By Emeritus Professor Frank Birbalsingh
Brenda Chester DoHarris is a Guyanese-born writer now living and lecturing in the USA. We recently brought you a Review of her Calabash Parkway.
Brenda Chester DoHarris, A Coloured Girl in the Ring: A Guyanese Woman Remembers. Lanham, Maryland: Tantaria Press, 1997, ISBN 0-9659444-0-9.
Although the main title of Ms. DoHarris’s novel – “A Coloured Girl in the Ring” – is taken from a rather innocent and playful game that children play, her book, a fictionalised autobiography, is quite the opposite: a profoundly insightful study of life in Guyana, from 1958 to 1964, when the narrator was at secondary school.
Whether one regards A Coloured Girl in the Ring as novel or autobiography, it provides a brilliant and memorable evocation of familiar sights, sounds and scents in colonial Guyana, and of the country’s history, geography, sociology, politics, major personalities and commonest events, all densely crowded around a story about the narrator’s family, friends and neighbours, and most of all about the narrator herself.
Using a method of itemising, cataloguing or listing which is found in one of the earliest of English novels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, DoHarris assiduously researches, collects and records names, places and events that we instinctively remember from Guyana of the 1950s: not only common items of food like coague, sugar cake and rice pap, dumplings, fufu or black pudding, but furniture like the Berbice chair, Morris chair, chiffonier, the Phillips radio with Sarah Vaughan singing “My Tormented Heart”, calypsonians singing “All Day All Night Miss Mary Ann”, and Lighthouse cigarettes, Nugget shoe polish and Reckitt’s Crown blue.
In a magisterial description of Stabroek market, nearly a page long, and paralleled only by a similar passage in Jan Carew’s novel Black Midas, DoHarris itemises everything from dray carts and Bookers’ taxis to mangoes, mittai, cassava pone and genips, stinkin’ toe, pointer brooms and trusted medications like Dodd’s Kidney Pills, Sloan’s Liniment, and DeWitt’s pills (pp.187-188).
Yet this catalogue alone of local Guyanese life would likely not achieve the conviction that it does if it were not rendered in the language and dialogue of demotic Guyanese speech.
It is when DoHarris writes phrases like “Afta rall” for “after all”, or sentences like “Wake up yuh lazy behine an’ bring dung de posy” (p.99), heightened by idiomatic expressions like “yuh cork duck” (p.91) or “time longer than twine” (p.130) that she captures the accent, rhythm and intonation of authentic Guyanese speech which makes her recorded vision of 1950s Guyana materialise, like film, before our very eyes.
But if this vision appears idyllic or nostalgic, it is not the whole truth: the central theme in DoHarris’s novel is that she – the coloured or brown girl – is entrapped in a ring of deprivation and exploitation in colonial Guyana, and that her chief aim is: “to escape the ring, to go abroad and seek education beyond the mudflat” (p.137); for the larger truth is that all Guyanese, including her parents, friends and neighbours are encircled in a ring of poverty and deprivation created by colonialism and geared to their own self-destruction.
What follows is a struggle against self-destruction as we see when her father overcomes dire poverty to become a government dispenser, and her mother escapes from her own father’s beatings to become a nurse.
But when her father is transferred to a new post in the Guyanese forest, he becomes separated from his family forever.
For all that, with her mother’s help, the narrator succeeds in her ultimate ambition to study abroad.
Of the narrator’s neighbours, Mr. Braithwaite is a drunkard who kicks his family out; Misses Ada, Ida and Edna hold body and soul together by making and selling black pudding; Gatha is jilted and left with child by the policeman Eustace; Eustace meanwhile loves Shirley, a striptease dancer who is first mauled by her lover’s wife, and later murdered by Eustace; while Eustace, later still, commits suicide by throwing himself in front of a moving train.
Similar events of raw brutality also overtake the few Indians who live in the narrator’s village: Balgobin the milkman, Bahadur the grocer, and Ragunandan a cake shop owner.
Like the narrator, Ragunandan’s daughter Drupattie wins a scholarship to secondary school, but when she falls in love with Steven Osbourne, an African boy, racist objections by her family force her into an arranged Indian marriage that ends her academic career. Steven is later beaten by Indians, and Drupattie’s uncle is stabbed, presumably by Africans, such crude and violent actions being mere symptoms of the deep-seated ethnic rivalry between Africans and Indians that eventually leads to politically-inspired riots, killings of both Africans and Indians by each other, and widespread destruction in Guyana, in 1962. In the end, it is the village madwoman Banga Mary who provides perhaps the best summary of such self-destruction: “One day race hate will mek dis country choke in its own blood” (p.197).
Ethnic self-destructiveness ensures that, far from being a nostalgic idyll, A Coloured Girl is a bitter-sweet narrative, one that is poignant and deeply moving, and made even more so by a feminist perspective that rightly celebrates the sustaining role of women in colonised societies.
As she is about to leave for study abroad, the narrator is given two gold bangles by her father’s aged and poverty-stricken mother who says: “You are a woman now, an’ yuh mus’ kerry some’ting of me wid you…to let you remember de women yuh come dung from” (p.101).
This is one of several instances where DoHarris breaks the strict, chronological sequence of her narrative – another is when she later meets Steven Osbourne in New York – to extract profound pathos from characters, women as well as men, who display heroic, unyielding willpower to struggle against the ring of colonialism that encircles them.
DoHarris strikes gold with such pathos, and when it is added to her brilliant evocation of colonial Guyana, we know it is a vein of pure Guyanese gold; for her portrait of her father reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in a forest coincides exactly with Edgar Mittelholzer’s portrait of characters in his novel Shadows Move Among Them listening to European, classical music in the same Guyanese forest.
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by E-mail at: [email protected] or on Tel: 592 227 6825.
THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 5 Numbers 1 and 2 is now in bookshops.
Stockists: Austins Bookshop on Church Street, Georgetown; Universal Bookshop at
the Pegasus Hotel; Bernadette Persaud at: [email protected]
(Tel: 220 3337); or from the editor.
For guidelines for Submission of Articles to THE ARTS JOURNAL see website: www.theartsjournal.org.gy
Jan 21, 2019President of the Guyana Football Federation (GFF) Wayne Forde challenged participants of the Concacaf facilitated two-day Club Marketing Workshop, which c oncluded yesterday, to strive to implement...
The Police Commissioner told a press conference that Charrandass Persaud is being investigated for bribery and if possible... more
Editor’s Note, If your sent letter was not published and you felt its contents were valid and devoid of libel or personal attacks, please contact us by phone or email.
Feel free to send us your comments and/or criticisms.
Contact: 624-6456; 225-8452; 225-8458; 225-8463; 225-8465; 225-8473 or 225-8491.
Or by Email: [email protected] / [email protected]