Writers in the diaspora
by John Mair
Stabroek News
February 3, 2002

Roy Heath

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Lakshmi Persaud

She is a paradox; she has lanced, in fiction, the great boil of recent Guyanese history yet she is not Guyanese. She writes beautifully about the Caribbean and is now viewed as a major West Indian writer yet she lives in Mill Hill, London. She is Lakshmi Persaud and her work increasingly is attracting serious consideration.

Whether we like it or not, the presence of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham towers over Guyana's post independence era like a massive shadow; some good and too much evil. He shaped Guyana in his images and brought to it the state and it to the current state. In life, few had the courage (or foolhardiness) to tackle him, in death he still instils awe and fear in equal measure. Serious authors shy away from this very serious subject.

Lakshmi Persaud's latest book For the Love of my Name (Peepal Tree Press Third Impression 2001) does no such thing; it fictionalises and satirises the Burnham years very elegantly. Guyana is thinly disguised as an island called Maya and LFS as a dictator called Augustus Devonish. Many of the horrific events in the story bear an uncanny resemblance to the 'reality' under Burnham, many of the fictional characters drawn seem oddly familiar.

Is Lionel Gomes just Peter d'Aguiar in a mask? Is the main town in the novel 'Ica' just Linden (who but a dictator would name a community after himself) in disguise? The story is all very cleverly told through a variety of eye witnesses including Burnham/Devonish's maid.

She actually spoke to one. Her research has been thorough and wide, her contacts drawn from all sides of the Guyana divide. High, low, black, brown, yellow, white. "I was helped by many courageous Guyanese of all races, religions and political affinities inside and outside the country," she now says.

But it is not all third hand. Some of it was based on her personal experience when living in Guyana with the family of her husband in the cauldron of the 1960's when "to have the same type of hair as Dr Jagan meant you were treated with suspicion. This ugliness, like the smoke of the fires, was spreading everywhere. It was everywhere, at times covertly but so overburdened was the atmosphere in favour of gut racism that people quite soon saw there was no need to be discreet."

For the Love of my Name is a tour de force and possesses a universality outside of itself. The author recognises this:

"Although the landscape and to some extent the plot of For the Love of My Name reflects a particular place, what drives the novel is to be found in varying intensities wherever men have taken absolute power, captured it or seduced the unwary or naive to give it to them; it is psychologically true and emotionally true all the time."

Perhaps it needed an outsider to hold up a cracked mirror to Guyana and its recent history which far too many would deny. Perhaps only someone relatively untarnished by the political and ethnic brushes of 'Maya' can get beneath the skin to tell the tale. Perhaps. She tackles the unmentionable. Societies which have been deformed and then reformed all benefit from collective psycho analysis of what went wrong and how to stop history repeating itself. The Germans after the fall of Hitler, the Russians once Krushchev brought Stalin's many crimes to light, the Afghanis post Taliban today. Yet, in Guyana, the Burnham era is too frequently brushed under the national carpet. Out of sight, out of mind.

Lakshmi Persaud lays some of the blame on what she calls the "AUL's - Assorted University Luminaries" for legitimising Devonish/Burnham and his authoritarian regime. Some of those very same 'AULs' are still alive today, still seeing life through their party prism.

Both major political parties have their agenda on the 'Devonish' years; the PPP using (some say over using) the Burnham ogre to whip their natural supporters into line and to keep themselves morally pure and the PNC mainly looking back on the Burnham years with blinkers. Few have had the courage of young politicians like Raphael Trotman who last year called for some form of apology for the Burnhamite distortions by the PNC. He was quickly slapped down by in Persaud's term the AULs and Party 'Mask men.' Old habits die hard.

For the love of my Name should lead to a catharsis in Guyana. Generate much debate. Generate much heat and much light. The new generations need to know what their parents and grandparents lived through good and bad. Only by seeking to understand the past do we build a bright future.

The author says of her work: "The pivot of my writing is about change - change in beliefs, perceptions, and direction that the twentieth and now the twenty-first century have brought."

But these insights come from a Trinidadian, albeit one married into a Guyanese family hailing from Cumberland in Berbice. She tells of her first impressions of her new-found land in 1962. "As I crossed the Berbice River... and much later the Essequibo with its islands, my imagination told me 'This is your Ganges, your Amazon, your Nile.' After all in Trinidad when an aircraft leaves the runway we see the east coast for a minute and that's it sister. It leaves us... There is no space nor time for a lingering whisper of goodbye."

Her lasting image and the metaphor she uses throughout her latest work is that of the Georgetown sea wall. An architectural and engineering feat inherited from the past which allows the country to exist.

Lakshmi has come late to published novel writing after life as an academic and diplomat's life, a teacher at Queen's and Harrison Colleges and raising a family of super achievers. Her eldest child is Dr Raj Persaud 'the Freud for the nineties' the best known pop and non-pop psychiatrist in Britain, her daughter Shadra renowned in the City for her skill at economics and her son Avinash a currency whizz kid and Chairman of State Street Bank. Whatever she put in their baby milk, it has driven them all to unsurpassed heights.

Yet it was only on the departure of her youngest son to university at the London School of Economics in the 1980's that her writing career took off.

Like so many debutantes, her first novel Butterfly in the Wind, 1990, was largely autobiographical about a young East Indian girl growing up in Trinidad, i.e. the young Lakshmi. Her second novel Sastra, a love story, was published in 1993. For the Love of My Name six years later. But still she is getting used to the craft: "Writing is a lonely occupation. I happen to like solitude, as distinct from loneliness, and this helps," but young writers should not be discouraged from taking it up because of this.

"If you grow up observing what is before you with care, making impressions of everything on paper, all you have written may become useful later, but if they don't there is no loss for you were training to become a writer... Be compassionate but also be honest and write with integrity always."

This year, West Indian writing is all the vogue. Sir Vidia Naipaul and his Nobel Prize for Literature has put it firmly on the intellectual map of the Western World. But, like another Caribbean export before, this one needs tender care to avoid extinction. "West Indian literature may be likened to its cricket... we may say quite legitimately that our literature is flowing strongly in the mainstream of world literature, But I hope that long-term look at West Indian cricket has taught us that nothing is for all time and in order to keep in the main venues of excellence, constant hard work is required."

Today she is hard at work on her fourth novel. She is being very coy about the subject matter of this one.

Roy Heath

His writing career was glittering; he says it has now come to an end. Failing health has seen to it, despite still having "several novels inside me still." Roy Heath sits in his Wembley, North London, house with his pen now firmly put away. It's a crying shame after nine very well-received novels over a twenty year period.

He's now seventy five "too old to write" but did not start properly until his late forties and then only to show himself (and his family) that he could do it. He always knew he would and it would just be a matter of time before he did: "But my real love is not writing, it is music."

Writing was in his genes with two uncles responsible for the then standard history and geography textbooks in Guyanese schools. He got the scribe inheritance through their sister, his mother, whom he simply worshipped and who reciprocated that in her attitude to him.

Heath was born in Guyana in 1926. He went to Central High School in Georgetown. In 1951 he came to Britain - "The Guyanese are like the Swiss' they migrate," he now says and trained as both a teacher and latterly a lawyer though he never practised law. He did practise the art of pedagogy, teaching French and German in a variety of London secondary schools. But it is for his writing that he will be remembered. His oeuvre is considerable the centrepiece The Georgetown Trilogy of novels.

The first volume, From the Heat of the Day, follows the fortunes of one Guyanese family, the Armstrongs, through three generations. The story opens in February 1922. A brash young "bohemian" named Sonny Armstrong is courting Gladys Davis, the sheltered daughter of a businessman whose family is well established and highly respected. After six months Sonny and Gladys marry, though they have never once even gone out alone together. Soon their grand romance degenerates into bitter disillusionment. Gladys finds solace in religion and her two children. But only Sonny's friendship with an affable school teacher nicknamed 'Doc' sustains him when he finds his early marital and professional ambitions thwarted as a world-wide depression makes its disastrous impact on Guyana.

This novel closes in 1936 amidst rumours that "a new leader in Germany is seeking a war in Europe." Gladys's sudden death leaves Sonny shocked into the realization that "he must have loved her after all, for how else could he explain the feeling of desolation in his breast?" Inspired by the memory of his wife's unfailing loyalty and hard won kindness, Sonny finally becomes reconciled to his life, determining to become the devoted father she had always longed for him to be.

This tender irony of a "failed" marriage that finally succeeds beyond anyone's initial expectations, parallels Heath's vision of a Guyana in which the uneasy alliance of people from very different backgrounds could turn out to be the best hope of a country that has been struggling throughout the twentieth century to survive in a world torn by economic and political upheavals.

One Generation follows their son Rohan, whose secure position in the civil service offers a promise of rescue from his parents' misery, but whose love for Indrani Mohammed, intensified by his fearful desire for his older sister Genetha, leads him to follow Indrani to a backwater village where he falls in love with Indrani's younger sister, Dada, even as Indrani's husband's family determines to get rid of him. Rohan's death follows, a mystery the police never solve.

In Genetha, the focus shifts to the last of the Armstrongs, who finds that every choice open to her - the genteel suitor Michael or her brother's forbidden friend Fingers, life with the domineering aunts her father had antagonized or in the brothel run by the former servant he had slept with is equally poisoned. Genetha's one idyllic episode a trip to Morawhanna with Fingers and her neighbour Ulric ends when she discovers on her return that Fingers has sold the house out from under her. ``The individual is nothing. The family's everything,'' concludes Genetha's aunt Deborah, whose own thirst for retribution explains why her remark is such an ironically apt epigraph for the whole trilogy.

Six other novels came from his pen, A Man Come Home, The Murderer, The Shadow Bride, Orealla Shadows, Round the Moon and Kwaku (or The man who could not keep his mouth shut). One was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize (some irony there for a man from 'Bookers Guiana') for fiction in 1991.

His last novel, as we now know, was The Ministry of Hope, published in 1997. Its main character Kwaku Cholmondeley again has fallen from grace: his wife is blind, his twin sons have beaten him up, and his reputation as a healer is under fire when some of his clientele inconveniently die. But Kwaku is not a quitter. Soon he devises a new plan: he will travel to Georgetown and set himself up as a purveyor of antique chamber pots an item, he is assured, the tourists will go mad for. The chamber pots prove to be only the McGuffin that will get Kwaku to Georgetown; once there, he manages a meeting with the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Hope and soon finds himself working for the man.

The moral code under which Kwaku operated in the country doesn't apply in the city, and he faces the age old dilemma of the city bound migrant. How Kwaku not only survives his corrupt surroundings but actually transcends them is at the heart of Heath's comic, touching, and aptly named novel.

Roy Heath is master storyteller and a product of the rich literate Guyanese tradition. The background material for his lifetime's work was gathered when he was young. To top it up, he took regular trips "home" until 1991. Their purpose, he told himself, was to "research my books," but on the death on his mother in that year he realised that he was merely using that as an excuse or cover to go and see her - "The greatest person who had walked the earth." He has not been back since.

But to this day, he is "intensely Guyanese, psychologically Guyanese," and simply refuses to let go of that heritage. His adopted land the United Kingdom is just that. He describes it as an "odd country" and "strange." Unlike Guyana. But for him, as for so many other writers in this diaspora, the imagination is rooted thousands of miles away where South America meets the Caribbean. As Heath says, writers can use that remembered form, artists cannot. Their visual memories fade and not so subtly changes their art in the process.

Roy Heath has served literature well. He has served the culture of the Guyanese diaspora well too. One can only hope that those "novels still in me" might find a way out onto paper past the increasing physical constraints at the end of his rich life.

Just where are they: here, there or back home?

That's not such a stupid question. So much of the literature of the UK diaspora is firmly rooted 5000 miles away in Guyana: the stories Guyanese, the characters Guyanese, the context Guyanese and often in a particular historical era known to the author. It is Guyana in Aspic.

But what are the major themes, against that background, that emerges from their work? Firstly, not surprisingly, post independence West Indies. These are writers in the diaspora, having a past West Indian identity which they bring to bear on their acquired Britishness. Less of an issue is if whether they are really contemporary West Indian writers 'in exile' or 'British' writers, but more interesting is the dialectic between the two. Beryl Gilroy defined the notion of this diaspora as being "comfortable in the in between locations."

The extent of their engagement to their West Indian homeland depends on how long they have spent in the West Indies before coming to Britain, the extent of their trips back as well as their desire to just wallow in their nostalgic attachment to the West Indies or to engage in their new realities. Most of these writers inhabit two cultures yet none of them from 1985 writes their first work set only in Britain. Often, like in the work of Roy Heath and Wilson Harris, the setting is colonial British Guiana. A la recherce les temps perdu?

Secondly, Childhood, a theme that points to the problems that Black youth face in Britain. That childhood experience told through such common environments as the home and school. Books that deal centrally with this issue are Beryl Gilroy's, Boy Sandwich (1989) and In Praise of Love and Children (1996) and David Dabydeen's The Intended (1990).

Dabydeen's autobiographical novel locates his childhood 'Black British' experience as one many of these writers have personally experienced having grown up in Britain. Bringing his Guyanese identity to bear on his British identity leads Dabydeen to strain language to bear the weight of his cultural differences as an Indo Caribbean. His recall of his past West Indian homeland brings back old times: "In a winter of England's scorn/ We huddle together memories."

In Coolie Odyssey:

We mark your memory in songs
Fleshed in the emptiness of folk
Poems that scrape bowl and bone
In English basements far from home.

And he writes in Homecoming:

England where it snows and we still born brown
That I come back from to here, home
As hungry as any white man for native gold
To plant flag and to map your mind.

Thirdly, Old Age. Many West Indians authors included intended to return to the West Indies after a few years in England. The diaspora was a temporary home. However the longer they remained in the motherland, the more difficult the prospect of returning home became, especially due to economic hardship. Some returned only to face the reality that there is no return, only the reality of displacement and disconnection. Novels that treat this experience include Gilroy's Boy Sandwich (1989).

Fourthly, an unconsummated love affair with native or pure Indians the Amerindians. For Melville, Heath and Harris they are the embodiment of Guyana. Melville is a woman of the interior, Heath and Harris townies who have developed that fascination. Could this strange affection be the creative way out of the racial chasm that divides and has divided Guyanese society? Find a group 'outside' the divide?

Fifthly, a greater understanding of Black British history. Some of these novelists lay bare the contradictions, paradoxes, ambivalences of the complex relationship of the Empire coming home. Novels that treat this theme include Dabydeen's Slave Song (1984), Coolie Odyssey (1988), Turner (1994) and The Counting House (1996), Phillip's Cambridge (1991), Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts, Gilroy's Inkle and Yarico (1996) and Stedman and Joanna in Love (1992).

The diaspora writers exist in parallel worlds two intellectual and cultural spheres: the UK and Guyana. Their reference points are both their English and also their West Indian contemporaries and literary forefathers. Nothing they write is great until sanctified by the gurus of the genre - Dabydeen: "I can only recognise myself as a 'proper' writer, however, when Harris or Walcott or Braithwaite or Naipaul has a kind and genuine word to say about anything I have published. I live in dread of their critical utterances."

This generation which learned to appreciate language and its usage in the colonial education system have put that education to good use in the motherland. Their product is catholic. Many of them are now quite simply dying off. Is it time for the new generation in the diaspora to pick up that torch of the imagination and Guyanese story telling and run with it? Time will tell.