It may be hard for some to picture it, but Merle Hodge was once a schoolgirl. Before she became a doyenne of Caribbean literature — her 1970 debut Crick Crack, Monkey is now considered a classic; Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat calls her “a giant” — she was like one of the children in her books. Each of her novels is an elegant précis of the distortions wrought by colonialism in pre-Independence Trinidad. In that Trinidad, school is no gateway to enlightenment: it becomes the conduit by which the subject is disciplined and punished.
“During my student days in England, I went to Denmark from time to time, and worked in a children’s home,” Hodge tells me, in reply to emailed questions. “When we took the children for walks in the woods, they could tell you the name of every tree, flower, or weed along the way. When we read to them from their storybooks, I saw that the stories were peopled by characters who looked just like them.
“All of this was in sharp contrast to my childhood experience,” she continues. “These children had a strong sense of who they were, and what that meant. Nobody was suggesting to them that they would be better people if they were somebody else, somebody from a different place. Crick Crack was, to a large extent, a looking back at my childhood from this vantage point.”
It is a vantage point relevant to all Hodge’s work. After Crick Crack, Monkey came the novel For the Life of Laetitia (1993); an influential manual on grammar, The Knots in English (1997); and now, fifty-one years after her debut, One Day, Congotay, scheduled for publication in September 2021 by Peepal Tree Press.
Hodge was born in Curepe, Trinidad, in 1944, one of four children. Like her sisters, she spent time in two households: that of her parents and that of her grandmother. Her grandmother had a separate home, but sometimes visited to take care of the children. (Hodge chafes against the notion of the “nuclear family,” which ignores the fact that, in the Caribbean, children frequently inhabit a network of households.) With the aid of scholarships, Hodge went to Bishop Anstey High School in Port of Spain, then to the University of London, where she studied French language and literature and Latin. She left Trinidad in 1962, the very year the country became independent. Crick Crack, Monkey was written between Britain, Denmark, and France.
The novel is a bildungsroman, narrated by Tee. After the death of her mother triggers a custody battle, Tee moves between two worlds: the semi-rural realm of cantankerous Tantie and the urbane sphere of waspish Aunt Beatrice. This movement brings about a clash of intersectional values surrounding class, culture, community, and race. Tee’s “education” is not limited to academics. Soon there are competing claims to her loyalty. By the novel’s last line, as she pays Tantie a painful final visit, Tee looks upon Tantie with disdain: “I desired with all my heart that it were next morning and a plane were lifting me off the ground.” It is a line that resonates, I feel, with the conclusion of V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street, where the unnamed child narrator scornfully looks upon all the characters he has just described, and flees “walking briskly towards the aeroplane.”
But Crick Crack’s politics play second fiddle to its stylistic verve. The strength of its prose comes from its perspective: it is written from the view of the child, forcing a distillation. For long stretches, it is clear Tee is yet to come to terms with her mother’s death (in childbirth) and the subsequent disappearance of her Papa (who, having gone off “to sea,” may have migrated, may have taken ill, may have —). It is not that children are unable to process truth; it is that they find themselves within narratives they cannot control. Pre-destination and fate: these are concerns, to some extent, of all writers. But through these inferences, Hodge questions the future of the Caribbean project itself. The impression is powerful.
Similar elements take flight in For the Life of Laetitia, a novel which, published almost two decades after its predecessor, revisits and reverses some of the choices made in Crick Crack. Just as Tee splits into a double character, so too does Laetitia. But while more is at stake in the second book, Laetitia eventually exudes agency and self-determination.
“In the late 1970s, I taught [in Trinidad] in a newly built senior comprehensive school,” Hodge says of the origins of her second book. “I set out, I think, to look at the high school experience in the era of Independence — almost two decades in — that had brought on an expansion of secondary education.
“In contrast to Tee lifting off to escape and disown her world, Laetitia insists on going home, embracing and claiming her heritage. She has stood up to the classist and racist teacher in defence of her friend Anjanee. In this respect, Laetitia can be seen as a companion novel. Tee’s capitulation is replaced by Laetitia’s resistance.”
Hodge has spent decades teaching and lecturing in several countries, administering writing residencies — for twenty years she has led the Cropper Foundation’s biennial writers’ workshop in T&T, alongside Funso Aiyejina — and sitting on a range of key advisory bodies in the Caribbean. Activism has been part and parcel of her career.
For example, in 2017 Hodge wrote a letter to the editor of the news website Wired868 after political rhetoric about re-introducing corporal punishment resurfaced. “Let’s leave the children’s well-being out of the politicking, please,” Hodge urged. “In the twenty-first century, to beat or not to beat children is no longer a topic up for debate.” Even her manual on grammar, The Knots in English, makes an impassioned case for distinguishing between Creole grammar and English grammar: “We have a language of our own, and English is another language that we have to learn.” Activism is a central theme, too, in her new novel, which, at the time of our interview, Hodge was still putting the finishing touches on.
“All three novels have been written in occasional snatches of time in between other work – studying; demanding day job; activism,” she says. “One Day, Congotay has been about twenty-five years in the making.”
The new novel, Hodge explains, is set in Trinidad in the period between 1900 and 1955. The protagonist is Gwynneth Cuffie, a school teacher. Teacher Gwynneth puts her energies into the struggles of her time, such as the battle for political and cultural self-determination and the early labour movement. She also engages in struggles that are of another time: her advocacy for children, and her ideas regarding a woman’s place, go against the grain of mainstream opinion. Gwynneth’s activism is closely interwoven with her personal life, and the novel is as much a glimpse of a people’s history as it is the story of one woman.
The classroom of today — with its laptops, tablets, mobiles, online distractions — looks nothing like the classroom of pre-Independence Trinidad. All of Hodge’s novels are time capsules, but they challenge us to ask how much things have really changed. From first to last, her projects manifest the fact that, as formidable as she is today, Hodge is fully aware of, indeed has written paeans to, the wisdom of children.
Talking to Merle Hodge
Excerpts from the writer’s interview with Andre Bagoo
In recent years, “young adult” fiction has become a big sub-genre in the writing world. Your books for me are relevant to all ages, but they could fit into this category nonetheless. Is the “young adult” label useful? Or should we simply focus on the writing and what it achieves?
Over the years many people have told me, to my surprise at first, that children from that age upwards have been reading [Crick Crack, Monkey] with interest. World literature contains many novels which employ a child as protagonist, or as seeing-eye, but are not aimed specifically at children. Some of these works appeal to young readers, and some don’t. Child readers might understand and enjoy a piece of fiction at one level and not decipher everything in it. For example, we might read Alice in Wonderland as children and be quite entertained by it, but need to read it again as adults to gain a full understanding of issues involved. In the labelling of books by readership, it might be enough to indicate that a book is suitable for readers “of all ages” — your apt formulation — rather than label it categorically into “young adult,” which could perhaps deter adult readers.
In your first two novels, children are often treated as pawns or collateral to the agendas of adults, caught up in adults’ egos, ambitions, agendas, prejudices, insecurities, etc. In T&T, we now have a Children’s Authority to investigate violations of children’s rights, but it seems unable to keep up with reports. Looking at current events, do you think we have made enough progress on recognising children as full human beings?
Recognising children as full human beings? We have some distance yet to go. Slavery has left its impact on Caribbean culture. Adults may view children with the apprehension that the slave-owner felt about the enslaved — the potential of the latter to get out of hand and overpower their owners. Hence the whip and the range of other inhumane punishments devised for keeping the enslaved in check. Hence the strong resistance of adults, right up to the twenty-first century, against abandoning corporal punishment in favour of a non-violent approach to child-rearing.
The women’s movement has done enough advocacy to convince most of the population that a man beating his female partner is just as unacceptable as any adult beating any other adult — called “assault” under the law. Yet a woman or man beating a child is seen as natural and necessary behaviour. Advocacy for non-violent behaviour has not had much impact there. Verbal or emotional abuse of children is also quite in order. Some of our interactions with children do suggest that we do not see them as fully human.
Crick Crack, Monkey was published in 1970, For the Life of Laetitia in 1993, and now, three decades later, you’re about to publish a third. What are the factors that contribute to how long you take to write? Can you describe your writing process for readers?
I don’t have anything as planned and disciplined as a set process, except for a lot of self-critique and rewriting. This ongoing revision might be part of what accounts for long gaps between one book and another. And then, I don’t generally have the whole novel in my head when I begin writing. I’m not sure any writer does. Often an individual scene from somewhere along the chronology of the story will come into my head, and I write it down as soon as I get the time. I don’t have the luxury of writing continuously for any significant stretch of time. What makes the “process” even more haphazard is that sometimes there is time but no inspiration to write.
After One Day, Congotay, when is the next novel coming?
I might attempt some short stories. I would hate to start a novel and not live to finish it.