When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

When We Were Birds
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When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Darwin is a down-on-his-luck gravedigger, newly arrived in the city of Port Angeles to seek his fortune, young and beautiful and lost. Estranged from his mother, he is convinced that the father he never met may be waiting for him somewhere amid these bustling streets. Meanwhile in an old house on a hill, Yejide’s mother is dying. And she is leaving behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: the power to talk to the departed. Darwin and Yejide’s destinies are intertwined, and they will find one another in the ancient cemetery at the heart of the city, where trouble is brewing and destiny awaits…

Embedded with a timeless, mythic magic, and yet alive with a fresh, modern sensibility, this hypnotic literary debut is a masterpiece of rhythm, exuberance, heart, loss in cycle with renewal and darkness with light: a reckoning with a grief that runs back generations and a defiant, joyful affirmation of hope.


It begins with the tale of Port Angeles, a bustling city that now rests upon an ancient but forgotten place. A place of violence, buried deep down beneath its concrete surface, from a time when animals could speak, and humans had not yet arrived with buildings and logic.

In the present, Darwin, an all-too-good Rastafarian has grown up fatherless in the countryside. Desperate for money to support his aging mother, Darwin forces himself to take the last government job available: a gravedigger in the Fedelis cemetery. Meanwhile, in the wake of her mother’s death, Yejide confronts a strange storm brewing outside her hillside home – the magical power from her long line of female ancestry: to see and feel the dead.

When We Were Birds is a fresh debut steeped in a rich tradition of Trinidadian folklore and oral storytelling. I was moved by the lush, mythological creature floating in thick air that is this story – its textured mapping of a place, its burnt sage scent, colour palette sweeter than mango, full of decay and brimming with vegetal overgrowth. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s lucid prose creates a feeling of existential drift that floats ceaselessly between the womb and the cemetery. Fidelis is a place of remembering and forgetfulness, with a pulse and rhythm of its own – a place of loss and belonging from which two stories become inextricably bound in the rituals of love and death.

Jivan Simons Mistry is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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