Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Outsider Poet in Residence

Macmillan (Education) Publishers continues its student-friendly series of Caribbean writers with Selected Poems: Ian McDonald (2008). As a book destined for classroom handling and study it would seem an admirable choice.

The front cover carries a retro-young photo of the author – wavy-haired, open-collared and pensive as a cricketer – that might flutter a few Sixth form student hearts. The back cover prepares you for a poet with “an open heart” who writes about “Guyana’s characters and events, its landscape, traditions and myths”. There’s an effusive biographical introduction by Edward Baugh, Emeritus Professor of English at the UWI, himself a poet of Jamaica.

It should all make for high student participation and exciting teacher lesson plans.

Interest will be keen on McDonald’s roots: born in Trinidad (he began writing poetry in the sixth form); entered Cambridge University in 1951 (where he captained the Cambridge lawn tennis team); joined the Bookers Group Committee in Guyana in 1955, and eventually became Director of Marketing and Administration for the Guyana Sugar Corporation. He has lived in Guyana ever since.

“So poetry was not his first and only occupation, his mission in life,” someone might ask, pushing for comparisons with native son Martin Carter even before the first poem is read. “And we don’t have too many intertextual connections to hunt down for homework, as in T.S. Eliot’s Poems.” Nor are the poems as overwrought & dream-enraptured as the poetry of Wilson Harris with its skydiver’s view for a scholarly few.

Flipping through the pages students might discover the poem: “A White Man Considers the Situation” with these opening lines:
Perhaps it is time to retreat from these well-loved shores.
The swell heaves on the beach, angry clouds pile:
The surf is ominous, storms are coming.
I see I am a tourist in my own land:
My brutal tenancy is over, they all say

At this point there might be a puzzled classroom silence. An imaginary, brooding student, indifferent to assignments & grades, could be drawn.

What is this thing, the poet’s life? why in Guyana are they constantly “considering the situation”? what is “the situation’? when did the “surf” on the beach turn “ominous” for this G/town poet? And whazzup with “tourist in my own land”? “my brutal tenancy”?

Around these adolescent questions creep thorny grown-up issues. Was poet McDonald ever “involved” or “consumed” like other Guyanese poets and non-poets? Did his “intellectual authorship” at any point raise the slightest suspicion? And why is he not a hyphenated (as in ‘Indo-Guyanese’) poet? How come he’s free to be unflinchingly his name? like the intrepid newspaper-builder, the late David de Caries? unencumbered men, sure of themselves, with a greenhouse passion for the arts & literature?

Unsettling, not always relevant questions.

They invoke a level of inquiry and analysis not usually encouraged outside classrooms. Or if engaged, rarely handled with intelligence and care. Our divided constituents prefer their “achievers” (with thin skins or swelled heads) to wear laurels or titles of office like tribal headdress: not to be sullied by “sensational” talk, nor probed by “biased” thinking. While character flaws and ethics questions get covered up in communal & colonial hush hushness.

Besides, there’s so much else in the collection to engage student interest, much more transparent, eminently teachable stuff.

The accessible sensory images, for instance: “In the green pool where the milk-bit cascadura is caught at morning/I meet my girl whose breasts have the scent of the sun-dried khus-khus grass.” Quotable, comment-provoking insights: “Most life is ice-melt/bells through sea-mist/dark coming home and hurrying.”

And there’s McDonald’s camera-eye for “characters” and scenic places (colonial and fading now); his Schomburgk-like search for a port of entry into the heartland of his adopted home; for a place to lose his alien-resident virginity, which finally he finds under “the star-entangled trees” of his well-loved Essequibo.

The more adventurous student is bound to make comparisons with regional poets. With Derek Walcott, for instance. Both men grew up in an education era encircled by European culture. In Walcott’s case the great man has reportedly built a silo of metaphors culled from his readings in great literature. The publication of his Omeros is perhaps its finest emblem.

McDonald’s world Lit immersion is more evident, students will note, in his newspaper Arts columns at the core of which he references the work of writers he admires (and sometimes urges readers to recite aloud): Czeslaw Milosz, William Blake, Zbigniew Herbert. In his Selected Poems, however, you will not come across Greek-named fishermen. You’ll find a gallery of local-named characters: “Jaffo the Calypsonian”, “Yusman Ali, Charcoal Seller,” Nurse Sati Guyadeen, Manuel Perfection.

And, stretching comparisons beyond exam rubric limits, students will remark on Walcott’s painterly approach to verse, the rich indigenous textures of his canvas. While in McDonald’s collection, they might argue, it’s more a case of apertures and lens, a tourist excitement at capturing with Kodak clarity unusual behaviours in wide river regions. For this task, a pleasing dexterity of tone and image is his poet’s way.

McDonald is not a fortunate globe traveler. His Essequibo is evidence of his accepted geographical limits. When he isn’t sounding off in the newspapers on IMF or EPA or “the truth about life” issues, he is your earnest daytripper to our forest Interior; the sports devotee who returns to grounds of high endeavour for a new day of Test cricket.

Still, that clever CAPE student is bound to make a prediction: one day we may refer to Ian McDonald’s Guyana the way people talk about Ian Fleming’s Jamaica.

Selected Poems is a valuable record of the poet’s productive life from the 1950s to the 1990s in Guyana, a well-organized collection for teachers to work with. Many poems are filled with the kind of arresting material you’d find in a spare novel – anecdote, exoticism, melodrama, neatly-imaged anguish. Non-students could read the collection as an antidote for all that’s absurd and substandard in our social fabric; or as McDonald’s conversations with himself, or with poet friends, in a country where public discourse is often crass & blame-throwing. The temper of our times.

There’s little trace anywhere of Martin Carter’s all-consuming search for modes of “involvement” in our nation’s affairs.

Instead McDonald assumes a committed observer’s perch: not taking political sides; if troubled, treading softly like a blogger in slippers (“Affairs in the young Republic do not go well./ Problems weigh like stones on every man” ); offering elegiac – and cloying, sometimes bemused – lines that usually lament loss and deformities in our human capital: those Mercy Ward patients trapped in “recurring routines” & “strange dreams”; our Georgetown of “no beauty”, no havens of refinement; host now to a grid of policy generators for whom the nation & its people are stubborn unfinished chapters in a doctoral thesis, wanting always sympathy, unending sacrifice, time.

Some Arts page readers have been tempted to steeuupps at his airy Sunday musings (the Stabroek columns have developed a powdered puffiness over the years); but the measure of McDonald’s pledged allegiance should not be taken lightly.

In a Republic of (B minus) power players & frequent power failures, our guytimes of desperate oil-search and routine barbarisms, there’s the often ignored conundrum: cherish or perish the poet, that wayfarer of unfiltered truth who volunteers his creative and working life in service to our new dominion. The McDonald for our nation.

Book Reviewed: Selected Poems: Ian McDonald: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2008: 121 pages.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cry Tough: Alton Ellis (1938 – 2008)

A brief report in the NYTimes (10/17) on the death of Jamaica’s singing legend Alton Ellis – the editors must have sensed there was Times reader interest in his career and passing – gave snippets of personal information that always hits readers with surprise, filling in gaps of knowledge for those C/bean music fans who know only his old-style music and the pleasure it gave.

Among the bits: born and raised in Trenchtown, like Bob Marley; lived in Middlesex, England for nearly two decades; cause of death, multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer; one of the exponents of 60s rocksteady, “a sweeter, slower sound that formed the bridge between the hard-driving brass of ska and the rebel reggae that Marley later spread”; father of more than 20 children; and financially robbed of revenues for his music over the years (the last two details not as entirely unrelated as they may seem).

For students arriving at the UWI (Mona) campus Ellis and rocksteady music were a form of initiation into the island’s vibrant music culture. Waking to morning sounds would never be the same for this music lover.

In Guyana in the 60s you woke up to the radio of imported music (from India), pleasing in its own sentimental-retro way; evoking ethnic-rural reverie; and uplifting spirits for the working day in villages and cane fields. In Jamaica at sunrise on cold Mona Heights mornings Marcia Griffiths (singing “Feel like Jumping”) suddenly felt just right. Her clear, buoyant songs still pop up to spin on my turntable of memories.

To new resident ears rocksteady encouraged curiosity about the source of its material, the creative island spirit – “tougher than the world,” as Ellis sang – that under the hardest destitution refused to wilt.

The music was not always at easy reach on island radio stations. You had to venture out – the way people once went out to jazz clubs – to venues in and around Kingston to experience that blast of grassroots energy. Before they became accessible on discs the Cedric Brooks’ horn arrangements & the drumming of Count Ossie were heard in afternoon ‘grounation’ settings barely advertised in the local media. The venues and the music left indelible imprints. Tourists and transients and accidental researchers found a path to the island’s soul.

Alton Ellis’ music was usually a short trip away, at dance venues. At the student union, an open-air venue on the ledge of a valley, curvy dance rhythms threatened to sweep you up & away in pleasure-filled balloons even as the taut bass lines held you rooted to the earth.

Ellis’ vocals, which sometimes strained at intense high registers, didn’t grip you in that honey smooth way Ken Boothe’s did; or Toots Hibbert’s with its gritty parish roots. His reputation rests on those classic dance hits. “Girl I’ve got a date” “Better Get Ready, Rock Steady”, “Can’t stand it” (that pounding big-boned bass) and “Change my Mind” defined for a 60s generation moments of unbelievable promise & pleasure.

Rarely did his music invite you to listen; though “Cry Tough (cause you know you’re getting old)” with its hint at human mortality, those anticipatory images of rice & peas and church bells (in “Ooooyeah, Sunday’s Coming”) and “Going back to Africa” demonstrated a range not limited to romantic sets and clichés about “a girl to love”.

People muttered that Ellis perhaps had been too enamored of imported sound, doing covers of foreign hits and steering clear of disgruntled Rudie culture (“Rudie at Large”). It’s worth remembering that Marley would start in a fairly similar groove of apprenticeship, doing early covers before turning full-beard champion of the Rudie/Natty dreads railing against baldhead injustice.

And in fairness Ellis made those imported hits supremely danceable. Who would have ever imagined dancing back in the days to anything by Blood, Sweat & Tears until the Ellis blues-tinged version of “You make me so very happy”?

[Often submerged beneath the artist’s fame and consumer pleasure is Ellis’ struggle with unscrupulous promoters. That struggle, like that of the legendary Phyllis Dillon, and their eventual departure overseas, makes for heartbreak discovery. It’s a reminder of the callous side of the music industry back then: how it squeezed young artists dry of faith; left their field labours often unpaid. And the bitterness that would settle like salt in their souls.]

Jamaica’s music generosity of spirit, its talent for wrapping dance forms and song around themes of sorrow, memory, love and dread, is embedded in the island’s culture. The music was a catalyst for ambitious campus thinking back in the days. Student minds began to envisage an arc of shared human capital stretching over islands and sea and linking related territories. It would encourage the exchange of service and residency, clear roadways for a wider regional understanding.

Against that background a recent observation by author George Lamming sounds “profoundly” ominous. Based on the latest assessment the student body at the UWI (Jamaica) campus now comprises 95% Jamaicans. We have witnessed, he suggests, a return to that miscellany of (proud but) insular little states.

These are narrow, fallow times in the region, oui!

Ellis’ death coincided with a ‘groundings’ conference (10/16-10/18) on the Mona campus to mark the anniversary of the Walter Rodney street protests in 1968. It also recalled the island’s symbiotic relationship with a generation of Guyanese students.

Hurricanes and delusional behaviours have fogged up the windows that once allowed these two nations, Jamaica and Guyana, to view and enter each other’s territorial experience. Given the dance hall brand of island riddims (that seems stuck in chord-killing monotone); and considering the self-segregating cultural ignorance that appears to shape governance & “vision” at that sagging end of the regional spectrum, there seems little chance of reinvigorating that cross-fertilizing movement of minds & talent.

At least for awhile – and for a generation not dancing much these days – there was pulsing hope. Events of that 2008 October week will encourage reflection on what might have been, the possibilities for vital, lasting connections, the once soaring idealism.

Alton Ellis’ work might not attract the sometimes tedious and overlanguaged commentary of cultural scholars (an NY radio station paid a four-hour, all-music tribute recently); but the dance hits will endure.

And for a pre-Marley student generation (Hi, Carroll!) there’s an immovable cache of memories: those blissful (“Ooooyeaah!”) Saturday nights, the crisp October Sunday mornings; the ‘cry tough’ sound of Alton Ellis rocking steady, spurning the tick tock of reckoning time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

1823: Blood, Sex & Angst

1823 might one day come to be regarded as a hinge year in Guyana’s historical development, outsignifying other years and events, like 1834 in Essequibo, or 1763 in Berbice. And some good day when our nation is brimming with prosperity, and can boast a film studio and film-making talent, someone might secure the financing to make a movie or documentary based on events of that year.

1823 saw the uprising of slaves on the Demerara plantations in what has been described as “one of the most massive slave rebellions in the history of the Western Hemisphere”.

It has inspired several books, the most acclaimed so far “Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood” ( 1997) by the Brazilian professor (History/Yale) Emilia Viotti da Costa. This book is recognized as a serious work of reconstruction, well researched, careful with facts and the nuances of relations among the many power players. But long before the publication of that scholarly work there was Ratoon (1962), a novel by Christopher Nicole.

Based on events of the same year Ratoon takes fictional liberties with the historical record. In an author’s note Nicole states that incidents described in his book were “based on eyewitness accounts of what actually took place”; but the main characters were invented.

The novelist like the professor attempts a many-angled chronicle of events, though for his purposes Nicole inflates the number of slaves involved in the uprising from the estimated 12,000 to a potential 20,000. Nicole’s fiction covers those history-altering days in prose that feels confident if at times distant from (to use George Lamming-like words) the profound implications of that human tragedy.

The locus of the novel is the Elisabeth Plantation House. It stands in an almost exotic setting, “in the centre of a carefully created paradise of soft green lawns, deep flower beds brilliant with multi-coloured zinnias, and borders of heavenly scented jasmine and spreading oleander bushes.” Beyond it, the slave compound, a vegetable patch; then the chimney of the boiling house, the canefields and irrigation ditches.

Readers get a sense of what life was like for slaves and slaveholders in East Demerara villages stripped now (though not completely) of their colonised character – Plantation Nabacalis, Plantation Le Ressouvenir, Le Reduit, Vryheid’s Lust, Mahaica, Felicity, Success.

We are guests at the August meeting of the Demerara Racing Club in Kitty, “a teeming, brilliantly coloured ant-heap, winning and losing, drinking and sweating, betting and gossiping”. At Camp House, the Governor’s Residence “overlooking the silt-discoloured estuary of the Demerara River” , we listen in as Governor Murray and Captain Bonning argue over what to do about rumours of slave insurrection, and how to deal with the insurgents. We’re curious as the young English missionary John Smith passes by “astride an emaciated mule, proceeding slowly up the coast.”

Nicole seems very much attuned to the speech rhythms of the ruling white oligarchy (“Ah, Bonning,” Murray called. “Resting your men. Good. And this is Packwood? Come inside with me, my man.”) He is on less certain ground with his “invented” creole-slave talk (“She done sleeping. And it time. She going feel them blows for she life.”) which often sounds invented, and might dismay regional linguists; though no one can be sure what creole voices sounded like in 1823.

Employing old-fashioned chapter headings (“There will be Great Alarm”, “An Army will be Assembled”) Nicole catches the state of heightened anxiety in the colony.

As the anti-slavery lobby gains momentum overseas, slaves hear rumours of freedom promised, freedom delayed. Planters offer quick reforms. They’ll do away with the whip as “an institution” of overseer control in the fields; and they’ll stop the flogging of women. But they draw the line at a proposal from that firebrand missionary John Smith (and his “over-conscienced preaching people”) to grant Sundays off to the working slaves. That would mean too many lost days of production. Their investment in estate and human property was already under threat with all the talk of emancipation back in England!

The central characters in Ratoon are born-in-Guiana natives: Joan Dart, daughter of a plantation owner Peter Dart, but not “representative” of Demerara white women. Unmarried (at twenty six) she had spent all her life in Guiana and had come to view Plantation Elisabeth as “home”. Then there’s Jackey Reed, “a young negro, tall and slim”, fascinated with the crusading ideas & energy of the young missionary John Smith. He adopts Christianity and joins the movement plotting the slave revolt.

Their dissimilar plantation-creole identities converge one fateful day. Jackey Reed makes a break for freedom but is pursued, captured and placed in the stocks by Peter Dart who, multiple heartbeats later, collapses and dies. In that instant his daughter must assume owner responsibilities.

Joan Dart had kept her father’s books; she had helped him run the plantation after his wife died. But at the moment when she must give the order for the branding and flogging of a runaway, she hesitates.

It is a cathartic moment. With responsibility suddenly thrust upon her, Joan Dart begins to weigh issues of ownership, belonging (“Sugar and heat and mud were in her blood”), the moral welfare of slaves, and the plantation as “home”. Later when the leadership role is thrust upon him, Jackey Reed, too, is forced to grapple with issues: of duty to his race, the unchristian values of his “Congo” brothers who indulge “their Damballas and their cane rum”; and an eruptive desire for Joan Dart whose white body “behind the thin muslin” stands six feet away from him in the stocks.

The order to flog and brand is given, but the troubled new plantation owner pays an uncharacteristic visit to the plantation dispensary to view the flesh-torn body of her first flogged slave. It’s the start of a process she will try hard to reverse, the granting of personal identity and humanity to her father’s slaves.

After the first 100 pages – of Dart family dispute, slave restlessness, gathering clouds & screaming kiskadees – the weighty issues blur into background, and the revolt gets under way. It is the night of Sunday August 17, 1823.

Nicole switches reader attention between the clashing forces, tracking the shift in fortunes with movie-making craft. There are scenes & set pieces & torrid images of violence and battle and rape; the slaves celebrate prematurely, settling scores and drinking free rum. Slave-General Jackey Reed’s hope for an insurrection without casualties is quickly dashed. He argues with his co-conspirators (Gladstone, Obadiah, Quamina, Cato of Felicity, Paris of Good Hope) over tactics, and is alarmed at how quickly the slave will to fight evaporates after early setbacks.

The outnumbered whites rally to the sabres of Capts Bonning and McTurk. They, too, argue over tactics, about what might happen if they advance precipitously, or fail to rescue in time the white women on faraway plantations. Their fusiliers fall upon the hastily armed bands (who are convinced their superior numbers will carry the day), sabre blades chopping, the muskets raining fusillades of shot on routed slaves. With an eye for period detail Nicole sets it all down in pages of entertaining, episode-driven prose.

And as in old Hollywood movies where amidst exploding ordnance or circling Indians a hero takes time out to cradle the head of a dying man and share dying seconds of conversation, Nicole at the height of the insurrection has his conflicted couple meeting and slipping off to share tense moments in the canefields. At issue, whether they should commit fornication.

Joan Dart, fighting back a “spasm of shudders” in her thighs, reminds Jackey Reed he is six years younger, in her eyes still a boy; and for all intents and purposes still a slave. He reveals the lust he harbours for her, and the Christian faith that has kept these feelings locked away. In any case, he reminds her, he’s in control now of the plantation.

They argue back and forth for several pages, sorting through fears and desire, until Nicole’s pen decides the issue for them: “Her arms moved of their own volition wrapping themselves round his neck in a paroxysm of delicious agony”.

If there’s a governing idea in his “explosive bestseller” novel, Nicole points to issues of intercultural curiosity, evolving identity and individual freedom (albeit at an unformed, ratoon stage) that engulf the two natives of Plantation Guiana; and how easily an eruptive interest in “the other” can be swept away in the tide of “events”. Not that this is news to tribe-wary & warring Guyanese who still observe each other’s ways and means through averted plantation eyes.

First published in 1962, round about the time a self-ruling Guyana was teetering toward those US/GB-engineered “racial disturbances”, Ratoon is routinely mentioned among the best-known published works of Guyanese fiction. For some readers it might appear to trifle with grave historical matters. Christopher Nicole, its 1930 Guiana-born white author who resides overseas, must have had personal reasons for inventing & inserting his characters in the maelstrom of that pivotal year. The book is hard to find these days (back in the ‘60s it was available for US.75cts at airport bookstores).

To bring lyrical closure to the predictable course of events Nicole serves up an invented coda to remind readers his novel is not just about a doomed uprising and an impossible romance.

Captured and held hostage for awhile, weary and disheveled from lovemaking in the canefields Joan Dart is rescued by a Colonel Leahy (“How long have you been like this…? Anderson get a carriage… Damnation. Have a litter made, then, and I want four of your strongest men.”) But in the very next minute, on receipt of “an express from Mahaica Post” delivered by a horse militiaman, he places her under arrest for consorting with the enemy.

Readers interested in how the colonial justice system dealt with straying (repressed then impetuous) white women must get through the last 30 pages to see how that turns out; see if Joan Dart gets to go home again.

Those pages might also encourage the kind of discourse on ‘broader issues’ regional academics take pleasure in – ‘the whole question of the role and responsibility of native white proprietorship in C/bean society’. Though not a few might argue that Ratoon with its blood-heated inventions is not a useful place to start this inquiry.

Book Reviewed: Ratoon: Christopher Nicole: Bantam Books/St Martin’s Press: New York, 1962, 246 pages.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Divergent Fates: Ikael Tafari


When he entered the University of the West Indies (Mona) in the late 1960s his name was Michael Hutchinson; a former student of Harrison College, Barbados (one of the island’s elite high schools); from a privileged white family. When he returned nine years later to his island home he had changed. He was Ras Ikael Tafari, lush beard wearer of his new faith, and fierce believer in the prophetic eminence of Haile Selassie I.

He would join the faculty of Social Sciences UWI (Cave Hill) as lecturer. From his campus base he would become active in Pan African affairs, joining the Pan African Commission in 1997. In 2004 he was appointed its director.

The task here: how to explain the transitions and transformation of this extraordinary individual?

He was a student during the Walter Rodney street upheavals in ‘68. So volcanic was that event it would take many years for the fallout of cultural values and assumptions to resettle. A rearrangement of the social boundaries between blacks, browns and whites was in full swing in the early 70s. Had he chosen a different island campus (say, St Augustine) or faculty programme (Medicine) he might have been sufficiently insulated from events & temptations of the time.

Many students, bearing the heaviness of parental expectations, elected to rise above the turmoil. They stayed focused on tertiary aspirations, arguing, this is not my island; no need to feel connected. It seemed a rational, commonsense approach. It was adopted by, for instance, many Indians from Trinidad, many blacks from the Bahamas.

Ikael’s immersion into the Nyabinghi faith was gradual. Changes in his features were the first signs of inner transformation: from clean-faced innocence to facial hairiness, marijuana’d eyes, his general appearance roughened-up as if to blur his distinctive island origins.

His language and modes of communing slowly altered. The tools of academic discourse were put aside or interspersed with the messianic I-Words of Rasta I-Manity. At times a self-conscious smile on his face seemed to question what he was doing: entering himself, entering the moment on the island.

But these were in many ways extraordinary post-Rodney times. Youth culture had been at the forefront of rebellious activity in European capitals (Paris in ’68). Some of that youth optimism carried over to the 70s in Jamaica where praises to ‘de youth’ formed part of an ascendant reggae romanticism.

At the same time a unique confluence of brilliant teachers, students, pioneers in thought and creativity had emerged in Kingston; young men & women in the prime of their intellectual & creative life: among them Vaughn Lewis, Kamau Brathwaite, Rex Nettleford (professors); Owen Arthur, Bruce Golding, Ralph Gonsalves (students) Bob Marley, U Roy, Count Ossie (music pioneers).

With minds & talents functioning at their highest capacity, the campus was bright with ideas for changing the course of Caribbean history & politics. Few were aware of the roles and destinies they would later be asked to fill.

Among his friends Ikael encouraged a kind of introspective “reasoning”, a variant of Walter Rodney’s “groundings” with the underclass. They were in effect interpersonal (I & I) “conversations”; confessional at the beginning, argumentative often; filled with student impulse and hypothesis.

Listening you sensed his anxiety about his blue-eyed identity, the “sins” of his privileged upbringing. He worried, too, about his postgraduate role in an intellectually unaccommodating region (how would he fit back in?). Jamaica offered a laboratory for experiment and redefinition.

In the 60s Jamaica was the island for transient souls eager to fulfill escapist longings. Playgrounds of pleasure could be found in its lovely music & liberating sex, in the fashion of dread and the bounty of marijuana. Tourists, who saw no need for caution in those days, flocked to the North coast to sample & indulge illicit freedoms. After Rodney “conscious” students discovered the wayward possibilities for (self) discovery if they ventured into the wards and valleys of Kingston.

In Ikael’s conversations there were early indications of what he would later become: the good shepherd of the Nyabinghi, its philosopher-scribe. Not just giving intellectual validation to the faith, or working in an advocacy role (as trade union rep, or academic housekeeper). He believed the Ras had the power to transform & rebuild the region’s human resources after the depredations of plantation. “Rastafari is the most important consciousness to have arisen in the 20th century.” he has said. The House of Nyabinghi would be his new psychic home.

Here our thinking diverged. It was hard to conceive of Rastafari as a transferable faith rippling down the Eastern C/bean islands. Surface aspects – the drumming & redemptive promises, the breakaway language constantly at war with local evil-doers and Babylon’s materialism – might appeal to groups languishing on the margins. But old ways and habits like seedbeds sometimes need raking up before new faith could take root.

Message and island might be viewed as incompatible. In his island home, for instance, the historical imbalance between colonizer and colonized had stabilized into a feel-safe working pact between tourist & islander, proprietor & resident. It was a pact for which there was unspoken consensus and measurable economic progress. To return to that context with messages of a radical reordering of lives, with calls to re-examine the collective well-being of former slaves, would raise anxiety levels. Barriers of resistance would go up.

In Jamaica tiny ironies caught your attention. Though “the masses” listened to the pro-active message in Bob Marley’s Get up, Stand up, and wept when they remembered Zion, their hearts – believing deliverance would come from above, not from abroad – felt comforted singing along to the bouncy hope of Max Romeo’s Let the power fall on I.

Our student minds turned often to issues of island sexuality. How to explain the nexus of unreflecting, carnal males, those luscious women, the batty-bwoy obsession? There were readily available theories linking behaviours to ‘persistent poverty’, ignorance, unemployable rude energies, the groiny power of the powerless (or the island’s peculiar legacy from the plantation – its testosterone blessings & curse.)

Whatever the cause, practices and norms could be changed, communities rehabilitated. Ikael was confident change would begin when islanders looked to Africa and embraced the transforming values & majesty of the Ras.

I followed his return through news and internet reports. I didn’t think he would complete his postgraduate studies. I imagined him remaining in Jamaica, hirsute beyond recognition, and missing a few teeth; having resolved to exchange the (material) trappings of one island for the (spiritual) wrappings of another

A newspaper interview in 2002 sounded ominous. In it he felt compelled to affirm (for aspersions were being cast) his blackness and black roots. (“My Creator has already decided by my mother’s line that I am black.”) He cited a Marcus Garvey’s definition of blackness in ardent defence. I had a flashback to colonial Guyana, and a half-white vagrant (named Walker) who defended himself when anyone looked at him hard. He’d screamed that he was “British”; children sometimes threw stones and called him, “Walker the nigger!”

In 2003 I heard of the launching of his book Rastafari in Transition: Politics of Cultural Confrontation in Africa and the Caribbean (1966-1988) Volume 1. He talked about the unfinished nature of “his work”; the dry interest shown by an old-thinking UWI academy. He issued apocalyptic warnings (“We are in the last hour of time. Look at Daniel 1, read from verse 36.”)

I read of his appointment in 2004 as Director of the Commission for Pan African Affairs – “I have waited a long time in my life for the opportunity to make this contribution.” – and the trust placed in him by the Barbadian Govt. The appointment was met with disquiet even in Rastafarian circles. Angry messages questioned whether a white Barbadian face was “truly representative” of Pan African affairs. (In 2008 it was reported he’d been “fired” from the position.)

As for death and its incalculability Ikael spoke back then with the coolness of indestructible youth, as if the lining of his lion heart could hold off the encroachment of mundane infections. (Statins and cholesterol were not yet a conspicuous part of the vocabulary of physical wellbeing.) Belief in the power of Jah, in the moral universe of the Ras would form a natural mystic firewall, unbreachable by the diseases of Babylon.

It is tempting to consider his state of mind in his last hours on earth. From all accounts he had gone to T/dad to deliver a lecture on African Liberation. At some point he complained of feeling unwell and returned to his hotel bed. Later he was discovered unconscious, and pronounced dead at the hospital (apparently of heart attack.) Difficult, then, to imagine the conversation with himself as he waited for that gathered cardiac storm to pass; as he slipped from “consciousness” into that silent zone (or Zion) of hereafter.

An extraordinary individual in a time of extraordinary events, he dared as student to leap into realities outside theory & textbook, mastering the knowledge he found there. He seemed determined to redirect the narrative of his life, to construct a new persona fusing elements from the African continent and his dismantled island psyche.

Those who joined his conversations will remember the way he showed up after days of island trod, looking loose, street-weathered, the blue eyes ablaze with new I-World “visions”; his metamorphosis in fevered progress. Sceptical as some of us remained, the conversations helped adjust our thinking about the world. His evolving faith-based sureness of self threw light on roads not taken, the labours of One Love now lost.

It was good and pleasant to know him. In those seminal student years he was Lion of the void. Yes, I.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Colonial Triumph & Pain

In June 1954 a group of Guianese schoolgirls left the island of Wakenaam, crossed the Essequibo river and traveled the coast to Suddie. Accompanied by a chaperon they assembled at the Suddie primary school for the purpose of taking the Guiana Scholarship exam. The test lasted one day and consisted of Arithmetic (mental and written), English (comprehension and Essay) and an Intelligence test.

The results were broadcast on the radio in dramatic tones. Among the scholarship winners from the Essequibo County was Mona Williams, the author of Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth (1995). She was awarded one of 63 free places, and in Sept 1954 she was among 500 students beginning or continuing their education at Bishops High school.

The school, Ms Williams reminds her readers, was founded by English clergy for the daughters of English church members who had come out to the colony. By the time Ms Williams had won her scholarship there had been a guardedly slight darkening of student hue. Muslim and Hindu students “were dotted about in good measure”, but for the most part BHS was home to “the crème de la crème of the nation, in wealth, birth, brains and beauty.” It didn’t take her long to notice the degree of preferential treatment granted to white-skin students.

In the school’s main foyer, she explains, “there was something overwhelming about the framed Turners, Constables, Gainsboroughs and Michelangelo reproductions.” Imported English teachers “spoke their Oxbridge-accented Properly to me.” These stark polarities (in a colony agitating for self-govt.) – English Properly vs. Guianese Creole; “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing” vs. “Zeg, zeg, zeg, Mama, zeg if yuh zegging”; Raleigh bicycles & Yardley’s Lavender talc vs. “our daily life in sweltering, equatorial, sea-level British Guiana” – are the main tracks on which the book’s narrative runs.

Bishops is a record of two adjoined worlds occupied by a poor black “country girl” who enters one of the elite education institutions in colonial Georgetown. Gradually she would be transformed into a student “girl warrior” (albeit a passive-aggressive warrior) doing battle with the representatives and designs of the Empire.

In the 50s the school’s colonial curriculum – which included “Treasure Island”, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, the early Middle Eastern Empires, Scottish dances, selected Overtures and Arias played to the entire assembled school – faced challenges from student interest in a burgeoning West Indian literature, their upstart curiosity stimulated by the voices being heard on the BBC – Henry Swanzy, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, Sam Selvon.

To her questioning attitude the BHS “girl warrior” received stern, mannered responses. Her teachers would point to the unavailability of WI texts, their unsuitability. (Ms Williams suggests she might have been the only classroom challenger, her Guianese alter student working against the grain while deflecting teacher sarcasms.) In time, she says, she began to feel “as invisible as our absent artists”.

The political consciousness of that student generation – which in many notable cases resulted decades later in party-political activity – was slowly raised by events at home and overseas. It was a period in history not easily ignored.

Ghana’s Independence in 1957, Ms Williams recalls, had enormous impact on the black population in Guyana. After suspending Guyana’s constitution in 1953 the British authorities arrested members of the Jagan Govt. and locked them up in Sibley Hall. This last “event” forms the basis of an amazing piece of melodrama in Bishops.

Ms Williams describes a situation on Wakenaam where an unwary white tourist, strolling down the dusty road outside her school, is invited in by the Headmaster, escorted to the school stage and “seated with dignity”. The assembled students are led into singing “a nationalist song” (“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima”). The visitor is then subjected to an impromptu speech condemning the suspension of the constitution and demanding self-government for British Guiana.

He is thanked for listening, led off the stage, offered refreshment (coconut water and jelly) then waved on his way. Ms Williams records the event (and the Headmaster’s speech, word for word!) as if after all these years the sudden storm of it still blows in her memory.

Bishops was written during Ms Williams’ fellowship as “1993 Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.” This distant new residence, and generous new audience, might explain a noticeable embellishment of material pulled up from memory.

One can sense the author’s prose straining when, for instance, she writes of “the unfailingly bath-warm, mineral-dyed-brown, dangerous Demerara [river]”. Or when, upon hearing she had won the scholarship, she “[performs] an ancient, tribal, African-ritual victory dance.” Or the reference to “the women of my father’s ancestral Black village of Buxton [who] stood on the trainline and stopped the Governor’s carriage.” Guyanese readers will know what she’s talking about. They might wonder at the author’s host-indulging tone, and the exotic turn of phrase here and there.

Her triumph over adversity was grounded in the support she received from her (extended) family. With her father absent (he’d left for England when she was three) she gets shuttled around to “board with” various Aunts in Demerara. Her mother, a lowly-paid teacher working on Wakenaam, was determined to afford her the 1st class education promised by BHS. Her Granny Adrianna (brought over as a child from Barbados in the 1880s) was a rock of religious sustenance, nurturing her grandchild’s need to succeed with constant reminders of the family’s high expectations.

As Ms Williams looks back her book reveals moments of mistreatment & hurt the “country girl” received and felt keenly. After all these years they’ve proven difficult to erase. With just a trace of bitterness Ms Williams names names.

Like the headmaster at her Wakenaam school, Mr. McGowan (presenter of that fiery anti-colonialist speech to the unsuspecting white tourist) whose learning code of work & punishment (“Mummy, Mr. McGowan beat me till the blouse shred up.”) played a role in her scholarship success. He is acknowledged but hardly forgiven. Ms Williams observes that her “gratitude [to him] for my success was always overpowered by the smell of blood and the memory of pain”

And she mentions the cruelty of fellow students at Bishops who contrived to make her feel ashamed of her poverty background. (Yo, Cicely Rodway, if you’re out there: remember that day in 1956, walking down Brickdam to school? reminding Mona Williams she came from “a broken home”? and “feeling sorry for her”?)

As it shuttles between cultural modes (school and home) Bishops succeeds in conveying that Derek Walcott-like tension between the Englishness the author was taught to embrace and her upsurging creole intelligence. It also illustrates how, through self-conscious efforts in and outside the classroom, a process was set in motion to tweeze apart the interweave of personal and colonial narratives

At the same time it traces the parallel development of Ms Williams’ student talents – public speaking, singing (soprano), debating, storytelling. And most importantly dance.

For the latter she pays tribute to Guiana’s famed dance innovator Helen Taitt who opened the first School of Guiana Ballet. Not sure how she would pay for classes when her application was accepted, Ms Williams, with the kindness and encouragement of Ms Taitt, nevertheless joined the school. It would be the start of a life-long interest in the possibilities of blending Guianese and European dance forms. (Ms Williams was undeterred by fears the Guianese public might be loathe to accept the first “dying black swan” on the stage.)

What will strike readers is the author’s candid appraisal of her interior struggles. She arrived at BHS in 1954, she says, “rich in self-confidence and self-love”. After five (O-level) years and fairly respectable exam results the experience leaves bruises on her ego. At age sixteen the “country girl” admits to a temperament “full of [personal] conflicts… and a good deal of self-loathing.”

Ms Williams doesn’t pause long enough for explanation (there’s a hint at adolescent anxiety about physical attractiveness.) The narrative at this point is in its closing pages, rushing toward triumph at the end. She would return with calmer resolve for her senior (A-level) years and the rest, she would prefer to say, is history.

Ms Williams continued on to Stanford University, USA as a Fulbright Scholar; and to successful careers in dance, storytelling and writing children’s books. She is now a New Zealand citizen and (at the time of the book’s publication) a lecturer in English at a college of Education in her adopted homeland.

More than anyone Ms Williams is keenly aware that the tutelage of the 50s with its programs & “oppressions”, its actors & over^seers has passed on. (Shopkeeper minds might be tempted to make fodder of the loss/gain conundrums now that BHS is free at last from those European controlling narratives and rituals).

Her depiction of half-happy days growing up shoeless in Wakenaam and at Christianburg is engaging. The writing is enriched in places, with intermittent attempts at novelized prose and some lush creole talk; but Demerara in the 50s is reanimated with the same intensity in which it was lived.

A first of its kind, Bishops testifies to the courage & unflagging self-belief of a once-transcendent, now near-twilight generation: those students catalyzed in the 50s and 60s at (what sometimes is described disparagingly as) our “elitist” colonial institutions; the many fine young men and women schooled in an era of standards & discipline (the names of paradigmatic achievers like Walter Rodney and Rupert Roopnarine spring to mind); for whom the tertiary institutions abroad were the next frontier in personal fulfillment and emancipatory ideals.

Like Olympians they took off determined to clear any imperial hurdles placed in their way. Like Ms Williams many prevailed, then looked back (some came back) with a nod to their formative Guiana school years.

One thinks, for instance, of the internationally acclaimed Guianese pianist Ray Luck. Yo, Ray, if you’re out there: just for the record, how about a book describing your (maybe not so turbulent) student years at Queens College? back in the 50s? and the years after?

Book Reviewed: Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth: Mona Williams: Mallinson Rendel Publishers Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand: 162 pages: 1995

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

“Part of an Age, or All Of Each Day”?

“Part of an Age, or All

 of each Day”?

Poet Brian Chan offers this crystal of existential choice to the Guyanese reader who during the (post)colonial period was stuck with the (pre)determinisms of Comrades Burnham & Jagan; and who with outward bound options shrinking these days might feel still fettered inside our national narrative of assiduously going nowhere.

Of course, the past still lingers, and History continues to undress itself for the scrutiny of hoary academic over^seers. But Chan has had his fill of “the past” and its recent restorations:

        So the legacy of Englishness

        and its weapon of the left-unsaid:

        colonies abandoned to a mess

        of incestuous whispers and stammered

        tributes to indifferent ghosts by numb

        men pretending hard          (from Compensation)

It is never flattering to discover that, years after Independence, habits of truth-concealment, of bathing the memory of the dead, persist in our nation. It seems harder still for the Guyanese citizen to step past so much distress & dysfunction of our own making; tough to correct & manage that facing-forward backward nation-drift.

But given the patterns of frantic migration over the years, just who is the Guyanese citizen? and where does his soul reside?

These issues are at the heart of a new collection of poems The Gift of Screws (2008) which, after years in private circulation, has finally been released by its Peepal Tree publisher in England.  

They are strange, hard-to-reach poems. They seem at first reading to be striving for a self-obscuring complexity. They owe a little to the colourful, nation-mapping explorations of Seymour, Carter, Harris and McDonald; they’re modernist in sensibility and cerebral in that hyperspatial Palace of the Peacock way.

Guyanese readers would have to give up so much that might be considered essential to survival today – give up old ethnic antagonisms that see evil & its minions in the other race; give up dead hero worship, though as Chan says WE LIVING are only as bold as we entertain our ghosts”; give up the sex for favours exchange, narco-business runnings, street and public service modes of disregard.

Give up “words”, too, (“anything said can mean anything else/ and nothing can mean anything at all.”) for they only provoke the vapours of the barely-literate; or the blandishments of those Heritage gatekeepers who feed you a porridge of sad “memory” and separate “pride” but keep you locked in.

Martin Carter (b. 1927) once faced a similar dilemma. As living in Guyana became insupportable back in the socialist-experiment days he wrote of “the bafflement of speech”, the poet’s state of being confounded by the prescriptive thunder of political discourse. (He would have been silenced again and forever by the snarl & cold verdict of guns in the hands of those east coast/wild west phantom bandits). Carter eventually gave up and sank into gloom, shaping then publishing elegant lines out of misery.

Brian Chan (b. 1949) does a kind of inner retreat, slipping off into a world he has built around him. You could call it his dream space, his alternate reality. His poems suggest you could do the same with tools of the imagination – construct your own ark of salvation; or share his dream space if you like.

You’d be hard put to recognize his world the way Ian McDonald identifies places on the Essequibo coast as sources of self-transcendence. And it might be uncharitable to locate it floating in fine mists somewhere over the rainbow; or up past those epiphanic rapids of Mariella in Wilson Harris’ hinterland where, as they used to say in the 60s, ‘every thing is everythiinng’.

Chan strips away any tangible “local” or “landscape” identifiers. There’s an abstract anywhereness in his trimmed-down lines. Poems are filled with generic “fences”, “caves” “deserts”, “leaves”, “wind” and “ghosts”, so resolutely has the poet chosen to turn away from what is culturally discordant or ideologically confining outside his gate.

“Fences” and “caves” become metaphors for secretive habits, hidden biases and fears – colonial residue swimming like hookworm in the nation’s culture.

And yet, paradoxically, the image Chan chooses to define his existence is “the mud crab”, which makes him a sideways-moving creature or creation of Guyana. Not so much loving our mudland for its mud as accepting its reality. Since we did not inherit the mixed blessings of pristine-white, tourist-attracting beaches, he might be saying, we have only our hands, our imagination and our abundant green land.

For a mudcrab poet this could be a solitary, unpretty existence, “a loneliness of focus”; but that identity (with its “freedom from fetters”) once compelled him to get on with his task (“my real work of breathing”) as a citizen of a nation still slip-sliding on mudflats of coastal vanities.

At the same time Chan reveals a lofty but inclusive Guyanese way of “seeing”:

        “in your eyes, other of myself, you who would dodge

          the self that contains all,

         all on different stages of the fiction of the flesh,

         the flags of flesh we wave to one another, bridg-

         ing chasms between spills

         of identity, tags of separateness      (from In a Crowd)

Here again, as in a previous collection, Fabula Rasa, Chan brings to the nation the hope of coalescing our multiculturally-sliced, rancorous inheritance. He senses a subterranean longing in the lives of Guyanese to break out of ethnic enclavement, to toss aside the “fictions” and “flags”, the “tags” and “masks”. He sees a people worn down by the armor of tribal loyalty (“the weight of our mud and junk and dust”); wanting only freedom & newness, a productive lightness of being.

Chan lived through the fearful grandiosity that ushered in and celebrated our Independence in the 60s and 70s; and as a result he invites us to pay attention to “the sheer everydayness of our miracles”; how we survived the social & economic malaise that followed (and continues); forging through the insistent leveling of socialism, our resilience of spirit (or memory) intact even when Guyanese relocate to Richmond Hill or Brooklyn, NY.

His poems are hewn out of a self-effacing temperament. Even the titles eschew the grand entrance. They prefer like flowers of conversation simply to open up: “NO GHOST, like the ghost of what might have been/ for it is a lonely monster.”

If you start wondering with feminist concern whether there’s space in this poet’s world for women, some poems are dedicated to women; and, interestingly, the poem, To My Wife of Twenty Five Years in a rare burst of feeling honours the one who has been “my one elbower and hand-holder; compass and carriage.”

Chan shows his appreciation for their island of love “at whose midnight door I’m but the rapping wind/ while its oven, bed, roof and raft you remain/ under all clouds.” [Which might seem a lot to ask of any woman these days, to be “oven, bed, roof and raft”; plus “compass and carriage.” But in any event]

The Gift of Screws is stuffed with many terse poems which might be considered words sprinkled like water on nothing of consequence; and some squirrel-wary poems, the lines dovetailing neatly after a twitchy peek at the world. Most seem written with furrowed brow, allowing little humour, too serious to be simply enjoyed. Some read like anti-poems with omitted punctuation and with word-spacing and lines that run preternaturally free of literary expectations.

The shortest poem contains seven words. It’s a quickie of a poem artfully laid out on the page for reading then catching your breath: “AFTERWARDS   As before:   sated    emptied    waiting    to    begin.”

So how does this all add up? Is Chan an idealist who turned in and moved away, lifting his art & his vision above the rise and rule of mediocrity? A solipsist always in retreat, too far, too long removed from home to matter? Is he – like B. Wordsworth in VSNaipaul’s Miguel Streetsearching through postcolonial rubble for “the poem that will sing to all [Guyana] humanity”?

In this new collection Chan’s talent continues to unsettle and poke at those ethnic-safe habits of looking at ourselves. It is not the slighted talent of an immigrant poet drumming for respect on sidewalks in “multicultural” Canada. The Gift of Screws is Chan’s third book of poems. Volume for volume he is the most noncompliant poet to emerge from Guyana’s shores in recent decades.

If you put aside for a moment the sterling poetic claims of Wilson Harris the Obscure; if poetry in Guyana (the written, not the perishable, word) somehow survives the seasonal flood waters, the gangsterous forces bursting through our doors and piling up our ravaged souls, Chan will probably stand out as a bold, innovative voice. His poetry, clearing up the ethnic cloudiness in our vision, would help us see with unsquinting eyes again.

The Gift of Screws is an émigré’s gift to Guyana’s new “developed” age, that next step in human advancement when we decide – shedding generations of colonial mistrust – to resist the drag down of transatlantic memories, those observances that now would ship us back to separate faraway times; when instead we embrace our common bonds; dare to inhabit our worlds as new men and women.

Chan’s word to the powerholders: can’t fly on one wing, yo!


Book Reviewed Gift of Screws: Brian Chan: Peepal Tree Press, England, England: 99 pgs. 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

Desperate Lives: Gyals & Gyurls in NYC

Calabash Parkway (2005) is the second novel by Guyanese author Brenda Chester DoHarris. Many readers might have heard of her first novel, The Coloured Girl in the Ring. Ms DoHarris has been its proud promoter and defender. That first book has been described as a coming of age novel set in Guyana of the 50s and 60s. The new book leaps forward to the 70s and 80s and could be described as a coming to America novel set in NYC.

Brenda Chester DoHarris is a professor of English at Bowie State University, Maryland, and a graduate of Columbia and Howard universities, receiving a PhD degree in English. Writing novels is a side profession she pursues with enormous conviction and hope.

Calabash Parkway is a labour-intense novel with a serious purpose and a studied appeal for feminist appreciation. It aims to pay tribute to Guyanese women; hardworking, still young, husband-looking women; with low wage-earning skills; “for whom love and romance were luxuries poor women could not afford”.

Back home they dream of escaping to America and later sending for their children. They meet men in New York city who understand these dreams, who make promises, but eventually betray them. Always ripe for disappointment & exploitation, they work illegally as housekeepers and store clerks, and link their love decisions to future US residency.

Throughout all the betrayal (the men in this novel are all shifty-hearted philanderers with few redeeming features) the women – raised in the 50s, you have to think, and taught the propriety of self-restraint – do not respond with palpable gestures of outrage (like, for instance, pouring cups of sorrel on the man’s good, good dress shirts).

The single act of retaliation is carried out by a black woman “with an uptown New York accent”, who shoots the Guyanese father of her child when it seems he’s getting ready to leave her.

Usually the women experience “nausea” and retreat to the bathroom to retch; but they carry inside them like a DNA code a quality that author DoHarris admires: “dogged insistence”; a silent-suffering, survivalist ethic.

The narrator is a graduate student pursuing studies at Columbia University. There she learnt to distance herself from “people trapped in the disposition of always framing the world in terms of the Western metropole.” In Calabash Parkway her mission is to work the opposite way, framing the world of her characters in memory-based, authentic Guyanese terms.

There are references, like markers of time passing, to Kitchener (singing “Drink a Rum an’ a Punch-a-Crème” at Christmas) and Johnny Braff (singing “It Burns Inside”); to Walter Rodney “the Guyanese scholar-politician”; the Belvedere hotel and “The Tides of Susanburg”; and “the soothing tropical breezes rustling through Le Repentir’s giant sentinel palms”. (This last, an example of Ms DoHarris’ lethargic word painting, offers some relief from her tendency to strait-jacket the behavior of her characters.)

There is, too, the familiar joke of foreigners who confuse Guyana with Guinea and Ghana; creole sayings like lacy embroidery stitching in and out the prose; and vivid descriptions of habits, places & rituals. All of which, aided by a glossary of 153 Guyanese colloquial terms, often give the narratives a paragraph-padded feel.

Even the female sensibility is recast in local imagery. A character, contemplating the law-breaking measures she must take to enter the United States illegally sees the situation as “a series of river rapids that she would be required to negotiate as she paddled her canoe upstream.” And DoHarris is very careful with ethnic vernacular. The East Indian women in her novel say, “Ow, gyal”; the Creole women say, “Hurry up, gyurl?”

There are touches of old century suggestiveness in DoHarris’ prose that fits neatly into her characters’ disposition. At high points of uncertainty her women are often “seized by a strong desire to”. Sexual intimacy is given a romantic old world (or soap opera new world) treatment: “That night in their nakedness, they discovered the delight of each other’s secret places…in the searing heat of their passion.”

A woman comes home to tell the husband she left in Guyana she’s found another man. He had found another woman while she was away. Some enchanted evening they exchange these bruising revelations, sitting on the seawall, “in the light of the full moon that hung over Demerara”.

The novel’s main character is an old friend of the narrator, not as educated, from Kitty village back in the 60s. When their paths cross again in 1979 on a subway train – “in the gritty, rumbling underbelly of metropolitan New York”; the professor/author slips often into passé sentences like that – the narrator is struck by “the destiny that drew us together again”. So much so, she discovers a new imperative: borrowing the tools of fiction she would document the sadness in the unsettled lives of “undocumented” women in New York city.

As with the novels of another writer/professor, David Dabydeen, readers must be patient with the author/narrator expositions on the characters’ culture, their roots, the socio-economic background – the framing of their idiosyncratic world, so that uninformed readers can get the big, widescreen picture.

As it moves along Calabash Parkway turns into a text that wants to be studied (through the lens of gender & culture), rather than a novel written for subway reader diversion. Among the Glossary notes, like a calling card to graduate students, DoHarris inserts an annotation about an East Indian character, Drupattie, and “the significance of Drupaudie in Hindu mythological lore”.

Ipod-toting younger readers swimming lazily through this DoHarris novel need to brace themselves for this kind of contextual undertow.

Against their wish, you suspect, her women are asked to lug a lot of extra baggage, for page after page, from village to city. They’re helped along by the narrator’s earnest voice-over, for Professor DoHarris feels a lot of “explaining” is necessary about their choices, their constantly victimized state. In a tough, masculinized world the narratives of struggling Guyanese women, their longing for security & family wholeness, are after all very serious business.

Contact with other ethnics in Calabash Parkway is marginal – such is the tunnel vision & urgency of Ms. DoHarris’ immigrant lives – but vitally important. When they do appear ethnics tend to show their cleavage: like the elderly Jewish couple, survivors of the Holocaust, kind and compassionate to Evadne, their Guyanese housekeeper; or the white middle-aged officer in Georgetown interviewing visa applicants with suspicious, “steely grey” eyes.

Near the end of the novel there’s a brief report – a remnant dropped in as if half-remembered – on the fate of the East Indian woman, Druppatie, who’s unlucky in cross-cultural love.

What happens to migrant women dreaming and working illegally in America will continue to stir interest among academics and novelists. Ms. DoHarris falls somewhere in between professions, leaning heavily – perhaps with little choice – on memory and second-hand reportage. Calabash Parkway offers little by way of new insights, new meanings, so grim are the narratives of what the author would have us imagine as the unrelentingly grim, romance-drenched lives of her chosen women.

Still – and despite the sentimental untidiness of its closing pages – Calabash Parkway should find a sisterhood of supportive readers. Its implanted pedagogical “themes” make a strong case for the respect and commitment its characters crave. (On the other hand, under the weight of its own affirmative goals, it might have sunk already into that ocean of the all too familiar, the nothing new.)

To all the love-scarred Guyanese women adrift out there – Agatha, Gwennie Brathwaite, Eunice, Doreen, Evadne, Evadne’s Nennen, Jennifer, Samantha, Drupattie – if you can find time to read it, this book’s for you, too.

Book Reviewed: Calabash Parkway: Brenda Chester DoHarris: Tantaria Press: Maryland, USA: 2005: 158 pages.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

For the Old Guys, Old Ghosts

“We are never where we are, but somewhere else”

- Derek Walcott, “In Italy

In Haiti these days, according to a recent report in the NYTimes, there is growing nostalgia for “the old ghosts”, Papa Doc and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier. This wish to return to the good old days is in response to mounting social problems which have turned the country into one of the poorest places in the world. In the old days there was a stronger economy, security (of a kind), lower food prices and, for the privileged, scholarships to study abroad.

It was also a time of pitiless oppression; but for those who miss “the old ghosts” there’s a convenient amnesia about that; and the torture of political prisoners in those prisons near the presidential palace.

This longing for harsh but quieter times, the column suggests, is fuelled by a “nostalgia for the strong hand”. A “voodoo master” hougan, it’s also reported, has returned from the US to restore the supplementary powers of the old religion. Peace at any cost would seem preferable to the disorder and despair that’s rife across the land.

“Looking back” for many Guyanese can assume bitter, uncompromising forms. Something about the way newspaper columns routinely demonise the years of “the strong hand” (Burnham) or pine for the integrity of “the good heart” (Jagan) reveals how deeply unforgiving and irreparable the fault lines of thinking (about colonial politics) still run.

Through the mind’s back windows (where we gaze and wonder what the future holds) many Guyanese – young, worried or ambitious – still prefer “looking out”; still dream of moving away, using metaphysical sea ports if necessary. Migration from our shores – with its feverish planning, its promise of “freedom” from those phantoms of terror at night, and the precariousness of wage-earning each day – has been described as “one of the healthiest” per capita in the world.

Once overseas – huddled for security, and content with “looking on” from the margins – there’s the compelling wish with the passing of years to “give back” to the old country. Gifts and sentiments are packed tight in barrels or remittances, poetry or social commentary. Recent fiction by some of our overseas-based authors could be read as “give back” memory-based narratives, intended for “those whom we first [knew and] loved”.

Godfrey Chin is not a literary man. His book, Nostalgias (2007), a sentiment-loosening compilation, is written with infectious enthusiasm mainly for Guyanese old-timers, settled or adrift in unfamiliar spaces; in Canada and the USA, or the UK.

The book is chock full of tiny descriptions, most of it familiar stuff; and it’s fizzy with name dropping – names of people, names of places, names of nicknames, of foods, rituals, discos, songs, cultural totems, social events, street characters, sports personalities.

There’s so much naming, what some might recall as the coastal-choked, youth-wasted days – trapped in “an infinity of endeavour”, as Derek Walcott might say – are sorted and wrapped like confectionery for the reader. If, by chance, you grew up outside Georgetown – across wide rivers in places with no electricity – you might, with some justification, feel marginalized and faceless.

Housing the nation’s historical memories has always been a thorny issue. Decades of indifference and neglect had resulted in crumbling and serious loss at the old Archives. An article recently In Stabroek News questioned the seriousness and intent of the resource managers in the shiny new building on Homestretch Avenue. It wondered quite rightly if they were up to the task, or mere occupants of another grand illusion.

It expressed the hope that facilities for a sound archive there would be used to capture “for posterity” the voices of our past leaders, their pronouncements at important milestones in the nation’s history.

Sound archives might also preserve the days when radio funneled the world into our lives. Beside the radio voices making history, one could hear again the voices of ordinary folk talking about their lives, the radio programs and the music they listened to. Chin’s Nostalgias reminds us how bare our sound archive shelves might be when it comes to music.

Unlike, say, Jamaica where one reggae song could link emotions & lives to specific decades of homegrown creativity, our music reservoirs for the most part were filled from dawn to midnight with imported sound: Mohammed Rafi (syrupy but ethnic-soothing) at sunrise; through an assortment of island or (US) pop, or Country & Western, and dreary servings of Euro-Sunday sounds; to Jim Reeves (deep-voiced and syrupy) at sunset.

Beside the sound archive, one imagines a gallery of visuals. A call has gone out for Guyanese to send home photo memorabilia of the old days which could be studied for clues to how people coped every day with colonial life. In Chin’s Nostalgias, among the pics of family and city life, there are two photos worth a thousand and one words.

One of the Botanic Gardens in the 50s, back when it was proudly maintained, when its Edenic, ordered beauty was a powerful attraction for Guianese on Sundays, a place for the spirit to getaway from the dusty yard and “the smell of history”. And a photo of the old Queens College assembly hall, with orderly rows of students, reminding one of the disciplined learning & distinctions that once defined that institution. (The Latin teacher who’d quote Epictetus, “Only the educated are free.”)

Chin’s Nostalgias is a generous-hearted effort at “preserving golden memories”. He knows the date and the hour when the paradise that was his Guiana fell to ruin. On February 16, 1962, he writes, during the anti-Jagan Govt riots, “Around three p.m., the police at Brickdam went on strike, refusing to patrol the streets without firearms, and in that instant law and order broke down, and, in my opinion, “Choke and Rob” entered the pages of Guyana’s history.”

“In the next 25-30 years,” he continues confidently, “300,000 would flee their homeland.”

Chin can be forgiven his flyover views. Carpe diem!” he says, had been his guiding motto in those colonial years. True to his word, Nostalgias is a stirring metemgee of day-seasoning, with humour and spice and all things nice. Nothing too “deep” or too disturbing to spoil reader pleasure. (There’s a moving tribute to Dr. Walter Chin – “a devoted patriot…a legend in his time” – which might set some readers off in search of at least a passing reference to Dr. Walter Rodney).

Nor is it too probing. An observation of the “right-angled streets” in Georgetown could have prompted some thoughtful reference to the grid-like road system designed & laid down by the Dutch. And while as a boy or young man growing up in the colony Chin might have been unaware of the imperial “strong hand” arranging (or moulding) Guiana’s choices from overseas, as an old man “looking back” that sliver of forgetfulness might strike some readers as a little odd.

Memory – the opiate of the transplanted masses, you could say; or their educated reps – remains the most swollen part of our nation’s intelligence. With our future still in the hands of international funding forces, you could enter, through columns in G/town’s press, retro rooms that encourage readers of Stabroek News, for instance, to think about the travel observations of Schomburgk, explorer of Guiana’s interior; or those anniversary messages in the Guyana Chronicle that feed the faithful by, for instance, hailing Dr. Cheddi Jagan as more virtuous and heroic than anyone before and after Independence.

You could follow along as some pot-stirring writer takes you back to his favorite cauldron of upheaval & loss – the slave rebellions, the anti-colonial 50s, the Burnham 80s. Either way, while the truth & its complexity stays submerged for now, argument and counter-argument about victories & villains in Guyana’s past will not leave you feeling like a fatherless child.

Given Chin’s sunny disposition it would be mean-spirited to rain on his Nostalgias – unedited and snippety as they look on the page. Like 45 or 78 rpm vinyls his old days collection seems very important and precious to him. They provide the only clues to how Chin himself is doing these days, so many years & miles away.

All told, Nostalgias offers a cozy, cheerful message to older Guyanese in the diaspora (their reading habits intact), who never quite severed ties; who on snowbound days might welcome the company of ghosts; or conversations in any form that brings them full circle to their halcyon growing-up years.

The message is this: the rootless life is not your fate; you can go home again. Climb out that basement, dust off the old identity. As it grows late in your remaining afternoons, you can reconnect your beginnings and end. No “give back” patriotism required. In this book you could skip pages, and still enjoy the flight.

Yes, comrades, through the mulch of time, gather ye rosebuds.

Book Reviewed: Nostalgias: Godfrey Chin: CKP Publishing: Florida, USA: 2007, 259 pages.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Poem by Brian Chan

To A Trapped Lioness

Even in his sleep beside you,

your mate you can hear pacing his

rage-carpeted cage of snoring

vanity whose bars and sharp blades

of light stabbing through them are all

equally his own mind trying

to erase, and not, its tyranny

over his every breath and stamp.

Beware of feeding him your blood

and milk of your still-flowing breast.

Such food both pacifies and fills

him with despair as it keeps him

every day waking to become

his fear that his cage will, and not,

fade. Let pride to its need of love learn

to kneel, or gnaw itself to death.

From Gift of Screws © Brian Chan

Monday, March 31, 2008

Anatomy of a Marriage (1920s Georgetown)

A newspaper columnist in British Guiana writing a Sunday column (February 1922) makes the following statement: “Georgetonians are of two kinds: those who live in Queenstown and their unfortunate neighbours who inhabit the remaining part of our garden city.” That newspaper columnist is a fictional character and the statement sets the stage for Roy Heath’s first novel From the Heat of the Day (1979).

The Queenstown part of the city was apparently not fully developed at the time. From a home on Anira Street you could hear the “incessant roaring of the waves at floodtide” coming all the way from the seawall. Heath describes the area as “the unblemished district with its tall houses and blossoms on year end, and painted palings like flattened spears embracing yards darkened by thick branches of fruit trees.”

Residents hired gardeners to tend all those blossoms. New Garden Street was remarkable for its fine houses with large gardens in front of them, “in which flourished roses and dahlias, their stalks maintained by a staff to which they were tied.” A pipeline sewage system was set up in the early twenties foreseeing dignity and plumbing for the fortunate (and the end to posies under the bed). Who could resist the dream of moving to Queenstown upon hearing of this?

The aesthetic order of the city has crumbled over decades; parcels of dilapidation and vacant grassy lots remain. New fire-proof structures tower over old eyesores, and new residents moving in have established a kind of equal opportunity ethos. On Peter Rose Street jostling with once elegant homes there’s an Auto business, cars or vans packed tightly in a paved yard, with streamers flapping in the wind across the road. Of interest, too, is a mosque and a house turned into an office for taxi service; and a fruit vendor’s shack set up at the entrance of an Oronoque Street home.

You could argue these are buoyant signs of post-Independence development in the city; a messy kind of free for all residential zoning that disdains old vestiges of colonial respectability, even as a new moneyed and political class finds greener pastures elsewhere, with finer prospects of manicured grass on which to build.

Today minivans take short cuts through Queenstown’s narrow, quiet streets, honking in anticipation at evening strollers. And Bastiani (“the undertaker” in Heath’s novel) has long gone, as is the smell of horse manure from the shed housing his funeral carriages; his Forshaw Street business has been replaced by a more upbeat entrepreneur selling bridal accessories.

But colonial Queenstown was where Roy Heath moved his 1920s characters, Armstrong & his wife Gladys, in From the Heat of the Day; the old Queenstown with alleyways well-maintained by “men spraying the gutter-water with cisterns of oil”. Heath examines what happens when their marriage falls apart in the Forshaw Street property they occupy.

The flush of romance in the marriage wears off after two years and two children. As early as page 20, an inexplicable “rift” develops. Gladys Armstrong, a woman of healthy appetite, faithful and pledged “to breed and obey”, cannot understand what she’s doing wrong. Suddenly she must cope with “a wave of irritability that seemed to have no cause” sweeping over her husband.

Armstrong is doing very well; he gains promotion to Post Master at a Georgetown post office; but he wraps himself in uncompromising “silences” and her attempts at conversation are cut short by reminders, for instance, that he is “reading”. A third child on the way brings some respite, but the child doesn’t survive and the marriage continues to falter.

Beneath the first emotional awkwardness that blossomed into love, Heath suggests their marital union was seasoned in sexual desire. Gladys Armstrong recalls “the sweetness of copulation which became for her the heart of their marriage”. What she finds unbearable is the coldness of her bed at night.

Heath offers her no religious faith as solace; she doesn’t consider returning to her father’s home; she chooses the long-suffering wait for her husband’s isolation to end, absorbing his “outbursts” and deflecting his irritability.

Armstrong is himself somewhat mystified at the downturn of his marriage. He considers procuring a mistress, but Heath gives him a “conscience” that reproaches him for contemplating this move. He blames his wife’s “passivity”; he notices “her thighs becoming thick, and her breasts flabby”. He is sufficiently intelligent to reflect on what’s taking place, but libidinal priorities overwhelm his thinking. Most nights he stumbles home sullen and inebriated, sometimes slipping into the servant’s room; the barely literate girl is too powerless to fend him off.

He turns to houses of prostitution, pouring out his soul to a young woman (being careful to gloss over details); her response is so “insensitive” he leaves the room. A good friend with similar marriage woes offers sympathy and conversation. Key to his stimulus plan for his faltering Georgetown marriage is a younger woman “kept” miles away in the village of Plaisance. (He visits her every Sunday, defying social conventions, always fearful he might lose his job if the arrangement is found out.).

Armstrong’s conversations with himself stir a hive of self-pity and class anxiety. He had plucked Gladys from a well-to-do, genteel household respected for its piano playing, embroidery and sketching. He could have done a lot worse; he could have settled for a woman from his village in Agricola, “one of them big-batty women with powerful build who kian’ tell a piano from a violin.”

A dramatic layer is added to the novel through inquisitive visits paid by Armstrong’s sister in law. Armstrong’s own sister distracts him with argument over family inheritance after their father dies. These developments deepen Armstrong’s introspection. He begins to think he might have married above his station; he suspects he’s being constantly “judged” by his wife’s family, viewed as “an intruder”, a man lacking in adequate “background”.

To compound his dilemma, the colony is plunged into economic turmoil. The collapse of the sugar market starts the spread of fear among workers. There’s talk of “retrenchment” (a word as frightening then as “recession” today) among Civil Service employees, and though Armstrong hangs on his job security eventually falls victim to budget cuts.

Gladys responds with determined, belt-tightening courage; the servant girl is let go. Gladys holds fast to her vows of love and till-death, cutting back on personal nutrition, hoping her sacrifices would jolt Armstrong out of self-absorption.

Just when you wonder how much longer she can sustain her struggle with the inexplicable, she fades away. Heath’s prose seizes the moment to go maudlin & manipulative; paragraphs depict scenes of the husband’s grieving disbelief: “Armstrong drew up a chair and sat by the door of the room in which his wife lay.” Suddenly, thinking she might still be alive, he rushes off to find a doctor to confirm again her death. Images of remorse pile up: “the tears trickled through his fingers, down his chin to fall on to his shirt.” And after the funeral, “desolation in his heart”.

Heath is not a stern moralist, but the school-teacher side of him sometimes nudges the storyteller to dispense “lessons”, like first steps to mature thinking; or set up characters for reader sympathy or reproach. Some hearts will ache with Gladys’; Armstrong’s behavior might repulse or dismay.

Still, with subtle tracking and shading of his characters’ emotional shifts, Heath hints at encouraging news inside this extraordinary marriage. Stoically coping but privately wailing, Gladys’ commitment to her vows strikes the reader as fierce but not entirely thoughtless. And Armstrong comes across as a selfish though not callously uncaring individual, a notch or two above other men in the colony who cease quickly to care.

Heath suggests that marital relations in those constricted days were often no more than self-serving arrangements that followed a pattern of fated & faithless expectations. As Gladys mused: “Things were just so. There was a sky and an earth; there was the wind and the sun; and there was marriage.”

A comforting context could be found in the old assertion that the marriage vow in 20s Guiana – a fragile thing celebrated in logies and villages in an expense of ritual & spirits – did not always sublimate the pain & rage (and sense of fleeting mortality) left over from harsh colonial regimens. In the circumstances women dared to dream of happiness; men bared swords and plundered; the libido ruled. Children like molasses from sweet cane were often the byproducts of unbridled passion – and lucky souls if cherished in extended-family folk ways.

The modern reader might wish for deeper psychological insights. Heath prefers simply to present (what we can take as) the conventional 1920s understanding of how marriages unravelled: irritability, silence, drinking, outbursts; starved goodness, the cold bed; long-suffering female bewilderment, the male impulse to roam outside the roost.

From the Heat of the Day is the first in a trilogy of novels. Old Georgetown neighborhoods are fully realized in Heath’s not electrifying but affectionately accurate prose. Readers can follow the tribulations of the Armstrong children and their guilt-troubled father in One Generation and Genetha. (The last paragraph sees Armstrong – “overcome by great calm” – all set to make a remarkable recovery from family misery, and promising the reader some family continuity.)

Heath’s 1920s Guiana is in essence an imagined world but, like the still standing structures from the old Queenstown, many of the issues explored in From the Heat of the Day resonate today if you pay attention to distress signals that sometimes breach marriage walls; or listen to male talk about copulation.

Book Reviewed: From the Heat of the Day (“The Armstrong Trilogy”): Persea Books, New York, 1994, 150 pgs.