Going home: an act of remembrance
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
March 9, 2003
(Deryck Bernard Going Home and Other Tales, London: Macmillan, 2002)
A sense of place, belonging, identity and self discovery is to be found in some of the recent Guyanese literature. These preoccupations seem to have deepened in some of the new fiction following the appearance of a number of novels and short story collections which explored politics, ethnic concerns and exile.
During the 1990s, after a somewhat tentative start, fictional accounts of the oppressive politics of the 1970s and eighties emerged. There was also a rise in novels articulating Guyana’s East Indian ethos and a strengthening in the exploration of myth. Myth had been a preoccupation of Wilson Harris for a long time, but other writers such as Pauline Melville developed an interest in the deployment of its rich potential. This interest, which had been evident in some of her stories in Shape-shifter, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book winner in 1991, developed into an intricate masterpiece, The Ventriloquist’s Tale, which was both a Guyana Prize and a Whitbread Prize winner in 1998. Most recently, the focus on Amerindian myth widened with tales retold by Jan Carew and, in 2002, the appearance of Andrew Jefferson-Miles’ The Timeherian.
Exile in its several forms continued, particularly among Guyanese writers in Canada, including Arnold Itwaru, (Home and Back, 2002) and Cyril Dabydeen (My Brahmin Days, 2002). But particularly striking were the tensions between the concepts of home and exile in two short story collections, Ruel Johnson’s Ariadne and Other Stories (winner of The Guyana Prize Best First Book Winner) and Deryck Bernard’s Going Home and Other Tales (shortlisted for the same Prize). Johnson articulated these tensions, while Bernard overturned a different side of myth, transforming memory into legend, into fiction.
Several writers attempting to do what Bernard does underestimate the demands of the short story, becoming too satisfied with the preservation of remembered childhood place, character or incident and forgetting to put in the extra work necessary to shape them into fiction. This was the plight of Barbadian dramatist Cynthia Wilson, whose own first collection of tales about growing up in the colonial West Indies was published in 2001. Bernard does for a later generation of Guyanese what Wilson does for Barbados and the islands, well rescued from the production of mere memoirs by a more accomplished handling of fiction.
Yet, in some pieces, the pitfall of incompleteness threatens, mainly because he occasionally fails to tie up the narrative with a satisfactory ending, which would give a reader greater satisfaction and fortify the experience with meaning. Bernard captures the processes of socialization, the manners, the idiosyncrasies and the morality of the times past, but in those tales where the ending is weak, he does not get very far beyond that in achievement. For example, in one monologue, a woman looks forward to the return to the community of her son who has successfully completed his studies. However, her joy and forthcoming celebration are inflated by boasts about her good fortune, which she looks forward to lording over her neighbours and using as a weapon of vengeance against her enemies. The persona is a recognizeable character, colourfully created sometimes in good humour, communicating the truth of the existence and behaviour of such mothers, but the piece is linear because it does not move beyond the gloating.
In contrast to that narrative, is another about an academically gifted son of the community, this time told by the boy, himself. He, too, goes away to study and is the pride and joy of aunts, grandmothers and other relatives. He picks up the story at the point at which he is, alas, losing interest and flagging in his academic pursuits for various reasons not excluding a growing interest in women. The youth, however, is quite literally dragged and rescued from the dusty road to failure by the town crier, one of the legendary characters of the community, who remains indelible in his memory. Ironically, this rescue takes place while he is engaged in a fight over a woman with one of the village louts; the crier hauls him off the ground, shakes some sense into him, with reminders of what is expected of him, i.e., diligent focus on his future career.
Primarily, Bernard is interested in preserving the memory of this character and his ancient occupation of town crier, walking round the village with a gong, shouting death announcements and passing on important information including the latest gossip. But the story is one of the best in the book because of the skill with which Bernard subtly integrates description of the legendary crier, a quarrel with his family over the neglect of his books and the chance encounter with the girl who causes the fight.
The piece de resistance, however, is the ending. After being admonished by the town crier, a character by whom he has always been fascinated, the narrator is inspired to a highly successful return to his books. The colourful object of his boyhood admiration is therefore the unlikely source of his new motivation, but he ends by saying that for years afterwards, he perpetuates the hypocrisy of repeating what his aunt and grandmother like to say themselves - that he owes it all to them.
Another successful tale is the title story, Going Home. It finds considerable strength in being sensitively narrated and is especially moving. Plot and characterization are effectively handled in a story about every porkknocker’s dream: going home rich after an eternity in the gold fields of the interior. It balances pathos with triumph, even managing laughter in what is, above all, a chastening experience of tragedy and perseverance, lending to the book, not only variety, but artistic strength.
A consciousness of place, community and tradition pervades these stories in a narrative style that is neat, unassuming and unencumbered by pretensions. It is quite a promising first collection by a new writer already well established in other careers. By profession, Deryck Bernard is a geographer, a senior academic whose previous writing has been the output of research and scholarship.
He is currently Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Guyana, but has served his country as Minister of Education and Member of Parliament. As long as he has been anything else he has been a musician - guitarist, singer, songwriter and conductor - who has worked in the theatre. He is a member of the Woodside Choir and founder of Korokwa, a choral group specializing in folk music, already with a CD of Guyanese folk songs published in 2001.
‘Korokwa’ is an Amerindian word meaning ‘remembering’ and the group’s aim is to preserve a fading folk music tradition through collection, arrangement and performance. It is this same sense of preservation that seems to have moved Bernard into fiction. His stories aim to immortalize the community in which he grew up along with its people and traditions. Although this intention occasionally becomes obvious and intrusive, retarding the artistic accomplishment, Bernard has generally succeeded in shaping most of the selections with a readable and controlled prose, commanding both humour and pathos.
The book makes a significant statement, too, about local Guyanese writers and publishing. While the debate continues about whether these local writers are disadvantaged and bereft of opportunities to get their work published, both Bernard and Harold Bascom have had books published by major houses while still living in Georgetown. Bascom’s novel, Apata (shortlisted for the Guyana Prize in 1987), was released by Heinemann long before he left Guyana, while Macmillan has published Bernard.
Going Home and Other Tales is available at bookstores in Goergetown.