By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Courage and Tears is the title of Shirley Tappin’s first novel. Tappin, the Senior Human Resource Officer at the Chancery Archdiocese of Port of Spain, came from a literary family. Courage and Tears is not her first writing piece—she wrote poetry and short stories in her spare time and had two stories included in collections by the late Undine Giuseppi, used in schools across the Caribbean. Professor Emeritus of West Indian Literature Kenneth Ramchand says Courage and Tears “is a gripping human interest story of unbelievable courage and resourcefulness. It is written in a relentlessly documentary style, scrupulously relating the events without putting any ‘twists’ on the facts. But compassion for the female protagonist is everywhere in evidence.”
The main character, Elsa, has a hard life. She experiences parental neglect and being thrust into adult responsibilities taking care of younger siblings, a household, working in the family restaurant. At 15, she runs away and marries a man she does not love but offers a refuge. It is a union marred by emotional and sexual abuse from which she eventually escapes. The reader journeys with Elsa as she seeks to find happiness and fulfilment, raising a family and experiencing struggles and pain along the way.
Tappin’s story, according to information shared with the Catholic News, “touches on the diverse cultures, religions, races and economic standings in Trinidadian society and the level of tolerance and acceptance generally displayed among the Trinidadian people. It also touches slightly on sexual deviant occurrences within families. Through it all, the heroine’s feisty spirit, resourcefulness, and unfailing faith in God were able to see her through thick and thin and sustain her hope that she would pull through any difficulty that came her way.”
The Catholic News spoke to Tappin about the novel.
Q: When was the idea for this story conceived? What inspired it?
A: Elsa (not her real name) was working as a caregiver for a friend of mine who had dementia. Shortly after, she began caring for him, she started to write her memoirs. She would often be melancholy and depressed and would speak to me about her life. She was struggling to write her memoirs and I offered to write her story. She was very happy about this.
Q: Did you map out this story or did it evolve? What is your writing process?
A: I spent hours interviewing her about her life beginning with her childhood and writing chapter by chapter. When I began writing her story, Elsa was at the point in her life when she was dealing with the challenges of raising her children who were in their early to mid-teens, as well as coping with the behaviour of her second husband. I therefore witnessed first-hand some of her trials and struggles.
Q: Were you expecting it to be more than 400 pages? How long did it take to write? You ended the story at a particular point in Elsa’s life. When did you realise you had reached the end?
A: It took approximately two years to complete the manuscript, as although I was a retiree, I was working full-time and was also taking care of my own mother who had more advanced dementia and lived with me for the last nine years of her life. I had no idea that the book would be almost 500 pages long. I ended the book shortly after two significant events in Elsa’s life, as I thought that she had reached a juncture where she was closing one tumultuous chapter of her life and felt free and ready to open the door to a happier chapter, with hope and resolve.
Q: The character of Elsa experiences a terrible childhood and this sets other events in her life in motion. Though fictional characters, would you say the story portrays a realism which is present in our society?
A: The domestic violence and male-female relationships do portray a realism which is present in our society. The subject in the story suffered additional abuse and neglect at the hands of her parents. She was naïve and trusting and in search of love which made her more vulnerable. However, the story also captures the goodness and kindness of others that also exist in the society, and which may not be as visible.
Q: Elsa does not have a foundation in a “church”, she was exposed to certain Catholic teachings. What is the story saying about faith in the absence of a formation into “Church”?
A: Elsa experienced terrible emotional, psychological and sexual abuse from her childhood, through her two marriages, as well as financial and health issues. While she did not have a foundation of “Church” she appeared to be always searching for a religious anchor to cling to. She hung on to the bits of Catholic teachings from her school, she persuaded her father to erect a grotto for her at the family home, where she installed sacred statutes and pictures including of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. She grasped at the opportunity to learn about and be involved in the Mormon religion. She kept the notion of God close to her and spoke to Him often, always placing her faith and trust in Him.
Courage and Tears is available on Amazon as an e-book as well as on paperback. It can be purchased at Paper Based Bookshop Normandie Hotel.