9 Books that Showcase the Different Faces of Trinidad and Tobago
Breanne Mc Ivor, author of "The God of Good Looks," recommends books on the beauty and the cruelty of life in the Caribbean nation
“Do you get internet in Trinidad?”
“You must live at the beach!”
“Do you really drink straight out the coconuts?”
I’ve been asked versions of these questions about my home country many times when I’ve been abroad. Maybe because I’ve lived almost my entire life in Trinidad and Tobago, I’m used to the inherent complexities of our twin islands. We have a vibrant Carnival culture that sees two days of near-naked revelry in the streets but also a strong streak of social conservatism with powerful religious institutions and large swathes of the population who embrace so-called “traditional” gender roles and romantic relationships. We are one of the wealthiest Caribbean countries, largely thanks to our oil and gas reserves, but our crime rate is the sixth highest in the world. We’ve been independent since 1962, but the shadow of colonialism falls over our laws, our schools, and our thinking.
However, every time I travel, I’m reminded that much of the world sees us as an island paradise tourist destination. I’ve told people that yes, we do get internet. I see the ocean multiple times a week, but I seldom actually go to the beach. And I love fresh coconut water (sometimes stereotypes are true). I think that one of the best ways to know the many faces of our islands is through literature. In The God of Good Looks, I wrote modern Trinidad as I lived it—a place with a booming beauty industry and Carnival creativity but also a rigid class structure and powerful elite who wield their power with impunity.
But every country is made up of a multiplicity of stories. Each of these books shows a different face of my country. They show the beauty, the cruelty and sometimes the absurdity of life on these rocks in the Caribbean Sea. And each of them is a cracking good read.
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Recently, someone I loved very much got sick. The doctor said, “five good years, if you’re lucky.” But we weren’t lucky. As I was grappling with the reality of death—both the person’s physical absence and the logistics of burying a body—I read When We Were Birds. This is a novel set in a fictionalized version of Trinidad and steeped in local folklore; Darwin is a down-on-his-luck gravedigger whose life becomes intertwined with Yejide, a woman tasked with helping the dead rest easy. This novel revealed the many faces of death. While death can be scary and angry and uneasy, it can also be restful, like a long sleep, or “like an old lady in a rocker on her front porch settling her skirts.”
The Dreaming by Andre Bagoo
This collection of interconnected short stories is a love letter to gay Trinidad and Tobago. Characters receive insultingly bad haircuts, have underwhelming threesomes, suspect a former lover of serial murder, and worry that their Grindr hookup is using them for food. Bagoo writes with familiarity and tenderness about “the cool, pretty boys at Boycode parties, the Muscle Marys at Carnival fetes, the slightly pretentious gays at Drink! Wine Bar, the drunk, sketchy gays at Club Studio, the nerds at his NALIS book club and the artsy, sexually fluid crowd at galleries.” The Dreaming is a book that holds both the joy and tragedy of the queer Caribbean tightly.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
“She was a woman, hooked, clubbed, half-dead, half-naked and virgin young.” The titular character, Aycaia, was one of the Caribbean’s indigenous people, cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid. This novel is set on a fictional island that has much in common with Tobago and examines the ways that a certain kind of sensual femininity can be seen as an affront and the sweeping power of colonialism, which extends past foreign ownership of Caribbean lands to encompass the ownership and exploitation of women too. The callaloo of my racial mixedness includes being part Carib—one of T&T’s first peoples—so it was a joy to see some of my history represented here.
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer
It’s 1834 and slavery has been abolished; however, the Emancipation Act has decreed that all former slaves are now apprentices and must continue to work for their planters for six years. “Freedom was just another name for the life they had always lived.” Rachel can endure it no more and flees her plantation in Barbados to search for the children who were taken from her and sold. This novel takes us from bustling Bridgetown to the forests of British Guiana and finally to Trinidad. Shearer’s historical novel reminds readers of the terrible toll slavery took on our islands while also questioning the true meaning of freedom.
The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
Aletha Lopez is about to turn 40. And while she appears to be a poised Port of Spain store manager with a killer dress sense, she’s secretly covering up bruises from her abusive partner and seeking solace by sleeping with her boss. Aletha narrates in sparkling Trinidadian Creole, while flashbacks show us her childhood pockmarked by poverty and the presence of the awful Uncle Allan. This is a devastating read that looks unflinchingly at sexual violence and family secrets, but which also celebrates the enduring power of the human spirit and the life-saving properties of friendship.
Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein
Set in the 1940s, during the turbulence of World War II, and nearing the end of colonialism, the Trinidad of this novel was both so familiar and so alien to me. When the wealthy and enigmatic Dalton Chatoor disappears, his young wife Marlee hires Hans Saroop to be her watchman and both families are devastated by the consequences of Marlee’s seemingly innocuous action. Perhaps my favorite part of this novel is Hosein’s description of the natural world. He writes, “The swifts in the darkening sky were moving like a knife slitting the dusk,” and the scene played like a movie in my mind.
One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie
One Year of Ugly follows the Palacios family—undocumented Venezuelans—who are thrust into a crime ring thanks to their now-deceased Aunt Celia’s shady underworld dealings. Many novels show Caribbean immigrants experiencing the bright lights of London or New York. But One Year of Ugly is the only book I have ever read that showed Trinidad as a place people immigrate to. The narrator, Yola Palacios, is foul-mouthed, bitingly sarcastic, and socially perceptive as she describes Trinidad from an outsiders’ perspective. Even as this novel takes us on a romantic romp through my country, it shines a spotlight on the challenges facing our Venezuelan immigrants.
The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace
Lovelace is a living legend of Trinidadian literature and in The Wine of Astonishment he’s at the height of his powers. The novel follows champion stickfighter Bolo and a cast of characters whose Spiritual Baptist religion has been outlawed by the colonial government seeking to promote more “civilized” religions, like Catholicism. When Ivan Morton defends abandoning his Spiritual Baptist faith by saying, “We can’t be white, but we can act white,” he is parroting the words of all those who thought the only way to succeed was to conform. This fictional account of T&T’s very real history is a monument to our struggles and the brave people who fought to have the fullness of their identity recognized.
Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a complicated relationship with his birth country of Trinidad and Tobago, and at his most cruel, he wrote lines like, “nothing was created in the West Indies.” However, Miguel Street is a less bitter, more loving portrayal of one Trinidadian street and the wacky cast of characters who reside there. I first read this book while studying in England and every story felt like home. I knew the characters on a cellular level. I recognized the enormous pressure we place on our children to pass exams (education is your only way out!!!). And I knew, too, that universal striving for a better life amidst a deluge of racist and classist discrimination.