For purposes of this review, I struggled to succinctly describe Guyana in poetic terms readily accessible to a literary audience. The land of birth of both Harrichand Itwaru and myself, Guyana is a place unique in the world, worthy of peculiar artistic attention for its history of slyly compelled immigration, unsubtle dictatorial political machinations and uneasy admixture of unrelated races unprepared for each other’s presence.
An underpopulated country of untouched jungle frontiers, overworked rice and sugar plantations, and boasting a lonely crime-ridden capital on the Caribbean shore, Guyana nevertheless benefits from the one lasting boon of its horrific imperial legacy: the English language. Distorted, melodically augmented and poeticised by its history of claustrophobic multi-ethnicity and sequestered evolution, it is the sole Anglo bastion within the South American continent.
For its unique version of Carribean Creole English, and its insistence upon clinging to the markers of Third World status –maternal morbidity, child mortality and poor quality of life– despite the opportunities offered by the richness of its soil and the zest of its people, I have decided that Guyana’s best description is, “the land that time forgot.”
It would seem that Harrichand Itwaru would share this melancholy view of our motherland, conjuring villages of neolithic paucity and brazen characters of timeless barbarity. The injustices his stories explore are of mythological simplicity, encouraging a reader’s tears as readily as do all such tales that draw from the narrative well of man’s savagery toward man. For Itwaru, though, sadness is insufficient; there must also be anger. His despondency and rage simmer and percolate beneath the surface of “Morning of Yesterday“, occasionally bursting through the calmness of words to spit anger and spite to those who would dare turn away from the ongoing tragedy that is Guyana.
Nor is his anger reserved only for those who partake of the cruelties in that nation –the rapes, beatings and murders during the race riots– but is also directed to the purveyors of Western establishment who are experientially unable to consider or comprehend the fear that has been bred into the struggling Guyanese.
Many of the stories in this collection concern Guyanese immigrants to Canada, seemingly in the 1960’s and 1970’s (when Itwaru himself arrived here). Bitterly describing experiences of racism, both subtle and not so, Itwaru exposes the willing blindness of the privileged, their deliberate inability to empathise with the stresses endured by coloured immigrants from non-Western nations. Such passages are biting and effective, though are often predictable and, some might argue, unfair. But there is no denying that instances of public disdain for immigrants do happen, though not always as blatantly as Itwaru describes.
The collection begins with “Shakti“, a tragic tale of a girl who is orphaned by racial violence and forced to endure a loveless, parentless existence that is made more unjust by the colonial establishment that prevents her voice from being heard. The anger in this story is palpable, with repeated words and phrases that pound away like beats upon a war drum:
Vague rooms. Rooms of vagueness. Doors which locked you out, locked you in, against which you locked yourself out, you locked yourself in...
The battle rhythm remains strong into subsequent stories, as if Itwaru has crafted a symphony of percussive refrains connected by a slowly tapering thump of rage. The drum beating slows at the end, ushering in the final two refrains with a steady, comfortable beat devoid of the raw rage that had earlier syncopated “Shakti“. Yet memory of that choler persists, and can be heard in the distance behind the closing stories of “Papa” and “Flight“.
Not surprisingly, the plodding beat of the drum manifests as genuine percussion in “Ball”, a story of how a young boy who, to retrieve his ball, must enter a Hindu temple whose non-Christian temperament and foreboding drums cause him to be afraid.
Shakti, the opening heroine’s name, is a Sanskrit word alluding to female puissance. This is a well buried theme that hums throughout the collection, and occasionally manages to be perceived through the layers of unapologetic bold narrative: the feminine ancientness of the Indo-Guyanese subcontinental heritage supplanted by the masculine violence of modernity. In “Papa“, the collection’s unblemished jewel, a village man proclaims himself to be a Mahant, a religious position from ancient Dravidian tradition, and must face a white-skinned Christian pastor to protect his ancient philosophy from the newer, stronger religion.
Itwaru writes with unhesitating emotion and boundless fury. Indeed, there may be a tendency in some circles to dismiss his words as those of a blinded activist ideologue. His examples are sometimes overly expository, hackneyed and unsubtle, as is this description of Shakti’s transformation from timid victim to assertive independence:
No more, she seethed, no more and she began to shake in a rage she could no longer contain. This man had hit her too many times before, too many times. He had assaulted her at his whim because she disagreed with his views, would not bend to his way. This was how he "taught." But while she might or might not be correct in her opinions, he certainly had no right to inflict his cruelty on her.
Itwaru’s depictions of Canadian racism are equally as unsubtle, probably preventing an unconscious racist from recognising himself in these scenarios. But for individuals who have experienced such things, it is not so unbelievable that a policeman would harass a coloured man simply for jaywalking, as happens in “Ram: Psychiatric Attendant“.
Itwaru’s stories, while often blunt-fisted and monochrome in their description of people who commit injustices, are nevertheless driven by a kernel of truth that even the most earnest apologists are compelled to acknowledge and respect. He is, after all, perhaps alone as an artist willing to expose the very specific tragedies of this one nation and its confluence with the West.
Wisely, “Morning of Yesterday” ends on two strong notes. “Flight” tells of a Guyanese man’s uninformed optimism as he migrates to Canada, while “Papa” is perhaps the most lingering and living of the tales. The latter’s fury does not manifest as fiery words or violent acts, but rather through the dignified sagacity of a village man pitting his ancient religious beliefs against those of a Christian pastor. When the pastor tells of all men having been born in sin, our protagonist responds with haughty melancholy that he was in fact conceived in love. It is most telling that the village man’s clear philosophic supremacy over the Western representative was met only with disdain from his family and fellow villagers, testament to the self-hatred and shame that permeate colonial societies. A more poignant, subtle and potent description of Guyana’s historical conflict cannot be imagined.
In the end, “Morning of Yesterday” describes a desperate people struggling to escape the land that time forgot, to compromise their stunted ancientness with the worst that modernity has to offer.