Usually it’s clear where I’m going when I start off one of these columns, but sometimes I start out one place which leads to somewhere else; today is one of the latter.
I’m starting out by telling you of an annual comedy revue I wrote every year for almost 20 years when I lived in the Cayman Islands. It was mixture of things – it was called “Rundown” which is the Cayman equivalent of metagee – and I wrote the entire script and all the music; Henry Muttoo was the director and set-designer of all 20 shows.
Rundown was a combination of comedy skits, two-handers, monologues, impersonations, and a handful of original songs, and while it was a relatively small cast for a revue – 9 or 10 actors – it was a gifted group, with various nationalities. The material (pardon the self-praise) was well written; I would labour long hours over it. Also, the show benefitted greatly from Henry’s talent as a director – essentially he moulded Rundown, during long hours as well, exhibiting more patience with the actors than I possessed, into the very polished entertainment piece it became.
It was an instant hit with the Caymanians – it remained so until the last show I wrote in 2008 – and the major part of that success was that it drew totally on incidents and aspects and personalities and issues pertaining specifically to Caymanian life. Indeed, the show would be largely incomprehensible to a non-Caymanian audience anywhere.
And that’s my first point: the writer of Rundown could only be someone who had been continuously imbedded in Caymanian society for many years, as I had been, because only then would he/she know enough of the minutiae of life there to be able to reflect it back to the society. Without that long education, the writer would be in trouble: your audience would spot things you got wrong, things you misrepresented, things you misunderstood, and the comedy would fall flat. Not just for a comedy show, but for any intention you may pick, you can never understand the deeper truer workings of any society unless you have been continuously immersed in it for many, many years; you would have missed many of the subtle threads that make up the whole fabric.
And from there, the somewhere else I’m going is this:
I have seen letters and heard comments by resident Guyanese making the assertion – “folks outside don’t understand Guyana” – and I used to think they were wrong. However, living here again, after almost two years, I have to come see that they are right. Living outside you cannot possibly know the full picture; it’s too detailed; too complicated; too interwoven; in too much flux. You can only get it from constant exposure over extended time; you need total and extended immersion.
With the best of intentions, with all the devotion you can muster, with daily attention to the Guyanese media, with emails to friends, if you live away you’re missing small but critical details. You may think you get it by reading widely, as I did, and by talking to friends here by phone or email as I did, and by visiting for a couple of weeks once or twice a year, as I did, but in fact you don’t, as I see now I didn’t. You are missing the scores, the hundreds, even thousands of bits of information, off the radar, that ultimately come to you on current issues only when you live here, round the clock, for years. In Guyanese lexicon, you are missing the fine fine.
Here’s a small example: A visiting friend said to me last week, “Why don’t they just clear the damn garbage; it should be simple.” But living here, you know what he doesn’t. You know there are several overlapping government agencies involved, and turf comes into play; there are different political agendas clashing; you know that there are certain wheels turning in this economy, pertaining to that garbage, that would not otherwise turn; you know there are several prominent personalities each trying to hold sway; you know which of the various players is connected to which; you know the family story; you know party politics is in the way and why; you know funding is a nightmare; you know our canal system is in ruin; you know the Guyanese disposition to litter has changed, etc. This week driving behind a minibus in Kingston, I saw a beer bottle come flying out the window and shatter into pieces on the pavement – middle of the day. That’s a vignette you’re missing if you don’t live here; one that gives you a chilling insight into the tangled litter problem. It’s a moment, but a telling moment, and that insight doesn’t reach you living outside. As my coconut vendor put it, “Dem livin’ in New York; dem ain livin hay.”
This is not peculiar to Guyana; it is true of any country on earth.
The turbulent picture of any culture is a virtual kaleidoscope of influences and inputs and behaviours and incidents and personalities, and all of those, and scores of others I don’t have space to mention, are impacting on the surrounding society. And the impacts range from the obvious to the subtle, from the crystal clear to the puzzling, from the demented to the spiritual, and – here’s the nexus – they are in constant flux; they are changing around you. Living here you absorb these dynamic impacts as a matter of course, so that you always have the current awareness; you’re in tune with the current concerns; you know the names of the current players and the locations of the current skeletons, and the current pressures and changes. If you move away from it for a few weeks and come back, you’re still in touch, but if you stay away for a number of years, you’re coming back to a place that has transmuted around you. In effect, an evolution has occurred on scores of levels and has left you “unable to understand”.
And, on the matter of understanding, it is only when you’ve been living here again for at least a couple of years that you begin to see where the shifts have taken place. They are the subtle gradations and colours of a culture, that are very difficult to decipher at first, that you gradually absorb almost subconsciously over time, bit by bit, until one day you realize you’re beginning to see things that were not visible to you before; the seemingly simple is now startlingly complex. Shapes appear where there was fog before, and clarity replaces the haze. You’ve gotten into the fine fine.
Without that sustained exposure, you don’t get to that clarity. You can’t get it.
It follows that the long-time residents of the diaspora who make impassioned pronouncements about situations in Guyana are often, unknowingly, laboring under this impediment: they simply don’t have all the information; they don’t know the “fine fine”. They may be well-intentioned in their declarations, and they may be adamant that they know Guyana, but, in fact, at the deeper level they do not.
I put it more directly: If you’re a Guyanese living, for example, in Toronto for 10 to 15 years or more, although Guyana may be lodged in your heart, the place you really know best now is Toronto. Think about that; you will see it’s true.
If you’ve been living away for a long time, please understand that I am not denying you the right to make comments about your birthplace. In that process, however, if a home-based Guyanese should at some point say to you, “You don’t really understand Guyana, boy”, you should take heed. He’s not saying you’re stupid; he’s simply saying you don’t know all the fine fine. He’s right. You don’t.