Still news

Nicholas Laughlin on Trinidad’s crônistas

A few months ago I met a young editor from a Venezuelan magazine, and we spent an evening talking about the contemporary literary scene in Trinidad. She’d read Naipaul, Selvon, Lovelace, but she wanted to know who were the writers writing about the Trinidad of here and now, this complicated, frustrating place so different, in some ways, to the Trinidad captured in the narratives of an older generation.

I explained that many — most? — of our best or best-known writers still live elsewhere, in bigger, colder countries. We talked a little about the consequences of this, of the effect on a writer’s work of such distance from the “home” he or she is writing about. I pointed out how many recent novels by these “diaspora” writers are set in the past — sometimes recent, sometimes distant — and told her how disappointed I was that so few of our major writers seem interested in really engaging with contemporary Trinidad. Who should she read, then, she wanted to know, to really understand this place?

As it happened, I’d just been reading B.C. Pires’s Thank God It’s Friday, his collection of the best of a series of weekly newspaper columns written over the course of fifteen years (and reviewed in the August 2005 CRB by Anu Lakhan), and I’d been struck by the feeling that these short stand-alone pieces, written to a strict word count and deadline, and ostensibly dealing with current events, when assembled in their dozens begin to look like a narrative — the narrative of a character called “B.C. Pires,” resembling but not identical to B.C. Pires the author.

Following this thread of thought, it’s occurred to me that some of the most interesting work by contemporary Trinidadian writers does not come in conventional fictional or poetic forms at all, but rather in the form of fragmentary, discontinuous, first-person non-fiction narratives in the periodical press — i.e., newspaper columns — which we may have some difficulty identifying as “literary” — or even identifying as “narratives” — because of the format of their publication. I’d certainly include Pires’s short, irreverent essays, scandalously funny only until they slip the blade of truth between the reader’s ribs; and Wayne Brown’s “In Our Time” columns, which began appearing in the Trinidad Guardian in 1984, moved around from one Trinidadian newspaper to another, and now appear in Jamaica, where Brown has settled, in the Observer. (Many of these columns — with their supple, acrobatic prose that can swoop from high to low, exalted to demotic, in a single paragraph — were collected in The Child of the Sea in 1989 and Landscape with Heron in 2000, where Brown describes them as “stories and remembrances”; it’s clear he’s thought of these pieces as literary from the start.) I’d also include the best of Keith Smith’s columns, which have been appearing daily in the Trinidad Express for as long as I can remember, required reading for thousands of Trinidadians who might never think of picking up a book by one of the Caribbean’s Nobel Prize-winning luminaries.

These writers, I’ve been thinking, are creating characters based on themselves and showing us how they respond, in real time, to the social forces at play around them. Officially, this is “journalism” — writing for today about today’s questions — but, at their best, these writers are writing with a breadth of vision, depth of concern, and virtuosity of style (which of his readers could fail to recognise an effortlessly never-ending Keith Smith sentence!) that gives their narratives the permanence of literature. (Pound: “literature is news that stays news.”)

I know next to nothing about Brazilian literature, but I do know that it recognises and prizes a genre called the crônica, which translates as “chronicle.” Crônicas, which have been written by many distinguished novelists and poets, are wide-ranging in form — they can be essays or short stories, prose poems or journals, or just exercises in style, or in thinking aloud — and they are published, yes, in the columns of the daily press. They take for their subject matter the politics of the day, the questions of the ages, or just ordinary incidents in their writers’ lives, and they prove — should we ever need convincing — that anything in the human world can be an occasion of literature.

Maybe, if it will help us recognise what they’re writing as literature, we ought to consider Brown, Pires, Smith, and perhaps one or two others as our crônistas, our chroniclers, patiently, gradually, and surely describing and trying to make sense of the real Trinidadian “now” — the long “now” of the last fifteen or twenty years — even as many of our novelists continue to inhabit a long-ago Trinidad familiar from books like A House for Mr Biswas, A Brighter Sun, and The Dragon Can’t Dance.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2006

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.