Empire, Independence, and the Future

June 2018

Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, eds., Trinidad Noir: The Classics (New York: Akashic, 2017); 256 pages; ISBN 978-1617754357 (paperback)

The term “classic literature noir” brings to mind images, such as the hardened detective solving a mystery or a crime taking place on a dark, rain-drenched street. Rarely would anyone associate this genre with sunny, fun-loving, limin’ Trinidad. Trinidad Noir: The Classics, edited by Trinidadians Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, provides a reconstructed image of the classic noir genre. Noir, which typically implies a darkness either in content or setting, simply does not apply to this well-selected collection—at least, not at first glance. The subjects addressed are critical to the Trinidadian and Tobagonian experience, spanning the last ninety years and both islands. Each selection expresses an overall concern with the impact of colonization and decolonization on everyday Trinidadians and Tobagonians. Beginning with C. L. R. James’s interpretation of the mystery and power surrounding Trinidad’s black Madonna, La Divina Pastora, the selections take readers on an exploration of Trinidad and Tobago in the preindependence decades up to the present day, with Shani Mootoo’s discussion of the impact of climate change on the island. Divided into four sections, this collection includes recognizable Caribbean writers but also offers an excellent selection of emergent voices.

Part 1, “Leaving Colonialism,” explores life in preindependence Trinidad and Tobago, drawing on the innocence and hope of the period. This section includes pieces addressing the hold of tradition on Trinidadians as the nation looked toward independence; the blind, religious faith guiding many Caribbeans; the rural dweller’s longing for the city; and the pull of immigration resulting from the economic privations caused by colonization. This section begins with a contribution from C. L. R. James, examining the innocence of blind faith—a juxtaposition of the nation’s conviction that independence will ultimately prove transformative. Via a poem by Eric Roach, part 1 also offers a glimpse into the lives of older Afro-Caribbean men, descended from slaves and struggling to maintain an independent life connected to the land in the preindependence years, with their push towards industrialization. The sentiments surrounding the struggle for independence could not be completely conveyed without a contribution from V. S. Naipaul, and The Classics does not disappoint. “Man-man” (1959) introduces one of the many characters who inhabit Naipaul’s fictional creation, Miguel Street. Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Naipaul’s Miguel Street is home to a cast of eccentric and enlightening characters—the title character of this story, a local ba-john, suddenly fashions himself as the entire island’s savior, willingly submitting to stoning as atonement for the island’s multitude of sins. Perhaps Man-man is a substitute for Trinidad, and his stoning symbolizes national cleansing in preparation for independence. Man-man could also represent the Empire, which never atoned for its colonizing mission.

Part 2, “Facing Independence,” is an exploration of life on the island in the postindependence decades. Beginning in the early 1970s and closing in the late 1980s, this section investigates whether the hope and promise of independence were realized by examining the rural working class, who remain geographically and ideologically isolated from the concept of national independence and untouched whether colonized or independent. “Facing Independence” also addresses race in the pre- and postindependence Caribbean, noting that while race and class were inextricably linked preindependence, this situation shifted, and Anglo-Caribbeans no longer held positions of social power. In the postindependence period, locals with marketable skills and training were needed, but many locals lacked both. The resulting shortage of unskilled positions led to a wave of emigration, which this section addresses, and, occasionally, crime. The economic anxieties typifying the anglophone Caribbean postindependence period indicate that, even in Trinidad and Tobago, with its developed agricultural and petrochemical industries, jobs were scarce, giving many Trinidadians and Tobagonians few options.

Part 3, “Looking In,” reflects the authors’ focus on national self-reflection. While attaining independence causes economic and social instability in former colonies, at some point there must be a willingness to address these issues. However, even with the gravity of introspective examination at the forefront of this section, in true Trinidadian fashion there is some chupidness included. This section includes stories focusing, literally, on the internal workings of an old man’s backside and the fall of a wayward, ba-john uncle. Intermingled with the humor are analyses of child sexual assault and the commodification and sexualization of Caribbean female bodies.

The concluding section, “Losing Control,” is set in the new millennium and addresses issues such as the environment and social violence, which are becoming more critical to Caribbean social discourses. Some of these contributions acknowledge the impact of contemporary lifestyles on the environment, observing that in the past Trinidadians worked communally to protect the environment by sharing and exchanging produce, and suggesting that this method could be affective again. In another selection, a jumbie makes an appearance to advocate for the preservation of the island’s natural heritage. Other selections address the socially destabilizing impact of everyday violence on Trinidadians in a nation where violence has become so commonplace that even a child’s party requires armed security. In addition, there are contributions containing a theme that viewers of nightly news are all too familiar with: the distraught mother of a murdered son—an image no one connects to paradise.

The contemporary publication dates of many of the selections in Trinidad Noir: The Classics might raise the question, Why are these pieces considered classics? The term classic in the collection’s title is not attached to the age of any pieces; rather, classics in this collection references the themes and their continued relevance to Trinidadians and Tobagonians, revealing preindependence and postcolonial eras in which locals are inundated with a variety of social, economic, and environmental anxieties without simple resolutions. These selections demonstrate that while colonization officially ended, the remnants of this system remain and continue to trouble Caribbeans. There is also the fact that Trinidad is one of the most cosmopolitan nations in the Caribbean as well as one of the region’s top industrial leaders. Yet if the postcolonial period has been a destabilizing force for Trinidad, one might wonder how other less economically and socially stable nations could withstand the strain of adapting to independence. Trinidad Noir: The Classics asks readers to reconsider the postcolonial condition in the fifty-five years after independence. While independence was a hard-won victory for Trinidadians and Tobagonians, the social, cultural, and economic destabilization caused by colonization will continue to be felt for decades to come.


Camille Alexander is a current PhD graduate and an assistant editor of Interviewing the Caribbean. Her work on Caribbean literature and black studies has been published in several journals and edited books. She is currently working on a book about Trinidadian literature and teaching.


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