August 31st 2022 marks 60 years of independence for Trinidad & Tobago. As the Republic celebrates its Diamond Jubilee, lawyer and author Celeste Mohammed (Pleasantview) reflects on the rich storytelling heritage of her twin-island home, recent political developments, and the responsibility that comes with being a bi-racial, female, Trinidadian author in the 21st century.
The year 2022 has been a good one for me thus far. In January, my debut novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, won the Caribbean Readers Award. In April, it copped the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; in May, it was named a finalist for the UK Society of Authors' McKitterick Prize; and in June, it won the American CLMP Firecracker Award for Fiction. If you’ve read Pleasantview, you know the title is ironic — the book presents a candid view of modern Trinidad. I am grateful for the strides it has made as a representative of home-grown Trinidadian literary fiction. Now, where do I go from here?
On August 31st 2022, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (TnT) will celebrate 60 years of independence from Britain. Our Diamond Jubilee. It is a convenient moment for me, as a daughter-of-the-soil and a writer who lives in TnT, to ponder what — if anything — this maturation milestone means for me and my literary work, in the context of Trinbago’s storytelling heritage.
An oft-quoted African proverb says, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” By 1936, the lion (in the Trinbago context) had indeed learned to write, and the hunter was showing signs of accommodation. In that year, CLR James, a Trinidadian, became the first Black West Indian writer to have a novel published in England. It was called Minty Alley, and it “earned much praise for its sensitive portrayal of the poor, especially poor women, and for its playful use of the folkloric trickster tradition in a modern context.”
In a sense, James laid international tracks for Naipaul, Selvon, and all subsequent Trinidadian authors to run. My book, Pleasantview, sits in that tradition of stories about urban life in TnT which chronicle the fears, prejudices and foibles of the ordinary city dweller. Other locally based Trinidadian authors who have enjoyed recent success on the international stage include Lisa Allen-Agostini and Andre Bagoo. Then, of course, we have the more recognizable names, the Trinidadian authors who reside abroad: Claire Adam, Ingrid Persaud, Monique Roffey, Ayana Lloyd Banwo, to name a few.
Yes, a small but growing pride of literary lions and lionesses have ventured past the gatekeepers, to bring glory to our twin-island republic.
However, while the proverb is axiomatic in one sense, it is misleading in another. It assumes that glory can only come from stories which are written. It thus fails to cater for the existence of alternative story-telling forms, e.g. TnT’s oral tradition and its progeny: calypso, extempo and soca etc. Long before we had CLR James, the people of Trinidad and Tobago had the chantuelle and the calypsonian, whose job was to wield language and tell stories. To inform the people, to satirize and criticize the overseer, to glorify the powerless majority by making an inside-joke of Massa.
Given that calypso has always provided the prose and poetry of the people, I would say that calypso songwriting remains an underappreciated genre of TnT’s literature landscape — which is unfortunate because, in many ways, calypso is a more spontaneous and contemporaneous record of society’s ethos than our books and novels ever can be.
Every year, as Independence approaches, it is to this calypso and soca music that the people turn to express national pride. Certain songs have become Independence Day staples because they crystallise the effervescent Trini spirit and portray us in the light we find most flattering. Three years after Independence, The Mighty Sniper sang in ‘Portrait of Trinidad’ (1965), “Trinidad is my land, and of it I am proud and glad, but I can't understand why some people does talk it bad,” and went on to detail the many successes, natural wonders and laudable qualities of the Republic. What’s interesting, though, is that he admitted the society was, even then, criticised for “so much violence”, but he dismisses the issue. I wonder how he would feel now if he knew that in 2022, the year of our Diamond Jubilee, Trinidad and Tobago has the 6th highest crime rate in the world according to the World Population Review.
Natasha Wilson’s ‘Sweet TnT’ (1989) is a more balanced outpouring of patriotic love. She concedes that there is “all this misery and pain” and an urgent need to protect children from “vultures” and “drug-pushers”, and that “Trinidad is nice, could be a paradise” if we work together. Hard to argue with that.
Then, as any patron of Notting Hill Carnival may know, we have several danceable, jump-up-and-wave, calypso and soca tributes. ‘Trinidad’ (2002) by Naya George will have you putting up your right hand and pretending to be one of us. ‘Trini’ (2011) by Benjai is a personal favourite of mine, because its lyrics accurately describe the beguiling nature of how Trini-women “look, cook, talk, wuk… and we make good company!”
Confidence is everything in a woman, right?
Most recently, soca star Swappi released a pandemic-era clarion call to lift our spirits and remind Trinis of the old adage, ‘God is a Trini’ (2021). We get to be happy-go-lucky no matter what is happening in the world, because we are a blessed nation. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago has been repeatedly ranked the “happiest” Caribbean country according to the UN World Happiness Report.
Top ten for crime, yet top ten for happiness?
Wait, what? — as the young people would say.
That brings me to the songwriting prowess of David Rudder. On August 10th 2022, Trinidadian Mr. David Michael Rudder, received the Order of the Caribbean Community, the highest award available within the CARICOM region.
If there is such a thing as “literary fiction” (i.e. prose which transcribes real life, explores complex themes, examines the human condition, and often relies on experimental writing techniques) then the Honourable Mr. Rudder OCC, as he will now be styled, is undisputed modern master of crafting ‘literary calypsos’.
His catalogue includes many songs which capture the inherent conflicts and paradoxes of Trinbago life. Songs which are at once patriotic to the point of tear-jerking (particularly for those who live abroad) and yet brutally honest concerning the decay, corruption and ‘madness’ which has come to typify our society. ‘Trini to the Bone’ (2003) is one such classic.
However, my favourite Independence Day sob-song is one which Rudder composed but did not perform himself. ‘I Will Always Be There For You’ (1991) was recorded by then-teenager Melanie Hudson (now Melanie La Barrie) who has since become a staple on London's theatre scene. Through the device of personification, Mama Trini, our motherland, speaks directly to her children in a tone of tender chastisement, evincing a mother’s love and grief at our prodigal state. The song was released one year after the failed coup d’état of 1990, but has aged well, time and recent history rendering it even more relevant today than it was then. The most poignant portions speak to our continued economic travails and to the racialization of our politics:
I remember when you children were weak and hungry
I took you to my bosom, fed you my oil
And even when you took and wasted and left me drained
There was always love for you in my soil
During its century as an oil and gas producer, Trinidad and Tobago journeyed from a relatively low economic well-being at independence in 1962, to the first oil boom (1973–82), then the bust (1982–92) and then another boom (1999–2008). Huge wealth was amassed in the 1970s, but as anti-corruption activist Afra Raymond explained in a 2013 TED Talk, two out of every three petro-dollars earmarked for development was wasted or stolen. There’s no evidence to suggest that we fared any better during the second boom of the early 2000s. The country has also succumbed to the mythical ‘resource curse’, a failure to diversify the economy. And, despite there being always love in our soil, as Rudder writes, the boom-to-bust pattern was felt most dramatically in the agricultural sector, which suffered drastic decline during oil-boom years and limited revival during recessions, culminating in the closing down of the sugar industry by 2006. In the current post-pandemic recession, the government’s Roadmap To Recovery promises to boost the food security of the country by significant new investment in agriculture. Maybe this time it will happen. (Fingers crossed.)
At Independence in 1962, our first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, decreed that the future of the nation was in our school bags — free education for all. That declaration was superimposed upon the psyche of a people who associated agriculture with slavery, indentureship and dehumanizing servitude. Combine that with the boom-to-bust cycles of the last sixty years, and we’ve reaped a bountiful harvest of highly qualified graduates who, depending on whether we are in boom or bust, have no jobs awaiting. This has caused a brain-drain which has drawn more than 50% of recent graduates to other shores.
Not surprisingly, public despondency and a feeling of being led-on or hoodwinked by the government has become the default setting in modern Trinidad society. Since 1986, we’ve endured a coup and the national government has changed five times, demonstrating the extent of dissatisfaction. Economic travails have coincided with skyrocketing crime, and just this month, the current Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, admitted that the “escalation in violent crime” is now at a crisis-level, announcing a plan to declare it a public health issue.
Yet there is no food shortage, no regular rioting, and Carnival has occurred every year (besides the pandemic period) with an explosion of our collective creative genius — new music, designs, costumes, concepts. Trinbagonians continue to revel in sunshine and sea, to excel in every international field of endeavour, and every Trini emigrant-exile I have ever met is longing and actively planning for the day they can return home.
How can this dichotomy be explained? I don’t know. That’s why I write about my country: to try to understand it, to try to convey its inexorable resilience. Maybe, being bi-racial, I am inured to this study of dichotomies and of disparate halves forming a new whole. Which brings me to the other major issue mentioned in the Melanie Hudson song, an issue which causes me deep personal grief: the racialisation of politics in Trinidad and Tobago.
Even when you fight and argue 'bout different fathers
Remember, the Middle Passage brought them straight to my door
Mama never worry about no race, I just loved them
And so mi blood does boil when you start to war.
The colonialists followed an avowed policy of divide and rule to maintain societal control. Realising that Independence required a national identity to be forged, Dr. Eric Williams came to power on a platform of, “No Mother Africa, No Mother India… the only mother we recognize is Mother Trinidad and Tobago.” Indeed, as the National Anthem says, every creed and race finds an equal place; our Public Holidays and Festivals Act recognizes Diwali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Good Friday, Christmas, Emancipation Day and Indian Arrival Day as public celebrations; and every sitting government has promoted national rhetoric which denies racism. However, political parties veer between unashamed race-baiting and paying disingenuous lip-service to this idea that racism should not and does not feature in Trinidadian society.
With every election that occurs in the social media age, this no-racism fallacy is more clearly discredited. In the 2020 election, we Trinis clicked and shared as some ‘friends’ called other ‘friends’ racist names that cannot be repeated. We saw one type of Trini calling for the rape and murder of another type of Trini. We saw proponents of one party encouraging supporters to forcibly enter opposition supporters' homes ‘and deal [violently] with them’. We saw suggestions that the government ‘start putting contraceptives in their [Black people's] water supply’. The Archbishop of Port of Spain was horrified enough to risk offending the Church-and-State divide by commenting that the 2020 election was ‘one of the most racially charged that I can remember’. Luckily, we don’t actually do those terrible things to each other — we just fantasise about it and threaten.
The social stratification of races in the colonial context, where skin colour and hair texture were important means to social mobility, remains imprinted on the psychology of Trinbagonians. As one scholar put it, “there remains a European hierarchy of physical appearance” which relegates Afro-features to be inferior. Feeding into this in recent years has been the economic crisis in Venezuela next door, which has not only caused a deluge of economic migrants, but also a lucrative human trafficking ring. The Trini appetite for “Vennie” prostitutes, new wives and outside-women seems insatiable. Every week, we hear of one police raid or other freeing scores of these trafficked women. What makes them so desirable is their “whiteness” — very light skin and straight hair (the blonder, the better). This fixation is an accepted part of our culture, an open secret, but it does make me wonder to what extent our men unconsciously loathe the dark-skinned mothers who bore them.
Mama Trini, in her final verse, advises us on how to claw back the nation’s future:
So if you really want to make your old lady happy
If you really want to fill me with joy
All you got to do is start looking out for each other, I mean
Man and woman check for the girls and boys
To those of you who sow your seeds and then run like crazy
I want to see you turn and commit your hearts
And those of you who choose to lead all the rest, do your duty
Foolishness will only tear us apart.
What does this admonition to personal and collective responsibility mean for me as a bi-racial, female, Trinidadian author in the 21st century? It means I must continue in conversation with my people. I must continue to write honestly about the state of the society in which we live. I must continue to hold up a mirror and pose difficult, unflattering questions. I must continue to illuminate, for attention, the ways in which plantation-era traumas trickle down and affect us today. I must do all this while glorifying our strengths: our rhythms, our cultural innovations, our resilience, our hybrid belief systems, our language.
If, in years to come, I can carry this mantle half as well as the calypsonian storytellers of yore, I will have done my beloved country proud.
Happy Independence Day, TnT.