“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.

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”.

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.

Already Ready to be Raped and Killed: Mina in Mirandi Riwoe’s “The Fish Girl”.

idwriters.com, a website dedicated to showcasing Indonesian writers, introduces Mirandi Riwoe – the Brisbane-based Australian writer – as “the daughter of a Chinese/Indonesian father and an Irish/English Australian mother.” In her novella The Fish Girl (Xoum Publishing, 2017), Mirandi is attempting to frame the story of a young, rural girl during the long Dutch occupation of the former Malaya region; and of her being brought away from her backwater home to be a servant to a Dutch master in the city, which ends catastrophically for her. First, this girl – Mina (literally, the fish girl) – is sexually ‘used’ by Ajat, Mina’s village head’s son, who also works for the same master. Being discovered with Ajat, the master consents to the request by one of his Dutch ship’s captain friends – one who is infatuated with the young girl from the first – to let him take Mina with him on board for his next voyage. Exchanges between the captain and Mina suggest that he meant to take the girl away with him to the Netherlands.

Mirandi Riwoe

However, this voyage proves tragic and ominous signs pervade from the start, as the remaining three Dutch sailors – Bulle, Jonckheer and Haas – disapprove of the girl’s presence and views her with resentment. The captain’s mate, Bulle, makes drunken advances on Mina and, being found out, the captain shoots the mate to death after which he turns his pistol on himself. The remaining two Dutch sailors – Jonckheer and Haas – rape Mina, tie weights on her body, and throw her overboard into the sea. In a sense, Mirandi’s novella – which ends with the girl’s death – leads the reader to the main premise of a Somerset Maugham short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’ (1949). Maugham’s story in itself is a patched-together account of a Malay girl being brought on board a Dutch ship which ends in the above-alluded chain of events. Mirandi quite consciously frames her novella as a prelude of sorts – in any case, a precedent – to the course of events in Maugham’s short story.

In spite of The Fish Girl being the recipient of several prizes, as a work of literature, it leaves much to desire. Contributing to the front blurb, Inga Simpson concludes that the novel presents a “beautifully written story, fresh yet powerful”, but at best, only the first half of this statement comes across as true. In agreement with Simpson, one can credit the writing – the often lyrical use of language, frequently with a cadence that echoes the motions of the sea on the shore – to be Mirandi’s strong point. Her sketches of scenery, provocation of atmosphere, and dedication to detail highlight much promise. However, from the beginning – from the first we meet Mina in the rural fishing village – her fate-to be, is already a premonitory fore-conclusion. The level of vulnerability, the sheer lack of agency, the optimism which blinds her naivety and the cliched history of the formula Mirandi uses for a frame prepare Mina for her inevitable, ultimate tragic ‘fall’. From the very beginning, it can be surmised that, sooner or later, Mina will be sexually abused, even raped; and probably be brutally killed. The reader merely operates from the urge to find out as to when, in what way  and to what degree these calamities will be realized.

9781925589061Lamentable of all, however, is the non-agency Mirandi feeds the character of the girl. Not altogether an original handicap in cosmopolitan and urbane writers while framing realities and communities in the margins, this, however, showcases a reinforcement of a stereotype – that of the gullible, exploitable, abuse-able rural virgin (one who is unconditionally, unsuspectingly sent to work in the city by her equally ignorant, trusting and naive family) – that is palatable and consumer-friendly to the urban and middle class (and above) readerships. Mina’s gullibility and her gradual but easy surrender are made to thrill a kind of audience receptive and in expectation of such violation of lower-than-middle class women: women who echo the power-fringe, as well as the rustic and rural impulse of primal, tribal significations. Throughout the novel, Mina is presented as an irrational, non-thinking being who is emotive, easy to please and placate, and is materially ambitious. She is a reinforcement of the stereotype of the woman that can be exploited and won over with a gift or the promise of wonderment. Her emotive reactions – even her thoughts of home while being in the city – are fleeting responses that are more impulsive than thought-out reflection. Instances such as Mina’s ready agreement to board the Dutch ship – to be the concubine of the sweaty, fat (but reasonable and kind) captain – and pursue the dream of Dutch life in a faraway town shown to her in the pictures reduces the depth of the girl’s psychology, as much as it exposes the limitations of Mirandi’s capabilities. This is a forced leap from shore to sea, merely to satisfy the writer’s need to tie up the girl’s story the preconceived set piece Mirandi carries as a burden: Maugham’s ‘The Four Dutchmen’.

Sex and Death in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea”.

Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963) ends with the impending death of Ryuji Tsukazaki, a newly retired second mate of the ship ‘Rakuyo’ – a retirement he embraces in order to settle down to a domestic life with his newly found girl friend, Fusako, a young widow in Yokohama – at the hands of a gang of adolescent school boys. This gang consists of a group of intelligent, deeply read, high-achievers which includes Fusako’s son, Noboru. The preceding summer, Ryuji had entered young Noboru’s life, who is fascinating with navigation. With his connection with the sea and as a bearer of sea-stories, Ryuji becomes to Noboru a signification of zealous heroism. Soon after, Noboru watches through a secret peep hole in his wall cupboard as Fusako and Ryuji prepare for bed together. As a part of his cult indoctrination Noboru had already been conditioned to look at sexual encounters of the sort with dispassion and disinterest. But,  as the elders’ relationship develops, and as Ryuji moves in during the winter – in short, as Ryuji transforms from a ‘man of the sea’ to a ‘father’ and a ‘husband’ – Noboru loses his idealization of Ryuji. Later, Noboru reports his situation to the cult leader – another thirteen year old – along with a ‘charge sheet’ he had made against the sailor. The cult decides to kill Ryuji after having drugging his tea. His body would then be cut and hacked into pieces and be disposed of.

Kimitake Hiraoka alias Yukio Mishima

Mishima’s novel is memorable for several representations, motifs and traits. As an overarching preoccupation, for instance, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is at once a haunting meditation on isolation and death, as well as one’s poignant effort at mastering or bypassing those conditions. Ryuji carries as a dormant scar the deep memory of his own father’s and sister’s deaths. He gets drawn to a life of navigation as a means of getting over his disenchantment with the land. But, when the first thrill of the exotic wears off in faraway lands, he becomes less passionate of his vocation. On the ship, Ryuji often retires from company to his isolation and the wailing sea song which he plays on a loop. Between shifts and calls at ports that he follows mechanically as a routine, Ryuji meets Fusako and is enamoured by her. When his desires are met with and as their union takes shape, Ryuji feels a sense of fulfillment in life. Conditions that are connected to or are shaped by death can be noted in other characters, too. For instance, Fusako lives with a cavity left by her husband’s untimely death and – burdened by the responsibility of a child and her reputation – she suspends or suppresses her desires and sexual needs. The cult to which Noboru belongs engages in discussions of the meaning of life and death, and how to surpass these base realities. They carry out a rehearsal where the boys slaughter a kitten and dissect it by drawing out its entails. One of their motives is to conquer the banalities of life, which includes triumphing over fear and death.

But, what interests this essay is the unmistakable Oedipal overtone which the novel assumes. Ryuji’s death is partly the result of his transgression of the sacred space of the domestic chamber as a ‘newly-cast father’. As a returnee from the sea – as a man who had exposed himself to the elements and the tests of bare life – Ryuji was both a hero and a model to look up to: he, in Noboru’s eyes, was one who had gone beyond the banal and the mundane to challenge uncertainty and death. For Noboru, the first time Ryuji takes Fusako to bed is an extension of that heroic conquest. But, later, as Ryuji’s relationship with Fusako gets cemented in domestic terms within matrimonial definitions – as he crosses the frontier from ‘hero-conqueror’ to ‘would-be father’ – the sailor becomes reconfigured as an intruder who has now cast a loathsome shadow over the house, as well as Noboru’s life.

511zp4AK7hL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_The novel opens with a description of Noboru’s discovery of the ‘peep hole’ in the wall cupboard, which gives the boy a secret advantage to the intimacy of his mother’s bedroom. The reader is familiarized with Noboru’s voyeuristic habits, which include watching his mother undress for bed. It is emphasized that Noboru followed this voyeur-routine with great satisfaction and self-revival when he was being punished or grounded by his mother. His voyeurism, in other words, was a psycho-sexual response which became prominent in moments of rage or oppression. His father had died at eight, and now, at thirteen, Noboru had perfected a method to balance his own universe against that of his mother’s dictate. At one level, through the familiarizations made by his cult, Noboru had come to see himself as mentally superior to the superficial existences of his elders, including Fusako. The tempers, desires and anxieties that moved the life of his mother were ‘superficial stuff’ in his eye, compared to his superior understanding and quest in life. In such circumstances, Noboru’s voyeurism can be charged with an erotic energy that sublimated a form of sexual control which he otherwise cannot stand to exert on Fusako.

In an Oedipal universe, there cannot be two males in polarization. Ryuji’s elimination becomes inevitable – and in a way, he fails to capitalize on the line he is provided by chance – when he chooses to be a ‘modern father’: a reasonable, compromising friend than its over-imposing, authoritarian Oedipal counterpart. When Noboru is caught in the act of peeping on Fusako and Ryuji in bed, Fusako lets “father decide” the fate of the mischief-maker: she allows Ryuji to exert punishment, preferably, by physical humiliation of the child. However, Ryuji decides to dismiss the matter with a friendly rebuke, and volunteers to fill the peeping hole with cement, with the promise of not alluding to the matter anymore. Noboru’s inner resentment at this is powerfully captured in the novel. In his diary, Noboru writes a charge sheet against Ryuji.

oedipal-narcissistic-stageIn fact, Ryuji Tsukazaki’s ‘charge sheet’ is one that goes back as Noboru’s summer meeting with the sailor. In all, it contains six charges. The initial indictments – charges one and two – are warranted by Ryuji’s breach of the ‘heroic figure’ Noboru mentally desired in the sailor; the one he had bragged to his friends about and made much of. ‘Smiling at me in a cowardly, ingratiating way when I met him this noon’ (charge one) and ‘wearing a dripping wet shirt and explaining that he had taken a shower in the fountain at the park’ (charge two) decisively give way to complaints that emerge from Ryuji’s crossing the ‘domestic line’ – stepping over Noboru’s psycho-sexual domain to the life of his sexual object/fantasy, Fusako – in his transfer from ‘hero’ to ‘father to be’: ‘Answering, when I asked when he would be sailing again: “I’m not sure yet”‘ (charge four), ‘coming back here again in the first place’ (charge five). The third charge, which goes back to the first night of Ryuji’s summer stay at Fusako’s, reads as follows: ‘deciding arbitrarily to spend the night out with mother, thereby placing me in an awfully isolated position‘ (my emphasis). This third charge is a mediation of the shifting paradigm between ‘hero’ and ‘father, as sexual rival’. It identifies Ryuji as a vandal and pillager; an alienating agent that upsets the equilibrium of Noboru’s world. The sixth and last charge is based on Ryuji’s decision to fill the hole on the wall, which deprived Noboru of his arbitrary voyeurism. Taken together, the cult chief sees the sixth as the gravest offense. Ryuji is then sentenced to be executed by the cult.

Ranking high among Mishima’s more memorable work, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea pierces through a host of psychological and sexual ‘givens’, chiseling them away against the backdrop of a modern suburban Japan – a country revitalizing itself after the World War – and the complex personal and community tensions that shape its rise. It is at once meditative, philosophical, dramatic and pregnant with dark irony, while being ingrained by unexpected passages of satanic dryness (least of all, from a band of thirteen year olds), harsh cynicism, sharp irony, and twists and sharp narrative bends.