Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Colonial Triumph & Pain

In June 1954 a group of Guianese schoolgirls left the island of Wakenaam, crossed the Essequibo river and traveled the coast to Suddie. Accompanied by a chaperon they assembled at the Suddie primary school for the purpose of taking the Guiana Scholarship exam. The test lasted one day and consisted of Arithmetic (mental and written), English (comprehension and Essay) and an Intelligence test.

The results were broadcast on the radio in dramatic tones. Among the scholarship winners from the Essequibo County was Mona Williams, the author of Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth (1995). She was awarded one of 63 free places, and in Sept 1954 she was among 500 students beginning or continuing their education at Bishops High school.

The school, Ms Williams reminds her readers, was founded by English clergy for the daughters of English church members who had come out to the colony. By the time Ms Williams had won her scholarship there had been a guardedly slight darkening of student hue. Muslim and Hindu students “were dotted about in good measure”, but for the most part BHS was home to “the crème de la crème of the nation, in wealth, birth, brains and beauty.” It didn’t take her long to notice the degree of preferential treatment granted to white-skin students.

In the school’s main foyer, she explains, “there was something overwhelming about the framed Turners, Constables, Gainsboroughs and Michelangelo reproductions.” Imported English teachers “spoke their Oxbridge-accented Properly to me.” These stark polarities (in a colony agitating for self-govt.) – English Properly vs. Guianese Creole; “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing” vs. “Zeg, zeg, zeg, Mama, zeg if yuh zegging”; Raleigh bicycles & Yardley’s Lavender talc vs. “our daily life in sweltering, equatorial, sea-level British Guiana” – are the main tracks on which the book’s narrative runs.

Bishops is a record of two adjoined worlds occupied by a poor black “country girl” who enters one of the elite education institutions in colonial Georgetown. Gradually she would be transformed into a student “girl warrior” (albeit a passive-aggressive warrior) doing battle with the representatives and designs of the Empire.

In the 50s the school’s colonial curriculum – which included “Treasure Island”, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, the early Middle Eastern Empires, Scottish dances, selected Overtures and Arias played to the entire assembled school – faced challenges from student interest in a burgeoning West Indian literature, their upstart curiosity stimulated by the voices being heard on the BBC – Henry Swanzy, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, Sam Selvon.

To her questioning attitude the BHS “girl warrior” received stern, mannered responses. Her teachers would point to the unavailability of WI texts, their unsuitability. (Ms Williams suggests she might have been the only classroom challenger, her Guianese alter student working against the grain while deflecting teacher sarcasms.) In time, she says, she began to feel “as invisible as our absent artists”.

The political consciousness of that student generation – which in many notable cases resulted decades later in party-political activity – was slowly raised by events at home and overseas. It was a period in history not easily ignored.

Ghana’s Independence in 1957, Ms Williams recalls, had enormous impact on the black population in Guyana. After suspending Guyana’s constitution in 1953 the British authorities arrested members of the Jagan Govt. and locked them up in Sibley Hall. This last “event” forms the basis of an amazing piece of melodrama in Bishops.

Ms Williams describes a situation on Wakenaam where an unwary white tourist, strolling down the dusty road outside her school, is invited in by the Headmaster, escorted to the school stage and “seated with dignity”. The assembled students are led into singing “a nationalist song” (“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima”). The visitor is then subjected to an impromptu speech condemning the suspension of the constitution and demanding self-government for British Guiana.

He is thanked for listening, led off the stage, offered refreshment (coconut water and jelly) then waved on his way. Ms Williams records the event (and the Headmaster’s speech, word for word!) as if after all these years the sudden storm of it still blows in her memory.

Bishops was written during Ms Williams’ fellowship as “1993 Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.” This distant new residence, and generous new audience, might explain a noticeable embellishment of material pulled up from memory.

One can sense the author’s prose straining when, for instance, she writes of “the unfailingly bath-warm, mineral-dyed-brown, dangerous Demerara [river]”. Or when, upon hearing she had won the scholarship, she “[performs] an ancient, tribal, African-ritual victory dance.” Or the reference to “the women of my father’s ancestral Black village of Buxton [who] stood on the trainline and stopped the Governor’s carriage.” Guyanese readers will know what she’s talking about. They might wonder at the author’s host-indulging tone, and the exotic turn of phrase here and there.

Her triumph over adversity was grounded in the support she received from her (extended) family. With her father absent (he’d left for England when she was three) she gets shuttled around to “board with” various Aunts in Demerara. Her mother, a lowly-paid teacher working on Wakenaam, was determined to afford her the 1st class education promised by BHS. Her Granny Adrianna (brought over as a child from Barbados in the 1880s) was a rock of religious sustenance, nurturing her grandchild’s need to succeed with constant reminders of the family’s high expectations.

As Ms Williams looks back her book reveals moments of mistreatment & hurt the “country girl” received and felt keenly. After all these years they’ve proven difficult to erase. With just a trace of bitterness Ms Williams names names.

Like the headmaster at her Wakenaam school, Mr. McGowan (presenter of that fiery anti-colonialist speech to the unsuspecting white tourist) whose learning code of work & punishment (“Mummy, Mr. McGowan beat me till the blouse shred up.”) played a role in her scholarship success. He is acknowledged but hardly forgiven. Ms Williams observes that her “gratitude [to him] for my success was always overpowered by the smell of blood and the memory of pain”

And she mentions the cruelty of fellow students at Bishops who contrived to make her feel ashamed of her poverty background. (Yo, Cicely Rodway, if you’re out there: remember that day in 1956, walking down Brickdam to school? reminding Mona Williams she came from “a broken home”? and “feeling sorry for her”?)

As it shuttles between cultural modes (school and home) Bishops succeeds in conveying that Derek Walcott-like tension between the Englishness the author was taught to embrace and her upsurging creole intelligence. It also illustrates how, through self-conscious efforts in and outside the classroom, a process was set in motion to tweeze apart the interweave of personal and colonial narratives

At the same time it traces the parallel development of Ms Williams’ student talents – public speaking, singing (soprano), debating, storytelling. And most importantly dance.

For the latter she pays tribute to Guiana’s famed dance innovator Helen Taitt who opened the first School of Guiana Ballet. Not sure how she would pay for classes when her application was accepted, Ms Williams, with the kindness and encouragement of Ms Taitt, nevertheless joined the school. It would be the start of a life-long interest in the possibilities of blending Guianese and European dance forms. (Ms Williams was undeterred by fears the Guianese public might be loathe to accept the first “dying black swan” on the stage.)

What will strike readers is the author’s candid appraisal of her interior struggles. She arrived at BHS in 1954, she says, “rich in self-confidence and self-love”. After five (O-level) years and fairly respectable exam results the experience leaves bruises on her ego. At age sixteen the “country girl” admits to a temperament “full of [personal] conflicts… and a good deal of self-loathing.”

Ms Williams doesn’t pause long enough for explanation (there’s a hint at adolescent anxiety about physical attractiveness.) The narrative at this point is in its closing pages, rushing toward triumph at the end. She would return with calmer resolve for her senior (A-level) years and the rest, she would prefer to say, is history.

Ms Williams continued on to Stanford University, USA as a Fulbright Scholar; and to successful careers in dance, storytelling and writing children’s books. She is now a New Zealand citizen and (at the time of the book’s publication) a lecturer in English at a college of Education in her adopted homeland.

More than anyone Ms Williams is keenly aware that the tutelage of the 50s with its programs & “oppressions”, its actors & over^seers has passed on. (Shopkeeper minds might be tempted to make fodder of the loss/gain conundrums now that BHS is free at last from those European controlling narratives and rituals).

Her depiction of half-happy days growing up shoeless in Wakenaam and at Christianburg is engaging. The writing is enriched in places, with intermittent attempts at novelized prose and some lush creole talk; but Demerara in the 50s is reanimated with the same intensity in which it was lived.

A first of its kind, Bishops testifies to the courage & unflagging self-belief of a once-transcendent, now near-twilight generation: those students catalyzed in the 50s and 60s at (what sometimes is described disparagingly as) our “elitist” colonial institutions; the many fine young men and women schooled in an era of standards & discipline (the names of paradigmatic achievers like Walter Rodney and Rupert Roopnarine spring to mind); for whom the tertiary institutions abroad were the next frontier in personal fulfillment and emancipatory ideals.

Like Olympians they took off determined to clear any imperial hurdles placed in their way. Like Ms Williams many prevailed, then looked back (some came back) with a nod to their formative Guiana school years.

One thinks, for instance, of the internationally acclaimed Guianese pianist Ray Luck. Yo, Ray, if you’re out there: just for the record, how about a book describing your (maybe not so turbulent) student years at Queens College? back in the 50s? and the years after?

Book Reviewed: Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth: Mona Williams: Mallinson Rendel Publishers Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand: 162 pages: 1995