Musings on Trinidad Noir

Last Friday night ushered in bone-chilling temperatures. Nonetheless, I ventured outdoors. Why? I accepted an invitation to a book launch and reception hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The book in question? Trinidad Noir.

I enjoy attending book launches and literary events of this nature since they often serve as de facto reunions. This time around proved no exception. Immediately upon arrival I ran into Roger Bonair-Agard, my childhood friend turned performance poet. As the night wore on, I discovered that Vahni Capildeo, a writer who read her submission to the anthology, was a classmate of my younger sister, Alison. Before leaving the reception, I was rubbing shoulders with one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Nunez.

But I digress. Let's get back to the book. So what is Trinidad Noir? Roger Bonair-Agard summed it up best when he introduced the book at the reception. According to Bonair-Agard,

"Trinidad Noir... tells not only brilliant stories, but comes up with characters and language that we recognize as uniquely ours, even as we participate in this global cultural hegemony ... Trinidad Noir is even more important because it brings alive the country's topography. From Toco to East Dry River, to all points on all coasts, the writing of the country's contours comes alive in a way that suggests all that is rugged and beautiful and easy in the land, and all that that mirrors in the people. And when we get to what it mirrors in the people, a Trinidad people, then we are talking so many shades of history, that the speech and expectations are their own rugged topography. In the whole book we find expressed a layered and abiding pathos and celebration."

Noir fiction is a uniquely American style of writing which can trace its provenance as far back as the 1920s, and is often associated with detective short stories. The core elements of noir fiction include crime, violence, sex, drugs, a protagonist with an ambiguous moral code, and a femme fatale. I wondered how the co-editors of the anthology, Lisa Allen-Agostini and Jeanne Mason, introduced the genre and what setbacks, if any, they may have encountered. According to Ms. Allen-Agostini,

"Another challenge was to get people to understand what the noir genre is. We don't have that writing or film tradition in the Caribbean, although we read and watch as much of it as anybody. So getting writers to commit to a crime story with certain overtones was really quite hard. There are a few stories in the collection that were quite different when we first got them, but we worked with the authors to develop the noir aspect without losing the core of the stories. Jaime Lee Loy's story is one of those. She submitted a story that was beautiful and artistic but not a crime story; my mantra was, "Show me the body. I want a body." So we worked with her to highlight the abuse elements and bring that to a point where somebody has to die, and does."

Another equally unique submission is that of Dr. Elizabeth Nunez, author of Discretion, Beyond the Limbo Silence, Bruised Hibiscus, Prospero's Daughter, among others. At the reception, Dr. Nunez acknowledged that she was not a short story writer, but felt compelled to contribute to the anthology. I probed her to learn just how she approached this task. In an email exchange, Dr. Nunez wrote,

"I am a novelist. I like the wide canvas to spread out and paint my stories. I knew immediately that I wanted to write about class and color discrimination in Trinidad; this is often a topic of my novels. The challenge for me was to find a character and an incident that would capture in few words my anger toward a society that victimizes young people because of the color of their skin and their social class. I know that the noir genre usually applies to stories of crime and misdemeanors, but I am always more interested in the crimes against the human spirit."

Other notable submissions include The Jaguar by Keith Jardim; Bonair-Agard, on the other hand, is rooting for the writer Tiphanie Yanique.

Typically, editions of the noir series focus on a city, ergo Paris Noir or New Orleans Noir. Naturally, one would expect Port-of-Spain Noir, since it is the capital of the country and a major city. So I asked Ms. Allen-Agostini to elaborate on ways the finished product differs from what she initially had in mind, and whether or not she regrets not doing a Port-of-Spain Noir. She responded,

"It differs from my initial conception because I really didn't know people would have wanted to write about the city so much. In retrospect, although I really enjoy this book and have no problem with how it came out, I wish in a way that I had done Port-of-Spain Noir. That might have been exciting in a whole different way. I love the city, I always have--although, I guess, for branding purposes Trinidad Noir has more cache."

Another reception, another book launched. But rest assured, long after the Solo and Peardrax have been poured, after the last morsel of jerk chicken wings has been eaten, Trinidad Noir will be savored for years to come.