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Monday, January 09, 2006

New Amsterdam:

Ancient capital of Guyanese literature
An interview with Rex Nettleford
Stabroek News
April 6, 2003

What follows is an edited version of a paper presented at the New Amsterdam Town Hall at one of the municipality’s landmark celebrations, at the request of Mr Errol Alphonso, who was Mayor at the time.

The urban centre of New Amsterdam holds a very special place in the cultural history of Guyana and has managed, a bit more than other areas, to retain much of the atmosphere and character from the country’s historical heritage. Its name is a significant vestige of the Dutch past, which is also reflected in the common description of Berbice as ‘The Ancient County.’ This history and powerful colonial heritage became the main preoccupation of one of Guyana’s best known writers, and this is not surprising. His work has helped to define Guyanese literature and to immortalise New Amsterdam as well as the history of Berbice, but this is only one of the reasons why New Amsterdam holds such an important place in the history of Guyanese literature.

It has produced a remarkable list of major writers and is associated with a number of others who were not actually born there. This list includes many writers of national importance ranging from those, internationally celebrated, who are among Guyana’s best and most established with works included among West Indian canonical texts, to those who are important for their place in the history of Guyanese writing; from some of the nation’s literary pioneers to some of the leading contemporary authors.

History, race, romance and Mittelholzer
One of the best known is Edgar Mittelholzer who is the writer most associated with New Amsterdam. It is his work that serves best to immortalise the town, while his ethnic and mixed race background makes him almost a true representative of the place. In addition to that, Mittelholzer set out in his fiction to record history, heritage and social attitudes. This very prolific writer who was born in New Amsterdam, lived on Coburg street and was known to have published much of his own work and to walk around from door to door selling his publications. That story is often told to underline the steadfastness and perseverance of a man determined to be a writer.

But the story also relates what was a necessary occupation for one at the centre of a fledgling literature. Mittelholzer was one of those who helped to establish the foundations of Guyanese and of West Indian literature in the 1940s. His growth as a writer ran parallel to and personified the growth of the West Indian novel itself. This includes the experience of exile since, like most of the leading writers of the time, he migrated to England. His career was built around several novels, in particular, his monumental historical works such as the Kaywana series: Children of Kaywana, Kaywana Blood and Kaywana Stock as well as the highly sociological A Morning at the Office. But his best and most entertaining single novel is the haunting mystery thriller My Bones and My Flute which combines his documenting of the social, racial and class attitudes of colonial New Amsterdam with the legendary/mythical supernatural adventures of the Berbice river and the secrets of its Dutch past. In that novel, and in the autobiographical A Swarthy Boy, the kinds of racial, colour and class snobbery that characterized the colonial society while the author was growing up are illustrated while he represents himself as radical artist and social maverick in those books. In others, such as the Kaywana series and A Morning at the Office (set in Trinidad), the contemptuous attitudes to slaves and the black race in plantation society as well as the colour/class snobbery of Trinidad in his time are treated.

Mittelholzer was an extremely meticulous and organised personality and, according to critic Michael Gilkes, when he committed suicide by torching himself in England in 1965, it was the planned self-sacrificial act of a Buddhist.

He is resurrected in contemporary times through the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.

Harris of Coburg street
Sacrifice, rebirth and continuance in a Jungian life cycle are major preoccupations of the most renowned of all Guyanese writers, Wilson Harris, who, like Mittelholzer, belonged to Coburg street in New Amsterdam where he was born. Although he is famous for fiction, his earliest writings were poems and his volumes of publications in criticism, theory and philosophy which include The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination and his most recent selected essays, The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, edited by Andrew Bundy (1998) are profound and impressive. Yet, professionally, during his life in Guyana, he was a qualified land surveyor who gained much of his experience and inspiration working throughout the awesome hinterland of British Guiana.

Wilson Harris is regarded as the most original of West Indian novelists and, as critic Kathleen Reine puts it, he is unique among the world's contemporary fiction writers for his revolutionary transformation of the form of the modern novel which has remained static throughout this century. His work straddles the postcolonial and the postmodern and communicates his great vision throughout this century. It communicates his great vision through a dynamic blend of myths, cultures, history, past, present and future time. His pre-occupations are universal and cosmic and have continued in cycles since his first book, Palace of the Peacock published in 1960, three years after he moved to England where he now lives in Essex.

His first group, The Guyana Quartet, made up by Palace of the Peacock, The Whole Armour, The Secret Ladder and The Far Journey of Oudin use the Guyanese base to launch his wider concerns and his reputation increased through his many other works up to The Carnival Triology (Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal, The Four Banks of the River of Space and Jonestown). The still increasing critical attention to his work is extended over 186 publications by critics in Britain, Europe, North America, the Caribbean and Australia. This includes at least five books of collected essays and special issues of international journals dedicated to criticism of his work. This wide acclaim and great interest in Harris has to do with the levels of innovation in the narrative techniques in his fiction, which are also responsible for his reputation for being difficult. These include his success in theory and application of true inter-cultural devices and the mathematical principle of Chaos, a system of natural order and the inter-relatedness of seemingly minute, disconnected elements. His use of this theory is not surprising given his scientific background. He is an outstanding universal humanist writing out of Britain who consistently returns to specific Guyanese settings such as Sorrow Hill, Bartica and Jonestown for stimuli in his global and cosmic preoccupations.

David Dabydeen
Another New Amsterdam-born writer whose rise has been meteoric as a British Caribbean novelist and poet is David Dabydeen, who, like Harris, is established in the postcolonial, particularly in Disappearance, and the postmodern (in his latest novel, The Harlot's Progress). David Dabydeen, an academic whose work has earned him professorial status, has lived most of his live in England but slavery, the Middle Passage and the history of blacks have been his major research concerns. These have been subjects in a critical work Hogarth's Blacks, as well as The Harlot's Progress and in his poetry, in Turner and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize Winner, Slave Song.

Turner, which is his best work of poetry, extends his preoccupations into Indian indentureship as well, which is also dealt with in The Counting House (shorlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize) while the novel which most focuses New Amsterdam specifically, is The Intended, his first novel and the one that won him his first Guyana Prize. He achieved his second award with Harlot's Progress.

Yet another British-based fiction writer who was the winner of a Guyana Prize is Janice Shinebourne Lo, who went to school in New Amsterdam. Her two novels are set partially in the town and although, like Mittelholzer, she treats questions of race and ethnicity, her large interests involve change, independence, the place and progress of the woman and the politics of a society in flux, which are paramount in Time-Piece, the Best First Book of Fiction in the 1987 Guyana Prize.

The harsh ethnic and political conflicts are broached as well, but focus on them is greater in her second novel, The Last English Plantation, set in Berbice. Here Shinebourne Lo explores her own mixed race origins artistically while dealing with social change as the plantation regime is challenged and a colonial system confronts new spirits of independence. Shinebourne Lo, who originally lived in Rose Hall, Canje, is the foremost woman writer in this group, but she has joined a strong core of British Caribbean writers in London whose backgrounds and contact with European society have strengthened the rise of postcolonial literature. Following a brief journalistic career, leadership in a writers group in Georgetown and a degree at the University of Guyana, she has settled in London since the 1970s.

The various factors of race, mixtures and ethnic inter-relatedness which are personally and thematically linked to Shinebourne Lo, Harris and colonial society in New Amsterdam, are also personally related to another Guyanese writer of international acclaim. Jan Carew, who has lived for a long time in the United States where he built a career at North-Western University, is of the same racial mix as Harris, to whom he is related, and has also lived in New Amsterdam.

He has written a number of well-known poems and has been a radical political thinker with close connections to the Bishop regime in Grenada. But Carew is best known for his novels, The Wild Coast and, particularly, for Black Midas. This latter fiction explores all aspects of the culture of the porkknockers in Guyana, drawing on history, legend and local myth. A rich store of these resources has grown around the activities of these gold-diggers of the past. However, other aspects of the Guyanese heritage have concerned Carew. These include the Amerindian experience and mythology about which he has written in such poems as Tiho the Carib and his recent version of The Legend of Amalivaca (1998) and Children of the Sun.

The wide international reach of the Berbice writers and their impact in the Guyanese diaspora continues with the work of the very prolific Cyril Dabydeen who was actually born in East Canje. He is the uncle of David Dabydeen and had a very close association with New Amsterdam before moving to Canada where he still lives.

He is a poet and fiction writer who has produced collections of short stories and poems which have brought him more acclaim than his work as a novelist. Yet, he has produced a widely known novel, The Wizard Swami. Over the years, a number of his books have made the Guyana Prize shortlist. These include Islands Lovelier Than A Vision, To Monkey Jungle and another short story collection, Black Jesus.

That volume illustrates the range of his concerns about the exile of West Indians in Canada and the cross-cultural impacts of the two environments upon each other.

The first Indian writer
While Daby-deen marks the outer extremities of the contemporary writers with New Amsterdam backgrounds, the Ruhomans are outstanding examples of those who were pioneers of writing within the municipality. Among the earliest native writers is Joseph Ruhoman, a cultural activist who lived all his life in New Amsterdam. He was the author of India - The Progress of Her People at Home and Abroad and How Those in British Guiana May Improve Themselves, published in 1894 and ranked as the first publication by an Indian in the West Indies. He played an active and leading role in the cultural life, not only in his promotion of the East Indian heritage, but in a more global fashion. He was editor of a radical newspaper called The People, founded between 1900 and 1903 by HJ Shirley who was such a radical that he was sent out of the country.

Joseph Ruhoman was also sub-editor in New Amsterdam for the Argosy, a national newspaper while Peter Ruhoman edited an ‘Indian Page’ in the Daily Chronicle Sunday edition in the 1930’s. Peter, however, also published his own major text, A Centenary History of East Indians in British Guiana, and while the writings of both Ruhomans are of great historical interest, poetry written by Joseph is anthologized in an Anthology of Indian Verse compiled by Ramcharitar Lalla.

Such work transcends the New Amsterdam setting, and even though it contains items of significance to local history, it is an important factor in the writing of Guyana and the Caribbean.

And while that work belongs to the literary and cultural pioneers, another writer with New Amsterdam connections produced an outstanding novel that became a household word across the world in contemporary times.

ER Braithwaite was a contemporary of Mittelholzer and worked for a long time at the telecommunications office in the town in the 1930s. He wrote To Sir With Love, the famous novel that became the even more famous film in the 1960s with Sidney Poitier in the legendary lead role, and the yet more famous theme song by Lulu. It is the well-known story, based on personal experience, of a qualified black engineer unable to get a job because of his race, but turned out to be a successful teacher. Braithwaite also wrote a second novel about racial prejudice: A Choice of Straws.

Even in the genre of popular theatre in contemporary Guyana, a native of New Amsterdam, Michael Duff, has made a name for himself as a dramatist in Georgetown. Duff, a graduate of the University of Guyana, has been a teacher of English in Guyana and St Lucia. His particular strength as a playwright has been in his handling of farce which was evident from his first stage success, Asylum to later plays including one of his most recent, Country Girl.

The great value of the writers cited above is not to be found in their production of anything that can be overtly identified as New Amsterdam literature. Such a label runs the risk of superficiality, and the literature is stronger for its universality and the absence of homogeneity among the various authors.

They have, in their different styles and preoccupations, defined themselves; and the fact that they have rather helped to define Guyanese and West Indian literature saves New Amsterdam from parochialism and makes it significant for being a single town that has produced three Guyana Prize Winners and some of the leading West Indian and world writers.

Posted by jebratt :: Monday, January 09, 2006 :: 0 comments

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