Martin Carter
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Thursday, October 06, 2005


Jeremy Poynting, 15 September 2005

In the beginning is landscape. As part of a continent, no Caribbean country except the other Guianas (Suriname and Cayenne) can speak of such a fundamental opposition between coastland and hinterland (between the cultivated and the natural); can feel human settlement to be dwarfed by an almost unpeopled wilderness (must, indeed, acknowledge areas of the heartland where mapping is still provisional); can boast such a rich diversity of tropical flora and fauna in the still surviving rainforest. No other Caribbean country is as profoundly shaped by its rivers, as Guyana is by the mighty Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice. No other Caribbean country (except Montserrat and Soufriere) has a natural phenomenon quite as iconic as the Kaiteur Falls. Guyanese writing has been hugely marked by its attempt to come to terms with the country’s physical space. In the Anglophone Caribbean, only Jamaica can in any way match Guyana’s sense of distance. Journeys – from country to town – on the steamers and ferries across the rivers – from the coastal settlements up the rivers into the interior – are an important part of Guyanese writing. Even as short a distance as the young June Lehall cycles from her village to school in New Amsterdam in The Last English Plantation encompasses a huge social and cultural gulf. In journeys something is always sought, and Guyana is the home of one of the most potent myths of seeking: the search for Eldorado, the gilded one.

From the earliest writing of the naming of place by poetic pioneers such as Leo (Egbert Martin) and Walter Mac Lawrence, to the nation-defining poetry of A.J. Seymour in his early collections such as Over Guiana, Clouds (Demerara Standard, 1944), Suns in My Blood (Demerara Standard, 1945), to the open, rain-sodden vistas of Edgar Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder (1944), Guyanese writers have recorded their country’s spaciousness (and sometimes threatening emptiness). The contrast between the regularities of the industrialised landscapes of the sugar plantations and rice farms on the coast and the indeterminacy of the interior is, of course, at the core of Wilson Harris’s early Guyanese-set novels, Palace of the Peacock (Faber, 1960), The Far Journey of Oudin (Faber, 1961) or Heartland (Faber, 1964), and of Jan Carew’s The Wild Coast (Secker and Warburg, 1958), and Black Midas (Secker and Warburg, 1958), his novel about the democratisation of the El Doradean dream in the world of the diamond-seeking porkknockers. Indeed, until the 1970s novels of Roy Heath (A Man Come Home (Longman, 1974), From the Heat of the Day (Allison & Busby, 1979) and One Generation (Allison & Busby, 1981)) urban Georgetown, where over a third of all Guyanese live, scarcely features in Guyanese fiction.

The fiction and poetry published by Peepal Tree since 1985 has added immensely to the Guyanese sense of place. There are, of course, more distinctions in reality, (there is as yet little writing that deals with the growing suburbia around Georgetown) but in Guyanese literature one can see five distinct spaces: absolute ‘unpeopled’ wilderness, the inhabited interior, coastal and riverine villages, the sugar estate communities and the city.

As an interesting parallel to the fiction of Wilson Harris, (who also worked as a land surveyor), are the memoirs of Vincent Roth Vincent Roth, A Life in Guyana, Volume 1: A Young Man's Journey, 1889-1923 and Vincent Roth, A Life in Guyana, Volume 2: The Later Years 1924-1935) and Matthew French Young (Guyana the Lost El Dorado: My fifty years in the Guyanese Wilds) which give rewarding insights into the worlds of the Amerindians, porkknockers, balata bleeders and the fauna and flora of the forested interior and the savannahs, and the heroic efforts involved in mapping Guyana’s wild places. Several of the stories in Mark McWatt’s Suspended Sentences play on the meaning of wilderness as a place where, in the absence of the familiar human landmarks, characters discover things, sometimes unpalatable, about themselves. The sense of Guyanese interior space as a place to find yourself is also a key element in Ian McDonald’s poetry in his Essequibo (Peterloo Press, 1992) and in his two Peepal Tree publications, Jaffo the Calypsonian (1994) and Between Silence and Silence (2003).

Even for those on the coastland there is an encroaching sense of mystery in the forest that lies just beyond cultivated space. It is there in Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s Timepiece where the Canje river and its surrounding forest was, historically, the place of escape for runaway slaves and still stands as a space of freedom for the mind, in contrast to the more dangerous human jungle of the city where the young Sandra Yansen goes to make a career as a journalist. It is there in Cyril Dabydeen’s Dark Swirl where the Indian Guyanese villagers in a remote part of the Canje live in an underlying state of existential terror from the forests and creeks that surround them, a consequence of the fact that they have not yet fully claimed the place as their own. This terror is symbolised in the mythical figure of the massacouraman on which they project their fears. (Dark Swirl is also highly rewarding as a fictional play with the conventions of the European explorer narrative, where a Gerald Durrell-like figure comes to share the life of the village.)

However, if in some Guyanese writing the interior can be seen as innocent, virgin territory, such a perception could not survive the horrors of Jonestown, the mass slaughter of the followers of the charismatic American preacher Jim Jones in 1978. Matthew French Young was practically involved in dealing with the aftermath of Jonestown, and he reports his experiences in Guyana the Lost El Dorado. Several Guyanese authors have been drawn to contemplate that heart of darkness, including Wilson Harris (Jonestown, Faber, 1998) and Fred D’Aguiar in his long narrative poem, Bill of Rights (Chatto, 1998). It is also the subject of Cyril Dabydeen’s poem ‘Jim Jones Revisited’ in Imaginary Origins, and an important element in Lakshmi Persaud’s For the Love of My Name.

Whilst the sugar estate appears in the fiction of the British/Canadian novelist Edward Jenkins (Lutchmee and Dilloo, 1875) and in ARF Webber’s Those That Be in Bondage (1917), it is not until Peter Kempadoo’s Guiana Boy (published under the name of Lauchmonen in 1960, and reissued by Peepal Tree in 2002 as Guyana Boy), Sheik Sadeek’s Song of the Sugarcanes (Sadeek, 1975) and (most definitively) in the fiction and poetry of Rooplall Monar (Backdam People (1985), (Janjhat (1989) and (High House and Radio (1994) that the manufactured and highly defining landscapes of the sugar estate become part of the fictive landscape as seen from the perspective of its actual inhabitants. Monar focuses primarily on the human relations of the estate and the workers’ stratagems to evade managerial control. The physical landscape of the estate is described most vividly in Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation (based on the Rose Hall estate) where the demarcations of place (the fenced-off grand manager’s house and the junior managers’ quarters, the solid cottages of the overseers and the temporary logies of the workers are described in highly visualised terms. If in general the descriptions of the estate focus on its utilitarian meanings, in Rooplall Monar’s poems in (Koker there is also a perception of the beauty to be found in the kokers, watch-houses and bridges that are features of estate architecture.

But it is in the village that the sense of place most in tune with human wishes is to be found. Here the work of Beryl Gilroy, from her fictionalised memoir of 1930s Skeldon in Berbice, Sunlight and Sweet Water or her novel In Praise of Love and Children gives the sense of place built on a very human scale (marked, of course, by the usual human virtues and vices), and a place where a rugged individuality is able to flourish alongside the capacity for human solidarity. But Gilroy’s village is not a homogenous place; there are always outsiders as well as insiders. But as a much later novel, Ryhaan Shah’s A Silent Life (2004), shows, the village is also the place where Guyana’s ethnic groups have established the most quotidien human contact.

As late as the mid 1970s, it was still just possible to see in Georgetown elements of what had been a truly elegant colonial city, with its wide, Dutch grid of streets and canals and beautiful white wooden houses. That city of the 1940s is remembered in Michael Gilkes’s elegiac, Guyana Prize-winning Joanstown, where the ‘cross-stitching of avenues, bridges and canals’ is made golden by being the place of first love. That city has already gone in Denise Harris’s Web of Secrets, set in one of the older established middle-class areas of Georgetown in a house, which like its family, is crumbling both within and without under the pressures of political turbulence and the racial disturbances of the 1960s. What characterises Harris’s city are the feelings of the old brown middle class that the city is no longer theirs as news of the riots and burnings, brought as soot in the wind, reach their enclave.
The city, indeed, is always a place in Caribbean writing where there are those who are established and those who arrive from the country (see VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas) and in Jan Shinebourne’s Timepiece, the perspective is that of the village child, alarmed by the city’s rush and what she sees as the hard-faced pseudo-sophistication of city people. The same discomfort and alienation, the same progress from innocence to experience, is experienced by Devan, the country preacher from the Corentyne when he arrives to bring true Hinduism to the unreceptive and confusingly multi-ethnic people of Georgetown in Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami.

Perhaps of all recent Guyanese novels it is Churaumanie Bissundyal’s Whom the Kiskadees Call that makes greatest use of Guyana’s diversity of place. Four different areas of the country are used as very specific and contrary backgrounds to the attempts of the main characters to find some peace in their lives. In each place there is some doubleness of experience: in the village world of Leguan there is beauty and innocent pleasure, but also the threatening power of the big landlords; in the fetid slums of Georgetown there is a kind of freedom but also a threatening disorder; in the well laid-out sugar estate of Blairmont there is order but the restrictions of a regimented life; in Good Shepherd Square up the Barima river in the interior there is peace, but also the absence of possibility. In the end, peace has to be found within.

Drought, Fire and Flood
If the surrounding sea and the regular threat of sea-borne hurricane is the shared environment of the Caribbean islands, the dominant environmental images of Guyana are the cycles of drought and flood, and in Georgetown (city of wooden buildings – including the largest wooden cathedral in the world) the regular outbreaks of fire, whether through accident or riot. In Guyanese writing there are the semi-aquatic cows of Wilson Harris’s The Far Journey of Oudin (Faber, 1961); the fires that feature in Denise Harris’s The Web of Secrets and Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s ‘Memories of British Guiana’ in Godmother and Other Stories; and the images of drought in the poetry of Rooplall Monar (Koker) as an index of spiritual desiccation. All three phenomena provide unifying motifs for Michael Gilkes’s Joanstown and Other Poems as images of destruction and renewal. No doubt the catastrophic floods of 2004 will find their way into future Guyanese writing.

In colonial origins, Guyana’s Dutchness remains highly visible in the constructed landscape: in the poldering (the complex system of dams), the system of drainage (the kokers), the sea-wall defences and the rectangular precision of both agricultural lots and the street layout of Georgetown; in the survival of the visible ruins of the slave past: the fort of Kyk-over-Al and the chimney at Chateau Margot (both the subject of many poems – see Monar’s Koker). And whilst much of the rest of the Caribbean has made its various postcolonial accommodations with former overlords – English, French and Spanish (the French creoleness of Trinidad is prized by most Trinidadians as part of their country’s distinctiveness) Guyana’s connection to the original makers of its landscape is fragmentary, orphaned, negative. Except perhaps for Jamaica, no English-speaking Caribbean country has quite such a deeply ingrained and scarred awareness of the centuries of slavery, and the belief that the Dutch variant was uniquely harsh. Of all the wandering spirits that terrify in the night, none is more fearful than the Dutchman jumbie.

Dutchman Jumbie and Bakoo
Nowhere else in the Caribbean is the national writing so obsessed with what it feels is the society’s wilful amnesia about past traumas or so strongly imbued with a sense of history. These voices crying out from the past are heard in Cyril Dabydeen’s poems (Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems) and in several of the stories in Berbice Crossing. This observation may be challenged, but with the exception of Jamaica’s rolling calf and Trinidad’s lagahoo, no Caribbean writing is characterised by such a presence of malign folkloric spirits as Guyana’s. There is moongaza who features in several of the stories in Monar’s Backdam People, massacouraman in Cyril Dabydeen’s Dark Swirl, Ol Higue (also Backdam People) and perhaps the most specifically Guyanese of creatures, the bakoo who features in Denise Harris’s Web of Secrets and in ‘Alma Fordyce and the Bakoo’ in Mark McWatt’s Suspended Sentences. In both, the homunculus trapped in the bottle, ready to create violent mayhem if allowed to escape, becomes a potent image of the violent energies created by Guyana’s harsh history and liable to explode from time to time. The corollary of the presence of malign spirits is their exploitation and the existence of those skilled in the working of counter measures. There is the rascally Hendree in Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure, and there is the immeasurable more complex and powerful figure of the obeah woman Irene Gittings in Denise Harris’s In Remembrance of Her who makes use of her ‘dark’ arts in the attempt to right the wrongs of untrammelled power.

Voices from the Past
This sense of the past is reinforced by the comparatively recent demise of the dominance of the classic sugar estate in Guyanese economic life. Until the 1950s, a majority of the Indian population either lived on sugar estates or in the satellite villages around them. Whilst only a minority of African Guyanese in the twentieth century lived/worked on the plantations, no Guyanese except the most stay-in-the-city Georgetown dwellers could avoid the sight of sugar factories and labourers toiling in the cane, since estates stretched from one end of the coastal strip to the other, from Hampton Court in the Essequibo to Skeldon in East Berbice (whereas in Trinidad and Jamaica the sugar growing areas are concentrated in one area – Caroni and Westmoreland respectively).

However, apart from the pioneering historical fiction of Edgar Mittelholzer in Children of Kaywana (Neville, 1952), The Harrowing of Hubertus (Secker and Warburg, 1954, also published as Kaywana Stock) and Kaywana Blood (Secker, 1958), it was not until the 1990s that there was another surge of Guyanese historical fiction. There was Beryl Gilroy’s Inkle and Yarico (mostly set in Barbados, but with a general pertinence to the commodification of human relations under slavery), Fred D’Aguiar’s historical novel of slavery The Longest Day (Vintage, 1995) and his narrative poem Bloodlines (Vintage, 2003), both set in the USA and David Dabydeen’s The Counting House (1996, republished by Peepal Tree in 2005). In David Dabydeen’s novel, set in the early nineteenth century at the beginning of the indentured period, we are shown both the continuities from the period of slavery and the early confrontation between African Guyanese trying to find a new way forward and the newly arrived Indians who have come to occupy their partially vacated space. (This historical rooting of the early and vexed meeting of Africans and Indians is also given insightful treatment in Judaman Seecoomar’s Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana in his survey of the historical frameworks for each group’s conflicting insecurities.) Andrew O. Lindsay’s forthcoming novel, Illustrious Exile: Journal of My Sojourn in the West Indies by Robert Burns Esq. imagines what might have happened if the Scottish poet Robert Burns had actually gone through with his decision to take the position of overseer on a sugar estate in Jamaica in 1786. In Lindsay’s novel, Burns then moves to Guyana and his journal gives an incisive picture of slavery in Guyana as seen by man of Burns’s humanity.

In population, Guyana, once famed as the land of six peoples (by the 1970s, most of the Portuguese and Chinese had left), is marked in the Caribbean by its Indian majority and by its growing and increasingly politically significant Amerindian minority. Like the rest of the Caribbean its dominant culture has been Euro-creole with a submerged, contesting African dimension. Like Trinidad, the nature of that Creoleness has been increasingly contested as Indian Guyanese have become more economically and culturally assertive. Whilst, as in Trinidad, the residential patterns of Africans and Indians are marked in the first place by urban/rural inverses, the location of African and Indian villages in neighbouring proximity (unlike the concentration of Indians in the rural South of Trinidad) means that there is little scope for avoidance. Again, whilst the scale of political violence in Jamaica in the 1980s resulted in four or five times the level of fatalities of the Guyanese racial civil war of the early 1960s, nowhere in the Caribbean have the fissures of politics and ethnicity had such toxic consequences. The political culture of Guyana is discussed below, but suffice to note that here that Guyana’s ethnic divisions have become so embedded that real development remains an impossibility as long as half the population feels excluded by the results of a winner-takes-all electoral system. Whilst much Guyanese writing is as ethnocentrically focused as elsewhere in Caribbean, the presence of the ethnic other looms large, though sometimes as a glaring absence. Two books that offer analysis, a theoretical framework and practical solutions to the issues of ethnic conflict are Judaman Seecoomar’s Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana and his forthcoming Democratic Advance and Conflict Resolution in Post-Colonial Guyana.

By far the most outstanding fictional treatment of this impasse at the heart of Guyana’s social relations is Harischandra Khemraj’s Guyana Prize-winning Cosmic Dance. In this novel he deals not only with the tyranny and political corruption that poisoned Guyana in the 1980s, but with the toxicity within. No Indo-Caribbean novel deals more honestly with the nature and sources of Indian racist feelings towards the African Guyanese, and no novel deals more rigorously with the basis on which real friendships and openness between the races can and must exist. Of all the Guyanese fiction we have published, Cosmic Dance is the novel we would wish our enterprise to be judged by. Khemraj’s self-reflection is rare. Trinidadian Lakshmi Persaud’s unquestionably important novel For the Love of My Name deals powerfully and accurately with the ethnic rage and insecurity that made Indian Guyanese victims of African Guyanese violence at Wismar and in Georgetown in the 1960s and excluded them from political involvement in the 1970s and 1980s, but its one deficiency is that it fails to look inwards and acknowledge that Indian Guyanese were not just victims but also perpetrators of violence. This fact is recognised in a couple of the stories in Rooplall Monar’s High House and Radio which deal with the conflict between the inhabitants of Annandale and Buxton at the height of the 1962-64 conflict.

Peepal Tree’s fiction is indispensable for getting behind the stereotypes concerning the Guyanese Indian community and revealing its actual heterogeneity and its essential Guyaneseness. How Indian indentured immigrants became Guyanese is part of the subject matter of Dale Bisnauth’s The Settlement of Indians in Guyana 1890-1930. One feature of Bisnauth’s book is its emphasis on the role of the lower castes in the making of the unique Indo-Guyanese culture, contrary to the tendency of some sectors of the community to deny such origins. The kind of adjustments made by the emerging middle class to assert their mastery of European culture, their distance from the ‘coolie’ culture of the estates and their connection to a noble vision of India is the subject of Clem Seecharan’s insightful India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination. Very useful brief overviews of the connections between history, evolving ideas and literature is offered in They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Writing, and is dealt with much more fully in Jeremy Poynting’s much delayed and hopefully eventually forthcoming The Second Shipwreck.

The range of Indo-Guyaneseness can be seen in the contrast between the worlds of Rooplall Monar and that of Sasenarine Persaud, between the Muslim background of Ryhaan Shah’s characters in A Silent Life and the Madrassi world of Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure and Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy. Culturally, the range encompasses the ‘Indo-Saxon’ orientation manifest in the work of earlier writers such as the Ruhomons, Ramcharitar-Lalla and Jacob Chinapen anthologised in They Came in Ships; the ‘bung coolie’ orientation of Backdam People and High House and Radio where there has been a dialogue with the African Guyanese village world; the Corentyne village Hindu world of Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami, and the ‘brahmin’ concerns with cultural purity explored in Sasenarine Persaud’s Dear Death and The Ghost of Bellow’s Man.

One of Peepal Tree’s future objectives is to publish fiction that gives a similar sense of the range and diversity of contemporary African Guyanese life, to bring up to date the village world fictionalised in Beryl Gilroy’s Sunlight and Sweet Water and In Praise of Love and Children, and add to the 1970s village world that Denise Harris’s Blanche Steadman runs away from to Georgetown in In Remembrance of Her.

Though many of Guyana’s Chinese population may have emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s, there are vivid fictional representations of their world in a couple of the stories in Meiling Jin’s Song of the Boatwoman and in Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s ‘The Berbice Marriage Match in The Godmother and Other Stories, which explores the tensions between the creolised Chinese whose foreparents had come as indentured labourers and those who regarded themselves as ‘pure’ Chinese who had come to Guyana as merchants and traders.

In comparison to the despair sometimes aroused by the African-Indian impasse, the Amerindian presence has been altogether more leavening feature in Guyanese writing. Although, until recently, a socially and politically marginalized minority, the most impoverished and oppressed section of the population, the Amerindians have become both a politically significant broker group, and culturally iconic. Although Amerindian culture has made transforming adaptions to both colonial and missionary pressures, and to the attractions of ‘modernisation’, the Amerindian presence offers all Guyanese, symbolically at least, a sense of indigenous geographic connection and cultural continuities that predate colonialism. These connections are to be found most expressly in Guyanese imaginative writing. The work of Wilson Harris is clearly most influential in this respect, in The Sleepers of Roraima: A Carib Trilogy (Faber, 1970), Age of the Rainmakers (Faber, 1971) Companions of the Day and Night (Faber, 1975), and there are also Jan Carew’s short stories (see ‘The Coming of Amilivaca’) and Pauline Melville’s more representational fiction, The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997). (So far the only published imaginative literature written by an Amerindian that I know of is David Campbell’s Through Arawak Eyes.) In Andrew Jefferson-Miles Harrisian The Timehrian, two Amerindian mythical figures play a key role in the narrative: the God Amalivacar who rescues the narrator from the trauma of being stricken dumb, and the vision of the timehr, the painted child of Amerindian legend, who prompts the narrator to the need to tell his story and recover the world of those by-passed by history. In Denise Harris’s In Remembrance of Her, Amerindian images play a similarly iconic role.

The overarching element of the human culture of Guyana has been its political culture. At one point Guyana could boast the most sophisticated and advanced anti-colonial movement in the Caribbean, with a radical intellectual elite that spawned a creative intensity unmatched in the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean. Over the past fifty years Guyana has been blighted by the terrible failure of the country’s political elite to find solutions to its ethnic plurality. No other English-speaking Caribbean country has gone so far down the road to political dictatorship. None has come so near to social disintegration and economic collapse. None has suffered such a dramatic flight of its middle class. The dramatic failure of the hopes of independence connects to the central narrative of Guyanese life: the myth of Eldorado, the narrative that informs so much Guyanese writing.

No writer has more finely transmuted into lasting art the trajectory from rising hope to fallen reality as Martin Carter. Peepal Tree’s dual language (Spanish/English) selection of his poems (Poesias Escogidas) has many of the poems most central to Carter’s opus (for the whole body the Red Thread Selected Poems is the essential purchase), but no admirer of Carter should be without All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, edited by Stewart Brown, a very substantial collection of critical essays, memoirs by contemporaries and contextualising essays that provides both a fitting memorial to Carter and a constant reminder of how vital and enduring a body of work he created.

To encounter the ‘fallen’ Guyana of Carter’s later poetry, several Peepal Tree novels are essential. Jan Shinebourne’s Timepiece catches Guyana in the late 1960s when the beginnings of government interference in the freedom of the press is part of Sandra Yansen’s experience as a young journalist in Georgetown. Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow is Another Day is moving and insightful vision of a society at the point of disintegration and it offers a unique insider’s view (she was a journalist on a government-run newspaper) into the corruption of political ideals. Harischandra Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance gives a dramatic picture of the terrors encountered by Guyanese citizens when they fell on the wrong side of untrammelled state power and Sasenarine Persaud’s Ghost of Bellow’s Man explores the corrupting consequences for Hinduism when it leaders attempt a political compromise with the state. And there is Lakshmi Persaud’s For the Love of My Name, an imaginative attempt to get inside the mind of a Burnham-like figure, to explore the moral equivocations and psychological premises that became the justification for political dictatorship and party paramountcy.

In the work of Guyana’s poets, besides Carter, there are reflections of Guyana’s agony that take us inside the pulse of individual feeling. There is the feeling of estrangement recorded in Sasenarine Persaud’s Demerary Telepathy, the bemused outrage over Guyana’s decline expressed in Monar’s Koker, the lament for lost civilities in Ian McDonald’s Between Silence and Silence, and the identification with courage of opposition symbolised by Walter Rodney in Mahadai Das’s later work, collected in A Leaf in His Ear. It is there obliquely in Rupert Roopnaraine’s Web of October: rereading Martin Carter and in his Suite for Supriya, where the very act of writing about love and the integrity of art is a powerful act of persistence in the face of a state which has been corrupting human values.

And, indeed, something of that original ferment of ideas that found a place in AJ Seymour’s Kyk-over-Al (and in the writing of Carter, Harris, Carew, Milton Williams, Ivan Van Sertima and others who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s) has persisted. It is there in the work of the novelists and poets who kept on writing throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the new millennium. For example, many of the then young writers around the 1960s magazine Expression have continued to write into the present: Jan Shinebourne (Janice Lowe), Brian Chan, ND Williams, Mark McWatt and others. It is there in art of Stanley Greaves, which is finely documented in Rupert Roopnaraine’s The Primacy of the Eye. It is there in the efforts of Ian McDonald and Vanda Radzik to first revive, then keep Kyk-over-Al going. It is there in the commitment of young writers such as Ruel Johnson to develop a writing which is rooted in a concern for craft.

But no survey of Peepal Tree’s publication of Guyanese writing can duck the issue of emigration. It is far briefer to record who stayed than who left: Dale Bisnauth, Martin Carter, Mahadai Das, Ian McDonald, Rooplall Monar, Moses Nagamootoo, Rupert Roopnaraine and Ryhaan Shah. All the other authors listed in this catalogue now live in other parts of the Caribbean, the UK, Canada or the USA. The extent to which exile has changed the nature of writing about Guyana itself is beyond this brief survey. What it has created is a literature of Guyanese life outside Guyana. The work of Cyril Dabydeen has been pioneering in this respect, in his poetry collections Islands Lovelier Than a Vision, Discussing Columbus and Imaginary Origins and in his short stories in Berbice Crossing. In all of these Cyril Dabydeen fully acknowledges his location in Canada, and allows the Canadian landscape to work on his imagination, whilst his work is always shaped by Guyanese memory. The same kind of duality of landscapes is present in Sasenarine Persaud’s second Canadian collection The Wintering Kundalini and both London and Guyana are present in Marc Matthews A Season of Sometimes.

The pressures towards emigration are powerfully explored in Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow Is Another Daywhere Asha thinks that all Guyanese are ‘beggars at the gate’ in the vast queues for visas outside the American Embassy, and in Monar’s story ‘Cookman’ in High House and Radio looks at the consequences for village life as some of its most enterprising inhabitants begin to leave. Throughout the stories and fiction of ND Williams, whether set in Guyana or elsewhere in the Caribbean (The Crying of Rainbirds, The Silence of Islands and Julie Mango) characters are always on the point of leaving, always suffocated by their feeling of the narrowness of Caribbean life, though often full of regret after they have left.

The transforming experience of migration is there in Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children (the UK in the 1950s) and in David Dabydeen’s The Intended (the UK in the 1970s), in several stories in Meiling Jin’s Song of the Boatwoman and in Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s The Godmother and Other Stories. Here several stories explore the tensions between Guyanese friends who stayed and who left and the gradual transformation of sensibility between being a Guyanese in exile and being someone who is both rooted in the UK and in Guyanese memory. The later mass emigration to North America is explored in ND Williams’s novella, ‘What Happening There, Prash’ (in Prash and Ras) where the struggle to remake the personality in the American mould is achieved far more easily by Prash’s wife than by Prash himself.

There are also the novels of established settlement, often with the motif of return, whether in the mind or actuality. This is the theme of Beryl Gilroy’s Gather the Faces where Marvella Payne, having grown up in London, meets a Guyanese visiting London, and returns to Guyana as his wife. It is there in David Dabydeen’s Disappearance which explores the attempt, from a Guyanese perspective, to come to terms with Englishness and the aftermath of empire, and it is there in ‘London and New York’ in Jan Shinebourne’s Godmother and Other Stories, where the story enacts the arrival at a point of peace, where the writer feels able to celebrate the coming together of previously divided Guyanese and British selves.

The Guyanese diaspora is a reality. The fact that it has taken so many important writers away from reflecting and recording Guyana’s present realities is to be regretted, but new writers are emerging, and those who have left and continue to write offer Guyanese at home an important sense of an essential Guyaneseness that persists across time and place. There is, as this brief overview indicates, a growing and substantial body of Guyanese imaginative writing, with a tradition of concerns, themes and iconic motifs that the writing emerging in the twenty-first century can build on, reject, subvert. One of the elements of Mark McWatt’s Suspended Sentences is precisely this: an affectionate and sometimes ironic play with these traditions, from the Harrisian poetic of the interior to the Guyanese bakoo tale. It indicates that we should see the relationship between ‘home’ and diaspora not as a division, but as the location for dialogue.

(Courtesy of

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