Guyanese Writers in England
By John Mair
London, February 2002: Guyana was once the jewel in the Caribbean for writing. That died. But, surprsingly, it rose again in another land-the United Kingson. John Mair examines the output of a range of Guyanese writers in the UK Diaspora.
                                                                            Wilson Harris
He's eighty and still writing. Currently his twenty fourth novel. He's been published for fifty years in Guyana and in the United Kingdom- his adopted land since 1959 . Wilson Harris is right up there among the West Indian literary greats. Yet 'Still my writing is regarded as difficult' he says. Harris makes no apology for that or for anchoring most of it firmly in the Interior of Guyana and the wider South American continent.
His formative influence was as a surveyor with the 'BG' Lands and Surveys department in the Interior in the nineteen-fifties. It shaped him forever. 'There is and was such ignorance about the Interior on the Coast' he says. 'It is a world apart'.
His curiousity about the lives and mores of the indigenous people is alive still half a century later.
The 'difficult writing' has found an audience. He has been published continually for forty years by Faber and Faber in Britain, awarded five honorary doctorates-the latest a 'birthday present' from the University of Liege this year. Yet he has his critics. Farukh Dhondy ,the Indian writer and broadcaster, recently labelled him 'At best a mystic with faltering English, at worst a fraud' The late CLR James was kinder. 'Harris has grappled with a West Indian problem and he has arrived at conclusions which dealt with the problem of language as a whole in the world at large'.
But Harris is undaunted. He sees his work as not just challenging in content but also holding the very form of the novel up for scrutiny.
Still his proudest moment in his native land was receiving the first ever Guyana Prize for Literature from then President Hoyte in 1987. Yet he is now unsure of his national identity. 'I am not English but I don't think I am Guyanese in any categorical sense'.
                                                                                     Roy Heath
His writing career was glittering but he says it has now come to an end. Failing health has seen to it, despite still having 'several novels inside me still'. Roy Heath sits in his Wembley, North London, house with his pen now firmly put away. It's a crying shame after nine very well received novels over a twenty year period.
This seventy fiveyear old did not start properly writing until his late forties and then only to show himself (and his family) that he could do it. He always knew he would and it would just be a matter of time before he did, "But my real love is not writing. It is music'.
Heath was born in Guyana in 1926. He went to Central High School in Georgetown. In 1951 he came to Britain and trained as both a teacher and latterly a lawyer, though he never practised law. He did practice the art of pedagogy, teaching French and German in a variety of London secondary schools. But it is for his writing that he will be remembered. His oeuvre is considerable. The centrepiece 'The Georgetown Trilogy' of novels comprises
From the Heat of the Day , One Generation and In Genetha.
Six other novels followed: A Man Come Home, The Murderer, The Shadow Bride, Orealla Shadows, Round the Moon and Kwaku (or The man who could not keep his mouth shut). One was shorlisted for the very prestigious Booker Prize for fiction in 1991. His last novel was 'The Ministry of Hope' published in 1997.
Roy Heath is a master story ­teller and a product of the rich literate Guyanese tradition.
The background material for his lifetime's work were gathered when he was young. But he also took regular trips 'home' until 1991.Their purpos, he told himself was to ''research my books". But on the death on his mother the same year he realised that he was merely using that as an excuse to go and see her. He has not been back since.
His adopted land-the United Kingdom-is just that. He describes it as an 'odd country' and 'strange'. But for him, as for so many other writers in this diaspora, the imagination is rooted thousands of miles away where South America meets the Caribbean. As Heath says, writers can use that remembered form, artists cannot. Their visual memories fade and not so subtly changes their art in the process.
                                                                             David Dabydeen
David Dabydeen bestrides West Indian writing and the study of Caribbean culture in the UK like a colossus.
Brought up in the racial holocausts of the sixties Dabydeen he is well aware of his ancestry..
'I am an Indian in many ways; I can be obsessed by notions of purityMy sense of family, I am sure, is a very Indian attribute. '
Following the prevailing migratory pattern Dabydeen moved to Tooting in South London where he ended up in a children's home through family circumstances.
He confided that one of his teachers at his very ordinary school in London told him he would be lucky to make university. But he did - Cambridge, Oxford, London and then Yale. And he was always writing.
'I always wrote since I remember. I remember Naipaul saying that if he couldn't write, he would die, and when I heard that - I was young then - I agreed with him'.
Today, Dabydeen is a distinguished author, novelist and academic as well as twice winner of the prestigious Guyana Prize for Fiction. He's also much lauded in his adopted land for his writings including the splendid evocation of the Afro-Caribbean condition in 'Slave Song'. That won the Commonwealth Literature Prize in 1984. Dabydeen is now a Professor, heads the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and regularly visits Guyana where he stays as an honoured guest of Former President Janet Jagan. Dabydeen serves as Guyana's (unpaid) ambassador to UNESCO in Paris and has just presented a BBC Radio Four mini series on Guyana this autumn.
                                                                       Michael Abbensetts
He's been called 'The best black playwright of his generation". His response? 'Better that than to be known as an ordinary writer'
Guyanese born writer Michael Abbensetts has been a playright for more than two decades. He's just finished his latest play 'The Great Divide' which, very unusually for him, has a main character who is white. West Indian but white. But, times are tough for Black British Theatre which Abbennsetts admits has been in 'regression' since the untimely death of actor Norman Beaton.
Beaton -'Desmond' to millions worldwide - was the bedrock on which the Abbensetts career was based. Michael wrote the first ever black British television 'soap opera'-'Empire Road' which ran for fifteen editions on the BBC in 1979. The star, Everton Bennett, was naturally played by Norman.
Stage and TV plays followed including 'Sweet Talk' which packed out the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea. A literate generation of West Indians in Londond were eager to see themselves reflected on stage.
'They asked how I got so many black people into the theatre. I didn't. It was just word of mouth'
Abbensetts wrote seven of his plays which were presented on BBC television between 1973 and 1987.
Channel Four picked up the minority baton later in the 80's and 90's, that included 'Little Napoleons' written by Abbensetts. That lasted just four episodes before the messy death of Norman on a trip back to his homeland. With him, sadly, as Abbensetts admits died the one big Box office West Indian star. Selling black television projects has been uphill, nigh impossible, since then. 'If Norman was still alive I would never forgive him for the present state' says Michael.
Abbensetts has continued in the bad times. In addition to 'Great Divide' there have been other projects in the 90's and most recently, his assumption of a writing fellowship at the University of North London, financed by the Royal Literary Fund. That gives him an office as a base, students to teach and bounce off and a secure income, whilst he waits for the cultural pendulum to swing back. If it does.
Meanwhile, he can only dream of Guyana; a country he has not visited since the death of his father, a prominent doctor, a decade ago. But his work is still firmly rooted in his native soil.
                                                                         Pauline Melville
Pauline Melville has won a wheelbarrow full of literary prizes with a relatively small output. Her reputation was firmly established with her first collection of short stories, Shape-Shifter (1990). That won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. Her first novel The Ventriloquist's Tales went on to receive the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award. Last year, she published another collection of short stories The Migration of Ghosts.
She is much lauded by fellow writers and critics. Yet, she resolutely refuses to play the public part of the writer's game. She is an enigma, shrouded in mystery. Few, if any, interviews exist with her. She talks about her writing not at all. She does not ride the radio and television hype bicycle.
Last year saw the publication of her latest collection of short stories, The Migration of Ghosts. Yet, she is still hard to pin down.
In an era when so many writers are confined to a single voice or easy ideological stance, Melville, using the main metaphor from her novel The Ventriloquist's Tale, speaks in many tongues, from the excruciating beauty of "Lucifer's Shank," wherein one friend watches another slowly succumbs to lymphatic cancer, to the boisterous black humour of "Don't Give Me Your Sad Stories", as two working-class alcoholics find a laughable stain among their garments of despair. Each tale proceeds with flawlessly wrought prose that sets Melville apart from her peers. Impressively, Pauline manages to end each story with a brutally inventive wallop.
                                                                         John Agard
Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn't graduate
I immigrate

By John Agard
Forty years ago, he was an altar boy at Saint Stanislaus' College in Georgetown, today he is the best known (and easily the busiest) black poet in Britain.
Last autumn, the Guyanese/UK diaspora honoured John Agard with an inaugural High Commission Award but this was just the latest in the long list of Agard's awards.
In 1989 he was awarded an Arts Council Bursary and in 1993 became the first Writer in Residence at London's South Bank Centre. In 1998 he was Poet in Residence for the BBC with the Windrush Project which chronicled the fiftieth anniversary of the coming of the first West Indian mass migration to Britain. He himself had joined the move to the UK in 1977 after growing up in Guyana. Those early days have stayed with him all of his life :
"My childhood in Guyana formed my consciousness. It is part of my mental landscape" he says.
That upbringing has proved a rich mine for his work. He uses its' language, he uses its' experiences. It forms the basis
of so much of his writing.
John Agard is also a popular children's writer whose titles include Get Back Pimple, Laughter is an Egg, Grandfather's Old Bruk-a-down Car, I Din Do Nothing, and We Animals Would Like a Word with
You, which won a Smarties Award (the top prize for childrens' books in the UK). A new collection of his poems for children , Points of View with Professor Peekaboo, was published in 2000.
Agard had spells as a pupil teacher, a librarian and a journalist before emigrating to the United Kingdom:
"I taught the very subjects which I did for my A levels: French, English and Latin. As a 'pupil teacher' you didn't have to be qualified. ..Then I worked as a sub editor and wrote features on the newspapers. But my interest was in poetry, and eventually I had two books of poetry published in Guyana and in 1977 I left."
He may now have lived in the United Kingdom for nearly a quarter of a century, visited over 2000 schools reading his poetry (for which he must be the busiest poet on the block), but all of John Agard's writing roots lead firmly back to the Caribbean.
                                                                         Beryl Gilroy
Beryl Gilroy is, or was, a significant figure in the literature of the UK diaspora. She died in April 2001 of a heart attack aged 76. Gilroy was a novelist, a writer of children's books, London's first black head teacher and one of Britain's most significant post-war Caribbean migrants.
Much of her novel writing taking place in the last decades of her rich life. The mid-1980s onwards marked her major creative period. Her first adult novel, Frangipani House (1986), set in Guyana, explored issues of ageing, hitherto absent in West Indian novels.
In her second, Boy Sandwich (1989), she vividly conveys the ways in which three generations of a West Indian family have been affected by life in Britain. She then began to explore the history of the Caribbean and African diaspora in the period of slavery in her novels. Steadman And Joanna (1996) was the first of these; her most recent, the as-yet unpublished -She Wore Silk, has as its central character a black woman involved in the Gordon Riots of 1780
A trained teacher in Guyana, Beryl always maintained that her decision to go for further study in England, rather than the United States, was decided by exchange rates rather than visions of Britain.
In a sense, that 1951 arrival in England meant that she had come home, for, like many of her generation, she was a colonial at heart, even if those early years in the "mother country" tested her resilience. After initially, surprisingly, facing problems in finding employment as a teacher, she taught from 1953-56 in Inner London Education Authority schools. It was a period recounted in her autobiographical Black Teacher (1976). The publisher softened her book, fearing for its sales, for it was a harsher account of the conditions of her mainly white, working-class pupils, and of the obstacles facing black teachers, than that of ER Braithwaite's better known To Sir With Love (1959).
But there were those other West Indian expatriate writers to relieve the gloom: people such as George Lamming from Barbados (whose The Emigrants was published in 1954), Samuel Selvon (The Lonely Londoners, 1956) and Andrew Salkey for whom she retained a special affection.
Gilroy felt detached to the contemporary realities of her prior West Indian home in Guyana. Having lived the majority of her adult life in Britain , Gilroy developed ties to her new home in Britain. "Caribbean writers in Britain have to deal when writing about the Caribbean with a retrospective and increasingly unrepresentative view of reality of the places they call home." She said " as they years passed my awareness of the issues became located in the new environment in Britain."
In that new 'home', she found her English husband Patrick. With their loving marriage to support her, from 1959 to 1968 - when she rejoined the ILEA - she devoted her energies to bringing up her family, but managed to fit in writing textbooks and books for children.
In 1968, she became deputy head and then head of Beckford primary school. Some of her experiences are in Black Teacher, but a sequel never appeared. In 1982, she joined London University's Institute of Education and the Ilea's Centre for Multicultural Education. This opened a new phase in her career, in which she applied her psychological knowledge to her teaching experience. Later, she got a doctorate in counselling psychology.
The death of her husband in 1975 affected her and her children deeply, but she learnt from it. For her work in education and her writing, the Institute of Education made her a fellow, and the University of North London conferred an honorary doctorate on her.
                                                                          No Flowering
The surprising facet of this diaspora is that, so far, is that the next generation has not fully flowered in print. One imperfect book 'Buxton Spice' by Oona Kempadoo does not a tradition make.