‘Trinidad Noir’ and the representation of Indo-Trinidadians

The space of Trinidad offers rich and diverse concepts of noir that arise from folk tales, legends of crimes and criminals, and stories where the material world crosses effortlessly with the spiritual one. In Trinidadian culture there is already an established noir aesthetic that is today expanding, given the current crime scene.

Most Trinidadians are now intimately familiar with the details of kidnappings, murders or robberies, since these crimes have either directly or indirectly affected the majority. “Trinidad Noir” therefore promises to reveal aspects of noir emerging from current social conditions in Trinidad. The anthology is divided into two sections, with eight stories under the heading “Country,” and ten under the heading “Town.”

Most of the contributors are of Trinidadian origin, and live either in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Various themes emerge from this collection, but one theoretically consistent element is the negative representation of Indo-Trinidadians, and Indo-Trinidadian women in particular, even by writers who are usually perceived as being sensitive to these portrayals.

In stories where Indo-Trinidadians have a marginal presence, the images are unflattering. For instance, in her story, “Standing on Thin Skin”, Oonya Kempadoo describes an empty day at Maracas beach. Amidst descriptions of the hills and foliage, Kempadoo adds: “No vanload of country coolies, with Auntie, Uncle, beti, and fine-fine pickney hiding to eat curry and roti.” Perhaps the narrator feels licensed to make such observations since she is of “mixed race”.

In Reena Andrea Manickchand’s “Dougla,” the mixed-race protagonist comments negatively on both races.

He states: “One can never count on the African or Indian Trinidadians, as they hate douglas for having the best of both gene pools. Both races are the same— a bunch of persecutors.” In Manickchand’s story, the “dougla” character is at the centre of an elaborate scheme meant to keep him out of trouble so that he will not end up in jail. This disciplining of the mixed-race character is an established literary trope, where racial mixing signifies a disruption of the social and racial order, and the mixed-race protagonist must be punished in order to symbolically maintain the status quo.

The desire to uphold class hierarchies is one of the main underlying themes of this anthology. Noir is essentially linked to working-class status, and in the majority of stories working-class culture is synonymous with criminality. The fall from middle or upper class status is central, and creates the moment or ambience of noir in most of the stories.

There is a literal fall in Vahni Capildeo’s “Peacock Blue”, where Indo-Trinidadians seem unable to transcend the debilitating beliefs and manners of the upper class to which they belong. Whether they are bitter like Petal the Matriarch, or fighting for personal space like Maureen, the Indian women in Capildeo’s story are passively, destructively, victims of their class. A similar representation of women trapped in upper-class society is seen in Shani Mootoo’s “The Funeral Party”.

Here the lives of the female characters revolve around one man. Several women begin to fight each other at this man’s funeral when they realise that they were all his lovers. In Mootoo’s and Capildeo’s texts, Indo-Trinidadian women are either imprisoned by class, or completely controlled by men and male desire. Incidentally, the gardener and yard boy in these stories are used to convey the sense of working-class menace so common in this anthology.

The figure of the passive, apolitical Indian woman is seen in Ramabai Espinet’s “Nowarian Blues.” As Geeta contemplates her future with Micah, she is entirely removed from the political upheaval that Micah is in the process of orchestrating. Geeta’s thoughts and actions are circumscribed by her affair with Micah, and her main interest is Micah’s sexuality. The image of the failed coup, juxtaposed against the scenes of uncontrolled nature, suggests that none of the characters in this story, especially Geeta, have the power to transform their lives; only the land possesses agency and autonomy.

In Kevin Baldeosingh’s “The Rape,” Indian women are portrayed as sexually repressed. At the end of this story, Hemrajie’s unleashed desire and her willingness to act on the unconscious jogger creates the moment of noir. In this case, the sexuality of Indo-Trinidadian women

becomes a site of literary spectacle and ridicule.

In some of the stories mentioned above, there are attempts to treat Indo-Trinidadian women characters with a certain level of complexity. Not so in Robert Antoni’s “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad &Tobago National Archives.” Antoni takes clear delight in embracing most of the racist stereotypes traditionally used against Indo-Caribbean women. The Indian librarian in his story is unstable, unhygienic and, above all, illiterate and sexually insatiable. Offensive representations such as these are painfully familiar, since they have also been historically applied to Afro-Caribbean and African-American women.

Although the scholarship on Indo-Caribbean women is a recent development in the field of Caribbean literature, there are today numerous studies explaining how negative representations of women of colour have supported and perpetuated their oppression and exploitation during the colonial as well as postcolonial period.

In a sense the noir of this collection, as it relates to Caribbean literature, is the fact that representations of Indo-Trinidadian women such as Antoni’s are still being written and disseminated.

Trinidad Noir does offer various insights into the social realities of Trinidad.

It especially highlights how some of the writers in this collection conceive of working-class people and Indo-Trinidadians. Noir indeed.


"‘Trinidad Noir’ and the representation of Indo-Trinidadians"

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