The Arts Forum offers an occasional page of related topics intended to sensitize students and the general readership to neglected areas of our social history and our rich and diverse cultural traditions. Ameena Gafoor is the founder of The Arts Forum and founding editor of The Arts Journal, a peer-reviewed critical Journal devoted to fresh perspectives on the history, literatures, arts and cultural traditions of Guyana and the Caribbean. The Journal also forms a bridge to our scattered peoples.
Ameena Gafoor“Art is akin to myth and the purpose of art is to heighten a people’s consciousness of their place in the world”.
Roy A.K. Heath was a self-effacing man; very little is known about his private life. Yet, the literary world would mourn his passing as a writer whose legacy to us is a compelling body of prose fiction that speaks uncompromisingly to the social and cultural realities of his native land.
Heath was born in the city of Georgetown in the backwater colonial outpost of British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1926 to coloured middle-class parents. Disenchanted with the prospect of settling into the soul-deadening ways of the colonial civil service, he made his way to a cheerless Britain in 1950 from where he would achieve an enviable creative output and live out his life as an exile, refusing to be adopted by Britain or claim to be British. Heath published the first part of his autobiography, Shadows Round the Moon, in 1991, but could not bring himself to write the second part for, in his own words, he “would have to bring England in.” He became a lawyer by training, a teacher by profession, a writer by conscience.
Heath produced nine lacerating novels on the nature of the colonial condition, several short stories that appeared in magazines and anthologies including the B.B.C. annual anthology and short story series up to the mid-nineties. One work of drama, Inez Combray, was staged at the Theatre Guild Playhouse in Georgetown in the sixties.
Originally, Heath set out to fill the gap in a largely neglected area of Guyanese fiction: the depiction of the social and cultural dilemma of the coloured middle-class stranded in a crumbling city at the end of Empire. But it was not the only vein he mined in his writings. Heath’s first published novel, A Man Come Home (1974), is a linguistic achievement by any measure, a satire of the working class and the living language of the yard.
His second published novel, The Murderer (1978), winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, has been hailed as “a concise, unsentimental masterpiece”.
Heath’s eighth-published novel, The Shadow Bride (1988), winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature, was adjudged “a massive work of fiction with its compelling narrative and an engaging plot.” Depicting the centrality of Indian female experience, it is Heath’s tribute to the Indian strand (of the multiracial society) that shaped his perceptions and sensibility to the waves of humanity that had converged on the Guiana shores to slave and toil on the sugar plantations and rice fields.
His other novels are: From the Heat of the Day (1979); One Generation (1981); Genetha (1981) – these three novels form a family saga that dwell on the vulnerability of women and were published in America as The Armtrong Trilogy (1994); Orealla (1984), a work that recreates the master/slave relationship in which our modern society is rooted; Kwaku (1982), a story about a chance confidence trickster develops into The Ministry of Hope (1994), this final work a trenchant indictment of native leadership in a disheveled, postcolonial society, a place that spawns hardened tricksters, a place from which Heath himself took flight.
Heath’s writing is deceptively simple, yet one delicately subtle technique of his narration is the employment of the “free indirect style” (also known as the third person omniscient narrator), by which means the reader sees through the eyes of a character while seeing more than the character has knowledge of. This strategy is best suited to his psychologically flawed and vulnerable characters that inhabit that long coastal strip on the northern rim of South America, crammed between ocean and jungle. Heath’s narrator achieves the latitude of a “voyeur” giving the illusion of being inside the minds of several characters, of eavesdropping on unguarded lives, of having more knowledge about characters than they could possibly have of themselves, placing the text squarely in the modern realist tradition.
Heath’s idiosyncratic novels challenge the conventional English novel of persuasion; they all end in collapse and failure while eschewing a neat denouement or resolution. Yet, in a peculiarly post-modern manner, they all contain a redeeming vision of man with possibilities of renewal of hopes and dreams in the aftermath of colonialism.
Themes of class prejudice, poverty, the internecine nature of the multiracial society, the man/woman relationship, madness and an entrenched Victorian morality fuel the urban angst vented in Heath’s novels. However, as the writer explores the frail architecture of the consciousness his texts transcend social factors and he brings us to a more elemental point of departure: the struggle of imperfect characters to simple be; a concern with the nature of being and individual freedom as much as with maintaining a toehold in a cruel, claustrophobic society.
Heath delivered the Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures, entitled “Art and Experience” in 1983.
His moving tribute to fellow Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams was read at an Exhibition of the paintings of Aubrey Williams, Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1998 when he taught us that “art is akin to myth and the purpose of art is to heighten a people’s consciousness of their place in the world”.
While some readers are left to ponder Heath’s place in the West Indian literary canon, others argue for thoughtful critical appraisal that would make this writer and his texts better known. Whereas, covertly, he appears to ignore history, Heath is in fact attempting to chronicle a sense of history that is mired in colonialism while charting an alternative vision/a new order of society, one that embraces traditional values of community and family and a renewed sense of self. Heath cautions: “A proper understanding of ourselves as individuals depends on our relationship to our community. If that relationship is lost, we are lost”.
Each narrative, infused with an aura of timelessness and tragic inevitability, is a work of art, an absolutely honest and subjective vision of man and society. Heath says: “My preoccupation with Time [in my work] is, I believe, the exile’s way of dealing with the separation from his roots”.
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
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