James Ferguson on The Humming-Bird Tree, Ian McDonald’s novel about growing up in pre-Independence Trinidad


There are some people, we are led to believe, who simply can’t distinguish
between fact and fiction. Or, if you prefer, between what real people say
and do, and the actions and words of invented characters. I’ve heard there
are TV viewers who religiously follow developments in soap operas as if
watching the day-to-day business of real people, rather than actors. Some
readers apparently write abusive letters to authors, more or less accusing
them of murdering or otherwise abusing their characters. Perhaps there is
only a thin line between reality and the world of the imagination, but it’s
one we mostly manage to negotiate.

So I was surprised to read on a website from Guyana a rather
bitter attack against the author Ian McDonald, who was accused of pandering
to racist and anti-Indian prejudice in his novel The Humming-Bird Tree.
First published in 1969, it is written in the first person — which may explain
the confusion — but is nonetheless unmistakably a novel. The main protagonist
and narrator, like McDonald once was, is a boy of 11, white, and born in
Trinidad. This might lead us to suppose that the book is, in part at least,
autobiographical in inspiration, but it hardly means it is an autobiography.
Nor does it mean that the ideas expressed by the narrator are in any way
those of the author. To equate the first-person fictional voice with an
autobiographical memoir would lead us all into a great deal of trouble;
should we accuse Albert Camus of not loving his mother because he wrote
L’Etranger? And what to make of authors like Joseph Conrad or Salman
Rushdie, who deal with questions of enormous moral ambiguity through the
“I” form?

But the charge of depicting the Indian-descended people of Trinidad as
“crude and contemptible” is a serious one, and it is worth looking at what
McDonald is trying to do in this much-acclaimed novel, recently republished
by Macmillan Caribbean. It deals with Alan, the son of well-to-do white
Trinidadians, who is growing up some time in the 1950s. His is a privileged
background, and he is all too aware of it. In fact, one might say he is intensely
embarrassed (as only an 11-year-old boy can be) by his social status, and
much else. There is a large, even painful, degree of consciousness about
Trinidad’s social and colour divides, and about how a rich white kid fits
into this complicated society.

This self-consciousness is made all the more acute by Alan’s relationship
with two children from a nearby Indo-Trinidadian village, who are employed
as domestic helps by his parents. Kaiser, the boy, is tough, brave, worldly,
and slightly unpredictable, and Alan looks up to him as something of a hero.
To make matters more difficult, he is also beginning to fall for Kaiser’s
sister, Jaillin, whom he sees as both attractive and unobtainable. Terrified
of looking foolish in front of Kaiser, but desperate to make a good impression
on Jaillin, Alan is caught in an uncomfortable pre-pubescent quandary.

The three children spend time together, exploring the countryside and getting
up to no good, and this allows McDonald to explore the tensions and affections
that develop between them. Alan, for his part, finds their company much
more exciting than that of the other upper-class white children he knows
at school. What they think of him, at this point, is less clear, but what
is evident is that Alan’s parents disapprove of the friendship. In this
sense, they are not depicted as particularly prejudiced — indeed, they appear
comparatively enlightened — but merely represent the conventional social
attitudes of the day.

Alan’s exposure to this other, non-white world involves a series of incidents
and adventures — he goes to the village, attends a cockfight, grows closer
to his friends. But at the same time he becomes increasingly aware of the
social gulf that divides him from them. Part of this awareness comes from
his exposure to the poverty and squalor of the cane-cutters’ village, but
part also from a growing understanding of his own social class and the expectations
placed upon him by his parents. The divisions are cultural and religious,
but also linguistic; while Alan speaks a “correct” version of English, Kaiser
and Jaillin express themselves in the Creole-influenced language of the
countryside. The parallel worlds inhabited by the children hence become
a metaphor for the stark divisions, here expressed in terms of light and
darkness, of 1950s Trinidad:

The sun cast hard shadows against bright savannas in that land; there
were no grey declensions in tone. Knowing Kaiser and Jaillin, I lived the
contrasts more intensely than others of my high-class world.

This consciousness of difference, made more painful by an unrequited adolescent
passion, is a far cry from the banality of racism. In essence, the narrator
is caught between two mutually incomprehensible social orders, attracted
to the vitality of Kaiser and Jaillin, but nevertheless a product of his
own background. The relationship is finally ended when Alan’s father, alarmed
at what he views as an inappropriate intimacy between his son and Jaillin
(although this intimacy remains chaste), fires both Kaiser and Jaillin.
The three children go their separate ways, and in this sense Alan’s childhood
comes to an end.

When Alan meets Kaiser and Jaillin again some years later, it is as an
educated member of the white elite, but also as an individual still powerfully
aware of competing pulls on his loyalties and affections. Kaiser, we see,
has become a money-obsessed clerk, turning his back on traditional village
life, while Jaillin’s original elusive pride has hardened into a sour dislike
of men in general, and white men in particular. It is only at the very end
of the novel that she can confide to Alan how much she was in love with him
during that childhood period.

But by then, of course, it is all too late. The relationship with Jaillin
is like an emblem of Alan’s lost childhood, in which regret and yearning
are mixed with memories of happiness and pain. On the verge of leaving Trinidad
for a university education at Cambridge, Alan, now more than ever, feels
the dual nature of his attachment to Trinidad. On the one hand, as part of
the elite, he is conscious of the responsibilities and privileges that are
his by birth. On the other, this sense of social place “was a strain, and
conflicted with my sense of a West Indies growing in a new world and way
of life.” What Kaiser and Jaillin stand for, he finally understands, is “an
emerging, different, mixed, mutual love”, part, but not all, of his adult

Far from being crude and contemptible, Kaiser and Jaillin are ultimately
complex and highly sympathetic characters. They play a central role in an
evocative and deeply humane novel that is not about making cultural or racial
judgments or confusing difference with inequality. Rather, The Humming-Bird
is a book that deals in the most sensitive way with the joys and
pains of growing up, and growing up in a fractured society. This is not
racism, but an honest recognition of the contradictions and conflicts within
a colonial (and, to a lesser degree, post-colonial) order. And, above all,
it is a work of fiction.