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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

Lawrence Aje
Thomas Lacroix
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Remembering Rose Hall and Beyond

Rose Hall1

Janice Lowe Shinebourne

Texte intégral

  • 1 This personal essay was written for the Rose Hall Panel held at Senate House during the 3G confere (...)

1It is very difficult for me to explain what Rose Hall means to me. I have prepared a few different versions for this panel because I am unsure what is the best simplest way to explain my attachment to Rose Hall, which is very deep and strong. The proof of this is in my writing. I have written 4 novels to date, now working on the 5th. And in every novel, Rose Hall has been the major influence, it has been the setting and an integral part of the major theme in my work which is: how the colonial and postcolonial phases have affected Guyana. Rose Hall estate being a sugar estate I see it as an integral part of Guyana because I see the people of Guyana as having their origins in the sugar estate. I see myself as a product of the sugar estate. I think of most Guyanese [apart from the Amerindians] as being a product of the sugar estate because our ancestors, whether African or Indian or Chinese or Portuguese, were brought here to work on the sugar estates. This is our one common denominator–the sugar estate is in our DNA. Yet we grew up not knowing this. Our colonial education in B.G did not teach us our history. We were not taught about African slavery, or Indian or Chinese or Portuguese indentureship. We were not taught about where we came from and who we were, how British Guiana evolved, who we were. We had no way of identifying who we were, so we invented racial stereotypes: Black people, Coolie, Chinee and Putagee and Duglah people–one dimensional cardboard cut outs of each other that has prevented us really knowing each other.

2When I first made an appearance as a published writer in the mid 80s, no one knew who I was, where I came from and what I was writing about. I think literary people first took notice of me when my short story, ‘The Bridge’, appeared in Ken Ramchand’s Best West Indian Stories in 1982. A photo of me accompanied this story, there I was, the only woman along with Jean Rhys among a mainly male collection of established writers. I know from the grapevine that this made quite an impact and the Caribbean literary grapevine was asking questions about me. Who is she? What is she? Is she Amerindian or Chinese? She looks like Amerindian or Chinese. Where in Guyana does she come from? Does anybody know anything about her? What is she writing about? Where does she get the name Shinebourne from? Is that a Guyanese name? No one had answers to these questions. I seemed to have come from out of the blue. If someone had said, she comes from Rose hall in Canje, Berbice, in Guyana, people would have retorted, ‘Where is that? I never heard of it’. And a cynical Guyanese might have commented, ‘That is behind God back’ meaning it is a remote sugar estate no one knows anything about or cares about.

3Then in 1986, Peepal Tree Press published my first novel, Timepiece and I heard from the Caribbean grapevine people were still asking who I was, this nobody, and what is she writing about? The mid 80s was a high point of feminism and Caribbean women writers were starting to appear in numbers, and I was counted among them though people still had no idea who I was, and critics were struggling to come to terms with this bunch of new women writers. The critics did not know what I was writing about so they just treated me and my writing as ‘women’s writing’, or feminist writing. Timepiece was generally treated as a Guyanese feminist bildungsroman but no critic ever pinpointed exactly the details of this story of a young woman coming into maturity when Guyana is going through traumatic political upheavals in the 60s that is starting an exodus or brain drain out of Guyana and she doesn’t know what to do with her life but her love for the rural place she grew up in makes her keep faith in Guyana and the village she comes from and she decides to stay. That I was a product of a remote rural sugar estate called Rose Hall and it was the rural setting of the novel from which the central character originates and the novel details her attachment to her rural home and how the tumultuous social and political changes of the 60s has thrust her into an uncertain future, like most people in the country, not a single critic pinpointed this theme in the novel, a theme that I continued to expand on in my second, third and fourth novels, and am still expanding in my fifth novel in progress. And still I feel, people don’t get me, what I am writing about and where I am from, that I am concerned about the devastating impact of colonial and postcolonial politics of Guyana on its people and their ability to stabilise their lives which the people in my books want to do.

4It is not unusual for a place to exert the most profound influence on all of a writer’s books. Dublin in Ireland had a firm grip on the imagination of James Joyce, he said if Dublin ever vanished from the earth, it could be reconstructed from details in his fiction, especially Ulysses. In my teens, I was deeply interested in James Joyce. My friend Brian Chan, and I pored over and enjoyed Joyce’s writing. I loved his short stories in The Dubliners. I studied them closely. My favourite was ‘The Dead’. I detected in this story Joyce’s close, intimate empathy with the people in the story. Only much later when I married and came to live in London did I understand that the people in this story were Irish and they were attending an Irish wake, then the full meaning of the story emerged, that the I in the story is an Irish person who is actually part of this Irish community but he feels suffocated in this community and is struggling to find himself in and among them, then I realised I liked this story because I felt empathy, an identification with this person, what it feels like to be so closely identified with a community, too closely identified, so you yearn for distance and objectivity and you look for it by writing about it, by sublimating your relationship with it in fiction. This is what James Joyce meant to me in my teens when I developed an ambition to be a writer. Joyce helped me clarify what I wanted to write about—where I came from, Rose Hall estate, and that I must sublimate my attachment to Rose Hall in my writing, it had to be done.

5I never met James Joyce, obviously, he died in 1941, 6 years before I was born. However, I have met another great writer who has a similar attachment to a place, and that writer is our very own Wilson Harris and that place is Guyana.

6In 1987, I had the great privilege to travel with Wilson Harris to Guyana to receive the Guyana Prize, he to receive the main fiction prize, I to receive the prize for my first novel, Timepiece. To say I was overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting him is an understatement, when I found myself sitting beside him on the plane knowing we would spend over ten hours together, I was positively intimidated by the prospect of having to make conversation with him for many hours. I decided I would not even try to have a conversation with the great man, I was not capable of it, so I said nothing if I could help it, but it is not necessary to make conversation with Wilson Harris, it simply happens. When you are with Wilson Harris, his words, his metaphors and meanings simply resonate powerfully and you take time to absorb what he means, and so does he. Conversation with Wilson is like doing two-way meditation. He produces a flow of metaphors, they hang in the air like a mist, you meditate with him on these metaphors until the meanings emerge to be absorbed. On these meanings you build conversation and a relationship and understanding.

7We were staying at the Pegasus hotel which overlooked the seawall in Georgetown. One day, Wilson and I were s together, looking out at the bare beach near the seawall. He turned to me and said, ‘I can see myself swimming on dry land’. When I did not know what he meant, I said nothing, I waited for an explanation, which would soon follow. He explained that when he was a boy, he used to swim there. Everyone knows that the tidal rhythms of the Atlantic Ocean there by the seawall means the ocean retreats for a period of years and leaves the beach exposed until the tide returns. I gradually understood that Wilson was saying something that was a recurring theme in his consciousness while he was there in Guyana. He was saying how strong were his memories of his childhood and youth in Guyana, so strong and visceral, his memories of himself were so imprinted on his mind and imagination, on his psyche, and when he looked at the landscape, it yielded extraordinary metaphors and images. This theme of memory and how it housed his identity in a psychic manner often came up. Once, we were being chauffeur-driven through Albuoystown and he became very thoughtful. He told me that this place has featured in his writing. Some of his characters came from this place. He told me when he was a boy he was standing behind another boy near a ditch there, and he found himself pushing this boy into the ditch, because he feared this boy was going to push him into the ditch. He chuckled to himself and said intuition could be both a good and bad thing. In how he spoke about Guyana, I could see that Wilson’s consciousness was deeply rooted in the place and people, he had a sense of Guyana as having shaped his psyche and his writing, especially the hinterland. When we were flying into Guyana, he looked down at the awesome view of the hinterland. I could sense how deeply it moved him as we prepared for landing for which he was bracing himself. Later, he told me he was remembering the death of his father when he was only 2 years old, his father was a surveyor, he had flown a plane over the forest and it crashed, killing him, but his body was never recovered. This seemed to explain to me why death is such a recurring theme in Wilson’s writing where death is not the end of a life but a doorway into another way of being, how death is not the end of consciousness but its rebirth into a higher way of being, a higher consciousness, an entry into what he calls the womb of space, a space where the imagination is reborn. In his imagination, even as a child, he had conceived his father’s death not as a loss or the end of his life, but a rebirth. Sometimes he spoke about New Amsterdam where he was born, or his mother, or his friendship with Martin Carter and others, and always I got a sense of his profound attachment to Guyana where his very psyche was embedded, where everywhere he went, his inner life especially his writer’s intuition, was sparked and renewed by new metaphors and images. I do not and will not ever reveal some of the things Wilson confided in me, it would be betraying his confidences. Suffice to say, I have the same sense of difficulty speaking about Rose Hall he had with speaking about his past in Guyana, it is almost impossible to describe the hold this place has over you, a hold so strong, you long to escape it yet you know you can’t it is too deep, it is a profound psychic attachment. When we flew out of Guyana in 1987, we were sitting together on the plane and Wilson turned to me and said with something like relief in his voice, ‘Janice, I don’t think I will ever return to Guyana again’. I surmised he realized his attachment to Guyana was too deep, so deep, he had become like its prisoner, and it was time to free himself from that sense of attachment, just like Joyce with Dublin. Joyce said it was like an umbilical cord that kept pulling you back. I think he meant not pulling him back literally but in his writing, the grip on his inner life is so strong. When you read Joyce’s work, the influence of Ireland is clear to see, especially Irish speech, the Irish vernacular. When I first came to London, my first friend was Irish. I enjoyed the improvisional nature of her speech. When she spoke, she seemed to be thinking aloud. I enjoyed this though I knew some people found it perplexing, it was her sheer joy in improvising with language I loved, just like Joyce, it was the sheer joy of inventing meaning as you went along, making it up, using sheer intuition and the music of speech which the Irish love, speaking as if they are singing.

8So yes, I feel connected to Rose Hall by an umbilical cord that attaches my inner life to it, and the inner life is where a writer’s imagination lives, from where their writing emerges.

9At Rose Hall, there were 2 logies next door to the shop where I lived with my family. The Indian people in the logies attracted me. As a child, I spent all my time in the logies. I was deeply attached to one family in particular, the Mahabirs, especially to Ivy, the young girl I chose to be my carer. She lived with her grandparents who were from Uttar Pradesh. Her parents and two brothers, Clement and Basil. My mother was too busy running the shop to look after her 5 children. I was often left alone. The Mahabirs took me in, they showered me with love and attention. I can still remember what it was like as a two-year old to be passed around among them, and hugged and kissed and fed dahl and roti and cups of hot, sweet tea, and sweet roti made with brown sugar and freshly grated coconut. They all worked on the estate, they also cultivated rice on a farm in the backdam, and harvested fruit from their forest. There were always jute bags of padi and rice piled high in their home, I would be fed then put to sleep on a jute bag of padi where I would fall into the deepest, most peaceful, contented happy sleep, breathing in the smell of padi and fresh roti being cooked and slapped by Ivy-Mai while she sang in Hindi. As a child, I could not live without Ivy and her family. I would attach myself to Ivy like a baby monkey to its mother. I clung to her for dear life, nothing could shake me off. I preferred to be in the home of the Mahabirs than in the home of my parents. I spent all my time playing with the children in the logies, especially when it rained and the ground became extremely muddy and slippery when we would all strip naked and run wild, climbing on to rooftops and gutters to slide around in the water. This was when we liked to play gutty with awara seeds. Seeing children play with conkers here in England reminds me of playing gutty with awara seeds in Guyana. There was always a big crowd of children to play with in the logies, we ran wild and naked, swimming in the canal, diving in from the high bridge, stealing and eating cane from the punts. When we played together in the rain and mud, we were delirious with joy and happiness. When parents became impatient with this, they would attempt to interrupt or stop us by dragging away their child, administering a beating and locking them in the latrine. My parents never did this to me but despaired of ever being able to civilise me. My father’s respectable relatives in Georgetown wrote to say they were worried to hear I was growing up like a wild savage, they must give me a more civilised environment, but I loved this way of life. It made me deliriously happy. When I was hungry, I did not want the food in my own home, I went to the Mahabirs where hot fresh rotis full of ghee and sugar were always available. Always hanging from the rafters were huge bunches of fruit they brought back from the forest, to which I could help myself. My attachment to the Mahabirs and the logies could not have been stronger. The psychologists think a child’s ability to form strong attachments is the basis of an ability to develop a strong personality and character, essential to good psychological development. I am thankful to Rose Hall estate for giving me a strong sense of attachment in my childhood, a sense of attachment that also gave me the inspiration to write four novels so far, with a fifth in the pipeline.

10Rose Hall as it was when I grew up there no longer exists, it stopped existing in 1957, and in 1966 when I was nineteen and left to live and work in Georgetown where I found it hard to feel settled and happy. I felt like a square peg in a round hole, I felt restless and the only thing that settled me was writing a work of fiction, a novel, Timepiece, about a young woman who had left her rural home in Guyana to live in the capital, Guyana, when the country was recovering from the political tumult of the 60s, and people were beginning to exit the country in numbers. She is restless, she is unsure where life is taking her, what is going to happen to Guyana and to her, she is scared and uncertain but holds on to the certainty of her love for the village she comes from, which I named Pheasant, after the Canje Pheasant (represented on the flag of Guyana), to signify Rose hall in Canje. This novel which I began in 1966, was published in 1986 as Timepiece by Jeremy Poynting who was the only person who understood what it was about. No one else understood it as well as Jeremy, so for him I wrote a second novel inspired by Rose Hall, The Last English Plantation. Where I set the novel in old Rose Hall in the 50s when the troubles of the 60s were beginning to build. Then I wrote a third novel set in Rose Hall, Chinese Women, where I portrayed the worse conditions of life in Rose Hall, the worse aspects of colonialism and its exploitative nature that bred racism and social and political injustice there. By 1986 when I wrote it, I had grown up and could look at it without rose coloured glasses, I could look at its ugliness.

11But these three novels made me look like a writer who was only interested in writing about an East-Indian community, so much so, people thought I was an East-Indian writer. There were a few occasions when I was confronted about my failure to write about the Chinese of Guyana, since I was part Chinese and looked Chinese and was taken for Chinese. Twice I was rebuked for this publicly. I felt under some pressure to correct this, so I wrote my fourth novel, The Last Ship which is about the arrival of a Chinese clan, the Chungs, on the last ship to bring the Chinese from Hong Kong to British Guiana in 1869. Anyone who knows about the history of the Chinese in Guyana knows that the last ship to do that was The Dartmouth, which brought a well-known clan, the Evan Wongs, who rose to great heights in Guyana, becoming a wealthy and successful upper middle class clan. My grandmother, Sarah Wong, was one of them but she did not enjoy their rise to social prominence, due to bad luck, she said, she ended up on Rose Hall estate running a little shop there which my father inherited, and so in The Last Ship, I feature this story of a Chinese woman who through bad luck, ends up on Rose hall estate and how she struggles against her bad luck to survive on a poor estate with her failed dreams of one day returning to China to die among her ancestors. And this is how my fiction and I have been shaped by Rose Hall and how I came to have such a strong connection to Rose Hall.


1 This personal essay was written for the Rose Hall Panel held at Senate House during the 3G conference and was revised for this volume.


Jan Lowe Shinebourne was born in Guyana in 1947. She received her early education in Guyana and started a B.A degree in English at the University of Guyana which she completed in the UK when she moved there in 1970, then did postgraduate studies at the University of London. During the 1980s she was a cultural and political activist and was a book reviewer, writer and associate editor for several magazines, including The Southall Review, Race Today, Spare Rib and Everywoman. She was also a lecturer at several London colleges. In 1991, she did a British Council reading tour in Germany, and in 1992, she was Visiting Fellow at New York University. Peepal Tree Press has published her four novels and collection of short stories. In 1987, her first novel, Timepiece, won the Guyana Prize for a first novel. In 1987, her collection of stories, The Godmother and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize in 2004. She has published four novels and a collection of stories, all of which how her preoccupation with Guyana’s transition from colonialism to postcolonialism. She lived in West London for over thirty years, but now lives in West Sussex.

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