Saturday, May 3, 2008

For the Old Guys, Old Ghosts

“We are never where we are, but somewhere else”

- Derek Walcott, “In Italy

In Haiti these days, according to a recent report in the NYTimes, there is growing nostalgia for “the old ghosts”, Papa Doc and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier. This wish to return to the good old days is in response to mounting social problems which have turned the country into one of the poorest places in the world. In the old days there was a stronger economy, security (of a kind), lower food prices and, for the privileged, scholarships to study abroad.

It was also a time of pitiless oppression; but for those who miss “the old ghosts” there’s a convenient amnesia about that; and the torture of political prisoners in those prisons near the presidential palace.

This longing for harsh but quieter times, the column suggests, is fuelled by a “nostalgia for the strong hand”. A “voodoo master” hougan, it’s also reported, has returned from the US to restore the supplementary powers of the old religion. Peace at any cost would seem preferable to the disorder and despair that’s rife across the land.

“Looking back” for many Guyanese can assume bitter, uncompromising forms. Something about the way newspaper columns routinely demonise the years of “the strong hand” (Burnham) or pine for the integrity of “the good heart” (Jagan) reveals how deeply unforgiving and irreparable the fault lines of thinking (about colonial politics) still run.

Through the mind’s back windows (where we gaze and wonder what the future holds) many Guyanese – young, worried or ambitious – still prefer “looking out”; still dream of moving away, using metaphysical sea ports if necessary. Migration from our shores – with its feverish planning, its promise of “freedom” from those phantoms of terror at night, and the precariousness of wage-earning each day – has been described as “one of the healthiest” per capita in the world.

Once overseas – huddled for security, and content with “looking on” from the margins – there’s the compelling wish with the passing of years to “give back” to the old country. Gifts and sentiments are packed tight in barrels or remittances, poetry or social commentary. Recent fiction by some of our overseas-based authors could be read as “give back” memory-based narratives, intended for “those whom we first [knew and] loved”.

Godfrey Chin is not a literary man. His book, Nostalgias (2007), a sentiment-loosening compilation, is written with infectious enthusiasm mainly for Guyanese old-timers, settled or adrift in unfamiliar spaces; in Canada and the USA, or the UK.

The book is chock full of tiny descriptions, most of it familiar stuff; and it’s fizzy with name dropping – names of people, names of places, names of nicknames, of foods, rituals, discos, songs, cultural totems, social events, street characters, sports personalities.

There’s so much naming, what some might recall as the coastal-choked, youth-wasted days – trapped in “an infinity of endeavour”, as Derek Walcott might say – are sorted and wrapped like confectionery for the reader. If, by chance, you grew up outside Georgetown – across wide rivers in places with no electricity – you might, with some justification, feel marginalized and faceless.

Housing the nation’s historical memories has always been a thorny issue. Decades of indifference and neglect had resulted in crumbling and serious loss at the old Archives. An article recently In Stabroek News questioned the seriousness and intent of the resource managers in the shiny new building on Homestretch Avenue. It wondered quite rightly if they were up to the task, or mere occupants of another grand illusion.

It expressed the hope that facilities for a sound archive there would be used to capture “for posterity” the voices of our past leaders, their pronouncements at important milestones in the nation’s history.

Sound archives might also preserve the days when radio funneled the world into our lives. Beside the radio voices making history, one could hear again the voices of ordinary folk talking about their lives, the radio programs and the music they listened to. Chin’s Nostalgias reminds us how bare our sound archive shelves might be when it comes to music.

Unlike, say, Jamaica where one reggae song could link emotions & lives to specific decades of homegrown creativity, our music reservoirs for the most part were filled from dawn to midnight with imported sound: Mohammed Rafi (syrupy but ethnic-soothing) at sunrise; through an assortment of island or (US) pop, or Country & Western, and dreary servings of Euro-Sunday sounds; to Jim Reeves (deep-voiced and syrupy) at sunset.

Beside the sound archive, one imagines a gallery of visuals. A call has gone out for Guyanese to send home photo memorabilia of the old days which could be studied for clues to how people coped every day with colonial life. In Chin’s Nostalgias, among the pics of family and city life, there are two photos worth a thousand and one words.

One of the Botanic Gardens in the 50s, back when it was proudly maintained, when its Edenic, ordered beauty was a powerful attraction for Guianese on Sundays, a place for the spirit to getaway from the dusty yard and “the smell of history”. And a photo of the old Queens College assembly hall, with orderly rows of students, reminding one of the disciplined learning & distinctions that once defined that institution. (The Latin teacher who’d quote Epictetus, “Only the educated are free.”)

Chin’s Nostalgias is a generous-hearted effort at “preserving golden memories”. He knows the date and the hour when the paradise that was his Guiana fell to ruin. On February 16, 1962, he writes, during the anti-Jagan Govt riots, “Around three p.m., the police at Brickdam went on strike, refusing to patrol the streets without firearms, and in that instant law and order broke down, and, in my opinion, “Choke and Rob” entered the pages of Guyana’s history.”

“In the next 25-30 years,” he continues confidently, “300,000 would flee their homeland.”

Chin can be forgiven his flyover views. Carpe diem!” he says, had been his guiding motto in those colonial years. True to his word, Nostalgias is a stirring metemgee of day-seasoning, with humour and spice and all things nice. Nothing too “deep” or too disturbing to spoil reader pleasure. (There’s a moving tribute to Dr. Walter Chin – “a devoted patriot…a legend in his time” – which might set some readers off in search of at least a passing reference to Dr. Walter Rodney).

Nor is it too probing. An observation of the “right-angled streets” in Georgetown could have prompted some thoughtful reference to the grid-like road system designed & laid down by the Dutch. And while as a boy or young man growing up in the colony Chin might have been unaware of the imperial “strong hand” arranging (or moulding) Guiana’s choices from overseas, as an old man “looking back” that sliver of forgetfulness might strike some readers as a little odd.

Memory – the opiate of the transplanted masses, you could say; or their educated reps – remains the most swollen part of our nation’s intelligence. With our future still in the hands of international funding forces, you could enter, through columns in G/town’s press, retro rooms that encourage readers of Stabroek News, for instance, to think about the travel observations of Schomburgk, explorer of Guiana’s interior; or those anniversary messages in the Guyana Chronicle that feed the faithful by, for instance, hailing Dr. Cheddi Jagan as more virtuous and heroic than anyone before and after Independence.

You could follow along as some pot-stirring writer takes you back to his favorite cauldron of upheaval & loss – the slave rebellions, the anti-colonial 50s, the Burnham 80s. Either way, while the truth & its complexity stays submerged for now, argument and counter-argument about victories & villains in Guyana’s past will not leave you feeling like a fatherless child.

Given Chin’s sunny disposition it would be mean-spirited to rain on his Nostalgias – unedited and snippety as they look on the page. Like 45 or 78 rpm vinyls his old days collection seems very important and precious to him. They provide the only clues to how Chin himself is doing these days, so many years & miles away.

All told, Nostalgias offers a cozy, cheerful message to older Guyanese in the diaspora (their reading habits intact), who never quite severed ties; who on snowbound days might welcome the company of ghosts; or conversations in any form that brings them full circle to their halcyon growing-up years.

The message is this: the rootless life is not your fate; you can go home again. Climb out that basement, dust off the old identity. As it grows late in your remaining afternoons, you can reconnect your beginnings and end. No “give back” patriotism required. In this book you could skip pages, and still enjoy the flight.

Yes, comrades, through the mulch of time, gather ye rosebuds.

Book Reviewed: Nostalgias: Godfrey Chin: CKP Publishing: Florida, USA: 2007, 259 pages.