Brenda Chester DoHarris, Calabash Parkway, Bowie, Maryland: Tantaria Press, 2005, pp.158. ISBN 0-9770728-0-0
Calabash Parkway is the sequel to Brenda Chester DoHarris’s first novel A Coloured Girl in the Ring: A Guyanese Girl Remembers (1997) which revels in heart-throbbing nostalgia for Guyana in the 1950s and 60s, a period of painful transition when the country moved, or rather staggered from its centuries-old status as a British colony to the longed-for glory of a newly independent nation.
But while her personal or family history is front and centre in Coloured Girl, the author chooses to step back from the main action in Calabash Parkway in which she appears largely as observer, listener and narrator. Instead, two other characters from Coloured Girl, ‘Gatha and Evadne, fellow residents of the author’s home village of Kitty, are moved to centre stage of the second novel where the warm nostalgia of the 1950s and 60s is replaced, ironically, not with the glory of Independence, but with inglorious economic hardships and political horrors that induce tens of thousands of Guyanese to emigrate from their homeland.
As its title suggests, DoHarris’s second novel unites both the naturalness of a lowly fruit (the calabash) representing the Caribbean with the artificial affluence of a highway (Parkway) representing the US, as a way of focussing on Guyanese immigrants living mainly in New York, during the 1970s and 80s. Thus the novel’s appeal stems mainly from a central tension in its main characters between their desperate efforts to escape from scandalous conditions in post-colonial Guyana, and their equally desperate struggles to cash in on the ever elusive affluence of the American Promised Land.
The Prologue of Calabash Parkway introduces ‘Gatha who, in Coloured Girl, was notable merely as the jilted lover of Eustace, a policeman who later kills another of his lovers before committing suicide.
In Calabash Parkway, however, ‘Gatha is transformed into a more mature woman who, after reaching New York, mainly through luck, strikes out on a career of stunning resourcefulness and perseverance, working night and day, sending money home to her family in Guyana, prevailing over one setback after the other. For example, losing her savings to burglars and having her visa application to the US being rejected, yet, finally, after ingeniously thwarting immigration authorities to re-enter the US via Canada and re-join her American lover Jack Feelings, suddenly succumbing to a heart attack in Jack’s arms.
No doubt, her tragic death turns her success into a Pyrrhic victory; but her career is an absorbing saga of immigrant persistence, resilience and sheer guts.
It also wonderfully dramatizes the global inequality between North and South by depicting this rather abstract dichotomy in concretely human terms of people being forced to struggle for their very survival in alien and daunting circumstances not of their own making.
If ‘Gatha dominates the action of Calabash Parkway from the Prologue to its final chapter, Evadne is not far behind.
And just as luck first brings ‘Gatha to New York as the paid companion of Eunice who is dying of cancer, so does a chance meeting bring Evadne to New York as the wife of a Guyanese-American, Compton Thornhill.
Nor are Evadne’s struggles in New York any less compelling than ‘Gatha’s. Indeed, in some ways, they may be more so; for Evadne’s relationship with Compton becomes complicated when his former lover Jennifer gives birth to his daughter, Joy; and when Evadne and Compton buy a house from Jennifer’s sister the complications erupt with Jennifer shooting and killing Compton. So, although Evadne does not die like ‘Gatha, she is disoriented enough to need recovery and regain her “psychic wholeness” (p.131).
Perhaps the most striking feature in all this is the documentary fidelity with which DoHarris evokes Guyanese culture and society, predominantly its African variety, both at home and abroad.
Nothing proclaims the Guyanese identity of her narrative more than the idiomatic Creole expressions or colloquialisms which, in addition to the speech of her characters, crowd almost every other page of Calabash Parkway, for example, Parkway with Coloured Girl. The main difference is that the substantial American setting in the second novel causes the author to switch back and forth, both in time and place, between New York and Guyana.
But switching, though smooth on the whole, encourages reliance on coincidence, for example, chance meetings and sudden deaths, which can detract from full conviction or coherence.
The relatively more coherent structure of Coloured Girl is probably what explains its greater dramatic power. Not that high drama is missing from No doubt, this type of social solidarity is influenced by the attitudes and rhetoric of the black civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s as we see, for example, in a letter from Jack Feelings (p. 123).
It is rhetoric that asserts a peculiar black or African-American claim to “soul”, and although “soul” is neither uniquely African nor black, it certainly flourishes both in the author and her characters in Calabash Parkway.
Brenda DoHarris was born in colonial British Guiana where she grew up and now lives in the USA. She is Professor of English at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland and a graduate of Columbia University and Howard University where she received the PhD degree in English. Her area in scholarly interest is post-colonial women’s literature.
DoHarris is the author of The Coloured Girl in the Ring, a coming of age novel set in Guyana of the fifties and sixties.
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