Marcia Garcia’s life is one of struggle. Living on a scant income as a seamstress in Trinidad, 1943, her life becomes further complicated when she falls for Farouk Karam, a policeman of East Indian descent. As family issues and society dig into their already fragile relationship, Garcia flees to America in 1962, but fate and life have a lot more in store for her. From The New York Times to Oprah Magazine, first-time published author Lauren Francis-Sharma has been receiving praise for her novel ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. Here in e-mail Q&A with the Express, the author reveals the genesis of her book, aspects of her life and her connection to Trinidad.
Are you a full-time author?
Writing is my job, but I’m more of a full-time mother than a full-time author. In my life, with two small children, writing time is hard-earned. It can be challenging to take the space you need, but I don’t think this is any different for any mother, no matter her occupation.
How did you get into writing?
Writing got into me, so to speak. I am a lawyer. I practised corporate law for many years both at large law firms and for corporations, but secretly, I wrote novels. Two, in fact, before writing ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. I failed to get those first two published and decided I would never write again. Then, my grandmother, who lived in New York, had a stroke and I realised that I’d lost years of opportunities by not talking to her about her life. So, on my next visit to Trinidad, I travelled up to Blanchisseuse and as I sat on the beach, thinking of her as a young girl growing up there, I knew then that I had to write a story.
What was life like growing up?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, with both parents and one younger sister. I lived in an amazing neighbourhood, with lots of freedom to just ride bikes and play. I had good friends, lots of laughter. I cherish those days so very much. But I also realised very early on that my family was unique when compared to the families in my neighbourhood. My parents are Trinidadian, while all of the other families were American with Southern roots. We ate different foods in my house, the music we listened to was often more varied, there was a whole other culture that informed my life. I feel, at times, that I was living several lives all at once, code-shifting to the nth degree. I think this may have contributed to my very active imagination. It certainly contributed to my desire to understand people, their lives, their choices, and my ability to empathise. But I’m not sure these qualities made me a good corporate lawyer!
What is your connection to Trinidad?
As I mentioned earlier, both of my parents are from Trinidad. The grandmother who inspired this novel grew up in Blanchisseuse and she left Trinidad in the late 60s. My mother was 19 when she arrived in the US. My father was almost 30. He was a policeman in Trinidad, which is largely the reason one of my main characters, Farouk Karam, is a police officer.
How many times have you visited this island and what are your impressions?
I still have cousins, aunts and uncles in Trinidad, so I’ve been there on many occasions. But visiting wasn’t as frequent as my parents would’ve liked, and making phone calls used to be an extremely expensive endeavour. When I was a child, my visits, in my mind, were simply trips to see family.
But when I was 16, on a trip with my mother and my grandmother, I began to really see Trinidad. The beauty and warmth of both the land and its people. A sense of real connectedness that I could never have had growing up in the United States. In my novel, I wanted people to feel this richness. Of course, I wanted readers to identify with Marcia Garcia, her husband, Farouk, their daughter, Jacqueline, but it was also very important that people identified with Trinidad as a character. From the feedback I have received, it seems that I may have accomplished this. And I’m happy for it because while growing up my friends always mistook my family for Jamaican and it’s important to me that people understand the unique culture of Trinidad.
A synopsis of the book. Is it fiction?
Yes, it is fiction but it is loosely based on my grandmother’s story, though to be honest, I didn’t know much about her. Here’s what I knew: She grew up in Blanchisseuse, she had a very unhappy relationship with my grandfather, she took an opportunity to go to the US as a domestic. She left the children behind (within a year she brought up two of her six children), she arrived in Maryland for a very unwelcoming experience, then spent the rest of her working life in New York. Those are the bones of my story. Marcia’s secret, the family dynamics, the political plot-twisting, the love stories are all fiction. But, hopefully, all of these fictional and non-fictional elements make for a real page-turner.
Is this your first book?
My first published book. The other previous stories are in a box in my basement.
What inspired you to write it?
My grandmother’s stroke took us by surprise. She lived alone in Brooklyn, she was fiercely independent, taking care of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and then suddenly she needed help to do everything. Devastating. To begin with, she was very private, not one to share her life story and her innermost thoughts, but as I was watching her on that hospital bed, I convinced myself that if she were well and I were pushy enough, I would’ve learned more about her, more about the challenges she faced both at home and in the US. And suddenly, I wanted a chance to know. I can’t explain enough that sense of loss.
Do you see yourself writing more novels based in Trinidad?
Hmm....I think a little bit of Trinidad will be in all of my books. Because writers write about the things they want to explore. And writing ‘Til the Well Runs Dry opened up a world of questions about Trinidad, both for myself and for my readers. But I’ve also travelled fairly extensively and I have a curious nature, so I suspect that my next book will also touch upon other lands, as well.
Tell me about your grandmother; how close was/is she to you, growing up around her, is she still alive, what you learnt from her...what can you tell me about her life story?
Unfortunately, I didn’t grow up around my grandmother. We went to Brooklyn often and I spent many summers with her, but she was a difficult woman to know. Lots of rules, very rigid, not particularly affectionate. In the novel, Marcia Garcia is very much like this too. But the reader knows that she loves her family, through her actions, through her sacrifices, it’s a very different side of love, perhaps a more old-fashioned kind of love. I can honestly say that I didn’t understand this love until my grandmother got sick. I had always longed for more affection from her. I wanted something she couldn’t give me. Being a mother helped me to understand all of this better. She has since passed, but what I learned from her is how to be content with the life you choose.
Do you have plans of launching the book in Trinidad?
If I’m invited to do so! I would love to do something in Trinidad and I’ve contacted several bookstore owners to see if they have an interest in carrying the book and/or having me read, but I’ve had little luck so far. The book is still relatively new (it was released in late April) so perhaps it will take a bit of time. Americans and especially Trinidad-born readers are very excited about the book. And the press has loved it, from Oprah Magazine, Elle, Ebony, Essence to the New York Times and USA Today. God willing it will continue along this path.
Describe the emotional journey in writing the book. How long did it take?
It was four years from beginning to end. My children were three and five when I started writing it, so at the beginning, most of my writing was in the middle of the night. It was hard and there were many days when I cried because raising children and writing a novel requires the same emotional, mental and physical stamina, yet they all have differing interests, different goals.
So, it can feel like a real tug-of-war. Add on top of that, a dying dog, moving to a new house, a husband travelling the world for work, and it felt like a recipe for landing yourself in an insane asylum. Yet, there were those little moments, those little signs, that some higher power sends every once in awhile, to let you know you’re on the right path. Someone reading pages of your work and having a strong emotional reaction to it, a sister who agrees to watch the children to give you a few hours to write, the idea that comes from nowhere that takes the story to the next level. Divine little gifts help you keep going, in writing and in life.
Did you learn about Trinidad through personal experiences or from what people told you? Did you have expectations/fears about the island and the lifestyle?
My mother told stories. She connected me to her childhood every day of my life. I experienced Trinidad through her eyes, through her heart, through the food she cooked, through music. When you emigrate, part of you never leaves home. Home comes with you. And even though I grew up in the US, even when my cousins in Trinidad would refer to me as “Yankee” and beg to hear my accent, I still felt undeniably a part of that island. And let me tell you, it’s not easy being first generation anywhere.
The expectations, the hopes, the dreams are heavy burdens along with the expectation that you don’t forget your roots, all blanketed by a subtle doubt regarding your authenticity, your faithfulness to the culture. Sometimes it feels as if you cannot win, yet at other times, you realise that it’s yours to make of it what you will because, indeed, you are the first.
What message does the book convey?
The beauty of novels is that it doesn’t matter what the author intends, rather it is what the reader receives. I’ve been told that this book conveys a message about the various shades and degrees of love, motherhood, challenges of migration, familial connection. That it is a story of hope and loss, of home and family. Quite frankly, my goal was that when you closed the book, it would feel like you just had a piece of my grandmother’s roast bake smothered in butter and a cold glass of her sweet sorrel. Nothing would be better than that.
Personal life: family, children, married?
I am married to a Guyanese-American. We have two children. We live in Maryland just outside of Washington, DC, and our collective family, both my side and his, spend a great deal of time together eating, talking and laughing.