In Conversation with Lauren Francis-Sharma

In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic during quarantine, I discovered Lauren Francis-Sharma’s second novel, Book of the Little Axe. The first time I heard her speak about this book was in an interview she did with Bernice McFadden, where she talked about her background as a lawyer and the pull that kept her writing even after years of setbacks.

 It was also the beginning of my discovery of many Trinidadian authors who published debut novels that year, so I was in my glee! But Francis-Sharma’s book, a historical novel set in Trinidad and the American West in the 1700s, was such an unlikely connection—coupled with learning about Trinidad during the time of Spanish colonization—that it was a story I had to read.

A former corporate lawyer, Francis-Sharma is of Trinidad and Tobago heritage and currently lives in Maryland. Her first novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, was published in 2014. She’s also the Assistant Director of Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College and she holds a degree in English Literature with a minor in African American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She obtained her J.D. degree from the University of Michigan Law School.

I’m a big admirer of Ms. Francis-Sharma’s writing and I appreciate her giving her time to share her thoughts in this interview series. Below is our conversation.     


Tricia: Both of your books, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry and Book of the Little Axe, have strong immigration themes. As a person with immigrant parents, what stories did they share with you about their lives that influenced your writing on this topic?

Lauren: My parents often spoke of their lives back home. I wasn’t certain I’d been listening until I sat down to write ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. The story about my grandmother’s journey to America is what led me to write that first novel. It was maybe the third draft when I realized how vibrant the mid twentieth century Trinidad seemed to be on the page. That could only have emerged from incredible storytelling by my mother and father. But, of course, this is the writer’s job—to listen then to create something more cohesive and perhaps even more grand on the page, while maintaining the essence of the emotion.

There’s a scene that takes place in Maryland that is a loose depiction of my grandmother’s experience when she first came to America. I don’t think I knew this when I wrote it, but after it was written my mother mentioned that I’d gotten much of it correct. Had I? I’d only ever heard that the people my grandmother worked for when she first arrived, hid her papers, treated her poorly, and tried to keep her from leaving. I created the farm, the barn, and the sewing work for the book, and yet I think it felt close to reality for my mother because I hit on the emotional core of that part of my grandmother’s immigration story. The idea that my grandmother took the risk of leaving her home country by herself, leaving her children behind, only to find herself employed by horrible people, was what stayed with me and stays with my readers.  

Tricia: Trinidad prior to British colonization is a period I’m not familiar with and I was excited to read about in Book of the Little Axe. What made you decide to focus on the historical period of Spanish colonization? 

Lauren: During the book tour for ’Til the Well Runs Dry, many readers expressed interest in the cultural landscape of Trinidad. I spent hours explaining the little history I knew—the indigenous peoples fighting off the Spaniards for hundreds of years, the Spanish eventually overpowering their forces, the introduction of the African enslaved, the English overthrowing the Spaniards, the introduction of indentured workers from China and India. I must have uttered these few phrases a hundred times before I began to dig around for more answers.

Soon, I had an idea about a free Black family living during Spanish rule in the late 1700s, threatened by the English invasion. What would that mean for those people? These people have never been written about in the history books. I am forever interested in the stories of people of color who are not particularly extraordinary but who are thrown into difficult and life-defining situations. We don’t have enough historical novels about regular people of color, particularly not Black people of this particular time and place. Book of the Little Axe is a story I really wanted to read and Rosa is a heroine I really wanted to experience.      

Tricia: You fashioned Rosa’s husband after a man named Edward Rose. Can you tell me why he intrigued you enough to include his likeness in your novel?

Lauren: The real Edward Rose seems to have been largely forgotten. He was a guide for explorers, a Black Chief of the Crow Tribe, and by all accounts incredibly heroic. When I was writing this book, The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio launched. I went to the theater and watched this whole movie and I don’t think there was one major Black character in it. Why? There were Black people in the American West during that time. In fact, one historian suggests that Edward Rose died alongside Hugh Glass, the main character in The Revenant, but there have been no movies made about Edward Rose whose story is fascinating, probably more fascinating than Hugh Glass’s story even without the bear mauling!

So to answer your question, bringing Rosa and Edward together seemed like a wonderful opportunity to awaken our interests in a Black frontiersman, but also highlighting the ways people of color made communities and homes with indigenous peoples. Of course, these relationships varied depending on the players, but Edward did it. And who better to teach Rosa how to build a new life out West but a Black man who has done it.

Frankly, it is my role as a writer of historical novels to bring new interest to people of the past who look like me, people who are either overlooked or deliberately left out of the historical conversation. I hope this is what brings depth and richness to my stories. However, it also makes my job harder because real people come with facts and timelines that cannot and should not be ignored. It’s a beautiful and challenging process. But well worth it! 

Tricia: Rosa’s family are free people of color, but with the threat of British Invasion, her father is in jeopardy of losing his blacksmith business and his land. During your research, did you find this dilemma prevalent among free people of color?  

Lauren: I found this was prevalent on other islands that were under British rule. And by researching the changes from Spanish law to English laws in Trinidad, one could easily see that the intention was to make independent farmers and merchants more reliant on British merchant trade routes and British machinations. Fair trade was an illusion, and most especially for people of color.  The Spanish laws were not always better, but British enforcement made the lives of Black people harder. They were more organized in their approach to taxing, labor, property seizures. A good place for people to start would be with Dr. Eric Williams’ books, including ‘From Columbus to Castro’ and ‘History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago’, as well as ‘Documents of West Indian History’. They’re all a bit dense or rather they read like textbooks but they really help ground you for further research.

Tricia: Let’s switch to your first novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. Each section is titled after a calypso, how did this idea come about? 

Lauren: I was very clear that I did not want to write a book about Carnival. I was not interested in catering to the tastes of “reader tourists” by romanticizing or commodifying the islands. But as I was writing, I also had to admit that Carnival is much more than a big party. It’s deeply meaningful for Trinidadians, for the children of the formerly enslaved who used it as a means of resistance. And what I learned during my research is that Trinidadians remember years by the songs that won during Carnival. So, naming the sections after calypsos was just a small nod to this very important aspect of Trinidadian life. Thank you for noticing!  

Tricia: When I started discovering books written in Trini dialect my excitement went through the roof! Why did you decide to use Trini dialect in this book? 

Lauren: Aah, it’s such a hard decision for every writer as to how much or how little dialect to include. I’ve seen some writers with far more dialect than in ‘Til the Well Runs Dry pull it off beautifully, while I’ve also seen dialect in stories that feel flat and ineffective. I straddled the middle. And part of this was growing up with my parents who didn’t believe the way they spoke was much different from their American co-workers. And because ‘Til the Well Runs Dry is written in first person, I wanted it to be written the way each of the three narrators would hear themselves. I think I accomplished this, but I spent a lot of time choosing which words to emphasize in dialect and which Trini expressions to include.  

Tricia: It took you a very long time, over 15 years, to get your first book published. What have you learned from that experience? 

Lauren: I can’t tell people not to give up because I did! I stopped writing for ten of those fifteen years and only tried again when I had a story that insisted it needed to be written. And even then, I was arguing with the universe, telling God that this writing thing wasn’t for me because I’d already failed! If I had to say anything about what I learned, it would be not to do the same thing you’ve been doing and expect a different result. If you’re sending query letters, go to a conference instead. If you’re writing romance, try a mystery instead. If, like me, you’re sitting in a dark room, hiding your precious work, open yourself up to a class or to receiving constructive feedback from other writers. Shake it up, if you’re going to keep trying. But the truth is that writing isn’t for everyone. And that’s not to say that everyone can’t write but doing this for a living is grueling and no one but those who are called to do it, should do it. Let me add, however, that there are ways to write that don’t involve writing novels that suck up years of your life. There are essay writers, travel writers, flash fiction writers, and of course, there are readers. We need more of those!

Tricia: In looking at the body of work being produced by Caribbean authors and those in the diaspora, how do you see your work contributing to Caribbean literature?How do you hope to contribute to the continuation of Caribbean literature?

Lauren: I’m not sure that’s for me to say. I think when I sold ‘Til the Well Runs Dry in 2012, I was at the beginning of a new wave of Caribbean writers that we see still going strong today. There had been a large gap, where we were reading the same ten or twenty Caribbean writers for twenty-five years, and suddenly, there were so many of us just waiting to be allowed in. We were building on the works of Kincaid, Marshall, Nunez, Maryse Conde, etc. Part of this was the broadening of the literary diaspora to include both more non-English speaking island writers and those writers, like me, who were not born in the Caribbean but who were heavily influenced by their parents and grandparents. This broadening has created such an interesting stew of experiences and stories. And it’s been remarkable to watch.

What I want more than anything is for us to do a better job of reading our own work, promoting our peers and our mentors, and understanding the lineage of our storytelling. Watch how Nigerian writers build upon their predecessors. I’m not embarrassed to say that Book of the Little Axe was written against a whole canon of westerns that do not welcome stories like mine. The book upended the notion that Black people weren’t sometimes free and landowning in the Caribbean and also that they weren’t in the western United States at all. It attempted to show the connection between the terror taking place in the Caribbean and what was to come in the Americas. I was writing a Black heroine into a landscape that made no room for her, and I was also insisting that in stories about Black people and indigenous people, community must be central. Not individualism. I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but the novel was written to do certain work.

In the end, I can only hope that people will remember ‘Til the Well Runs Dry as opening possibilities for other stories like it and Book of the Little Axe as adding to the attempts to broaden our understanding of what home means for West Indians and more broadly, for humanity. We are writing the world.   

Tricia: I appreciate your time Ms. Francis-Sharma, thanks again! I’m looking forward to your next novel.

Lauren: Thank you so much!!!

Read my reviews of Book of the Little Axe and ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. You can follow Lauren Francis-Sharma on Instagram, Twitter, and visit her website at www.laurenfrancissharma.com.

Photo courtesy Lauren Francis-Sharma.





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