Writing back: the irresistible rise of Trinidadian authors

There is nothing homogenous about this new world where five continents can be found in a single lovely face

In 2016, I was invited to spend a weekend in St Lucia as a guest of the late Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to discuss my upcoming memoir, which sadly he won’t see. Trinidad also claims Walcott, who spent a lot of time here, working at the Trinidad Guardian as a young man, founding the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which makes it the longest running theatre company in the Caribbean.

The first morning I sat tentatively on the bed in their guest cottage waiting for an egg to boil, thinking of previous guests, friends - Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Henry Miller - in this space, feeling like a late guest to a party that was over. I was expected at lunch; “writers,” his partner Sigrid Nama had said, “spend their mornings’ writing”.

My unease over what I was doing there intensified after the stove in that bedsit space blew up, sending glass chips spinning. I opened the door to the emerald light he loved, and a view, a sloping lawn, an oval pool sparkling like a margarita in the sun and the bright ocean disappearing into the sky, thinking I was undeserving of this, and the minor explosion was a sign I didn’t belong here.

As the offspring of a Muslim mother and a Hindu army officer, working as a Trinidadian journalist, educated in England, Canada and Tobago, I already had a guaranteed otherness, unbelonging.

That weekend, while I worked up the courage to confess about the broken glass, (I did it before I left for the airport. It was alright), it took Walcott asking why I was memorialising ‘awful’ people from princely families in India who colluded with the British when I had a whole new world to draw from. What happens when people of all continents, stripped of language and memory, percolate in a tiny space like Port of Spain? A world was being recreated leaf by leaf with landscape and an atavistic memory. Didn’t I want to be part of that?

This new world:

The Spanish arrived in Trinidad in the 17th century on their way to the fabled land of gold, El Dorado, wiping out most of the native Amerindians with disease and slavery. A hundred years later, they invited the French creole (island-born) sugar plantation owners fleeing Haiti with their slaves. The English conquered us, formalising a slave-based plantation economy.

After Emancipation in 1834, indentured labourers from Portugal, China and, finally, India were brought to work the plantations.

In the 1890s, an influx of “panyols”, mixed-race and Spanish speaking, arrived to work on new cocoa plantations. Traders from the Middle East followed. Oil was discovered. In 1940, American soldiers poured in in their thousands, their presence dominating the island until we gained independence from the British empire in 1962.

Under Walcott’s questioning at the privilege of my mother’s family, the long shadow of the empire reappeared. I remembered my grandmother’s stories of my ancestor from Uzbekistan being party to tying mutineer Muslim and Hindu soldiers across the mouths of cannons, blowing them to smithereens. I thought of how my Indian army father cursed the Radcliffe line that split India in three, displaced 14 million people, and led to a million Muslims and Hindus butchering one another.

Empire damaged people, but it was great for literature. Postcolonial writers began writing out of inherited damage, putting themselves together piece by piece, ‘writing back’ as Salman Rushdie once called it.

Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney occupied parallel worlds on either side of the Atlantic. It’s not surprising then that Walcott and Heaney were friends. James Joyce was a common influence, but poetry was their postcolonial refusal to remain neutral, their ‘method of resistance’. They pushed back but also built back.

If James Joyce thought the ‘cracked looking glass of a servant’ was the symbol of Irish art, then Derek Walcott thought the reassembling of the shards of a vase was the remit of the new world.

That’s what colonised people do, as Ireland did over the 100 years it has been independent. The deluge of Irish literature was an act of rebellion. Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, CS Lewis and Bernard Shaw all ‘wrote back’ paving the way for people like Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and John Banville, for the phenomenon that is Sally Rooney.

So, if Trinidad-born VS Naipaul of Indian indenture descent presented the harsh reality of a colonised people, the ‘mimic men’ with vanished languages, the dearth of literature, the enervation and brutality of the islands with an unforgiving gaze, Walcott, Sam Selvon and Earl Lovelace (amongst others) laboriously rebuilt it. The reassembly was not naïve but perpetually shadowed by the brutality of the middle passage and the slave trade. As Walcott wrote in Ruins of a Great House:

“Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.

The rot remains with us; the men are gone.”

Ironically, as happened with Irish writers, Trinidadian writers, including VS Naipaul and Sam Selvon, felt they had to leave Trinidad for England to write and get published. Earl Lovelace’s staying is seen as a kind of heroism.

The recent ‘flurry’ of acclaimed shortlisted and award-winning writers from our small islands, primarily women, has been regarded as something of a phenomenon. The list is long and impressive. Among them are Amanda Smyth, Claire Adam (Irish Trinidadian), Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Judy Raymond, Caroline Mackenzie, Breanne Mc Ivor, Lisa Allen-Agostini, and Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo; Alake Pilgrim, Ingrid Persad, Monique Roffey, Shivanee Ramlochan and Haddasah Williams.

But Marina Salandy-Brown, the founder of the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad, (inducted as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2020) disagrees. “The writing has been happening quietly all along. We’ve let people out of their writing closets. Bocas gave them access to the publishing world, brought in writers, agents, and publishers, and created workshops and competitions for Caribbean writers. We pushed at a door that is ajar. Our stories are unique, and world readers are avid for more.”

If Trinidadians (and Tobagonians) are reassembling a vase, it is a remembered mosaic of every continent, an amalgam of all. There is nothing homogenous about this new world where five continents can be found in a single lovely face. In a sense, we are beyond race, which is why Walcott baulked at being pigeonholed as a mixed-race writer.

“My race begins as the sea began/

With no nouns, and with no horizon,/

With pebbles under my tongue,/

With a different fix on the stars.”

There are as many stories as there are inhabitants. Perhaps that’s why today these small islands are steadily producing writing that is increasingly in dialect, surprising, fresh and with Caliban-like intransigence. The deluge from the Caribbean simply means the publishing world has finally noticed that we have always been ‘writing back’ and in the words of Lovelace, we are ‘the wine of astonishment.’

Ira Mathur is an Indian-born Trinidadian award-winning multimedia journalist. irasroom.org She is the Trinidad Guardian’s longest-running columnist and has freelanced for The Guardian (UK) and the BBC. In 2021 Mathur was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award for her unpublished novel ‘Touching Dr Simone. Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur is published today by Peepal Tree Press (£12.99)