in her family.
My mother’s relationship to food and cooking becomes my relationship to food and cooking. It’s something I watched, learned, and inherited because I wanted it, yearned for it. And so we are linked this way. Just as I learned to cook from her, she learned from her mother and her mother from her mother’s mother. Food and the art of cooking and caring for one’s family this way has historically been passed on through the matriarchal line. It is a fact of our collective histories: men don’t cook; they’re served. A woman’s place is in the kitchen. If they like it then that’s wonderful but I don’t agree with this thought that is pervasive through many cultures and that is another part of the story that I’m highlighting, a cycle I aim to break.
For now, I feel how I am linked to these women through cooking especially the common foods and meals that have survived generations. Food is communal, especially Indian food. We don’t just eat together, we cook together so the sacrosanct of the kitchen is a woman’s world. In telling stories where the men absent themselves, we claim that space as our own and the stories we pass on along the female line become an act of rebellion, an act of survival.
Then there is the physical act of eating; it is intimate and beautiful. We use our hands to break rotis apart, our fingers brushing one another. We feel the foods we’ve consummated, all five senses engaged. The meal is everything it needs to be as well as a celebration. And this is not me romanticizing this aspect of my life. The simplest meals are treated this way in my family. When we eat with one another, this is how we immerse ourselves from beginning to end. It is how I cook for and feed my own family now.
These three things are inextricably fused together. Did I feel comfortable enough to ask the questions that needed to be asked in the kitchen because that was our shared world? Was it pure intuition that led me to that moment to ask her? Food and cooking are my mother’s comfort and it is there she feels most relaxed, able to share these stories and I will later continue to collect these stories from my grandmother also around food. Food is universal but our connections to it and the act of cooking differ so I believe something drew me to that moment and from there I continued to foster a space for the three of us resulting in a major structural foundation for the book.
RM: The idea of comfort in the food--eating and cooking being a place where folks are relaxed enough to tell the truth reminds me of the phrase “kitchen Hindi” to talk about the language that we have for food items that reveal a special and deliberate kind of intimacy with culture and tradition. Turning to your Grandfather’s accident and the inciting incident for the revelation of history that is this memoir, you begin with the grandmother’s dilemma in hospital: to sign the paperwork that will save the grandfather’s life or not. I really love the way that the complicated relationships are all exemplified in this scene, how your book brings to life the conflict inside Rebecca. A remarkable thing that I admire and love is your use of intimate language that is Trinidadian and familial. You write,
“Yuh wahn im dead, eh? One of them [Rebecca’s children] accused her. Sign de damn papahwerk. Yuh see everybody waitin on yuh? Yuh is de onliest one eh realize we hah toh save e life awah?” (Sital 8)
I was wondering about if you could speak on your choices around writing in Trinidadian Creole English and what do you make of Indo-Caribbean legibility in the United States?
KAS: As I wrote this book, my goals and ambitions for what I wanted to do with this narrative grew. It never shifted, just became bigger as I came to fully understand the project I’d taken on. One of my main goals in writing Secrets We Kept was to officially record the stories of a part of the Caribbean that I felt was missing. History is often written by men about men and so much of a woman’s narrative in history is lost. This is especially true in the Caribbean. There is great beauty in how these oral stories are often passed from mothers to daughters. It is a sacred act, a bonding that happens among women but I knew I wanted to break this cycle of stories being whispered from one generation to the next. I wanted these voices to be heard, in the language and with the inflection they were originally told. It was the only way for women like my mother and grandmother to take their rightful place in history. I wanted to give these women their voices back and to achieve this meant using their words and their voices within my written text. I used my mother’s words from the very beginning. I first used them without knowing why. With no self-awareness as a writer, I did it simply because it felt right. As I wrote and studied more, and developed focus and direction within my work, I understood why I chose to do it this way even though I’ve never seen it in nonfiction before. I wanted to be true to the women and to do that meant recording their words, their voices and in turn using that as a device to propel the story.
Language and how it is portrayed in multicultural literature fascinates me. The possibilities are endless. One of the books that came to be at the right time in my life was White Teeth by Zadie Smith. If you’re familiar with it, you know one of the cornerstones of this book is the way in which she chooses to use language. And Caribbean Creole (forgive the umbrella term for just a moment) in itself isn’t something pure. It’s a mixing and blending of languages and accents, and those languages depend on which island you’re from as well as which country colonized it and for how long. What Zadie Smith chooses to do with the cast of characters who come together in this book — a further mixing of Creoles because of a confined space and a pocket of community that has formed — is so well done and truly reflects what happens when people of the Caribbean move abroad and form pockets of communities of their own where the islands come together instead of being separate. But that only seems to happen once we experience a feeling of isolation.
As for the Indo-Caribbean legibility in the US, I don’t think that yet exists. I can’t help but measure that up to the Afro-Caribbean experience in literature. And I mention it because when it came to finding myself represented in literature, I found writers like Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Díaz. I didn’t only find them, I turned to them over and over again. And in more recent years, I’ve turned to writers like Roxane Gay and Marlon James. I found them just as others found them — because there are established communities in place to welcome and support them — African, Caribbean, American, Afro-Caribbean. And this isn’t to say they have it easy, it’s only to say they have legitimacy and can easily be found. As Indo-Caribbean writers, we are struggling to find spaces and places in which we belong. Having that foothold is important, seems to be integral.
I also feel unmoored when it comes to identifying with that one facet of myself as a writer. For one, being Indo-Caribbean means belonging to both India and the Caribbean and both of those factors are problematic for me. And that doesn’t even reflect the American part of who I am now. Our identities are quite complex, sometimes amorphous, as well as specific making it difficult for us as well as others to understand the identities, histories, and experiences at stake. Indians from India do not consider me Indian; we are referred to as Indian-lite or a watered down Indian. That kind of rejection from a culture that has helped to shape who we’ve become is heartbreaking, but it is a part of my/our reality. And being Caribbean is vast and unfair. To group together the Dominican narrative with that of the Indian, Chinese, Syrian, Portuguese, African, Haitian etc. under this one term — Caribbean literature — is to tie us all up neatly in a bow.
And yet, to further break us down and separate us into boxes is dangerous for we’re drawing lines to further separate ourselves, this cordoning off both territorial and guarded. This we should never do.
I strive for writer. Not woman writer, not Caribbean writer, not Asian writer. No qualifiers. Just a writer.
about the authors