RE-ENCOUNTERING GUYANA IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK MCWATT
By LUCY EVANS
LUCY EVANS is working on a doctoral thesis on Caribbean literature at Leeds University, focusing on texts that mediate the genres of novel and short story. She has published an interview with Opal Palmer Adisa and has a critical article forthcoming in Moving Worlds.
MARK McWATT was born in Guyana in 1947. He is now Emeritus Professor of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados in the Faculty of Education and Literature. He has published two collections of poetry: Interiors (Dangaroo, 1989), and The Language of Eldorado (Dangaroo, 1994) winner of the Guyana Prize for Poetry. His collection of short stories, Suspended Sentences (Peepal Tree, 2005) won several literary prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Guyana Prize for Literature for best first book of fiction and the Casa de Las Americas Prize. His latest collection of poetry, The Journey to Le Repentir, will appear in 2009 (Peepal Tree). McWatt has published widely in journals on aspects of Caribbean literature, is joint editor of the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005).
Lucy Evans (LE): I’d like to begin by talking about your experiences of living in and leaving Guyana. You live in Barbados now. However, a lot of your work is set in Guyana, and you lived in various parts of the Guyanese interior as a child.
Mark McWatt (MMcW): That’s right. My father was a District Officer in the colonial times. That meant that he was posted to one of the interior districts and was involved in government administration. It was wonderful because as children we got dragged to all these exotic places in the interior. When I was growing up I got to really love the rivers, especially in the North West District. That was when I was about seven until twelve, and then afterwards I kept going back because I liked it so much. I suppose that was a sort of formation for me, in terms of my sensibilities and response to landscape – to the rivers and the people, including the native Amerindians of Guyana.
LE: When you write about the Guyanese interior do you go back there, or do you draw on memories from childhood?
MMcW: I try to go back as regularly as I can. It’s a little depressing, because things haven’t worked out since independence, and it’s a country in turmoil with many corrupting influences touching virtually everything. The government does not seem particularly effectual and then there’s this racial polarisation. So it’s not very pleasant even to think about it. The country itself, I mean the part that I like which is the interior, remains the same. You can always escape, and go up the rivers to the interior districts, and enjoy it in much the same way. I try to get back to renew acquaintance. My idea was that I would live in Guyana. In the mid-sixties the rest of my family moved up to Toronto and I went to college there. I didn’t want to become a Canadian citizen [but] my father more or less persuaded me to. I’m glad now because it’s much better than travelling with a Guyanese passport. I always wanted to get back to Guyana, and coming to Barbados, I looked on that as close enough. I thought I’d be in Guyana in five years or so, and I kept putting it off because it didn’t get better – there were no improvements. The salaries were low in the university there. The society was still in turmoil for many years. I doubt that I will ever get back there to live, but I will go from time to time.
LE: What was it like, living and studying in Canada?
MMcW: It was a very strange experience for me. On the one hand, there was the winter in Canada which I hated. And then the society itself, the way people spoke and lived, and the things they were interested in, were strange to me. But what was interesting and exciting about it was, of course, university. Continuing with my studies and my writing, reading literature, and being able to pick up where I left off in the sixth form. We had a student publication in St. Michael’s College which was the Catholic college in the University of Toronto, and we used to write and publish poems and short fiction. It was good practice and I enjoyed it.
LE: It’s interesting that you went all the way to Leeds University in the UK to study the work of Wilson Harris, who is Guyanese and writes about Guyana. I suppose it is partly due to the fact that you couldn’t have done your doctorate in Guyana at that point in time.
MMcW: No, not in Guyana. Actually, up to the time I left Guyana, I hadn’t really heard of Wilson Harris. I hadn’t read anything by him. It was while I was in Toronto that I read most of his stuff. And it gives you a different perspective, being away from the country. On one level, it was a kind of nostalgia. Everybody says he is so dense and difficult. But what I found was that he evoked those interior spaces of Guyana better than anyone else that I knew or had read. And for me, they sort of came alive. So it was a way of keeping in touch with Guyana and its landscape.
It sustained me, really, through those years in Toronto. There was a Caribbean bookstore in Toronto, and they sold Harris’s books and lots of other stuff that was coming out of London. Harris’s work kept me sort of grounded in the Guyana landscape that I was accustomed to and felt a peculiar kind of kinship for. One of my professors was a fellow called Jim Howard, who had done some work on Wilson Harris. He told me Leeds was a great place to go, they were interested in Commonwealth literature. I applied and went, and I really enjoyed it. William Walsh was my supervisor. Arthur Ravenscroft was there, and they brought in Commonwealth scholars every year. It was an interesting and exciting place.
LE: You talked about being able to develop your interest in literature when you moved to Toronto and Leeds. What kind of literature did you study while you were at school? Were you already interested in Guyanese writers at that point?
MMcW: Not in the beginning, I don’t think. I’d read stuff by people like A. J. Seymour and Martin Carter. Martin Carter I think was the best known. At the time there were all these political upheavals, and he wrote this very strong political poetry. Revolutionary stuff, poems of resistance, and so on. We had all read at least some of that, and were interested in it. But, of course, for the school syllabus, we had to do Jane Austen and T. S. Eliot, and other modernist poets and writers. Those were influential too, and interesting. We also studied the French Symbolist poets – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. I’m still very fond of that particular period and movement in French literature. Some of them spoke – I’m not sure to what extent it was from experience – they spoke of the sort of landscape that I was interested in. Poems like ‘Le rêve du jaguar’ and ‘Le sommeil du Condor’ are all about Latin American scenery and New World creatures and jungles, that I found interesting. I suppose it would be exotic for them, but for me it was a kind of identity. Also Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ has always conjured up (for me) a small boat negotiating one of the many dangerous rapids on Guyana’s rivers.
LE: Could you talk more about your interest in Latin American scenery? It is interesting that Suspended Sentences won the Casa de las Américas prize. In ‘Tradition and the West Indian Novel’, Wilson Harris writes about the ‘overlapping contexts’ of the Caribbean and Central and South America. To what extent do you think your work could be placed within a tradition of Latin American writing as well as within an Anglophone Caribbean literary tradition?
MMcW: I think my work is rooted most of all in the Guyanese landscape, and in my experience of that landscape. The actual experience, and then the way in which that experience is mediated for me through the novels of Harris, later on – the way in which I re-encounter those things in a different and very exciting way in the novels of Wilson Harris. Of course, I have also read people like García Márquez, and I am interested in the whole concept of magical realism. My wife is Colombian, and she is really the one who first got me reading his novels and short stories. They explore a special kind of existence, that whole Latin American scene, the landscape and the politics, and I think that I have certainly been influenced by all of that. But at the same time I always write for a Caribbean type of audience. I have in mind Guyanese and Barbadians and Jamaicans as reading what I am writing and understanding it.
LE: So you envisage a readership that extends across the Caribbean. But in Suspended Sentences you deal with the problems and possibilities of an independent Guyana. Do you see the idea of a Guyanese national identity as distinct from, or compatible with, the idea of a Caribbean regional identity?
MMcW: This is a difficult issue. Sometimes you think in terms of the Guyanese mindset or the Guyanese identity, usually in terms of the Guyanese problem, in terms of the racial polarisation and the political problems. But I always think of that too as part of a regional thing, and part of a process of growth and development out of colonialism towards whatever it is we’re headed towards – towards being members of an international community. I think here, too, Wilson Harris has been very helpful, because he has suggested that all those boundaries and fences are in a sense artificial, and that the mind, the creative imagination, quite easily leaps over them, and finds correspondences in sometimes strange and originally exotic cultures.
I suppose to some extent this exists in other writers too. Someone like Kamau Brathwaite can pick up on the African influences, perhaps because he has visited and lived in Ghana for a number of years. And Walcott can hark back to the Homeric epics. He can feel quite comfortable in the imaginative world that they depict, and he is able somehow to import that into his own experience and, as it were, continue that epic tradition in a poem like Omeros. In a sense, this negates the need for an obsessive concern with national identities, and what’s happening in particular countries.
When I said that I had this idea of a Caribbean audience, it’s just in the sense that you have to have some kind of idea of readership, not in terms of any set notions or principles of identity. Just that these are the people closest who might be reached by what you say.
The full Interview appears in The Arts Journal Volume 5 Numbers 1 & 2 (2009) to be released shortly.
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