BISHOPS: MY TURBULENT COLONIAL YOUTH
A NOVEL BY MONA WILLIAMS
A BOOK REVIEW BY EMERITUS PROFESSOR
Mona Williams, Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth, Wellington, New Zealand, Mallinson, Rendel, 1995, pp.162, ISBN 908783-05-0
Bishops’ High School was the only girls’ Government school with foreign trained teachers and special facilities in the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana) when Mona Williams was a student there. In her autobiography, Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth Mona describes both her arduous effort to gain entrance to this prestigious school, and her studies there from 1955 until she enters the school’s Sixth Form five years later.
Mona, her sister Claire and brother Keith are entirely dependent on their mother, a school teacher, whose family situation is typical of Guyana in the 1950s when: “You had to look to your wits, your brawn and your family to survive” (p.76). Since her mother cannot afford fees to Bishops’, Mona’s best option is a scholarship for which she must lodge with the family of Mr. McGowan, head master of a school on the island of Wakenaam, where she is coached and often beaten by Mr. McGowan but, in the end, scores 93.7% in an intensely competitive, make-or-break exam, and wins a coveted scholarship to: “the Promised Land of Bishops’ education” (p.51).
For a country girl like Mona, however, just gaining entrance to the Promised Land is not enough; for Bishops’ is in Georgetown, the colony’s capital city and seat of Government, headed by a British Governor, whereas Mona’s mother lives in Mackenzie (now Linden) which is sixty miles away, and accessible only by river. This means that Mona, Claire and Keith must share rented Georgetown lodgings that can be cramped, insanitary or not always able to supply adequate meals. Frequent need to change lodgings also creates an unstable, nomadic existence for Mona and her siblings.
In such conditions, as a black student living on the margin of survival, Mona finds what she expects upon her entrance in Bishops’: “All de big shot people’s children go there. Like de people round de Governor. De big business people, de sugar estate managers and de rich white people, their children” (p.41). What Mona does not expect though, when she meets a white student who had come from Britain, is to hear her say: “We don’t have to sit an exam [to enter Bishops’] if we’re white” (p.60). After her life and death struggle to enter Bishops’, this example in Bishops’ of the racist structure of British colonial Caribbean society generally, absolutely floors Mona, inflaming her already mixed feeling of: “awe and excitement” (p.43) about her new school.
If Mona detects racist ethics in Bishops’ selection of students, she perceives even more insidious ethics in the school’s curriculum. When she asks her English mistress, for instance, if her class can study a West Indian novel in addition to the standard fare of Shakespeare and Dickens, she is told: “the Caribbean is yet to produce writing worthy of the name literature” (p.89). Similarly, her history mistress does not believe that Guyanese history is worth studying: “B.G. is too young to have a history to speak of” (p.91). According to Mona: “The culture of the school made me feel ashamed and stupid to ask for our own music, our food, our novels, poetry and plays, our art or our dances although I knew I should never feel this way” (pp.90-91). Disseminating such ethics produces self-hatred, as Mona writes: “I knew of older Bishops’ girls who clearly by the things they said despised themselves for being black” (p.95).
By her account, the turbulence in Mona’s colonial youth is caused mainly by the racial ethics of her school and her single-parent family’s poor conditions (her father is absent throughout, having gone to England since Mona was three). But she is not alone. In time, Mona finds like-minded nationalistic individuals such as Helen Taitt, a ballet dancer who runs a dance school and offers her a part-time job as a ballet instructor. Such is her drive to succeed that Mona also finds another part-time job, although, once again, she is dogged by racism when she admits: “Portuguese, Chinese and pale others as sales staff, yes; but a jet black sales girl? Come, come!” (p.107). This proves that racism is rife not only in Bishops’, or education, but in business and in the Guyanese colonial society as a whole. Still, by 1960, apart from establishing her credentials in the performative arts at Bishops’, winning first prize in poetry recitation and third prize in singing, Mona passes her Ordinary Level exam and has her scholarship extended to enter the Sixth Form at Bishops’.
For all its unsparing documentation of hardship and injustice, both physical and psychological, the narrative of Bishops also adroitly manages to be lively, spirited and entertaining, adorned with Guyanese proverbs like: “to a starving picknee one milk-breast is better than a flat chest” (p.101) or with profligate word coinages and original expressions like “joy-crazy’ (p.39) and: “belly-rumbling-hungry-day” (p.69) or, yet again, with descriptions of local culture, food, music, speech idioms and humour, or anecdotes and dialogue that proudly proclaim Bishops as the handiwork of an inspired and well- practised Guyanese story-teller.
Yet, there is a touch of anachronism in righteous feelings of nationalism that come from a Guyanese teenager, almost a decade before Guyana’s Independence in 1966. It seems that, writing in 1996 about events that occurred forty years earlier, the author adapts her time sequence for better artistic effect. For one thing, Dr. Cheddi Jagan was not leader of the Opposition in Guyana in the 1950s. For another, the author’s nationalistic feelings carry a flavour of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement in the US where Mona later went to university in the 1960s. Other idiosyncrasies include spellings such as “lightening” for “lightning,” (p.102) “Hindu” for “Hindi,” (p.127) and the misspelt names of famous West Indian cricketers such as Ramadhin (p.65), Kanhai and Worrell (p.147).
But none of this denies Bishops place as one of the most plainly outspoken of all Guyanese autobiographies, most of all reminiscent of Arnold Apple’s Son of Guyana.
The Editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by E-Mail: [email protected] or by Telephone: 592 227 6825.
THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 6 Numbers 1 and 2 is in press.
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