A novel shifting between realism and absurdism

The winning books in The Guyana Prize for Literature 2010 which were announced at the awards ceremony on September 1, make a statement about where Guyanese and Caribbean literature are today.  Important developments and facts about the state of the literature are reflected in the shortlists, but may be discerned even when it comes down to the few titles that won the Prizes.  In addition to that, they also evoke significant observations about the Guyana Prize itself.

There were three major Guyanese novelists on the Best Fiction shortlist, out of which David Dabydeen emerged as the winner with Molly and the Muslim Stick  (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2008).  This fixes Dabydeen in a place that he has been occupying for many years since he rose to become not only a leading Guyanese novelist and poet, but one of the foremost writers and academics in Great Britain.  But Dabydeen grew up with the Guyana Prize.  While he was already the winner of the Commonwealth Prize with his first book of poetry, Slave Song (1986), he moved into prominence after winning the Guyana Prize in 1992 with his first novel, The Intended  (Secker and Warburg, 1992).  He beat a small field of very strong writers including former Guyana Prize Winner Jan Lowe Shinebourne and Karen King-Aribisala, who has won the Africa Region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Of Dabydeen’s winning book, the Jury declares:  “Molly and the Muslim Stick is a novel that shifts between realism and absurdism. The eponymous English heroine is raised in grim Lancashire of the 1930s. Subjected to horrific sexual abuse by her father and his friends and psychologically damaged and teetering on madness, she finds solace in a talking Muslim walking-stick and in Om, an illegal Amerindian from British Guiana, whom she follows back to the Demerara jungle, where she learns to reject her victimhood and looks to the future with hope.”

Dabydeen interweaves narrative and fictive styles to communicate concerns which enrich this tale of a broken Accrington girl, so abused and battered, she needed the healing that she eventually receives through various agents in the novel.  It is set in England in the years leading up to World War II against a backdrop of British and international political affairs, racism, anti-Semitism and a pervading sense of an unkind world.  These feature prominently along with the realism, but it is an entirely changed world when the heroine travels to Guyana in search of Om, who is Amerindian but carries a name with Hindu resonance and sense of wholeness, harmony and healing.  The way this “Om” is introduced and interwoven is reminiscent of the concepts that also enrich Dabydeen’s best work of poetry to date, the long poem Turner (Cape, 1994).

Dr David Dabydeen (Gina)

It is a novel about redemption which the heroine finds in the Guyanese rainforest and riverain setting, a pristine environment in contrast to the hostility of Accrington and Coventry. This quest for redemption accounts for Dabydeen’s mix of narrative and fictive styles, because he begins with a fairy tale frame of “once upon a time,” but contradictorily states a very specific date and time “Wednesday 26th October 1933,” at night.  There is horror and the grotesque, there is the fairytale element of the 15-year-old heroine abused by wicked characters and rescued by a talking walking stick, animals of the fable, and an almost magical character who Om turns out to be.  All of this is justified in Dabydeen’s strange mix of styles, because in the realistic account, Om is an object of racism in the parochial English community, an illegal alien.  According to the fairytale he is the magical character who helps to bring about her redemption.

Similarly, the personified stick is given to her by her ‘crooked stepfather,’ the Jew Harold, as a prop because of her physical injury.  But in the magical elements of the tale, it becomes more than that.  It becomes a muslim stick as Dabydeen introduces religious/political conflicts like the Suez Canal, the Jewish-Islamic problem, the contemporary notion of Islamic villainy and anti-Semitism.  The stick becomes a spiritual agent, a psychological prop that helps to redeem her and at the end of the novel when she is enveloped in a womb-like environment of rebirth on the Guyanese river, the stick is sprouting new green leaves.  Cut from the trees to become a walking stick, it returns to the rainforest to grow as a tree again in a wholesome, uncorrupted environment.

Also of related interest are Dabydeen’s intertextual engagements.  Again, it is similar to his interrogation of the English landscape painter Turner, and his work Slave Ship in the poem named after him, Turner.  In Molly, there are perplexing references to the Moor, to Shylock, to Harold as an evil hook-nosed Jewish stereotype, and resonances of Wilson Harris.  His shift from England to the Guyanese rainforest is a virtual homage to Harris as he takes his wronged characters into a Harrisian world with a narrative style that becomes involved in magical realism, absurdism and the fairytale. The heroine undergoes rituals of purification among the Amerindians and experiences rebirth.

The book is not easy to fathom and demonstrates the range of interests and preoccupations that now exist among the various writers of Guyanese fiction.

Similarly in drama, the winning play demonstrates just how much Guyanese drama has long ago come of age, and this status is reflected in the Guyana Prize. The shortlist included a newcomer to Guyanese writing, but two newcomers to Guyanese drama.  Janice Imhoff appears in the literature for the first time, while Grace Nichols is a past Prize winner in Poetry, now featuring in drama as she produces a strong poetic piece in a re-write of the Spanish Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Harold Bascom has won the Guyana Prize for Drama before.
Of his winning play for 2010, the Jury has this to say: “Harold Bascom’s Blank Document is a radio drama that explores interwoven themes of lesbianism, Guyanese migration, family relationship, and creative writing. The protagonist, a past winner of the Guyana Prize, has a badly kept personal secret, which, when exposed, forces her to migrate to the US, where, ostracized and depressed, her life becomes “a blank document,” a state from which she eventually recovers after a cathartic experience.”

She virtually learns to write again only after her life regains meaning and she is able to empathise with others.  Throughout the play she tries to write but cannot produce anything because she fails to convince herself that anything she writes would be of value and would be of any interest or relevance to anyone.  As the drama progresses, Bascom intertwines the heroine’s life with those of others in New Jersey, her adopted home after her flight from Guyana.  After so-called “disgrace” and ostracism by members of her family when her lesbianism is discovered, she was threatened by obscurity after the fame and glory of her winning the Guyana Prize.

The playwright uses this element of plot to turn his work into a statement about creative writing.  The blank document that the heroine faces every time she sits down in vain to write is a reflection of how she sees her own life.  The page begins to fill when she learns the value of the experience of others and is basically able to move outside of herself.  It is also a story about lesbianism; a sympathetic account about real humans told in bold images of eroticism.  It is also about Caribbean migration to the USA, and links Guyana to that country as well as to the West Indian islands.
That Bascom could do this using the genre of the radio play makes a statement about his developed skills, because the drama is very correctly written in its chosen form, perhaps too neat as some of the judges felt. There is also a touch of deus ex machina at the end.  But Guyanese dramatists have moved out of any narrow confines to explore themes, preoccupations, forms that are now unlimited and universal.

The other elements relevant to this discussion will need to be examined in more detailed discussion of The Journey to Le Repentir (UK: Peepal Tree, 2009) by Mark McWatt.  It is significant that this book won the Guyana Prize for Poetry 2010 as well as the first Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award 2010.  Important discussions about women in Caribbean fiction and the place of Haiti in this inaugural Caribbean Prize will also require a discussion of Myriam JA Chancy’s  The Loneliness of Angels  (Peepal Tree, 2010) which won the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award for Fiction 2010.

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