Krystal A. Sital is the author of Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, which garnered positive reviews from The Christian Science Monitor, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal, and was a finalist for the PEN/Fusion Award. The memoir also landed on several 2018 hotlists, including those published by Vanity Fair, PopSugar, Literary Hub, and Electric Lit. Her work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Brain, Child, Salon, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere. Sital has served as editor at various journals and taught at New Jersey City University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College at Lake Tahoe in the low-residency MFA program. Literary Mama's Senior Editor and Profiles Editor Christina Consolino interviewed Sital about her memoir.
Christina Consolino: Andre Dubus III wrote of your book, "It is a love song to the author's Trinidadian mother and grandmother, yes, but it is also a hymn of justice to the ignored and forgotten wounds of enduring and resilient women throughout the ages." What, exactly, prompted you to tell this story?
Krystal Sital: What Andre writes of my book is so beautiful and moving that every time I read it, I tear up. His words serve as a reminder of some of the most important reasons why I wrote this as a memoir.
I always knew I wanted to write a book. I didn't know that book would be nonfiction because all I'd ever written prior to that was fiction. But many of my stories were taken from real life—stories I'd inherited, heard, lived.
These stories of the women in my family have always been there. I'd heard the whispers when I was younger but never really paid attention to what was being told. As I grew into an adult and started to understand myself more, I became very interested in my mother and grandmother, started to wonder about where they came from, what their lives were like before me. My mother has always been free with her storytelling and can tell the same story over and over again, and each time it's as though it's the first time she's telling it. It's an incredible talent and that's what also makes her an extraordinary storyteller. The material never bored her despite its repetition.
My book really started when I took a memoir class in college. I didn't know that memoir was a genre and thought if I wrote this story into a book, I'd have to fictionalize it, slap "novel" on its cover. It was in this memoir space I discovered I could write the truth and let people know it was true. I could preserve the oral form as I wanted to.
Still, in that first class I was scared to write about the abuse my grandmother and mother suffered. So I took advanced memoir and it was there that I understood memoir as one of the spokes under the umbrella of creative nonfiction. There was a freedom I discovered that allowed me to tell my mother's story and the first words I ever wrote towards this book are in its first section, where I write from my mother's perspective as she is crouched beside the house.
CC: As you stated, you might have tried to fictionalize the story. What made you decide to write a memoir?
KS: What I understood soon after I started writing was that memoir is exhausting and stressful in a way fiction is not. Over the years, it felt like this book was triple all of that because it wasn't just about me but my mother and grandmother as well. I often hit walls for many different reasons along the way. When that happened, I thought it would be so much easier to lace things together so the book would make beautiful sense, to write through situations and characters that were difficult to nail down because not everything made sense. But that's part of our lives and so writing through that became so much of the process. Working with a mentor who was (and still is) so devoted to the craft of memoir writing really inspired me and nurtured my love for the genre.
I sent out self-contained parts of the book in the practical hope that I could publish something while still writing. I can't tell you how many times I received the feedback, "This reads too much like fiction." I've grappled with that in waves over the years. Isn't that a compliment that my writing reads like fiction? On the other hand, they chose not to publish it, so is the issue that it makes readers question the authenticity and integrity of this story? Should any genre have a formulaic approach so one knows what genre they're reading? There has been so much to unpack there and I continue to do so.
In the end, it was about truth. Because I'd spent so much time researching, interviewing, writing, and adhering to what happened, I didn't want to write it as fiction anymore. Sure it would have been easier, but it would have also been an entirely different book. My mother and grandmother gave their stories and histories to me freely because I told them I was going to write it truthfully. Turning that into fiction, especially after discovering that women's stories, voices, and histories throughout the Caribbean have never been recorded, felt like a betrayal. While three of us were a part of it, this became bigger than us.
CC: In the acknowledgments section of the book, you write, "And to all women, may your stories always be told." Secrets We Kept recounts details not all families would admit to. Were there points where you questioned whether this story should be told?
KS: That's an interesting question. I've never thought about that before. No, once I started I knew I couldn't stop. I constantly kept coming to different realizations, epiphanies I guess, about how important it was to tell the stories of these women because they represented so much more; and the deeper I delved the more we saw how our stories together were much bigger than us all.
Precisely because not all families would admit to these things is what drew me to the story. I'm drawn to dark material because it's murky and unsettling and I want to parse through how it became that way and move in a direction to fix it.
Silencing women and their stories is so much a part of many cultures and I aim to change that. One way I realized I could was with the telling of this story.
CC: Your prose is exquisite when you recall specific details about Trinidad. This beauty contrasts sharply with the violence against women that threads through the narrative. Was this contrast intentional, and if so, what did you aim to achieve?
KS: I've always been enamored by place as a character. I especially love how it's been done in poetry. The one poem that surfaces is a favorite of mine—"Mariana" by Tennyson. Throughout that poem he uses the desolate English landscape to mirror Mariana's inner turmoil and it's so brilliantly done I think it's stayed with me since I first read it in college.
I don't know if I set out to make Trinidad a character in the book, but I do know in a lot of the books I've read, authors do this so flawlessly. As I wrote more and became more self-aware, I realized that every time I sat down to write about Trinidad, the language that surrounded the place was dense and beautiful. It served as a direct contrast to the violence that pervaded the islands. I took a step back to assess how other people view the Caribbean, what they say to me when they find out I'm from Trinidad and Tobago, and what preconceived notions (if any) they have about this place. What they see is paradise and, most of the time, nothing else. It's tropical and untouched, the food is exotic, the accent is sexy, the music catchy. Two tiny islands compared to the vastness of the rest of the world, Trinidad and Tobago and its problems are ignored. This republic is largely sold as a paradisiacal place and so I wanted to shatter this pristine surface and reveal the innermost parts of what has always been left out of our history: women's stories.
Having the intense physical beauty of the islands juxtaposed with the naked violence against women became extremely important to me because it helped me show the shattering of that stereotypical tropical island. Here are real people who you find all over the world, here are their stories that have long been unheard. Listen.
CC: As with many cultures, the rituals surrounding cooking and food and the comfort they provide are tantamount to Trinidad and the story you tell. "These familiar smells release our inhibitions, draw us closer, and around the tantalizing aroma of food, comforted, these women whisper their stories for me to weave together, to make sense of our lives, healing and understanding passing from one generation to the next." What do you hope to pass from your generation to the next?
KS: Knowledge and the histories and voices of women. In the time and space it took to write this book I became a mother to one girl, then another little girl, and now a boy (that's also a comment on how long it takes to write a memoir like this and then publish it!). Each time, my perspectives and perceptions shifted and grew, therefore changing my understanding of life and our narratives within. I wrote this book for so many reasons but one of them was for other people like me who found it difficult or impossible to find themselves within the pages of a book. At the same time, I don't want our children to forget how easy it has been to silence women.
On a lighter note, I plan on passing on food. My children are still very young but they are always in the kitchen with me, helping in whatever way they can, seeing food prepared, feeling it, playing a major part in many meals.
CC: The mother-child relationship is featured prominently in this story, and it's clear that mothers suffer so that the children's suffering might be lessened. You write, "Her mother was standing in a corner in front of her siblings, forever protecting them." This need to protect our children runs deeps. How do you protect your children?
KS: Considering the current United States administration we exist under, I've felt my protectiveness kick into high gear. It really depends what I'm protecting them from. Overall, I've discovered along the way that what helps the most in protecting my children is open communication and that comes from very early on—as young as two. In fact, I wrote an essay for an anthology on parenting in the Trump era that discusses this. It's also a part of a podcast series titled "Fury" where I sit down and talk about my essay in more detail.
The other thing I work on with my children is critical thinking. When we tell a child to question everything, we—as parents and educators—need to be prepared for the slew of incoming questions. Critical thinking, that total interrogation of the world around us, is important and starts very young. So, when I tell them to question everything, that includes the conclusions they come to. It means allowing them to figure things out themselves in a guided setting but also sitting with answers and questions I may find uncomfortable. Allowing them access to engage with the world in this way from early on will unlock so much for them later. I feel as though because I was born into and grew up in such a claustrophobic society, I didn't come to critical thinking until much later in my life. I went to high school here [in the US] and even then, while there were teachers who helped introduce me to critical thinking, they were rare, and while they sparked that, they didn't nurture it, which is equally important. So, I really didn't come to think critically until college, and once there I realized what a powerful tool that was. Looking back, I've seen the ways that critical thinking could have altered my life had I been armed with it earlier on.
CC: In addition to your memoir, you've published other pieces that are both timely and important. In 2016, you wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine entitled, "When Immigration Agents Came Knocking." You end that piece with the statement, "The fear was still there, but we had to move on." Even after having been granted citizenship in the United States, does that fear still linger? What do you fear for your children?
KS: The night Trump won, I was in despair and wrote that piece in direct response to him becoming president of the United States. I lived here as an undocumented immigrant; I have friends and family who are still undocumented, and many of my students are DACA students. I know fear for one's life, for one's family intimately. I know what it means to live in secret, to exist in a space so gray you force yourself to never speak and you become voiceless.
I fear that there may be no change, that we—my generation—will remain stagnant, we will have done nothing, and though there are so many fighters and allies, I constantly think about the world we will leave behind for our children and the generations after them. I want them to come into a world that has made tremendous progress but to do so means we need to make sacrifices and work diligently and harmoniously towards that.