College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Reviews The Swinging Bridge
Ramabai Espinet
Toronto: HarperCollins, 2003.

Reviewed by Patricia Clark

On the classroom maps of my early childhood, a disappointing pale pink identified Canada and the rest of the British Empire, a blandness compensated, in my callow mind, by the vigorous colours of ‘our’ Union Jack. My sense of affinity to Mother England was bolstered by clippings of the Royal Family neatly pasted into my older sister’s scrap books and by second-hand copies of the Illustrated London News that I leafed through on Sundays by the fireplace. But it was the twilight of an empire. In 1962, while my classmates and I endeavoured to design a national flag for Canada, children in Trinidad were celebrating their nation’s independence, celebrating their “own culture and not some washed-out white people song and dance sent from England.” This sentiment, expressed by Mona Singh, the narrator of The Swinging Bridge, Ramabai Espinet’s powerful yet lyrical first novel, is one with which Canadians of my generation, still burdened in the Sixties by our colonial heritage and thirsting for “Canadian content” in our public culture, will instantly identify.

Also readily recognizable to Canadian readers are the conflicts inherent in multiculturalism, neo-colonialism, and patriarchy, albeit “chokayed,” spiced up, in a uniquely Indo-Trinidadian fashion in the novel—viz, the local African-Indian hostility, the American influence stemming from the wartime US military presence in Trinidad, and the traditional isolation and subjugation of women in Indian culture. Then, add to these ingredients “the privileges of whiteness in a colonial society” enjoyed initially by the Europeans and British and later by “church people from Canada” who “interfered so much” in the lives of otherwise “big strong men” in Trinidad. These Canadians, as the narrator’s father laments, “always came to backward places like [Trinidad] to do what they couldn’t do at home … just because they white.” While teaching the locals to “value sacrifice and throw away worldly possessions,” these same missionaries were moonlighting in lucrative trade ventures.

Such are the vagaries of empire that the narrator and her family ultimately find themselves scattered across Canada, part of “an Indian exodus,” a flight by “coolies” who have been marginalized by their “Creole” or “African” countrymen, but who ironically discover in their second migration “walls and fences scrawled with graffiti that read Keep Canada White” and an ingrained, white-gloved racism “so deep” that “people don’t even know they doing it.” Raised in Trinidad and having lived in Canada for over twenty-five years, Dr. Espinet (an accomplished academic, poet, anthologist and children’s writer) brings to this novel a keen insight into the Indo-Caribbean experience in both countries, reflecting splendid intelligence and poetic sensitivity.
Reading The Swinging Bridge immediately brought to mind my favourite calypso of 1996, Brother Marvin’s “Jahaji Bhai,” the brotherhood of the boat, a tribute to Trinidad’s Indian roots which had been established 150 years earlier with the arrival of the first shipload of indentured Indian labourers. (The song was the subject of some debate in Trinidad by those who insisted on the purity of their African roots, belying, all these years later, the 1963 integrationist credo of “De Doctah,” the prime minister, cited in the novel, that “all uh we is one”). Like “Jahaji Bhai,” The Swinging Bridge takes us back to these early migrations, to the first of several “rickety” swinging bridges of the novel, the gangplank that “swings precariously” in 1879 as 285 women and 159 men scramble aboard the Artist to make the perilous journey, “crossing the unknown of the kala pani, the black waters” between India and “Chinidad, land of sugar.”

Indeed, the novel represents for its narrator a journey of reclamation and redefinition of her ancestral identity. In particular, The Swinging Bridge travels into hitherto little charted waters to depict the vital but unsung role of women in this society. This is an expedition that Mona, a “nowarian” by choice in her childhood games, has always resisted, not wishing to be strangled by the disenfranchising constraints and conventions of her patriarchal Indian and Presbyterian community.

The event that precipitates this literal and figurative journey is the impending death of Mona’s forty-four-year-old brother Kello who requests that she return to Trinidad to repurchase the family property that her father, Mackie Singh, had sold several decades earlier in an attempt to move beyond his country roots into the “modern world.” Mona’s encounters with family members in Toronto and Trinidad and her delving into boxes of memorabilia in both locations provide a natural framework for Espinet to chronicle Indo-Trinidadian history. She reconstructs Mona’s family epic, beginning in 1879 when her great-grandmother Gainder (a widow at the age of thirteen) arrives in Trinidad from India and progressing to the narrator’s own coming of age in the sixties.

“It is an untold story,” begins the novel, referring to the “courage and endurance” of Gainder and so many other “rand”, widows who fled destitution and abuse in their homeland where they were generally branded as prostitutes. Hence, Mona’s mother sadly knows little of the gifted songstress and dancer Gainder, except to say that she was “a low-class kind of person,” something like an “old beggar woman.” As Mona notes, indentureship in Trinidad had ended in 1917, and “denial had set in. All that backward stuff was best forgotten.”

However, while previous generations of Indo-Trinidadians were governed by shame, Mona now feels a “drive to document history,” much inspired by her cousin, the forthright “outside child” Bess. And what tales she tells! All the family’s carefully guarded secrets are revealed—domestic violence, drunken rampages, sexual abuse, illegitimate children, AIDS… By profession, Mona is a filmmaker, and her memories are like a film montage of significant settings and incidents such as the magical “enchanted forest” of her early years, the “big row” that changes everything, the Dirty Skirts Club of her adolescence, and various frightening encounters with men, to name a few. In spite of a personal and collective history of brutality and abuse, Mona emerges as a sensitive and compassionate woman, the perfect individual to “replace the pages torn out from the family history.”

The Swinging Bridge is a magnificent piece of writing. Espinet has mastered the “the back-breaking work of reinvention” mirrored in her novel by the songs of the ancestral figure Gainder and the work of the dancer “La Rosette,” who appeals to the ancestral pride of her “stiff and unresponsive” Indo-Trinidadian students, saying, “Oh, my darlings, if you could only see your beauty.”


Patricia Clark, Faculty of Business, Seneca College.

Reviews

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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology