Over the last few days I’ve been tuned in to two virtual literary conferences: the wonderful Bocas Lit Fest, now in its tenth year; and the UWI-organised LITTCON 2020, on T&T literature between 1980 and 2020. Nearly every panel called for more people to tell, write and share their personal, family or community stories, whether in fictional or non-fictional forms.
I recently read a novel by Trinidadian/Canadian writer Madeline Coopsammy, The Old Songs (2018). This is definitely an autobiographical novel, in that the childhood of her heroine closely parallels her own. I read this book as a fictionalised memoir of the author’s life in Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Old Songs tells the story of Tessa, a girl born in 1939 to an urban, Indo-Trinidadian, Roman Catholic family. Her family was from Boissière Village in Maraval (called “de Gannes” in the novel), where there was a small but culturally distinct community of people of South Indian ancestry, originally Tamil-speaking, Roman Catholic, and with links to Martinique.
When Tessa and her siblings were born, her family was living in a big house in the middle-class suburb of Woodbrook (“Meadowbrook” in the novel). But her father died and her mother was cheated out of her property, so in 1947 they moved (at night, so the neighbours wouldn’t see how little furniture they had) to a much smaller house in a new housing development in “San Juan de la Pina”—St James. This was definitely a step down, but the family was always “respectable” and Tessa’s mother was disdainful of “ordinary” folks, whether African or Indian.
Part of the book portrays a childhood in St James in the late 1940s and 1950s, and so can be compared with Theresa Awai’s stories in Swing High, Iron Pot. The Western Main Road was a busy commercial street, lively all day and night, but Tessa wasn’t allowed to go there alone: it was peopled with drunks, prostitutes, American soldiers and mad “characters”. Unlike Awai, Tessa was too “respectable” to be permitted to join the boys’ games in the open spaces of the suburb; she and her sister were more or less confined to the small home and tiny yard, apart from school and church.
Tessa is an Indo-Trinidadian who is Christian, but not Presbyterian; she belongs to the Catholic Church where Indians are a small minority. She’s completely “westernised”—she speaks no Hindi, Tamil or Patois; her dress, hairstyle and language are English; she’s embarrassed by country relatives who are “old-time” Indians and Hindus; her lifestyle is urban. In a sense, as the novel makes clear, she belongs to a rather isolated community, a minority of a minority.
Tessa goes to St Joseph’s Convent in 1950, where she is one of about 20 Indian girls out of around 600. The novel depicts the many kinds of discrimination she faced in this school, from the white nuns and lay teachers; there was pervasive prejudice against all the girls who were not white or very fair-skinned. All the same, she saw the school as a haven of peace, order and “civilised” behaviour.
After 1956, the novel depicts the fears held by many Indo-Trinidadians that the new PNM government would discriminate against them, and would encourage “douglarisation”. Was there any future for a girl like Tessa in the new Trinidad? Everyone wanted to go away; “it was the age of migration”. Like Coopsammy, Tessa gets a scholarship from the Indian government to study at a university in India; she accepts it despite all the warnings against going to a place even more backward than Trinidad...
Coopsammy’s novel opens another window to the Trinidad of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a good example of the kinds of stories the literature community is calling for.
• Bridget brereton is
professor emerita of history at The UWI, St Augustine