Taking in history, essays and poetry as well as fiction, novelist Claire Adam recommends favourite reading about her island nation in this essay for London’s Guardian.
Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and left, aged 18, to study at Brown University in the US. “Trinidad and To-bah-go!” people said when they learned where I was from. (I promptly corrected them: To-bay-go.) They knew of the country, although sometimes not its location, and I explained that we were a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, seven miles off the coast of Venezuela.
After graduating, when I went backpacking around Europe, I found that few people had heard of Trinidad at all: I took to pulling out a little fold-out map and pointing to the little dot by way of explanation. “The Caribbean!” people exclaimed. They knew about the beaches, the endless sunshine. But later their faces would cloud over – what on earth had possessed me to leave such a wonderful place?1 I did my best to explain, but I don’t think I succeeded. I’m not sure I even knew myself, back then, except that it had always been the goal. And it was that goal – to escape, to get somewhere better – that sparked the idea for my novel, Golden Child. During my five years of writing it, I was trying, among other things, to understand that relentless drive to get away from the country where I had grown up.
The books listed below are some of my favourites. Their themes preoccupied me while I was writing Golden Child: you’ll notice that the power of education looms large in our literature, unsurprising for a population once oppressed by slavery and indentureship. There’s sacrifice, crime, betrayal, love in many different forms, and, underneath it all, the longing for a better life.
1. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
With the Windrush generation recently in the news, it seems appropriate to begin here. On a winter’s evening in the 1950s, Moses, a Trinidadian living in London, goes to Waterloo station to meet a compatriot arriving on the boat train. So begins the tale of freezing cold bedsits in Bayswater, of struggling to make ends meet. It’s also a story of friendships and hilarious romantic escapades – and, sometimes, disillusionment and intense homesickness.
2. Letters from London: Seven Essays by CLR James, edited by Nicholas Laughlin
Writer, thinker, historian, journalist, political activist and sportsman, James is one of the giants of postcolonial literature. These essays were originally published in Trinidad in 1932, soon after James’s (pre-Windrush) arrival in England. Covering subjects such as The Men, The Women and The Bloomsbury Atmosphere, they describe his early, candid impressions of the British imperial capital.
3. A Naturalist’s Year by Richard ffrench
Richard ffrench came to Trinidad in the late 1950s, earning his living as a teacher and in his spare time researching and documenting the natural world around him. A Naturalist’s Year is a collection of some of the articles he wrote for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. The subject matter ranges from bats to tree snakes to birds of paradise, and gives a glimpse of everyday life in Trinidad and the locals who had made him feel so welcome.
4. Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge
A girl in Trinidad goes to live with an aunt after her own mother dies in childbirth, and then moves between two households, one poor, warm and and down-to-earth, and the other belonging to a higher, more educated social class. She learns the price she has paid for “moving up” in society: that she no longer belongs in the humble household where she was once happy. This deservedly enjoys classic status in the Caribbean.
5. Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo
The 2016 winner of the Forward prize for best poetry collection. Some of the locations and experiences are recognisably Trinidadian, and yet the poems, and the larger work, transcend particularity. In one poem, “The mouth is planetary, circled by systematic tides”; it is also “geographical to the extent that the body is terrain”.
6. A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
“I am chained to the hundred square miles that is Trinidad,” Naipaul wrote in 1954, “but I will evade that fate yet.” The sentence ends with a full stop, but whenever I read it, I imagine an exclamation mark instead, and the author rubbing his hands together with glee, a cartoon baddie’s wicked laughter echoing around him. This novel, widely regarded as his best, follows Mr Biswas from birth to death, as he tries – and often comically fails – to stake a place for himself in the world. Naipaul is a controversial figure in Britain and Trinidad alike, but there’s no disagreement about the quality of the writing: he was often praised as the greatest novelist of his time.
7. The Whale House by Sharon Millar
These short stories are often sobering: a pathologist is asked to lie about a boy killed on government orders; a 17-year-old boy sits in a car at dusk, waiting to kidnap a woman; a gangster tells his story from beyond the grave. It honestly reflects contemporary Trinidad and Tobago society, with its racial tensions, still-open wounds of history, undercurrents of folklore and the supernatural.
8. The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace
We studied this book at school, together with Shakespeare and John Steinbeck, and it felt like an awakening to read something written in our own language – still English, but our particular version of it. The story concerns a community of Spiritual Baptists in a rural village who are forbidden from practising their religion. Over many years, they manage to get a bright boy from their village educated and into local government – but once in power, he abandons them. Bolo, the champion stick-fighter of the village, is the only one brave enough to stand up for the community.
9. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago by Eric Williams
Born in Trinidad in 1911 to a family of modest means, Williams excelled at school and won an island scholarship to St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He swiftly rose to the top of his class, ranking first among all Oxford history graduates in 1935. He completed a doctorate on the economics of the slave trade and then returned to Trinidad with a mission. He gave fiery open-air lectures in public squares, formed his own political party, steered the nation to independence in 1962 and became its first prime minister. This book was one of his many gifts to the newly formed nation of Trinidad and Tobago, and aimed to redress the great injustice that the people did not know their own history.
10. De Rightest Place by Barbara Jenkins
Forget all the old-time books, here is one about the Trinidad of today, teeming with life and up-to-date Trini humour and steamy sex scenes. The action largely takes place a pub in Port of Spain and follows the antics of a wide cast of local characters of all races, religions and social classes. In the middle of it all is Indira, whose lover has recently left her, and who, at the beginning of the novel, takes stock of her assets in life. “Young, good looking, nice body,” she writes, admiring herself in the mirror. Read it first yourself, and then press it into the hands of the Trinidadians in your life.