“The White Woman in the Green Bicycle”: A Critique of Trinidadian Nation-building.

In The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009), Monique Roffey, in two time capsules, weaves the story of independent Trinidad : first, through the present set in 2006, where the Caribbean island state is besieged by multinational interests that tap into the country’s resources, a rogue police and law enforcement, and corruption in high offices of state, while poverty-struck suburbans , on little hope, continue to scrape by. A blimp hovering over Port of Spain keeps constant watch. The nucleus of the narrative is the household of Sabine and George who, in 1956, arrive in Trinidad as the “last colonials”, even as the old guard had already begun to pack up and leave. Their arrival in Trinidad coincides with the emergence of Eric Williams as the messiah of independence and, through his gospel of anti-colonialism, of his capturing the island’s mass consciousness.

the-white-woman-on-the-green-bicycle-9781847378026_hrThe second frame of the novel concerns with the changes that happen between 1956 and 1970: a period of transition in power from the top-hat wearing European colonial “massa” to his Trinidadian counterpart. It is the era of Eric Williams and his coterie – that of the native son, himself of suspected semi-Creole pedigree. At one point, the narrative of the nation (post-independence) runs parallel to the frictions of Sabine’s domestic life; conflicts in expectations, aspirations, and plans between husband and wife which, with time, underline a rift and divergence. Provoked by the emerging Trinidad where the “white wo/man” was not wanted, Sabine insists on their family’s return to England. But, George is taken up by the island and the opportunities it gives him to cultivate a status: to “be someone”. Here, George owns land and, as Sabine deduces, he had the opportunity to be a part of history by marking his own territory. In 1970, when a more aggressive nationalism that’s fueled by young blood takes over multinational companies are threatened of their outposts in Trinidad. Businesses are burned and the remaining “foreigners” – including George and Sabine – are  intimidated and threatened. The section ends with Sabine finally convincing George to leave, but of them missing the ship that was to repatriate them, and of them resignedly going back home, to George’s “castle”.

The White Woman On the Green Bicycle is deeply political in its critique of independent Trinidad – a nation Roffey gives shape to, at first, through a detached third person narrator, and later, through Sabine: the point of view of a detached outsider whose struggle-come-fixation was to find a passage out of Trinidad back to Europe. In many ways, Sabine is a more “accustomed white” to native conditions, as she – unlike some other wives of her class – visited markets and parts of town that were predominated by natives. She came into contact with the thoroughfare as she rode her green bicycle through traffic and glaring eyes of natives. But, at the same time, Sabine was aware of her alienation and her being rejected from the community which, in spite of her well meaning efforts, couldn’t receive her on equal terms. Centuries of colonial industry, slavery and exploitation has made such synchrony impossible. When Roffey narrates through Sabine the politics of the independent nation, the voice that comes through is of one who – unlike George – was “outsider enough” to step out of the frame to assess the goings on as it affected the lowest rungs, such as her servant Venus’ family in poverty-ridden Paramin Hill.  With her prejudices and cynicism of the new order as a line of defence She is in a position to comparatively view the day-to-day developments in the young nation. Either way, as Sabine’s domestic challenges and complexities abound, the changing political climate of the country is narrated as a background to her own personal anxiety and sense of losing hold.

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Monique Roffey

From an early stage, Sabine is acquainted with and made aware of the politics of the masses. Cycling down the city square, Sabine is drawn to rallies in which she hears Eric Williams speak at Woodford Square. The rhetoric of surging nationalism and anti-colonialism seizes Sabine with a fear. But, with time, she negotiates with that anxiety, and begins to respond to the anti-white, anti-colonial platform by writing letters: letters addressed to Eric Williams – who soon becomes a fixation – which Sabine never posts. Instead she collects them in shoe-boxes which, in time, counts to a dozen. At one level, Roffey allows the narrative to build as a negotiation between the force represented by Williams’ new guard, and its counter which came from a woman – a housewife – of the old guard: (at least in symbolism) the departing colonial. 

With the new order, recreational spaces that were earlier the preserve of the colonial class get opened to include the Trinidad’s new ruling elite. These same places had long before been the mansions of Creoles whose descendants, to this date, looked down upon “blacks” – including Eric Williams – with a degree of contempt. Now, Sabine would meet Williams as he relaxed in these “former colonies-within-the colony”, as his daughter Erica – home on a holiday from a western university – took a dip in the pool. However, the aspirations of the poor – symbolized by Granny Seraphina, Sebine’s maid Venus’ grand mother -, on whose shoulders the new nationalism was conveyed, were still in their reduced conditions. They were still waiting for an electricity line and water connection. They were still saving for something as basic as a stove cooker. Sabine’s recognition of the new government’s double standards, hypocrisy, and its alienation from the men and women it harnessed with demagoguery for its own political purposes is powerfully captured in the following words (addressed to Eric Williams). The occasion is the ceremony to mark Trinidad’s official independence in August 1962 which, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, was presided by Princess Margaret.

Talk, talk, talk. Today, all that pomp and ceremony. Good luck. Kiss the hand that kept you down. You should tell them all to get stuffed, including that twit of a princess. Already you are adapting your words. You are letting them dictate the very way they allow you to take over…

… Massa day done? Well, tell that to Granny Seraphina. Tell that to the old slave woman. She’s the one you need to worry about. No water for six days. No current. When will it come? When will you remember her? Oh Father of the Nation. Granny can’t write to you. She can’t read and write. Why do I feel unhappy? Why am I full of mistrust? (p. 312)

And then, these devastating words of the insider-outsider who – through her perceptiveness and knowledge of both worlds, European and Trinidadian – sees beyond the ignorance of euphoria and the arrogance of politics: “You’re a child again, Trinidad. Not an adult. A child. Don’t run away with yourself. Learn to walk again, walk away from them. Crawl and walk in the opposite direction” (312).

In 2006, Trinidad was in the fangs of neo-colonial industrial and political agendas. A Blimp hovered over the capital. No one knew for certain what it was; people only had theories. After 44 years, the success stories of post-independence Trinidad were persons like Brian Lara, who had reached global stardom playing a game that was a colonial residue. Ex-colonials like George – who had outstayed the empire and settled down to “become native” – hung on as journalists who reported on events. When George met Lara for an interview, he tells the Cricketing star: “Imagine what your life would have been if your father hadn’t had the gumption to put you forward” (134). Lara’s pensive response suggests the hopelessness of the situation for youth who cannot break through and make it from the streets to bigger things: “I would be vexed,” Lara says. “The kinda man the blimp supposed to be watchin’ all now”.

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Trinidad & Tobago issue of Eric Williams stamps

The estimate of Trinidad’s progress as a nation is seen in the distance between Lara’s response and Eric Williams’ promise of 1962. With time, Williams would not only break away from intellectuals like CLR James who fertilized the nationalist sentiment, but would curtail intellectual rigour in favour of his own interests. Four decades later, what captured the global imagination was not Trinidad’s intellectual energy, but its antics in the Cricketing field. As Sabine wrote, not only was Trinidad once again a child, but its legacy was one of retardation: where it hadn’t learn to speak or to develop ideas of its own. In his Beyond a Boundary (1963) CLR James records of his time in England where within a small circle of likeminded West Indians they attempted to develop ideas in support of a West Indian national consciousness. In the 1930s, James and Learie Constantine were in the North of England, and their political coming of age – their cultivation of national self-awareness and the intellectualism they brought into that understanding – is amply visible. In polite society, James encounters men and women who were “hazy about both the island and the people” (154):

The majority, or at least a great many, thought the West Indies had to do with India. In the park… a very friendly little boy came up to me, sat on my knee and asked me where was my spear… [A] Lancastrian who had visited the West Indies used to go round telling people: ‘All of them are not like Constantine and James'” (154-55).

9781784875398James’ life story itself is one that was tied with struggle, and the plight of the common. The national identity to which he contributes is representative of the energy that, through education and intellectualism, transcends from a town like Tunapuna to the world outside: an energy that nourishes the Pan-African movement and discussions of Caribbean emancipation. The intellectual tradition of which James was an artery included others in the build of George Padmore, Eric Williams, and the Martinique-born Aime Cesaire. While Williams stayed in office as Prime Minister to his death in 1981, intellectualism never converted into national politics. The character of the nation decisively broke away from an intellectual consciousness, and from a discourse in which the intelligentsia could dominate.

When the European colonial departed, the political language of Williams’ circle and that of the common mass split into two separate tongues. The unrest of the 1970s represent an urgency and a turbulence which – translated into sport – is embodied by the aggressive Cricketing strategy of the West Indies that involved ferocious front-line batting and a four-piece pace attack which dominated the game for the better part of two decades. A study of the rise of West Indian cricket and its meeting points with nationalist strong currents is at the heart of Stevan Riley’s film Fire in Babylon (2010). Dominated by men like Vivian Richards and Clive Lloyd, and featuring athletes such as Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Michael Holding, this new sense of being “West Indian” was performative and, if not aggressive, assertive. In 1976, when the West Indian cricketers, provoked by a racial slur that slipped out of England’s captain Tony Greig, rallied as a team to plant a whitewash on the Englishmen, the caliber of Brian Lara – whom George interviews in Roffey’s book, and who was to be the legacy-bearer of Caribbean cricket and culture – was 7 years old.

Sabine and George continue to live in Trinidad. Both, in their own ways, build organic relationships with the community, sharing goodwill, generosity, care and concern. Though it would have been thought unlikely at first glance, they become defenders of the down-trodden native men and women in their immediate spheres: helpless men who are mugged and intimidated by state departments and institutions. In trying to defend a victim of such intimidation – his maid’s son – George has an ugly spat with the police chief Bobby Comacho, where he gets physically threatened. Later, after George’s death, Sabine walks into the police headquarters and shoots Comacho four times – in broad daylight.

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