If you belong to my generation, you’d know that two of Trinidadian author Michael Anthony’s earliest novels, The Year in San Fernando (1965) and Green Days by the River (1967), were a rite of passage in secondary school. Born in 1930, Anthony grew up during the pre-Independence period in T&T.
His writing captures the complexity of our nation. At the time of studying these novels, I didn’t grasp the depth Anthony offered, but my literature teachers were persistent with their instruction. And for good reasons. Read Anthony’s novels carefully enough and you’ll get insight into the experiences of not just Afro-Trinidadian boys growing up, but the collective struggle of a young nation also trying to grow up. Anthony’s children belong to communities where their development is negatively impacted because of larger social and historical forces.
Beyond Anthony’s vivid writing is a deep exploration of a nation that, like his young characters, is also coming to terms with its identity. Although Anthony’s two novels were written before the official naming of Emancipation Day as a public holiday in T&T, his Afro-Trinidadian characters still embody the shared struggle as a nation to assert itself in the post-colonial, that is after colonisation, era. Both main characters in The Year in San Fernando and Green Days by the River are young Afro-Trinidadian boys who are thrust into unforeseen situations beyond their control. They both have to fight against external forces but at the end of their respective stories, they emerge a little older and a lot wiser.
Although The Games Were Coming was Anthony’s debut novel, it is his following two, The Year in San Fernando and Green Days by the River, which stand out for me as offering a lens from a child’s point of view into the future—not just theirs but also the future of a young nation.
Anthony’s novels, which the author has himself admitted to being based on his own life, continue to reflect the economic conditions experienced by some Trinidadians, not only those of African descent. Despite the challenges faced, however, Anthony also illustrates resilience by the people who continue to be exploited long after slavery was abolished. The novels make for entertaining, instructive and inspirational reading as we celebrate 37 years of Emancipation while learning how to progress from our colonial past and address the problems that linger because of it.
Anthony’s sophomore novel, The Year in San Fernando, illustrates the life of 12-year-old Francis who is sent by his mother from the countryside of Mayaro to the city of San Fernando in search of a better quality of life after his father, the breadwinner, dies. Francis eventually gets a job as a “servant companion”, which is a kind way of saying “house slave”. Through his work for the Chandles, an upper-class family, Anthony’s novel retains stereotypes created by the coloniser about the colonised. Francis’s mother, for example, is blamed for being lazy, which is used as justification for her low wages. Anthony challenges the myth of the lazy labourer by describing how Francis and his mother were both overworked and underpaid. The cycle of exploitation leads Francis to resort to stealing food from the Chandles.
Through the wealth of the Chandles and the poverty of Francis and his mother, Anthony makes readers aware of the existence of class disparities in Trinidad. The setting of the novel shows that class divisions replace racial conflict in post-colonial Trinidad. By the end of the novel, Francis returns to Mayaro. He does not gain a better standard of living, but has learned more about class exploitation.
Anthony’s third novel and one of my all-time favourites, Green Days by the River, similarly explored the effects of poverty in Trinidad. So influential has Anthony’s 1967 novel been that it even motivated a film adaptation 50 years later. Understandable because Green Days had everything: humour, suspense, picturesque landscape, young love, and death.
With all of these elements packed into one book, Green Days made an impression as one of the earliest and authentically Caribbean “bildungsroman”—a German word referring to a coming-of-age novel. Like The Year in San Fernando, Green Days tells the story of a young Afro-Trinidadian boy named Shellie who, similar to Francis, loses his father. Like Francis, the 15-year-old Shellie becomes responsible for supporting his mother. As with The Year in San Fernando, Shellie is coerced, this time by an influential land-owner, Mr Gidharee, who traps Shellie into a forced marriage with his dougla daughter, Rosalie.
With the financial burden falling squarely on Shellie’s mother, he drops out of school to help her meet their basic needs. The difficult choice between education and work for those belonging to the lower classes in society is brought to the fore in Green Days, as Anthony highlights the perpetual struggle by poor Afro-Trinidadians in the post-Independence era.
Although it may not seem apparent, Anthony’s two novels are not all doom and gloom. Both boys come of age, just not in the way that they’d hope. Francis and Shellie, representations of a young T&T nation, emerge from their struggle with open eyes, aware for the first time of class conflict and exploitation.
The knowledge gained during their experiences of exploitation seems to be Anthony’s way of describing the first step towards true freedom: liberating the mind to overcome obstacles. This is something to remember as we commemorate Emancipation Day.
—Author Jarrel De Matas is a PhD candidate and teaching associate, Department of English, College of Humanities & Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Credit: Source link