When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo | Trinidad and Tobago

This is a story about death; the rituals, respect, and reverence that every person who dies, deserves. But it’s also a story about love; two young people who are standing on parallel sides of death who are destined to meet and be each other’s anchor. And it’s also about family and legacy; that despite the depth of the family line, it’s important to honor those who hold the history of your ancestors.

Yejide St Bernard comes from a line of women who are keepers of the dead. But she has no idea what that means and what is expected and required of her when it’s her turn to take over. Emmanuel Darwin is a grave digger and a newbie to the city, who’s been taught to avoid the dead at all costs, yet he unknowingly gets himself involved in something sinister in, of all places: a cemetery!

Banwo had me at word corbeau. It’s a black bird that eats carrion that I’ve always associated with death since I was a child. She explores the rituals of death that are familiar to me: lightning candles on All Souls Day, going to the cemetery to clean my great-grandmother’s grave and light candles, and just honoring the memories of those who had died even before I was born. So for me, a lot of the narrative feels authentic, and I love reading about aspects of Trinidad and Tobago culture that makes me feel seen and represented.

Banwo also incorporates this mythical element into the narrative that I feel worked really well. Using colors, the weather, village culture that is prevalent on almost any small island, all backdropped against this unique Trinidad culture. Everything has its rhythm: the people’s daily lives, the workings of burying the dead at the local cemetery, even the corruption! Trinidad can’t be Trinidad without bobball!

The premise of this book is imaginative, clever, and culturally aware. There’s a focus on matriarchy without sacrificing the necessity of the lovers in their lives. These women are powerful—because they accept their role in the continuation of the responsibility and the legacy—yet flawed, and they lean on their lovers to keep them grounded and whole, because being who they are is physically and emotionally draining. I loved reading the descriptions of places and thinking, “Ok this sounds like she’s describing Petit Valley.” How often does a reader get a chance to see their Caribbean world reflected in books? I loved this homage to Trinidad and Tobago culture.

“I grow you with a clean heart. You think it have any silver and gold in this world that could make up for your soul Emmanuel?”

-Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

First published: 2022
Instagram: @ayalloydbanwo

Twitter: @AyaRoots
Website: www.ayannalloydbanwo.com

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I am stunned by how beautiful this cover is and the premise already has me itching to read. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cellyhikes says:

    I love it. Thanks for introducing me to this book..I am a Trinbagonian and I enjoy reading books where as you say, you think to yourself “Is this Petit Valley?” I will surely check this out. Great review 🙂


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