– By Petamber Persaud
(Excerpt of an interview with Brenda DoHarris conducted in front of The Bishops’ High School, Georgetown, Guyana, January 2010. The interview was conducted mainly in Kitty village where her first novel, ‘The Coloured Girl in the Ring’, was set.
DoHarris is a professor of English at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland and a graduate of Columbia University and Howard University where she received a PhD in English.
Her second novel, ‘Calabash Parkway’, was launched in Georgetown around that same time.)
Petamber Persaud (PP): We are now in front of The Bishops’ High School, one of the places that informed your writing …..What was Bishops’ like in your time?
Brenda DoHarris (BD): It was a very good experience. I know some people say Bishops’ people tended to be snobbish, but I was not one of those. We learned a lot; we got a solid, solid education which stood us well later on in life. And it wasn’t all what we learned from books; it was the discipline we got in starting things and finishing them. Important is the motto of Bishops’: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’ [‘Labor omnia vincit – Hard work conquers all’].
Many of us who attended this school had it built into our life and certainly the difficulties I encountered in my own life, in terms of the challenges that motto kept me going. And of course, the examples of some of the accomplished women who passed through here.
PP: It was mainly a girls’ school, did this influence your writing in anyway?
BD: It was an all-girl environment and so it got me interested in women’s affairs and women’s experiences, but because we competed with each other in an environment which excluded men we became more continent. Now it may not have boded well for women who got married and had to deal with the exigencies of family life and dealing with a man when you came up in an all-women environment; it may not have boded well for some women but for others it did.
All in all I have no regrets and no apology for having gone here. It was a tremendous privilege. It was a privilege for which I was grateful because that scholarship was paid for by the working people of Guyana and so I try to make the best of it even in my writings, because I am always cognisant of that fact, because these are the people who helped to give me my education and that I owe them something.
PP: Talking about school and books, what were some of the books that influenced your writing?
BD: One of them is Buchi Emecheta’s ‘Second Class Citizens’. Well all her books not just that one. Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian woman novelist who has written a lot on women issues especially women in the post-colonial environment. One of her best books I think is ‘Second Class Citizens’ in which she details what life was like in England for Blacks and others who went there in the 1950s and how hard life was finding housing etc, in the face of discrimination, trying to find jobs in a society that was patently racist at the time.
I’ve also read Merle Hodge. Her books were a tremendous influence especially, ‘Crick Crack Monkey’, a novel I am teaching presently in one of my classes and Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat.
PP: Last week I mentioned two of her books in the aftermath of the earthquake – ‘Farming of Bones’ and ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’.
BD: Good books. One other novel I’ve started rereading is Edgar Mittelholzer’s ‘The Life and Death of Silvia’
PP: Which is set in Georgetown, just about here, between Stabroek and the seawall.
BD: Detailing a young woman’s degradation and struggle in the 1930s, coming from a man born in 1909, a man who had his personal issues which led to his suicide. One of the things I am hoping to do is to look at the work of Mittelholzer within a feminist construct, in the form of feminist critical theory, looking at how he presents women in his novels.
When I first started to read his books here [Bishops’ High School] and getting his books from there, the Public Free Library, I overdosed on Edgar Mittelholzer. Of course in those days, in the 50s and 60s, we were not thinking about feminism and those things, but now with all these feminist theories in literature you get to look at the work and examine the man himself. One of the things I am thinking of is writing an article on Mittelholzer and his work within a feminist critical construct.
PP: Good for you; this may be the first such study on Mittelholzer. And your work is cut out for you – numerous female characters to study starting from his first novel, ‘Corentyne Thunder’ with Beena and Kattree.
BD: And of course the whole Kaywana series…
PP: Talking about characters, are your novels character-driven or plot-driven?
BD: I think it is a bit of both. Usually I would construct in my mind the general outlines of a story. I would be up in bed about 2/3 o’clock and listen to the voices of the characters, not in a crazy way, of course; I would hear them talking and I would be wondering why is he doing that and so on. With ‘Calabash Parkway’, I had it all in my head before writing it down. But even if it is plot-driven, you would want to make the characters ….
BD: Interesting – making readers say at the end ‘how could he, how could she have done that’ so that these characters have come alive.
Earlier when we stopped in Kitty, by the market, you said something to me and I replied, using a Guyanese creolese phrase, what was it?
PP: We were talking about language, the colour of the language you used in your novels, starting with the title of ‘The Colour Girl in the Ring’, and of folk games and of folk songs…
BD: Oh, it’s coming back – you said you aint gat kinna and I said you aint get doh. Every now and again I would do that with a character in a particular context – put relevant creolese in her mouth.
The thing about ‘The Coloured Girl’ in terms of the folklore and the folk sayings is I thought the young people of today don’t know about these things like ‘doh soh nah like soh’
PP: ‘Doh foh doh is nah obeah’
BD: Yes, yes – ‘doh foh doh is nah obeah’
PP: This will tickle you – ‘Empty gun shoot guilty man’.
BD: That is so true [laughing uproariously]. And there are so many that you remember and you say to yourself this will really spice things up. It functions in a threefold way; first of all, it spices up the novel, it educates the young people who may be drifting away from their culture, it educates them about their heritage, the ethnic and other heritages that they have.
I should say the national heritage. And also brings back a spark and adds a literary flavour because writing is informed by such things. There is a whole discourse surrounding folklore and such things, which was previously regarded as foolishness – it is not, it is not.
PP: When Vesta Lowe started on this course of reviving the folk element in our culture, she was shunned, her work was frowned on, looked upon with suspicion. But now it is easier to work in creolese, complete novels are now done in the vernacular of a writer
BD: Even calypso, I have written several articles on the calypsos by women and I have written them from the point of view of literary articles which are generally well accepted as literature. Gordon Rohlehr comes to mind here.
PP: Let’s just for a moment go back to the use of the vernacular. Way back when even writers like Chaucer, Sir Walter Scott used the vernacular of the time.
BD: In Scott’s own words, ‘Oh, withsome powers, the gift he gave to see ourselves as others see us.’ So profound…and using the dialect of his time. Yes, we often disregard our own, we disregard our own dialect and we lose so much with that attitude.
PP: One of the many elements you employed in your writing in order to be successful.
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