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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Janet Almelu Naidu

Preserving our literary heritage

by Petamber Persaud

JANET Naidu’s first book of poems, WINGED HEART, published in 1999 was short-listed in the 2000 Guyana Prize for Literature competition. At that time, the shortlist in that category comprised of three entries only with John Agard winning in the best book of poetry category and Maggie Harris the best first book of poetry.

WINGED HEART was set in Guyana, the author’s birthplace, and in Canada, her adopted home, with numerous references to her ancestral home, India. It’s a collection of images drawing from the past as ‘a promise of healing in the present’.

When that book was launched in Guyana in 2000, many established writers including Paloma Mohamed and Rooplall Monar read selections from it.

Naidu is back in Guyana to promote her second book of poems, RAINWATER. This collection of 51 poems offers another look at themes of Indian Indenture from India to Guyana, the second wave of migration, exile and identity, and feminism.

The writer is back home in another capacity to relive the past with her 83-year-old mother, a journey which is labelled the ‘last’ visit by a matriarch now too frail to travel.

All of the above events have their genesis in the year 1915. That was the year when Naidu’s paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother came to Guyana from India on the same ship, S.S. Ganges.

Naidu’s mother, Chelema, was born in 1922 at Plantation Herstelling and Naidu’s father, Chinsammy, was born in 1919 at Diamond Sugar Estate, both areas on the East Bank of Demerara, Guyana. Her father loved reading and ‘kept many interesting books in his room, especially on politics and the working class people’. Janet Naidu, the seventh of eight children (four boys and four girls) grew up in Covent Garden which is actually an island, a marker of which the residents are proud.

Poet, painter, biographer, Janet Almelu Naidu was born in July 1953 in Covent Garden, East Bank Demerara, one of two known writers from that area.

She was educated at Providence Government School, Mrs. Thomas Secretarial School and at Critchlow Labour College. At the college, she completed the communication course.

As early as age 14, she started sketching. It started as she accompanied her mother who was an itinerant vendor of sweetmeats when the older woman was doing her rounds. Because of her mother’s inability to write, that is to record credit transactions, Naidu did that task on a scratch pad. It was during the lull in business, Naidu filled the time by sketching. The cover designs of both of her books were water colour drawings done by her.

At that same age, she was caught up in the pen-pal culture of the time. Many letters she created then were highly imaginative, construed to improve her image of a lowly, rural state in the eyes of her pen pals from other worlds. Those letters were also titivated with love verses. The pen pal culture opened new vistas, making them very attractive to her.

In 1973, her first two poems were published in HERITAGE TWO which also included poems by Rooplall Monar, Mahadai Das and Rajkumari Singh, and a story by the last mentioned writer. Elfrieda Bissember did art work for that book. That journal was started by Rajkumari Singh who was the first recognised East Indian woman writer in Guyana and who became the ‘surrogate and artistic mother to younger writers and artists’.

Janet Naidu started writing poetry more or less by accident. In the early 1970s, she was working as a Secretary to the American Institute for Free Labor Development located east of the home of Rajkumari Singh. Naidu was attracted by the cultural and literary and artistic offerings emanating from next door, noting especially the dramatic plays by Rajkumari Singh and the classical Indian dances by her son Gora Singh. Naidu eventual became part of the group but more as an observer than as a writer or artist. Although Naidu was encouraged to become fully involved, her mind and spirit had already left Guyana as her plans to immigrate to Canada were about to mature. The group also fizzled out and did not continue its publication. However, Rajkumari Singh continued to provide artistic offerings in her home. During Naidu's short stint with the group, she came into contact with Rooplall Monar, Guska, Mahadai Das, and Henry Mootoo.

Naidu migrated to Canada in 1975, furthering her studies in Business Administration at Ryerson Institute and English at University of Toronto, eventually gaining a degree in Political Science and Caribbean Studies.

At present, she is a human resources manager; “leading and managing ‘workplace diversity’ issues and is a strong advocate for equality and human rights”.

From her base in Canada, she’s in frequent contact with writers, artists and artistes in North America including Arnold Itwaru, Bernard Heydorn, Peter Jailall, Richard Rupnarain and Suresh Hanoman. This contact is presently evolving into a formal group of writers and artists named, Pakaraima, a mountain range in the Essequibo region of Guyana.

Janet Naidu has written a number of biographies including a delightful one on her beloved mother.

* Interview with Janet Naidu on March 27, 2006, Georgetown, Guyana

Posted by jebratt :: Saturday, April 01, 2006 :: 0 comments

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