Monday, June 2, 2008

Desperate Lives: Gyals & Gyurls in NYC

Calabash Parkway (2005) is the second novel by Guyanese author Brenda Chester DoHarris. Many readers might have heard of her first novel, The Coloured Girl in the Ring. Ms DoHarris has been its proud promoter and defender. That first book has been described as a coming of age novel set in Guyana of the 50s and 60s. The new book leaps forward to the 70s and 80s and could be described as a coming to America novel set in NYC.

Brenda Chester DoHarris is a professor of English at Bowie State University, Maryland, and a graduate of Columbia and Howard universities, receiving a PhD degree in English. Writing novels is a side profession she pursues with enormous conviction and hope.

Calabash Parkway is a labour-intense novel with a serious purpose and a studied appeal for feminist appreciation. It aims to pay tribute to Guyanese women; hardworking, still young, husband-looking women; with low wage-earning skills; “for whom love and romance were luxuries poor women could not afford”.

Back home they dream of escaping to America and later sending for their children. They meet men in New York city who understand these dreams, who make promises, but eventually betray them. Always ripe for disappointment & exploitation, they work illegally as housekeepers and store clerks, and link their love decisions to future US residency.

Throughout all the betrayal (the men in this novel are all shifty-hearted philanderers with few redeeming features) the women – raised in the 50s, you have to think, and taught the propriety of self-restraint – do not respond with palpable gestures of outrage (like, for instance, pouring cups of sorrel on the man’s good, good dress shirts).

The single act of retaliation is carried out by a black woman “with an uptown New York accent”, who shoots the Guyanese father of her child when it seems he’s getting ready to leave her.

Usually the women experience “nausea” and retreat to the bathroom to retch; but they carry inside them like a DNA code a quality that author DoHarris admires: “dogged insistence”; a silent-suffering, survivalist ethic.

The narrator is a graduate student pursuing studies at Columbia University. There she learnt to distance herself from “people trapped in the disposition of always framing the world in terms of the Western metropole.” In Calabash Parkway her mission is to work the opposite way, framing the world of her characters in memory-based, authentic Guyanese terms.

There are references, like markers of time passing, to Kitchener (singing “Drink a Rum an’ a Punch-a-Crème” at Christmas) and Johnny Braff (singing “It Burns Inside”); to Walter Rodney “the Guyanese scholar-politician”; the Belvedere hotel and “The Tides of Susanburg”; and “the soothing tropical breezes rustling through Le Repentir’s giant sentinel palms”. (This last, an example of Ms DoHarris’ lethargic word painting, offers some relief from her tendency to strait-jacket the behavior of her characters.)

There is, too, the familiar joke of foreigners who confuse Guyana with Guinea and Ghana; creole sayings like lacy embroidery stitching in and out the prose; and vivid descriptions of habits, places & rituals. All of which, aided by a glossary of 153 Guyanese colloquial terms, often give the narratives a paragraph-padded feel.

Even the female sensibility is recast in local imagery. A character, contemplating the law-breaking measures she must take to enter the United States illegally sees the situation as “a series of river rapids that she would be required to negotiate as she paddled her canoe upstream.” And DoHarris is very careful with ethnic vernacular. The East Indian women in her novel say, “Ow, gyal”; the Creole women say, “Hurry up, gyurl?”

There are touches of old century suggestiveness in DoHarris’ prose that fits neatly into her characters’ disposition. At high points of uncertainty her women are often “seized by a strong desire to”. Sexual intimacy is given a romantic old world (or soap opera new world) treatment: “That night in their nakedness, they discovered the delight of each other’s secret places…in the searing heat of their passion.”

A woman comes home to tell the husband she left in Guyana she’s found another man. He had found another woman while she was away. Some enchanted evening they exchange these bruising revelations, sitting on the seawall, “in the light of the full moon that hung over Demerara”.

The novel’s main character is an old friend of the narrator, not as educated, from Kitty village back in the 60s. When their paths cross again in 1979 on a subway train – “in the gritty, rumbling underbelly of metropolitan New York”; the professor/author slips often into passé sentences like that – the narrator is struck by “the destiny that drew us together again”. So much so, she discovers a new imperative: borrowing the tools of fiction she would document the sadness in the unsettled lives of “undocumented” women in New York city.

As with the novels of another writer/professor, David Dabydeen, readers must be patient with the author/narrator expositions on the characters’ culture, their roots, the socio-economic background – the framing of their idiosyncratic world, so that uninformed readers can get the big, widescreen picture.

As it moves along Calabash Parkway turns into a text that wants to be studied (through the lens of gender & culture), rather than a novel written for subway reader diversion. Among the Glossary notes, like a calling card to graduate students, DoHarris inserts an annotation about an East Indian character, Drupattie, and “the significance of Drupaudie in Hindu mythological lore”.

Ipod-toting younger readers swimming lazily through this DoHarris novel need to brace themselves for this kind of contextual undertow.

Against their wish, you suspect, her women are asked to lug a lot of extra baggage, for page after page, from village to city. They’re helped along by the narrator’s earnest voice-over, for Professor DoHarris feels a lot of “explaining” is necessary about their choices, their constantly victimized state. In a tough, masculinized world the narratives of struggling Guyanese women, their longing for security & family wholeness, are after all very serious business.

Contact with other ethnics in Calabash Parkway is marginal – such is the tunnel vision & urgency of Ms. DoHarris’ immigrant lives – but vitally important. When they do appear ethnics tend to show their cleavage: like the elderly Jewish couple, survivors of the Holocaust, kind and compassionate to Evadne, their Guyanese housekeeper; or the white middle-aged officer in Georgetown interviewing visa applicants with suspicious, “steely grey” eyes.

Near the end of the novel there’s a brief report – a remnant dropped in as if half-remembered – on the fate of the East Indian woman, Druppatie, who’s unlucky in cross-cultural love.

What happens to migrant women dreaming and working illegally in America will continue to stir interest among academics and novelists. Ms. DoHarris falls somewhere in between professions, leaning heavily – perhaps with little choice – on memory and second-hand reportage. Calabash Parkway offers little by way of new insights, new meanings, so grim are the narratives of what the author would have us imagine as the unrelentingly grim, romance-drenched lives of her chosen women.

Still – and despite the sentimental untidiness of its closing pages – Calabash Parkway should find a sisterhood of supportive readers. Its implanted pedagogical “themes” make a strong case for the respect and commitment its characters crave. (On the other hand, under the weight of its own affirmative goals, it might have sunk already into that ocean of the all too familiar, the nothing new.)

To all the love-scarred Guyanese women adrift out there – Agatha, Gwennie Brathwaite, Eunice, Doreen, Evadne, Evadne’s Nennen, Jennifer, Samantha, Drupattie – if you can find time to read it, this book’s for you, too.

Book Reviewed: Calabash Parkway: Brenda Chester DoHarris: Tantaria Press: Maryland, USA: 2005: 158 pages.