A BOOK REVIEW by Anne-Marie Lee-Loy
There can be many interpretations of a work of art; every reader brings his or her own insight and valid social and cultural experiences to bear when trying to understand a work. The following review may be useful to persons who are open to the perspectives of others and who are trying to find out more out themselves and the Guyanese society, aspects of which are so richly depicted by our writers whether they live at home or abroad.
Janice Lowe Shinebourne is a Guyanese writer who writes from England where she now lives. Her works include the Guyana Prize-winning Timepiece (1986) and The Last English Plantation (1988).
This Review is one of many illuminating pieces appearing in the current issue of THE ARTS JOURNAL, Volume 4 Numbers 1 & 2, available at all leading bookshops in Georgetown or from its Editorial offices (227 6825/220 3337).
An Interview of Janice Lowe Shinebourne by Anne Marie Lee Loy also appears in the current issue. It is a valuable interview in that we are able to glean from it the historical and cultural context and the influences from which this writer gains her inspiration and artistic energy. It will carry a lot of resonance for us in Guyana.
Dr. Anne-Marie Lee-Loy is Assistant Professor at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada whose interest also lies in research on the Chinese in the Caribbean.
Two of the most important tools of colonial authority were the clock and the map. They affirmed colonial power by establishing seemingly incontrovertible boundaries in time (between past and present) and space (between nations). In reality, however, the historical and national divisions constructed and maintained by colonial discourses are less distinct. In particular, the relationship between identities and time and space is complicated by the existence of memories. This may be especially true for the post-colonial migrant dealing with the displacements and disruptions of his history.
Janice Lowe Shinebourne’s collection, The Godmother and Other Stories, focuses on such characters as they negotiate the personal and political spaces within which their identities, memories, and attachments are formed. Shinebourne provides a radical challenge to the conceptual boundaries of histories and nations by boldly exploring the pain and possibility of identities that are profoundly shaped by memories; of individuals that live, in other words, in that space where “[t]he past and the present will be joined” (78). Indeed, Shinebourne’s work not only challenges the boundaries of time and space, it also ultimately affirms the blurred spaces where they collide as vital locations from which to articulate identity.
The collection is organized into three sections. In Part I, the stories are set in Guyana during the turbulent years around national independence. As such, they appear to capture a very specific moment in time and space: Guyana’s transition from colony to independent state. Nevertheless, the dynamics that shape these stories reveal a less distinctly defined progression. In “Chuni” and “Vera”, for example, the social and class discrimination that characterized colonial society remain firmly entrenched in the new nation, while the main character in “Jacob” is depicted as being as disconnected and displaced from Guyana as he was from England.
In “Memories of British Guiana”, history literally repeats itself when British troops return to Guyana in 1962 to quell political unrest as they had done in the 1950s. Significantly, this story is told from the vantage point of individuals living in Canada; however, despite their physical location, the narrators’ minds are so deeply mired in their memories of Guyana that it is as if Guyana has been superimposed on Canadian space. The presence of mid-twentieth century Guyana in Canada, so to speak, suggests that memory has made the distances between the two places and times largely irrelevant.
The stories of Part II are a logical outgrowth of “Memories of British Guiana” in that they are focused on characters that have traveled vast distances, yet are unable to make a clean break from their pasts. Indeed, the past is always with them influencing and shaping their present identities in innumerable ways.
In both “The Godmother” and “Hopscotch”, for example, Guyanese individuals visiting their expatriate friends in England stimulate a resurgence of behaviours and rituals from their pasts and transform the English landscape into an extension of Guyana itself. In doing so, it becomes evident that the expatriate characters “live with Guyana all the time” (61) despite their distance from that locale, a reality that undermines any clear distinctions between “here” and “there”, or “now” and “then”.
While Parts I and II explore the often painful tensions inherent in living out identity at the intersections of time and space, in Part III, Shinebourne celebrates more positive possibilities for constructing identity when a more fluid understanding of such boundaries are embraced. The section consists of two of the collections most memorable stories, “The Berbice Marriage Match” and “London and New York”. The former story, a tale of an arranged marriage between a creolized Chinese-Guyanese woman and a young man from a family that has arrived from China much more recently, explores the collapse of national borders and histories in the making of diasporic identities.
In “London and New York”, the narrator’s search for bean cakes leads her to contemplate the various migrations that are a part of her history and their impact on the way in which she lives out her identity. Food in general and bean cakes in particular, become an important metaphor for a sense of belonging and home that is not limited by time or space but can be located within both the here and now of the present and the memories of the past.
As with most of Shinebourne’s fiction, in this collection, the trauma of the violence that surrounded Guyanese independence remains the gaping wound on her imagination. But unlike earlier work, the pieces in The Godmother are not overwhelmed by the weight of this history and the need to record and tell that experience. Certainly, one can better appreciate the power of the characters’ memories and their struggles for self-definition if one has an understanding of Guyana’s political history. But in this collection, it is the characters themselves who are the focus of the stories, not their historical contexts.
Shinebourne is therefore able to demonstrate her skill at creating nuanced characters that are flawed, complex and painfully human. She also reveals an ability to evoke a poetic sensuality that has sometimes been lost in her more political novels. In particular, her use of food as a metaphor for the cultural and social bonds that supersede the boundaries of time and space is richly sensuous.
Indeed, despite the fact that Shinebourne is touching on familiar territory in her exploration of the relationship between memory, migration, and identity, her deftly crafted characters and her attention to structural details allow her stories to avoid becoming nostalgically maudlin or saccharinely celebratory. Instead, in her sensitive exploration of characters whose lives “[defy] boundaries and time” (30), Shinebourne provides a sympathetic and subtle contemplation of how the crossroads of time and space are intrinsically related to the contemporary “instability and mutability of identities” which, according to Paul Gilroy, “are always unfinished, always being remade” (The Black Atlantic: The Black Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1994) p. xi.
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