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!

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

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, written by Dominican American author Junot Diaz, is set in the DR (Dominican Republic) and New Jersey, United States. It starts off telling the story of uber-nerd/Dominican with no game Oscar but soon delves into his entire family history.

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What I liked

I get why this novel got the Pulitzer: a mix of high and low brow culture, a history lesson on the Trujillo regime told with Marquez style magic realism and a heavy dose of Caribbean folklore, with overarching themes of escape, migration, and diaspora. I appreciated the stories of the women in Oscar’s family, especially Lola’s and Beli’s. I also fell in love with La Inca, the grandmother/great aunt who really tried her best to rein in every errant remaining member of the Cabral clan. I also loved the idea of the Mongoose (don’t want to give everything away!).

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What I didn’t like

I found the gaming/comic book/anime/LOTR/D&D/Spanglish/Dominican Spanish references inscrutable and frustrating because I had to interrupt my reading to translate them. I did not appreciate reading most of the narrative’s historical context in the tiny print of footnotes. Most importantly, I thoroughly disliked Oscar and found it hard to empathize with him. I also found the male narrator irritating at times, especially because his voice is riddled with machismo and sexual references: chulo, cono, culo, cuero, popóla, puta, ripio, toto etc.

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Final analysis

It’s an engaging family saga story that becomes a lot more comprehensible if you have Google and Urban Dictionary next to you.

Have you ever read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Yay or nay?

Review: Learning to Bow

Oshieru wa manabu no nakaba nari.

Half of teaching is learning.

If you’re thinking of travel meaningfully by teaching in Japan, you may want to try this memoir.

On the other hand, I was happy to read this book in retrospect, after completing a year teaching with the JET Program (a Japanese government initiative that pairs native English speakers with public schools), so I could compare and contrast our shared experiences.

In Learning to Bow (1991), the author becomes a JET and spends one year (1989-1990) teaching at a junior high school in Tochigi Prefecture. During his time, he tries to understand Japanese society primarily through its education system and his interactions with his Japanese colleagues and their friends and families.

At the start, Feiler sometimes writes in a rather hyperbolic and high-handed manner:

“I came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Education, to teach English language and American culture in Japanese schools as part of a program to bring native English speakers into the heart of Japan.”

Many of his initial interactions with Japanese people emphasize his difference to them: his white skin, his brown hair, his physical height, and his perceived inability to use chopsticks and speak Japanese.

Feiler often gets exasperated when he hears statements like this:

“Only a Japanese person can understand the heart of another. You can’t figure us out because you are a foreigner.”

Similarly, although I am not Caucasian like Feiler, many students would often remark and gesture about my “small face.” Also, because I come from a tiny, largely unknown country of Trinidad and Tobago, they couldn’t figure out my nationality and often thought I was Indian, Filipino, or Brazilian.

I also experienced repetitious questions about whether I liked Japanese food, whether I could use chopsticks and speak Japanese, and why I chose to come to Japan over any other country in the world, particularly “America.”

Despite his sometimes arrogant writing style, Feiler makes some astute observations about the Japanese education system which I can corroborate. Like him, I also saw how the system prepared students for life only in Japan by emphasizing community spirit and Japanese pride and patriotism over internationalization.

 “While Japanese schools prepare their students to be citizens of Japan, they fail to teach them to be citizens of the world.”

I can also confirm his observation that the hidden curriculum promotes Japanese values like the general intolerance of diversity (especially of burakumin and returning Japanese expats), gaman (endurance), the sempai code (respect for your superiors), and amae (dependence on others). These concepts largely underscore the sacrifice of individualism in favor of conformity and groupthink. In fact, Feiler’s comparison of the Japanese education system to the art of controlling nature through bonsai is spot on:

If you would form a tree, do so while it is young.

Like Feiler, I also identified with the challenges of team teaching and using a Western approach to pedagogy in the Japanese classroom. On another note, I don’t think his kissing a female student’s hand to illustrate different ways to say hello would fly in the 21st century school in Japan!

One sore point I have with Feiler’s memoir is that it sometimes reads like a boring textbook, littered with overly-generalized statistics and Japanese history/culture tidbits. Also, in many cases, the quotes at the start of each chapter appear to bear little resemblance to the content and seem to exist only to demonstrate that the author is “well read.”

All in all, this memoir, which is written from the perspective of an American Caucasian male, is an okay introduction to the experience of teaching in Japan but if you’re thinking of making this your next step, please read widely to get a more balanced picture. Thank God for blogs, eh? 🙂

Did you ever read Learning to Bow? What did you think?