Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Citizens of Anywhere & Yesterday

Digital publishing may have come at just the right time for Guyanese living in metropolitan cities. It offers one solution to the problem of what to do with all those stored-up village memories, those blissful “growing up” years in rural deprivation. Self-publishing allows migrants to cherish (or unburden) much psychic baggage as they put down roots elsewhere. The stuff of nostalgia could turn quickly into writer’s fodder.

So far the few digital books to appear seem products of leisure, rather than creative, activity. While other migrants – nose to the grindstone, the due date – are busy adapting old habits to new hardships, the writers appear conflicted about “home” but sufficiently solvent to “look back” across oceans.

They respond to surges of grey, diasporic sentiment, and an “alien” unease with new residency. “Journey” works as an appealing metaphor. The books they produce do not ask to be bundled with that body of work developed by overseas authors long ago, Naipaul & Lamming, or Mittelholzer & Wilson Harris, authors for whom writing became a vocation, and who by “looking back” gave us transformative ideas about the structures and behaviours they observed.

It takes craft, endurance & luck to hammer out a work of fiction, get it to publishers, get it past the publisher’s preferences, past editorial scrutiny. Self-published authors go around that filtration system. They worry less about style, “the reader” or issues outside self centres. You’ll find their digital products not on bookshelves, but by searching the worldwide web.

One example your search engine might unearth is A Journey of Promise (2006). The central character’s “journey” starts in a rural village called Promise; then moves on to “the rural suburbs of Guyana to urban city life in Georgetown, and thereon to London.” Born in London, author Holly Nurse “spent much of her childhood in Guyana”, and graduated with a degree in English from the University of Surrey

The curious thing about A Journey of Promise is the bright confidence with which the author fabricates character and place. Part memory, part invention, with bloglike scraps tossed in, the book contains few real traces, or identifiable features of Guyana.

Earlier migrant authors burdened with issues of colonialism and identity could not escape the imperative to name places, to identify on the world map new landscapes beyond the canefields – places fertile with images, people and a language of significant human survival.

A Journey of Promise responds to different imperatives. With a click of the mouse, and using digital software that won’t question purpose or motive, Holly Nurse, who writes like a really nice person, creates an illusory world in which unpleasant issues in the past are erased.

In her imagination Guyana is the subject of sparkling rehabilitation. There is Promise, “a sleepy rural village” about 100 kilometres from the city, the All Seasons Church run by the Reverend Bruce, an annual Summer Fair, the High Dam Hospital; and a big white house with big iron gates and fierce Dobermans, where the country’s eligible bachelor, Troy Richman, lives.

The story is set in the 70s, but there’s just one reference to that decade’s hard times when the central character, Gillian Honey, visits the Coop Shop in the city. She observes fatigue on the faces of a crowd that has waited three hours for the delivery truck. But Gillian Honey’s family knows the Shop supervisor; they manage to secure sacks of rice without fatigue.

Gillian Honey, it should be mentioned, is a child of privilege and cross-cultural circumstance. “My dad was an English soldier…Mother was a hybrid, Caucasian, African and Native American.” These outsider origins leave Honey more concerned with departure requirements than “arrival” rituals; with personal, not group, development. “At age 17 years”, she tells us, “I learnt to ignore society’s polarized opinions.”

You start wondering: were there ever such extraordinary folk? did anyone really learn to ignore those bipolar years of disorder? ignore “Burnham”, the social misery of socialism, the deep ethnic wounds? What coastal village sheltered such self-absorbed lives?

The book depicts no scenes of identity worry or tormented relationships. Far from the Sargasso seas of creole existence elsewhere, there is only the plainness of life along Guyana’s coast. The story line is slender and unfolds at a “sleepy rural village” pace. Young narrator starts journey from her village, receives a “proper” education, survives a few romantic entanglements; goes to London, finds an English friend, trains as a nurse; then comes home to a reception reserved for achieving returnees. There is a happy ending – the narrator gets married and drives off with the groom in a Bentley to their new home on Mansion Hill.

In Guyana Gillian Honey displays an interest in our flora and fauna, in magpies and rhododendrons but not much else. In England she can’t help but notice how differently the English observe the Easter and Christmas seasons. Otherwise, she goes about her business, each day getting up, off to work, coming home. No disturbing street encounters, few pleasures (no sex, no thinking about sex); just this earmuffed, self-contained ordinariness of being.

Content to glide like this, Gillian Honey gives away very little of her inner life. Her personality may have sprung from what some regard as quintessential to the Guyanese persona: the active concealment or evasion of dark truths; a capacity for mythical thinking.

But, you might ask, why fuss over fiction of the flimsiest imagining, whose author makes no claim to literary seriousness? Completing her “journey” might be this author’s effort to cleanse her memory of harmful plaque, removing whatever threatens her equilibrium with the past. Readers may not recognize the Guyana Holly Nurse shares through publication; but a (self-published) book like A Journey of Promise could be enough to keep any diasporic resident “going” these days in cold, immigrant-hostile cities, trains to catch, old scratchy lives to remaster.

Self-publishing offers possibilities & rewards beyond that sense of accomplishment, doing things “my way”. Near the end of this narrative you might pause to consider, if only this digital writer had looked harder at the world around (and worked harder on sentences like, “Tiny lumps of clouds sailed over the silvery globe, escaping into oblivion.”) A Journey of Promise might have been a more thoughtful, engaging book.

In other words, had Holly Nurse, with a layer of irony, placed trust in the value of a weightless “not-belonging”, her character’s journey might have opened up deeper interiors of innocence and ravaged souls, providing bifocal insights & understanding for the folk who lived through Guyana of the 70s, beaten and embittered as never before; fearing so much back then, wanting to belong there so bad.

Book Reviewed: A Journey of Promise: Holly Nurse: iUniverse Inc. New York, 2006, 107 pgs.

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