The MacArthur Foundation named 67-year-old Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott a 2016 Fellow -– an honor that comes with a $625,000 "genius grant" and international recognition.
Lauren Francis-Sharma, an American born to Trinidadian parents, knew very little of her grandmother’s life growing up on the Caribbean island or the reasons why she would one day leave everything to come to the U.S. In her first novel, “’Til the Well Runs Dry,” she imagines the people, places and events that might have shaped her grandmother’s story, beginning in a rural town in Trinidad and ending in 1960s New York. Francis-Sharma joins Kojo to discuss how she traced her family’s multicultural history through fiction.
- Lauren Francis-Sharma Author, "'Til the Well Runs Dry"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “‘Til the Well Runs Dry: A Novel” by Lauren Francis-Sharma. © 2014, Henry Holt and Co. All Rights Reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILauren Francis-Sharma, the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, did not know much about what her grandmother's life was like before arriving in the U.S. So in her debut novel, she imagines the details about her family's immigration story that she never learned. She takes us to a seaside town in the north of Trinidad where a young girl, just 16, makes ends meet as a seamstress while caring for twin boys, before a chance encounter with a young policeman changes her life dramatically.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn a tale that involves love, grief and African folk magic, Francis-Sharma explores the bonds that bring a Trinidadian family together and their roots on the Caribbean island. She joins me now to talk about her new book -- it's titled, "Til the Well Runs Dry" -- and discusses how she traced her family's history through fiction. Lauren Francis-Sharma, thank you very much for joining us.
MS. LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMAThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou were what we're used to in Washington D.C., a Washington lawyer. What made you change?
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, children, of course. I had my second child and it was just a hassle. I'm married to another Washington lawyer. And the push and pull of family life had me decide to stay home for a little while. And during that process, this book came along.
NNAMDIWhen you set out to write this story, centering around a Trinidadian woman, who would be called here, Maria Garcia. But in Trinidad, it's Marcia Garcia.
NNAMDIWhat did you already know about your grandmother's life on the island? And to what extent did you try to fill in the blanks with your new novel?
FRANCIS-SHARMAYeah, you know, I knew that she'd grown up in this little village in the north of Trinidad, Blanchisseuse, and I'd been there before. And it was, you know, it's just a really lovely, beautiful place. And it's very untouched. And I knew that she left Trinidad because of a troubled marriage. I knew that she had an opportunity to come here to the U.S. as a domestic. And she had to leave her children behind for a couple of years in order to settle herself in this country. And, Kojo, that's it.
NNAMDIYou grew up in Baltimore to Trinidadian parents, all of your Trinidadian relatives. Why, of all of them, was it your grandmother's story that inspired you?
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, in my family, my grandmother is a hero. So, I mean, being this young girl, this young woman growing up in this very small village in Trinidad and then one day just deciding to make a decision to move to America, not knowing anyone here, not having any real connections in this country, and then she just picks up and she leaves. And my mother always says to me, you know, if it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have this life that we have. And you wouldn't have this life that you have. And I do live a very privileged, blessed life. And much of it is because of that one decision that she made.
NNAMDII'm going to ask you to read in a second. But allow me to ask our callers, if they'd like to join the conversation, to call 800-433-8850. Are you familiar with Trinidadian culture? What do you think makes it unique from other cultures in the Caribbean? Were your parents or grandparents immigrants? How much do you know about the lives that they led in their home country? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You mention that Marcia lives in a rural seaside town called Blanchisseuse, when a young policeman named Farouk takes an interest in Marcia.
NNAMDIHe visits her home. Can you read the passage describing his arrival in Blanchisseuse on page, I guess, 10.
FRANCIS-SHARMASure. "I had only been twice before, but what I most remembered about Blanchisseuse was the quiet. At the end of the main road, where the Spring Bridge arched over the Marion River (sp?) had to be the quietest place on earth. I could sit on that bridge six hours a day and not hear one other human sound except my own breath rattling over the trickling water and my own feet tapping in rhythm to the rustling of a million trees. And when that river detoured into some thick woodlands I'd probably never see, my imagination had no choice but to roam wild and free with it.
FRANCIS-SHARMAIn Blanchisseuse people could live simple lives. While mothers scrubbed tattered clothes and gossiped alongside friends, children played on steep, rugged cliffs, dove into frigid, fresh water and laughed by the riverside, half naked, for long afternoons. Me showing up there, asking the neighbors questions and trying to learn that gal's routine naturally upset some things. People in Blanchisseuse didn't want to be bothered by outsiders. But there was something else. I had been a policeman for years and there was something about the way those neighbors were holding back words that didn't set well."
NNAMDILauren Francis-Sharma reading from her debut novel. It's titled "Til the Well Runs Dry." You visited Blanchisseuse. How did that experience influence your portrayal of the town in the story?
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, I do have family still left in Blanchisseuse. But this one particular visit, right after my grandmother had a stroke in Brooklyn, I was there and we were the only people on the beach that day. And I sat down in the sand and I just thought about who she was, as this young girl, and what her life was like on this island in this little place. And I just realized then that I had to write this story. And the good thing is that not much has changed about Blanchisseuse, I think, over the years. I mean, it's very, very much like I think it was back in the 1940s.
FRANCIS-SHARMAI mean, of course there's some really nice houses now, of course. But, yeah, you know, it just feels very much like the kind of place my grandmother talked about. And it's just lovely. And I tried to really, really bring that to life in the story.
NNAMDIIt has a lot of meaning in this story, because while Marcia refers to her hometown lovingly, other people that she runs in to look down on this rural area. Why did you decide to give places like Blanchisseuse a prominent role in this story?
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, I think my whole goal in writing this story was to -- it was to bring to light the everyday person. She's not very well educated. Actually no one in this story is. And they're just ordinary people really looking to make just a good life for themselves. And Blanchisseuse is just one of those places. It's one of those places where people just want to live a very quiet life and do well for themselves and have a good place for their kids to lay their heads down at night. And that was my goal in writing this story.
NNAMDIWhen I saw the title of this book, "Til the Well Runs Dry," others may not realize the source of it, but as soon as I saw the title of it, I remembered one line from a Calypso in which the mighty spouse says, you never miss the water till the well run dry.
NNAMDIYou never miss the water...
FRANCIS-SHARMAMy mother says that all the time, especially when she's upset with me. Yes.
NNAMDIYes. That's a Trini thing. Your story chronicles the lifelong connection between Marcia, Farouk and the children they have together. While their relationship does involve some romance, I don't think you would call this a love story. It seems a little more complicated than that. How would you describe your characters' views on love?
FRANCIS-SHARMAYou know, I think that Marcia and Farouk really -- I think they do love each other, but I think that love isn't particularly convenient for either one of them. In Farouk's case, it comes with a lot of family concerns, particularly who he's chosen to love. And in Marcia's case, you know, I think she has things that she needs to get done, and that is raising her children and living her life to the best that she can. And love in this case, for her, I think gets in the way. And particularly when Farouk throws a little wrench into their story.
NNAMDIYou know, when people hear names like Marcia and Farouk, immediately thoughts come to mind about -- I wonder what these people's ethnicity is? Anyone who is not familiar with Trinidad may be surprised by all of the different ethnicities, religions and social classes that fit into stories on the islands. You meet East Indians, blacks, Hindus, Muslims, poor factory workers, high-class politicians. To what extent does the diversity in your story match the reality of Trinidad?
FRANCIS-SHARMAOh, very much, I think. Trinidad was colonized by the British, colonized by the Spanish, colonized by the French. There were African slaves, there were indentured Indians, there were Chinese migrant workers. So I think it really is a melting pot. And I really wanted to show the diversity of this wonderful island in this book. And the names obviously do that, yeah.
NNAMDIYeah, names clearly do. I remember being at the airport in Trinidad and complaining about how long I was standing in line. I was complaining to an African clerk, who brought his Indian supervisor, who when he couldn't handle the problem, his Chinese supervisor came to handle the problem.
NNAMDIAnd it's like, it's normal. It's what you see there every day. But a lot of the people in your story, the women in particular, are caring for another person, whether it's a child or someone who has fallen ill. What do you think leads them to accept the role of caregiver?
FRANCIS-SHARMAOh, that's such a good question. You know, well, I mean, women naturally, I think, are caregivers. But I think, you know, this goes back to a world where people really did take care of other people's children. My parents talk about auntie this and auntie that as if they were real aunts. And you know, they weren't. They were women who lived in the neighborhood who watched out for other people's children, who took care of people when they grew ill and when they grew sick. My own grandfather was taken care of by someone who was not related to him.
FRANCIS-SHARMAAnd this happens often, I think, in many other countries. And I wanted to highlight that.
NNAMDIYeah, as a matter of fact, when my own twins were very young and my wife and I were having difficulty taking care of them and working jobs at the same time, we sent them back to Trinidad for a little while. And there was always somebody there to take care of them. They stayed for about nine months to a year. When they came back, nobody here could understand a word they were saying because they were speaking in a completely different accent.
NNAMDIThere's a clear social hierarchy on the island. At one point, a woman refers to Marcia as cockroach because she comes from "the bush." How do you imagine this social structure has played into your own grandmother's story and her reasons for leaving Trinidad?
FRANCIS-SHARMAYeah, I think that when -- in certain places, like Trinidad, I think class really does make a difference, and particularly at this time. And I think there were a lot of people back in the 1960s who felt like the opportunities weren't there for them to rise above their birth circumstance and that really pushed them to leave, many of them. And obviously some go back, but in my grandmother's case, I think, she was not well educated and she had this opportunity to come as a domestic. And she took it.
FRANCIS-SHARMAAnd she knew -- she must have known that she was going to open the doors for her children, for her daughters for her sons, to be able to come here and make something different of their life, even though they weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths.
NNAMDIYou're characters deal with some fairly horrid experiences in their lives, from rape to murder. Why did you decide to make such, well, troubling events part of the stories that unfold, in what people think of as a tropical paradise?
FRANCIS-SHARMAReal life happens in Trinidad, too. Yeah. My father actually is a former policeman in Trinidad. And so when I was researching this book, I talked to him a lot about crime and about the kinds of things that happened in the 1960s in Trinidad. And, you know, and things like this did happen. And I also -- I think there's a little bit to be said about the change in the country during this time and the beginning of some unrest with Trinidad, politically and also just the social issues that were coming to a head.
FRANCIS-SHARMAAnd I think that I wanted to highlight that in the story. I didn't want to ignore the fact that there are many people who feel like Trinidad isn't the way that it used to be when they were growing up. And there is a sense of loss of something that was beautiful and wonderful about it. And I couldn't ignore that.
NNAMDIYour father was a policeman, Farouk is a policeman.
NNAMDITo what extent do we see some of your father in this fictional character, Farouk?
FRANCIS-SHARMAYeah. Well, I think Farouk might actually look more like my husband and have experiences more like my father. So, you know, when you're filling in the void, as I had to for this story, I really pulled from lots of places. I, you know, my father gave me great stories to tell, gave me a lot of details about the police department in Trinidad. My father-in-law is actually -- was a teacher in Guyana, where you're from.
FRANCIS-SHARMAAnd he married his -- one of his student's sister, who is my mother-in-law. So that is very reminiscent of Jacqueline, and...
NNAMDILauren is in a family that's all mixed up with Guyana and Trinidad and Indian and African and other races. In a lot of ways, your family is typical of what the Caribbean produces.
NNAMDICarnival is the biggest cultural event in Trinidad. It's also what the island tends to be best known for around the world. Yet, it's not mentioned a whole lot in your story. Why is that?
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, you know, Trinidad...
NNAMDIAnd I think it's a good thing.
FRANCIS-SHARMAWell, great. Thanks. I did too. I wanted to -- I didn't want to ignore it. But Trinidad is so much more than just Carnival. It is -- there are real people there, that live there every day, that their lives continue after people show up to dance and party and I wanted to bring attention to that. And I wanted to bring attention to the beauty of the island, the physical beauty and the cultural diversity, without mentioning -- without mentioning Carnival too much, although Carnival's great fun of course.
NNAMDIIt's a Carnival country, but it's much more than a Carnival country. And you captured that in your book. How would you describe your relationship to Trinidad? What is your view of the island after growing up in the U.S., but to a family who came from Trinidad?
NNAMDIYou know, I think growing up I felt very distant from it. I think that maybe that's common, maybe it's not. But I certainly felt very American growing up. And when my grandmother got sick, I realized that there was such a huge gap for me that I wanted to fill. And, you know, very often, when I would travel with my parents, I would say, how could you leave this place? It's so beautiful here. And they would say, well, you know, the opportunities were better elsewhere at the time and try to explain that to me.
FRANCIS-SHARMABut, so I think in some respects, I had a very romanticized version of Trinidad in my head. And I think that shows obviously in the pages. But clearly I wrote it a little bit from a distance. And I hope that what that does is give a fair view and an outsider's view of this wonderful island that my family comes from.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, even though we only have a minute left, because Elsa in Purcellville, Va., is going to say something very quickly, aren't you Elsa?
ELSAYes, I am. My son just married a woman at Trinidad Inn, in Tobago in January. We were very excited. We went down there. It was great. But the bonus is we're getting two new grandchildren, twins. And they're coming here to go to school. And I just wonder what kind of cultural shock they're going to be dealing with.
NNAMDINot as much pelau as they would normally get -- that's a normal Trinidadian dish. I'm afraid there's not going to be the kind of cultural shock that there was then Lauren Francis-Sharma's grandparents came here, because we live in a much more globalized world these days. Lauren Francis-Sharma is a D.C.-based author. Her book is titled, "Til the Well Runs Dry." Thank you so much for joining us.
FRANCIS-SHARMAOh, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," a new company challenges broadcast networks with a dime-sized antenna. Tech Tuesday explores a Supreme Court case that could change how we get and pay for television. Then at 1:00, social media, democracy and dissent -- more revelations about U.S. programs aimed at helping dissidents abroad. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Noon till 2:00 tomorrow, on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.
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