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
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
There were August holiday visits to relatives in
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
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
The book ends with his departure for
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
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
Shadows Round The Moon offers spare glimpses of
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
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: