Book Review: Trinidad Noir

Trinidad Noir: The Classics

Edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni

Classic and contemporary authors from the Trinidadian canon offer haunting stories rooted in mythology, community, and tradition.

Akashic Books

Akashic Books

Anthology

248 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96


"One of the ways in which our literature has sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” — Earl Lovelace

     Between 1942 and 1977, a whopping 52 African nations gained independence from Europe. However, unlike the African decolonization boom, Caribbean decolonization was much more temporally scattered. Haiti gained independence from France in 1804. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902. There was a only slight surge between 1962 and 1981, when 11 Caribbean nations became independent.

     Decolonization’s jarringly negative impact permeated the African literary imagination. Renowned works by Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and even the contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explore themes either stemming from or directly related to colonialism. Considering the impact that the colonial moment has had on African literature, it would only make sense for the experience of being colonized to also impact the texts that emerge from formerly colonized nations like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominica and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago.

     Aside from sparking an entirely new literary genre—the “postcolonial novel”—colonization in Africa and especially in the Caribbean forged particularly hybridized societies. Like many other Caribbean nations, Trinidad and Tobago experienced a cultural hybridity—the exchange of language and customs—and a literal hybridity; the result of relations between European colonial powers, indigenous peoples, Africans, Chinese, Syrians and a large number of Indians who primarily came as indentured servants. This creolization rooted in colonialism is still firmly planted in Trinidad’s memory. It is also still brightly reflected in its modern society; independence was only gained from Britain in 1962. Today, Indians make up the largest group of Trinidadians, with blacks and whites trailing closely behind. This assortment of colonial history, languages, cultures and customs has shaped modern Trinidadian society and—as evidenced by Trinidad Noir: The Classics—greatly informed its literature.

     Trinidad Noir: The Classics is an expansive retrospect of some of the best literature to emerge from Trinidad in the last century. With a major focus on place and Trinidad's colonial history, renowned writers like Derek Walcott, Sharon Millar and V.S. Naipaul cast a bright light upon Trinidad's complex cultures, values and vernaculars. Greatly informed by the colonial moment, its 19 stories begin in 1927 and end in 2015. It features an assortment of writers either directly from Trinidad or with deep ties to the country who offer quirky and mysterious tales of family and community. In order to emphasize colonialism’s prominence within Trinidad’s literary imagination, Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, the editors, separate the collection into four useful chronological sections: Leaving Colonialism, Facing Independence, Looking In and Losing Control.

     Standout stories include Earl Lovelace’s “Joebell and America” (1988) a lively and affectionate take on one man’s less-than-realistic goal of moving to America. V.S. Naipaul’s “Man-Man” is an eccentric character study from 1959 that echoes Robert Antoni’s introductory claim that Trinidadian literature has “sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” In fact, many of Trinidad Noir’s stories reflect a deep societal furrow between rich and poor and between city and rural. There is a clear division between the haves and the have nots, further evoking the nation’s recovery from and canon’s ties to colonialism’s devastating racial and class-based oppression. Sharon Millar’s “The Dragonfly’s Tale” (2013) is a sweeping contemporary narrative on violence and corruption that illuminates the more hidden, less colorful aspects of Trinidad’s vibrantly exported culture. In a way, Millar’s story, as well as Shani Mootoo’s haunting “The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree” (2015) exist in direct opposition to the jovial ding of Trinidad’s famed steel drums, embodying the collection’s eponymous “Noir.” Other highlights include Robert Antoni’s hilariously zany and vulgar “Hindsight” (1992) and Derek Walcott’s poetic masterpiece, “The Schooner Flight” (1979).

     One of this collection’s many highlights is the use of the local vernacular, known officially as Trinidadian English or Trinidadian Creole. This natural use of language helps transport us right to the island, into people’s homes and lives.

     With the assemblage of these stories on a timeline from pre to post colonial, Lovelace and Antoni have crafted a meaningful portrait of colonialism’s impact on the nation’s literature. From beginning to end, a palpable thread of division can be traced and seems to grow more urgent and profound; the final story features a young woman obsessed with fame and social ascension. Perhaps most importantly, this collection lays a solid foundation that establishes a glimmering hope for Trinidad’s literary future. With all its stunning history, variation, syncreticity and vibrant focus on humanity, Trinidad Noir: The Classics makes it clear that Trinidadian literature must be more globally examined and elevated.

     Trinidad Noir: The Classics is part of Akashic Books' popular Noir Series. This series features anthologies set in distinct places. Previously released titles include Barcelona NoirAddis Ababa Noir and Rio Noir.