– an enthralling tale that begs to be made into a film
By Michael Jordan
There’s a night scene in Barrington Braithwaite’s latest graphic novel that I found to be downright unsettling: A nude ‘wata mama’ sits with her back turned near a river, while a pork knocker sneaks up on her to steal her magical comb and necklace.
This is just one of several tableaux in Braithwaite’s creation ‘Mighty Itanamie,’ in which he uses his writing and artistic talents to weave an enthralling tale that combines the myths of Guyana’s first people, the lore of Guyana’s gold rich interior and the men and women who have found their fortunes (and misfortunes) there over the centuries.
Told with the confidence of one who knows his material well, backed with excellent art-work, ‘Mighty Itanamie’ is chock-full of true to life ‘bush’ characters, (like ‘Sweet Joy’, ‘Pot Bake’, ‘Lizard, ‘Gold Dagger’), and realistic, as well as eerie events.
The central story is about Joseph Mac Arthur, young man from Mahaica, East Coast Demerara, who travels to the mineral-rich hinterland. There, he meets his former school-friend, the sensual Joycelyn Maxwell, who is looking for her father. The ‘green’ Mac Arthur is hired by a pork knocker, ‘Gold Dagger,’ who takes him to the goldfields expanding from the settlements of Kurupung.
But then ‘Gold-Dagger,’ and his crew try to cheat the young pork knocker out of his share of gold. They beat Mac Arthur unconscious, and, thinking that they’ve killed him, bury the young man in a shallow grave near a river.
But the river waters wash the top-soil away. Those waters also revive Mac Arthur, who then treks on a surreal journey through the jungle; during which he has a near-deadly encounter with a ‘water mama,’ and seemingly passes through a community that is inhabited by legendary, but long-dead, pork knockers.
He emerges from this journey re-christened as the “Mighty Itanamie,’ and seeks out ‘Gold Dagger and his treacherous crew…and again, meets that vengeful mermaid.
“The Mighty Itanamie are rapids about 20 miles up the Essequibo River,” Braithwaite explained.
“There’s a folk song about it. The character (Joseph Mac Arthur) was given the name (Itanamie) by a mythical gathering of departed, but legendary pork knockers, because of his encounter with Orehu (a mermaid or ‘wata mama’). The story revolves around a merger of real-physical and real-beliefs of the gold bush.
“This is a fictional character that is real in the ‘Spirit’ of many real personalities that have traversed the hinterland, seeking its mineral wealth; my intention was to honour their adventures and lore.”
It took Braithwaite, also the creator of the fictional character ‘The Jaguar’, a painstaking 33 years, while working on other subjects, to complete this project. It also entailed research, which included travelling in the footsteps of his characters.
“I’ve undergone the pork knocker experience, though not as extensive as most. I was terrified by the reality of many pork knockers, who never left the ‘bush,’ holding on to memories of past glories, like the portrayal of pirates we grew up reading about.
“As soon as I had a little payday I visited the GAC (Guyana Airways Corporation) booking girl and was first on the landing.
“I began to conceptualize this character for the Gold & Diamond Miners Association back in 1983, on a hunch by Tommy Payne for Tony Shields, who wanted an exciting monthly release for the Industry.”
This ‘gold bush’ experience aside, he also worked and was trained as a Scientific Illustrator at the Walter Roth Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, under Dr. Denis Williams.
“I also assisted in field work and paid keen attention to the Social Anthropological aspect of that discipline, reading much of what was done and recorded by the pioneers in the early 19th century. That research supported my ideas with clarity.”
How challenging was it to get the story and artwork just right?
“That’s where the other 50 percent of the work came in.
The (character) ‘Mighty Itanami’ has a model, a (real life) pork knocker, who believed that all minerals were guarded by demons. We later worked together at the Guyana Rice Board; we would argue for hours on that subject. His name was ‘Hutson,’ a physically powerful elder brother who inspired me to go into weight lifting.
“I had a lot of sketches from the seventies while waiting to go into the backdam. The GGMC, in 2005, allowed me a free trip to Kurupung while executing ‘An Illustrated History of the Pork Knockers.’ I had a camera then, so I tried to capture old Kurupung and the geography that, as a pork knocker, I would have ignored, with my ‘finding diamonds’ anxiety. A lot of other research had to be done. We don’t keep many records, you know. I’m sure Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) can’t show you a catalogue of all the ships that served the hinterland from the 1880’s; and there is likely no museum of GAC aircraft and pilots.”
Braithwaite admits that he did have a few unusual experiences in the interior.
“You don’t go into the purity (still somewhat that way) of the hinterland and don’t feel, hear of, and experience some things bordering on the weird. Bush people don’t talk about those things easily.”
After reading Braithwaite’s ‘Mighty Itanimie,’ I was left with the frustrating feeling that this work will remain as just a graphic novel; that the political foresight to develop local works like Braithwaite’s, perhaps into film, is sadly absent. It’s been this way for far too long.
Braithwaite admits to experiencing a similar frustration.
“You are talking cultural industries here. A tribe of creative people have left Guyana, or died here and abroad in disappointment; knocking at bureaucratic walls here, that appear to be victims of the Gorgon’s stare.
“Yes, I’m frustrated that with all of our creative talents and skills we don’t live comfortably, we’re the poorest professional group. But I’m knocking at doors that have responded, and I’m an optimistic servant of the muses.
“The problem is that the persons inclined to our cause are spread out in different agencies, and not necessarily where you expect them to be. This is book would not have been published without the favourable response of then Assistant GGMC Commissioner Newell Dennison. Yes I look forward to taking it to the next level. In that area I’ve got to dream while wide awake.
“ Braithwaite’s ‘Mighty Itanamie’ is available at Austin’s Book Store, GGMC’s Library and Nigel’s Supermarket.
The retail price of this full-colour, double graphic publication will not be more than $ 2,300.00.
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