Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Useful Retro Specs

Shadows Round the Moon (1990) the last book released by Guyanese author Roy Heath is described perhaps for marketing purposes as his “Caribbean Memoirs”. In fact, its range is limited to Guyana, and what Heath delivers in his gently reflective prose are fond recollections of 24 years growing up into manhood. Readers hoping for insights into how his writing career began may be disappointed (unless a sequel, subtitled “London Memoirs”, is in preparation).

Heath takes his time scaffolding these memoirs (at page 70 he’s not yet 10 years old). “Whilst still a small child” he writes, “ I always felt that I belonged to a group larger than the family…This feeling of belonging, the notion of the larger family, was very strong and, as I know now, a source of confidence in case of destitution.”

His great grandfather came from the island of St Martins in the 1850s. His foreparents, the de Weevers, settled and struggled on the coast, not on the plantations. His father died when he was 2yrs old. Raised by a proud, controlling mother he experienced a sort of internal migration, residing (then changing houses) in Agricola village, Bagotstown, Queenstown.

There were August holiday visits to relatives in Essequibo (it’s as close as Heath gets to Wilson Harris country, to encounters with “men in quest of diamonds… [and] in pursuit of their souls”) and forays into Berbice and the sugar plantations. He comes close to VSNaipaul territory during a stint as a clerk at the Crosbie Court, a special court held on Wednesdays for Indian immigrants and their descendants. There he heard the disputes and disclosures of testifying family members, and gained insight into issues and problems (domestic & psychological) that dwell unarticulated behind community veils.

You could create a profile of Heath as a man of mixed-race origins, bred and nurtured in Demerara, who somehow remained unaffected by colonial or plantation depredations. In fact, so circumscribed was his living environment readers will barely notice the overarching management role of the imperial power in these memoirs.

There is reference to the pervasive American presence at the airbase during World War II, and the social aftermath when the war ended. The riots at Enmore were happening round about the time Heath was getting ready to depart. He recalls “meetings of the People’s Progressive Party under the lamplight at street corners”; but what stands out in his memory at that time is “a reduction of daily funeral processions” which he links to a sustained DDT campaign to rid the colony of malaria.

Heath’s fiction conveys none of that anguish of being transplanted and culturally denuded. His feeling of “belonging”, he says, extended no further back than his maternal grandparents. The major life hazards were more indigenous and persistent – disease, poverty and destitution. As Heath looks back, the reader discerns the importance of Georgetown and its ordered environs in shaping his sensibility. It was in the city that an apprehension of self “as separate from his family” would later develop.

Shadows revisits his growth to young manhood and the swarming influence of family and relatives in those early years. Pivotal to his growth were a multi-talented uncle, a G/town school friend, several self-made men he encountered who took pride in their knowledge. Plus the streets he walked, the neighborhoods he lived in and the ethnic-varied behaviors he observed outside the city.

An intriguing revelation is his young man’s transgressive interest in city brothels and the forbidden pleasures of Tiger Bay. There is, too, a lingering description of an affair – one of those “landmarks in my awareness” – with the unhappy wife of a Forest Ranger too often away on duty in the bush. These were probably the earliest indications of Heath’s restless, independent will in a time of fluid, if puritanical proprieties.

The book ends with his departure for England. His reasons for leaving are familiar ones: intense frustration, the futureless environment of his civil service job, “the stifling rule of parochial norms”. When he gets to England unknown potentials would emerge transforming his colonial origins into what he has become: a multi-faceted individual who carried inside him not just “dreams”, but embryonic talents that must have been quietly evolving.

He recalls the friendly advice of a Clerk at the Crosbie Courts (a Mr. U) who said to him one day “Once we find a solution to our material wants we will have penetrated the forest only to be faced with the desert”. There’s a modesty (at least that resistant colonial strain of modesty) and a complacent tone about the Roy Heath narrative that suggests this: for all his achievements (novelist, teacher, poet, fluent in French and German, barrister-at-law) he may have decided to pitch his tent in a clearing closer to the forest; choosing difficult but reachable goals over trailblazing aspirations; and settling as a writer for an elegantly dressed prose more likely to engage ordinary readers than attract the vocabulary of scholarship.

But in his pursuit of migrant success how, you might still wonder, did the possibility of a writer’s vocation emerge? How did he, a man from the colonies, fire up those engines, sustain the focus to produce eight respectfully received works of fiction?

His first novel was published in 1974, almost 20 years after he arrived in England. This discovery of creative purpose is barely touched on in his memoirs, and there’s little evidence of its genesis in Guyana. In the 1930s, he says, English was the subject that attracted all the unqualified teachers. Books were not part of his gregarious youth; school rituals he found boring; and though he lived on the fringe of that tradition of public story telling among the creoles, he would make a self-conscious effort later – in his 20s “amidst a growing torment about my place [in the world]” – to acquire “an adequate fund of words” with which to set off for fresh start possibilities in England.

His novels, he points out, were inspired by the exceptional circumstances of his personal life. His fiction characters are grounded in genuine observations of his colonial neighbourhoods and in the reading habits he acquired in England. Heath worked within himself, it seems, maintaining a low visibility among other (Caribbean) writers as if writing was not a profession to which he naturally “belonged”; and showing little interest in academic patronage.

Shadows Round The Moon offers spare glimpses of Guyana’s social history back in the days. There are references to authoritarian fathers (“those embodiments of terror”); the 1930s “public morality” that allowed the disciplining of children by concerned neighbors; the quiet hardships and indignity of colonial existence within which Guianese struggled day by day to eke out memoir-worthy lives.

In that simpler time when generalizations were admissible Heath notes, in reference to East Indians, “the powerful undertow behind their passive conduct and outward display of prayer flags”. And the village of Agricola, he says, was curiously divided: nearer the Public Road a class of strivers – school teachers, village council employees, policemen, dressmakers – but deep in the backland areas, smaller houses and subsistent plots, and “the sound of drums with a forbidden beat”, heard at night and feared by the children.

Georgetown then was a society of blossoming prejudice, race jostling with race but finding accommodation, where a mother from a family “with background” would guard her daughter against undesirables (“I don’t allow her to mix.”) But harsh material deprivation (brought on by a 30% unemployment among working people) “threw up characteristic relationships of dependency”. Heath suggests that the Guyanese generosity of spirit (often described as “Guyanese hospitality”) might serve to camouflage a vulnerability too easily exploited by more ruthless Guyanese. One whiff of that vulnerability could flare the nostrils of the brute.

Shadows Round the Moon brings pleasing closure to the unspectacular yet very productive writing career of author Roy Heath. As a model of personal development his coming-of-age-and-leaving-home narrative might inspire new “searching” generations. They could look into his memories and discover residues of colonial fractures and behaviours still active in our nation’s culture; traces of the old fears (disease & destitution), the old response to tribal violence (platitudes & a pity that quickly hardens to posture); the old ambivalence about “belonging”; and – when the spirit senses prison or desert in the air – recourse to flight & reinvention.

As our troubled nation unwittingly rolls back its future to the colonial years when a one-eyed, intransigent directorate had to face up to incendiary and sometimes unspeakable acts of challenge, one hopes Shadows Round the Moon remains available on Georgetown bookshelves and on internet websites, alongside the CDs, the videos and the wishy produce of folk nostalgia now selling like hotcakes and boil channa.

Book Reviewed: Shadows Round The Moon: Roy Heath: Flamingo: London, 1990, 254 pages.

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