A literary travel guide to T&T

If you’re a book nerd like me, then you’ll absolutely adore the idea of literary travel. What is it, exactly? It’s a form of tourism where you visit places that inspired or featured in certain fiction/non-fiction books. For instance, if you loved Anne of Green Gables, then you’ll definitely appreciate visiting the real Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an established industry when it comes to literary travel in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. That’s why I decided to comb literary fiction set in T&T to pinpoint locations you can visit to enrich your reading experience. Of course, many of the locations may not reflect exactly what’s presented in the literature but it’s always nice to compare and contrast the real with the art.

Here are 12 places you can visit on your literary travel tour of Trinidad and Tobago.

1. Black Rock

Black Rock is an actual location on the eastern coast of the island of Tobago which inspired Black Rock/Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange, the debut of Amanda Smyth, an Irish-Trinidadian author. The seaside location forms the backdrop of Celia’s coming of age story in the 1950s.

“The water here is usually calm. A large black rock jutted out of it, like a little island on its own. On the sand – as fine as dust – I found shells and pieces of driftwood thrown up like old bones and I usually came across a sea pussy or two, shaped like a half a moon and soft like jellyfish.”

2. Chacachacare Island

Located dong de islands (as the locals say), a few kilometers off the northwestern coast of Trinidad, Chacachacare Island is a place where lepers were historically quarantined. It stars in Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter, a very Caribbean interpretation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

“They say the Amerindians named the island for the cotton they used to grow here. I like the other story better, the one about the Indians naming the island after a bird.’ Cha-ca-cha-ca-Ree. I heard it now everywhere, and in between the greenery I saw the flash of yellow feathers, then blue, then red.

We wound around sharp bends in the road. More precipices, more flashes of blue sea, black rocks, white froth curling on the edges of glistening waves. More thick greenery. Color. Flowers, birds.”

3. Chaguanas

This Central Trinidad town in one of the focal points of Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. In fact, the novel’s Hanuman House was directly inspired by Lion House still standing in the western part of the town. Lion House is still owned by Naipaul’s maternal relatives, the Capildeos.

Among the tumbledown timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stood like an alien white fortress. The concrete walls looked as thick as they were, and when the narrow doors of the Tulsi Store on the ground floor were closed the House became bulky, impregnable and blank.”

4. Couva

The rural atmosphere of this Central town is highlighted in Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott’s poem, The Saddhu of Couva. Although you may not experience the same milieu there today, you can still feel the poem’s vibe in rustic Central Trinidad villages like Felicity. Here’s an excerpt:

“When sunset, a brass gong,

vibrate through Couva,

is then I see my soul, swiftly unsheathes,

like a white cattle bird growing more small

over the ocean of the evening canes,

and I sit quiet, waiting for it to return

like a hog-cattle blistered with mud,

because, for my spirit, India is too far.”

5. Laventille

Although this North Trinidad urban community is maligned for gang violence today, Laventille is still the birthplace of the country’s national instrument, the steelpan. The community is immortalized by Derek Walcott in his poem, Laventille, and Earl Lovelace in his novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance. Here’s an excerpt from Walcott’s Laventille:

It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas,

with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop

shrine,

down the impossible drop 

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St. Clair

6. Princes Town

The South Trinidad town of Princes Town has been featured in more than a couple books written by Canada-based Trinidadian authors. Ramabai Espinet talks about Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge and Lengua is preserved in Rabindranath Maharaj’s A Perfect Pledge. Here’s a quote from A Perfect Pledge.

This village is a real trap. Bit by bit it will eat up every single person who remain here. This place will never change.” 

Here’s another about the protagonist’s family home on Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge:

We lived in a rambling board house set back from busy Manahambre Road. Facing the traffic was Muddie’s flower garden, which she had lovingly planted as a new bride and which, years later, continued to reseed itself into a spectacular array of zinnias and sunflowers. On one side of the house was a massive celamen tree and a chenette tree with spreading branches. At the back, the land sloped downwards, and the structure rose on high pillars, leaving a clean dirt area underneath where we played, with a washtub at one end and a little tin bathroom standing next to it.”

7. Mayaro

This quiet fishing village has been celebrated in many of Trinidadian author Michael Anthony’s novels, including Green Days by the River and A Year in San Fernando. Both are coming of age stories where the protagonists deal with a loss of innocence. Here’s an excerpt about Mayaro in A Year in San Fernando. 

“Somehow, the knowledge that I was going away made Mayaro look very strange. The lime trees looked greener, for one thing, and the sudden down-sweep of the land towards the ravine, rising again at the far, grassy hills, seemed to make the place look unusual this morning, and rare.”

It’s also memorialized in The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj.

 “Remind me of the place. The wind breathing through the trees and the sound of coconuts dropping on the mud. Ta-dup ta dup. The hairy mangrove crabs and the turtles. The evening sky looking like a big mash up rainbow with all these colors leaking down on the sea. The fresh smell of fish and sand in the mornings. Cascadura jumping up from the ponds like living clumps of mud. Dew skating down from the big dasheen leaves as if they playing with the sunlight. A horsewhip snake slipping down a guava branch as smooth as flowing water. Cassava pone and seamoss drinks.” 

8. Plymouth

Plymouth is also located on the eastern coast of Tobago, next to Black Rock. It’s featured in British-Guyanese author Oonya Kempadoo’s Tide Running.  The novel details the dark underbelly and sex tourism industry of this “island paradise.”

“Just visiting from Trinidad, we could have never seen the darkness of this island. The strength of it overpowered and silenced you. Only after moving here did the calm become unsettling. Traces of resentment glowing under the skin of proud faces, in the gait of mobile bodies. The house, our holiday haven from Trinidad city life, seduced us into its womb, promising peace of mind, crime-free living, and the blue Caribbean Sea. Once Peter’s work in Trinidad had finished, we moved. And now the haven sheltered us from things unknown and deep. Always mothering, giving space for mistakes and meditation, watching over our sleep.”

“The sea rolling and swelling up itself down by them rocks on Plymuth Point. Breathing out, sucking ‘e belly back in. Everytime it spuff slow, li’l crabs stop and hold on tight to the rocks. It fooling them. Only snorting and slurping back in, snuffling and bubbling.”

9. Port of Spain

Many Trinidadian authors write about the capital city with equal amounts of disdain and admiration. VS Naipaul wrote about it in his famous collection of short stories, Miguel Street, Ismith Khan in The Jumbie Bird, Sam Selvon in A Brighter Sun, and CLR James in Minty Alley. In The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey describes the city like this:

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor, blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

10. San Fernando

The country’s second city is canonized in The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet as well in as A Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony. Here’s a quote about the city in The Swinging Bridge:

“San Fernando. An ordinary little city, hardly more than a town when I grew up in it, though it possessed a mayor, a cathedral, its own general hospital. Driving along the southern highway into San Fernando you can easily miss its quiet, distinct charm. The beat is its own, not frenzied or hustling like Port of Spain, a city that hits you over the head with its rushing intensity, its goods, its people, its kaiso music hawked continuously in the streets. No, not that percussive beat, but a steadier, more monotonous rhythm, anchored perhaps to a securer set of values, shored up by habit, by persistence, by the flow of unchanging time.”

“The city of San Fernando housing its twin but separate populations, African and Indian, each lacerating the other, each tolerating the other’s crossovers, the strayaways, the inveterate mixers seduced by curiosity and a taste for difference, whose blood and semen and juices would solidify and form a rickety bridge across which others might begin to cross the rapids that they feared would wash them out into the open sea. My place, this fertile, exuberant, wounded city. Its lovely shadowed hill; its stinking wharf.”

11. St. James

St. James, a suburb of Port of Spain, was the final resting place for Mohun Biswas, the protagonist of VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. Biswas was modeled on Naipaul’s father and you can visit the same house ennobled in the novel, now a historical landmark known as Naipaul House.

“The house could be seen from two or three streets away and was known all over St James. It was like a huge and squat sentry-box: tall, square, two-storeyed, with a pyramidal roof of corrugated iron.”

 12. Quinam

I’ve only come across this popular South Trinidad beach in one poem by Eric Roach entitled On Quinam Bay. However, the location’s a bit macabre because the Tobagonian poet actually committed suicide there, by drinking insecticide and swimming out to sea. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

Soparee Mai is still maintained

in her south town of quiet ways

and modest means; and south from there

beyond Mendez, in a green plain

of old oil wells and planted teak,

it is land’s end in Quinam Bay.

The road’s a black canal to sea

where Colon’s schooners rolled off shore

and his boats were lugged to land

cleaving the indifferent wave.

Have you been to these places or read these books? Please share in the comments below!

A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

We Mark Your Memory

Hey everyone! 2018’s already proving an exciting year!

I’m happy to announce that I have a short story called “Homecoming” published in We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture.

“Homecoming” depicts a young Indo-Trinidadian couple visiting Kolkata in India, the motherland, for the first time and experiencing confusion, bewilderment, and displacement there.

The anthology is edited by David Dabydeen (Guyanese-born poet, novelist, and academic), Maria del Pilar Kaladeen (associate fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London), and Tina K. Ramnarine (author and professor at Royal Holloway).

It chronicles the experiences of the indentured Indian labor diaspora across the globe, from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to Fiji in the Pacific. It also features other Caribbean writers: Gaiutra Bahadur, Kevin Jared Hosein, and Gabrielle Hosein to name a few.

Here’s a blurb from the publishers:

“To mark the centenary of the abolition of the system in the British Empire (2017–20), the volume brings together, for the first time, new writing from across the Commonwealth. It is a unique attempt to explore, through the medium of poetry and prose, the Indian indentured heritage of the twenty-first century.”

Customers in North America can pre-order from the University of London or their local bookstores. Customers everywhere else can pre-order from The School of Advanced Study (SAS). It will also be available on Amazon worldwide from April 30th.

#WeMarkYourMemory

Are you excited to read We Mark Your Memory? Share in the comments below!

Review: Oh Happy Day

Self-published in 2017, Oh Happy Day is a debut collection of short stories written by Trinidadian author, Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali.

Oh Happy Day features many popular Trinidadian traditions, customs, and language and spans the length and breadth of the island, from Sea Lots to Siparia, Mayaro to Talparo.

In general, the stories deal with the struggles and adventures of young Trinidadians from working-class families. Their themes range from young love, yearnings for parental care and affection, rising above social circumstances, getting lost or stranded, and making moral choices.

In the preface, Ragoonanan-Ali mentions being inspired by Ways of Sunlight, a well-known collection of short stories by Trinidadian author, Sam Selvon.

This inspiration is clearly reflected in the close-knit communities featured in her work as well as the author’s use of dialogue peppered with Trinidadian Creole English rather than Standard English. This is a joy for native speakers to read but may take some adjusting on the part of international readers not accustomed to the Trini tongue.

If you’re an expat Trini and haven’t been home in a while, these stories may provoke an intense sense of nostalgia for the birthplace you remembered.  Many of the stories also have neat endings so you’re bound to feel a sense of completion at the end.

Have you read Oh Happy Day? What did you think?

Photo courtesy Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali

6 novelists from T&T you should know about

“The best way to know the soul of another country is to read its literature.” Amos Oz

Trinidad and Tobago, located at the end of the Caribbean archipelago and very close to the South American continent, is a cultural hotbed. The birthplace of steelpan and calypso is also home to an established and incredibly diverse literary tradition. Many writers from these islands have excelled internationally, writing primarily in English, the nation’s official language. Others have experimented with other native languages such as Trinidadian Creole English with considerable success. Planning on traveling to T&T and want to get to know the culture inside out? Here are 6 classic Trinbagonian authors you should check out.

V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul was born in Trinidad when the island was still a British colony. He won a scholarship to study English at Oxford University and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. One my favorite books of his is A House for Mr. Biswas, his third novel. Partly inspired by his father’s experiences, the story is set in colonial Trinidad and traces the life of Mohun Biswas, who although “born in the wrong way,” perseveres to release himself from the crippling influence of his in-laws and to build a house for himself and his family. Naipaul’s writing is on point, offering acute and often witty observations of Trinidadian people, culture, and island life during the early 20th century.

Samuel Selvon

Sam Selvon is one of those authors who can write Trinidadian Creole English down pat. I discovered him in high school when I read A Brighter Sun. The Lonely Londoners is another one of his masterpieces, exploring Caribbean immigration to the UK during the late 1940s to the early 1960s, also known as the Windrush Generation. Selvon, a gifted though often overlooked Trinidadian author, like his protagonists, also emigrated to the UK to pursue his dream of writing novels. The Lonely Londoners highlights the humorous yet poignant adventures of Caribbean immigrants in a city plagued with a racism they cannot understand. 

CLR James

Although CLR James is well known as a historian, political activist, and cricket expert, he is also a great novelist. Written in the late 1920s, his classic, Minty Alley, like James Joyce’s Dubliners, tells the stories of working class people living in the cramped alleys and backstreets of Trinidad’s capital city, Port of Spain. This was also the first novel published in England by a black West Indian.

Earl Lovelace

Unlike other writers from Trinidad and Tobago, Earl Lovelace never really left Trinidad to pursue his dream to write fiction. One of his best-known works, The Wine of Astonishment, tells the story of Bonasse, a poor, Shouter Baptist community faced with religious persecution by the colonial government and plagued by the consequences of a cultural invasion by American soldiers during World War Two.  

Merle Hodge

Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey is a bildungsroman of Tee, a motherless girl who is caught between the worlds of two matriarchs, Tantie and Aunt Beatrice. The novel explores the flaws of the country’s education system and the cost of upward social mobility in postcolonial Trinidad.

Michael Anthony

Michael Anthony is one of those authors who put South Trinidad on the literary map. Born and raised in Mayaro, much of his work feature coming-of-age tales of young men living in the seaside community.  His work, particularly Green Days by the River and The Year in San Fernando, depict the pastoral beauty of the countryside and a loss of innocence of the protagonists.

5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and post-colonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”