The importance of the Amerindian heritage to the literature of Guyana has been articulated with specific reference to the fact that what is normally referred to as Guyanese literature includes Amerindian folk tales. In discussing this, we also pointed out that despite the importance of these tales they are not included in the usual accounts of the national literature. This omission persists in spite of the fact that there are several publications of volumes of the tales, myths and legends that have been collected and recorded.
Guyanese literature includes the scribal which is in the mainstream, and the novels, short stories, poems and plays, as well as the oral which includes the folk tales, folk songs, myths, proverbs and traditional speech acts in addition to many compositions of calypso and chutney. However, it has been the norm to consider only the scribal. Yet the inclusion of oral literature and contributions from the contemporary popular forms such as calypso, folk songs, dub, and DJ in Caribbean literature has long been established. Two outstanding volumes with discussions of the case for this inclusion are Paula Burnett’s anthology of Caribbean Verse (Heinemann, 1986) and Stewart Brown, Mervyn Morris and Gordon Rohlehr’s collection Voiceprint (Longman, 1989).
Within Guyanese literature, then, is what may be termed Amerindian literature, which fortifies it. Guyanese Amer-indian literature may start with the writing outside of the creative literature which includes the several publications by Everard im Thurn, Among the Indians of Guiana, (1883), Walter Roth, and the contemporary documents by Janette Bulkan, Walter Edwards and others. In this context, they are particularly relevant because of their discussions of the Amerindian mythology and cultural traditions. We are in fact indebted to the nineteenth and early twentieth century writers for documentation of mythology, cultural traditions, ethno-botany, ethno-medicine and belief systems. It is these that contain the cosmic visions that create the literature. This debt is owed despite the negative remarks and disparaging attitudes included in Hilhouse (who ironically fought against colonial authority on behalf of the Amerindians), Roth, and im Thurn.
Then there is the creative literature of which the folk tales, myths and legends are a part. In addition to their existence in their own right, these stories have a powerful influence on the quality of the fiction and poetry and carry with them the ethos that informs Guyanese Amerindian literature. This Amerindian literature contains the work of writers who belong to the ethnic community, but most of it is by other Guyanese writers who are influenced, inspired or otherwise interested. There is a strong corpus of poetry and fiction which draws on Amerindian traditions and/or reflects their cultural influence.
Among the strongest in this group is the novel The Ventriloquist’s Tale by fiction writer Pauline Melville who has Amer-indian ancestry and a great part of whose consciousness is steeped in the culture of the Rupununi. The novel is rooted in that culture and its ancient ancestral echoes and is perhaps the most thorough interrogation of the Amerindian world in Guyanese fiction. It is a tragedy based on the closed, intrusive nature of that world and its people and the problems arising from a confrontation between that existence and the outer western society.
The novel raises a question which it deliberately leaves ambiguous concerning the virtues or otherwise of the opening up of that world to make contact with the wider society. It remains uncertain at the end of the novel as to whether the tragic outcome was caused by the incestuous nature of a closed, inward-looking society or by the superior ignorance and exploitative intrusions of the western society which does not understand Amerindian culture.
Melville’s tale is, of course, more complex than just that, since it takes on a range of other concerns. It delves deep into the ancient roots of the indigenous culture, drawing on mythology and legends, while also engaging Brazilian legends. She experiments in the early part of the novel with the narrative voice of the ventriloquist hunter who inhabits the persona of a kanaima figure capable of shape-shifting, and who is at one with the rainforest environment. It then continues with a delving into cosmology and legends, even including a satirical deriding of English writer Evelyn Waugh who appears as a character (himself) in the interior based on historical evidence.
The other fiction writer whose engagement with Amerindian in the interior rainforest environment is Wilson Harris, who does it in different ways through a variety of novels. The first remarkable feature of this also very thorough engagement is found in the timeless Palace of the Peacock, Harris’s first novel that has not ceased to be a main reference point since its appearance in 1960. It is one of the most enduring of novels in West Indian literature for which it is an extremely important work. It is based on an exploitative journey of conquest upriver by a boat crew led by a man of European extraction, to an interior Guyanese mission inhabited by Amerindians. It resonates with a revisit of the Elizabethan imperialist explorations and with a story of rebirth in which the upriver destination made by a party of mixed racial origins ends up finding rebirth and a new existence, rising Phoenix-like out of a world of strife in which they had destroyed themselves.
Harris engages the landscape which changes shape and manifests as human characters or as rivers, trees and waterfalls. It is a kanaima-like quality which Harris revisits in another much later work, The Four Banks of the River of Space in which a character appears bearing the name of the well-known Amerindian skilled hunter of animals and men, the assassin, hunter and spirit who changes shape between man and animal, human and forest. In extraordinarily original fashion Harris uses these fictional devices to draw attention to mankind’s dangerous self-destruction repeated through periods of history and through different masks.
Other novelists exploit the exoticism and mystery that are possible subjects in the Amerindian mythical and spiritual environment. It offers itself to sensational treatment and gets it in a minor novel by an otherwise unknown writer who published under the pseudonym Lewiz Alyan. Alyan’s The Return of the Half-Caste follows the son of a Englishman and an Amerindian woman on his return to the community characterized by wild sexuality, the occult and intriguing spirituality in which he was born. The novel is at once Gothic, sensational and popular. The author is obviously very well informed about diamond mining and uses that to lead readers into unending adventures into mining, sex and confrontations between spirits. But apart from the realistic insights into diamond mining, the story fails to convince because of its racy excesses and cultural practices that seem beyond belief.
This kind of novel has not succeeded in growing into a category contributed to by many others, and is almost alone as a type. What is more established are works by Guyanese writers which use Amerindian myths as plot. While this is a widespread practice among the poets, leading established writer Jan Carew extended his interest in porkknockers’ legends into those of the Amerindians. His work of fiction The Coming of Amalivaca (Guyana Book Foundation, 1998), recounts the story of the hero-demigod Amalivaca who was responsible for good works among the Amerindians, some to the point of miracles.
He is supposed to be responsible for making the Pomeroon River flow in two directions at the same time. While one half of the river is flowing up-stream, the other half goes counter to that and moves downstream simultaneously. But we are to be convinced that Amalivaca was not mythical fiction, but a man who existed, and the tales about him include references to actual historical evidence and marks in the landscape to prove that he did walk on earth.
That is one way in which the mythology and the world vision of the people have fed their literature. And there is much more of this in the poetry because several Guyanese poets have either rewritten these myths and legends or used them as central subject. This has contributed a great deal to Guyanese literature, especially those other poets who have produced a powerful metaphysical poetry in which they engage the landscape and the physical habitat of the Amerindians.