The importance of Stephanie Bowry’s work in Guyana’s oral literature

The virtues, the value, the merits and the importance of the work of Stephanie Bowry are yet unsung. But her work has a place in the matrix of Guyana’s literary fabric, particularly as it stands between the oral and the scribal, linking them, drawing from both, having the characteristics of both, while helping the oral to survive. Among other things, her work may be placed in the category of popular literature.

There is quite a corpus of Guyanese popular literature. Even within that, there are different forms, including some that challenge categorisation. One may think of the comic book publications of Barrington Braithwaite, but there are really many other things. When one considers the weight of myth, folklore, history and research that they draw on, one may think that “popular literature” is not an accurate summation. Braithwaite has become quite intensely academic as his volumes come out – the Jaguar series, Legend of the Silk Cotton Tree, his history of the Pork-Knockers, and his complex study of Anancy. We pause over Braithwaite because he represents serious research and storytelling published in a popular form – comic books.

Stephanie Bowry reminds us of that since she also deals in folklore and tradition – researched material put over in a popular form of amusing stories.

Another form of popular literature is the novel that accounts for most of this category of literature. Most of them are thrillers. One that was published more than 20 years ago seems to cross borders.  The Return of the Half Caste (self published 1992) by Lewiz Alyan (pseudonym used by Betty Lewis) is a popular thriller because of its very sensational narrative and wanton sexuality. Yet it provides a wealth of knowledge of diamond mining in Guyana’s interior as well as deep interest in the occult. It is set in an Amerindian world revealing much of its cosmos but more about sensational spirituality myths and practices. It is Gothic, just like another borderline novel published more than a decade later – The Nine Ghosts of Old Hague House, set in the village of Hague in West Coast Demerara with intriguing tales of crosses between Hindu related spirituality and dark Gothic supernatural involvements; deep in its research while sensational and popular in its appeal.

Stephanie Bowry
Stephanie Bowry

Others are plainly popular novels. Their appeal is steeped in sex and high adventure, mostly concerning the Guyana military. Godfrey Wray’s Beyond Revenge is also beyond belief as it takes its readers deep inside the GDF. However it makes little pretence about reality since its interest is in espionage, thrills and sensation – the ingredients of a popular novel. Coup D’Etat by Theodore J Raffudeen (2008) is equally highly fictional set in a Georgetown governed by a succession of military dictators. It deals in sex, seizures of power and violence in the manner of the usual popular sensational fiction. Also based on the GDF is The February 23 Coup by Chaitram Singh, an attempt by army officers to overthrow Forbes Burnham. It is another popular narrative looking into discontent in the Burnham era.

Yet another type includes short novels by Roopnandan Singh – Wild Maami (1995) and Eve, which both represent Singh’s early work in fiction. Although he tries to show people hitting back at “a callous, philistine society” the narratives are popular, as are their excursions into sensuality and their flirtation with the popular form.

Stephanie Bowry, who lives in New Amsterdam, is a storyteller, folklorist and poet. Her poems are of the rhythmic performance variety, written in a particular way because she is very well known for reciting them in public performances. She has been appearing in that capacity as a performer of her work for a long time, known in both Georgetown and New Amsterdam. She is also known for her wide knowledge of Guyanese proverbs and folklore, about which she has accumulated a large store of information.

Her fame is also widespread as a story teller. She has published volumes of her work which include several short stories.  They are all self published.  True-True Story Volume 1 (December, 2011); True-True Story Volume 2 (2012); True-True Story Volume 3 (October, 2014); and Lilawattie (2015).

They are of interest for several reasons. They form a part of the national corpus of popular literature, but they have particular value. They belong to a storytelling tradition. They are short stories with oral qualities and characteristics of orality. They seem written to be told, while at the same time being very readable. They are lively and entertaining and manage to fully capture the environments in which they are set. They capture New Amsterdam, its suburbs and outskirts, villages on the Corentyne – like Fyrish in very memorable fashion. This sense of place is not divorced from one of the main factors that give value to the stories – the fact that several of them are based on research into folklore, spirituality, history and experiences.

Bowry has collected folklore. One very prevalent type of story that keeps reappearing in Guyana’s oral literature is the oral narratives that may be called personal testimonies. The tellers of these tales will always be convincing the audience that these are true experiences and not fiction. They will include different fashions of evidence in the narratives to establish their veracity. Bowry has many tales of this type that she has recorded in her volumes. She explains that they are based on fact and, while they are her property as short stories, she did not make them up.

Within her arsenal is the placement of the story in a particular place at a particular time. Prominent among these is the story of the “cursed” village of Fyrish, which comes alive in the narrative as a village “cursed” with too much flooding. There is a strong sense of place and history as she narrates the events that occurred – “it could have been in the 1920s” – a strategy used by a narrator who prefers to avoid claiming to be too precise. In other tales, the strategy changes – “it was in the year of Our Lord 1934”. The story of an English missionary who put the curse of the flood on the village is narrated, supposedly based on oral history.

There are many tales of spiritual and supernatural experiences. These too, are prevalent in the oral narratives and the personal testimonies that abound in Guyanese oral literature. A very good example is the story of a man called “Three Bees” (or “Three B’s”) who was lucky enough to gain considerable wealth because he was able to have an encounter with a spirit from the age of the Dutch and successfully survive it. The “Dutchman Tales” are another category in the testimonies and oral folk narratives that Bowry so skillfully appropriates in her short stories.

There are many stories about Dutch planters leaving pots of gold and other stores of wealth secretly buried with a spirit to guard it over the centuries. The spirit, or the Dutchman himself, will offer it to selected persons. But they have to pass tests or make sacrifices to get it.

Bowry tells a story of Three Bees who was able to pass the horrifying tests with the help of a friendly spirit. Her narrative is full of the art of suspense. Added to that is the way the hero wins the total sympathy of the audience which helps the reader to hang onto his experiences and his emotions, wishing that he would succeed. The tale ends happily since he passes tests and ends up with the Dutch wealth.

Others include tales from slavery about how slaves murder cruel planters and manage to escape detection and punishment. Bowry succeeds in using different narrative techniques to make the tales suspenseful and sometimes to give them very interesting and surprising twists in the end.  All of these she claims are true stories revealed by the slaves who were involved and passed down through generations, but generally kept secret.

The stories are lively and often very conversational. Their oral quality often lies in the fact that the narrators have a dramatic speaking voice. They talk to the audience whether the story is first person or third person omniscience. The language is sometimes laced with clichés, sometimes with common quotations, but always true to the various personae. Bowry also possesses the gift of wit, generously dished out. Humour is there in abundance as well. Many stories are hilarious as the narrative voices have a sense of humour.

An example of Bowry’s use of history, legend or myth is the story of Lilawattie. This is the tale of a ritual murder. A group of spiritualists lure a girl called Lilawattie into a house in Stanleytown, New Amsterdam, where she is sacrificed as a means for the attainment of wealth.  They are, however, found out and brought to justice. It was said to be quite a famous murder trial in New Amsterdam, and to cement it in history, it is said that it was the first murder case for the young attorney Forbes Burnham.

All these characteristics help to place the work of Bowry in Guyanese popular literature and ally it with the country’s oral literature.

 

 

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