Michael Anthony, Trinidad & Tobago's ‘oldest living writer’ who vividly captured Caribbean life, dies at 93

The late Trinidadian author Michael Anthony (top left) at the launch of the film adaptation of his novel “Green Days by the River” in 2017. Anthony's sister Anelize Lemessy is at bottom left, and his great-nephew Kerron Lemessy, who worked on the film, is on the right. Photo courtesy Rose-Marie Lemessy-Forde, used with permission.

One of the most trusted stewards of Trinidad and Tobago's stories, beloved author and historian Michael Anthony, passed away on August 24 at the age of 93. Though he had been ailing for some time, he remained passionate about his country's creative potential and was a generous mentor to younger writers.

Along with historian Gérard Besson, who died a month prior on July 25, Anthony was the man to talk to when it came to local history, having written books like The Making of Port of Spain and the often-cited Towns and Villages of Trinidad and Tobago. Born in 1930 in the village of Mayaro along Trinidad's south-east coast, Anthony was always interested in the forces that contributed to change and development, and the resulting ripple effects on people's lives, which he would explore in his works of fiction.

(L-R): Sonny, Michael Anthony's eldest brother; Anelize, his sister; and the author, known as ‘Sonnyboy,’ at his sister's birthday celebration. Photo courtesy Rose-Marie Lemessy-Forde, used with permission.

Spending his formative years in such an idyllic place planted the seed in him to be a writer, as he wanted to be able to describe the beauty of the landscape for others to enjoy. The fact that he was born into a creative family where reading was valued — he would wax poetic on the importance of libraries to youth, and the need to read to enhance your vocabulary — also helped his writer's journey. Lovingly called “Sonnyboy” at home, there was a standing family joke that Michael wrote novels, while his brother Sylvester — who became a popular calypsonian known by the sobriquet “The Mighty Zandolee” — wrote smut (cheeky songs often filled with sexual double entendre).

Anthony's career formally started at 23, when some of his poetry was published by the Trinidad Guardian newspaper. A year later, in 1954, he set off for England, where he was employed at the Reuters news agency and began writing short stories that were featured on the famous BBC literary radio programme “Caribbean Voices.”

The programme put him in esteemed literary company, alongside the likes of Samuel Selvon, Kamau Brathwaite, V. S. Naipaul, and Derek Walcott. In fact, when he first applied to be part of the programme, the show was switching producers to none other than fellow Trinidadian Naipaul, fresh out of Oxford University. In a recent interview with the Trinidad and Tobago Express, Anthony recalled sending Naipaul some of his writing for consideration:

He sent for me and he said, ‘Mr. Anthony, your short story has possibilities, but promise me you will not write another poem.

Anthony followed Naipaul's advice and went on to become one of Trinidad and Tobago's most beloved and prolific writers, until well into his twilight years. After “Caribbean Voices” went off the air in 1958, Anthony tried his hand at a novel, eventually producing “The Games Were Coming,” a coming-of-age story set against the annual Southern Games event, which was first published in 1963. As a 400 m runner himself, preparation for this type of competition was a subject that Anthony intimately understood and that authenticity came through in the novel. He was an author who lived the tenet “Write what you know.”

Two of Anthony's most popular books, ‘The Year in San Fernando’ (fiction), and ‘Towns and Villages of Trinidad and Tobago’ (non-fiction). Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

Two years later, he published what perhaps remains his best-known novel, “The Year in San Fernando,” which was semi-autobiographical. “Green Days by the River” followed in 1968. That same year, Anthony left the “mother country,” having found that cold English winters did not agree with his health. He spent two years in Brazil, eventually resettling permanently in Trinidad in 1970. In 2017, almost 50 years after “Green Days by the River” was published — as if to underscore its enduring appeal — the novel was made into a film. Anthony was 87 years old at the time and surprised movie-goers by making a cameo appearance.

Of his 35 books, Anthony's personal favourite was “All that Glitters” (1981), a tale of deception and redemption set in a fishing village in 1950s Trinidad.

Via WhatsApp, Anthony's niece Ann Foster shared that “just before he got sick, he was writing about the borough of San Fernando.” She remembered him as a family man whose other great love was Mayaro, where he will be buried according to his wishes. “We loved to chat with him about the good old days,” she recalled. “He will be missed because he wrote about ourselves and the way we live.”

His work, written in a spare yet elegant style, was a favourite with both local and Caribbean readers. A naturally humble man, he tended to avoid the limelight, but the recognition still came, most notably in the form of the Humming Bird Medal (Gold) in 1979, a national award for his contributions to literature; a Guggenheim Award; and an honorary Doctor of Letters (D. Litt.) degree from the University of the West Indies in 2003.

That same year, the National Library and Information System Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (NALIS), in acknowledging Anthony's significance to the local literary landscape, supplied the library in his hometown of Mayaro with a full collection of his work, and in 2005 purchased some of his later papers, which are housed at the country's main library in Port of Spain. NALIS also presented him with a Lifetime Literary Award in 2012. In 2022, the Mayaro community honoured the author during the constituency’s first legacy awards.

Sharing information about an event honouring the author at NALIS back in July, Anthony's friend Professor Kenneth Ramchand noted on Facebook:

Michael Anthony is our oldest living writer and our most prolific.
His work springs from the rich subtle life of the people and the landscape of this place.
He writes in the simple secret language of the island.
He has never been distracted from being native and authentic.
His work becomes more and more relevant every day.

Upon Anthony's passing, his family issued the following statement:

Michael was an icon and a giant in the literary world and his legacy is deeply woven into the tapestry of our nation, which he loved so dearly.

Above all, Michael was an adoring husband, father and grandfather and we will miss him deeply.

They also took some comfort in the fact that, on the day of his passing, the author was surrounded by his children and members of his extended family, who serenaded him by singing a song, “The Rose of Mayaro,” which Anthony himself wrote.

The wider community soon started to post their condolences online. Trinidadian Nigel A. Campbell shared a photo of his copy of the first U.S. edition of Anthony's first book, adding:

A critic said that his writing could be understood by the everyman, not as profound as Naipaul or as daring as Selvon. Yet, he delivered classics. He was ours. He was his own industry, self-publishing his later books. And prolific. […] Like many in the pantheon of West Indian writers, he ventured to the centre of Empire to be a part of the publishing world. And he succeeded. […] Our childhood stories and memories are forever part of the global well of literature thanks to you.

On behalf of the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago, June Aming posted:

Michael Anthony you will be missed for you did not go gently into the night but scorched the skies with your blazing pen.

Carnival enthusiast Leslie-Ann Joan Boiselle, a photo of whom graces the cover of Anthony's sole book about Trinidad and Tobago's annual national festival, remembered the author as an “affable [gentleman] with a calming demeanor”:

Thank you for your sterling contribution to the literary and artistic fabric of our country.

Filmmaker Son Du, meanwhile, sharing the last photo of her and Anthony, admired the author's lifelong curiosity and thirst for knowledge:

I suppose it’s only fitting that the last time I saw you we were at the National Archives. Rest in peace, Michael Anthony. Thank you for your tireless service to our Sweet T&T. #icon #masterhistorian

Via WhatsApp, Jamaica-based publisher Ian Randle eloquently summed up Anthony's relevance:

Michael Anthony's unique contribution to Caribbean writing was to depict adolescent and rural life in a way that no other writer has done. He did so with a simplicity of style that was a reflection of his own personality and lifestyle. He might not have been the darling of literary critics but he will go down as probably the most widely read Caribbean writer of our generation.

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