Liminality in the Writings of
By Annan Boodram
(Presented at a conference at Columbia University in 2010)
Liminality (from Latin limen: 'boundary or threshold') is the state of being neither-this-nor-that, betwixt and between, neither me, nor not me, like the mythic Cynocephalus (dog-headed human).
According to author, poet, essayist and scholar, Cyril Dabydeen, “Liminality, is one of these jargony esoteric terms, that might have gained currency via people like famed post-colonial scholar at the University of Chicago, Homi Bhabba. The latter is perhaps one of the most quoted of that school. Another such scholar is Edward Said. And liminality may be the kind of twilightness, as it appears, and through this metaphor, it's the state of being here and there: where we came from, and where we are now, and coalescing the two in some subliminal, even unconscious, way; and you know, the whole sense too of "imaginary homelands," as Rushdie describes it.”
This paper attempts to address the issue of liminality in relation to Indo-Guyanese (and by extension Caribbean) within the context of his Guyanese/Caribbeanness (geo-national), Indianess (cultural/ancestral) and current habitation (various Diaspora nations).
While Indians have been living in the Guyana for over 160 years the interplay of politics and ethnicity (resulting in the feeling of not belonging even though he belongs) have forced many of them to flee overseas. Yet, especially for the first generations, living in the Diaspora has not meant self or otherwise acceptance as permanent citizens of the new land. Indeed there remains the metaphorical straddling of the old and the new home with a nostalgic yearning to return home once enough money is made or once retirement comes around. And even though he knows that he is Indian culturally and ancestrally this acceptance of his Indianness by his kit and kin from the Asian sub-continent has not been what was expected, again placing him in a sort of limbo vis a vis Bharat Mata or the ancestral homeland. As author Raywat Deonandan puts it in an article in The Caribbean Voice newspaper, “Just as French-Canadians might not be French enough for the French, and Azoreans insufficiently Portuguese for the Portuguese, we Indo-Caribbean types often suffer rejection from "true" Indians from the subcontinent, though we are apparently similar enough to share the same epithet and insults.”
It is in the process of grappling with the question of ‘Who am I truly?’ (in the words of Deonandan) that a number of Guyanese authors have contextualized their works.
Historian Basdeo Mangroo handled this issue of liminality by debunking the myths of plantation Indian docility. His research and writings reasserted the Indian’s plantation existence as one underpinned by militancy and protest against his state of servitude.
Considered to be the expert on Indian plantation life in Guyana, Dr. Mangru pointed out that until the last decade the prevailing notion of Indian docility affected the psyche of the Indian in a number of ways: they could not see themselves as having substantive participation in the political process in Guyana; they refused to consider the concept of struggling for social space and chose rather to migrate and/or they allowed themselves to be subsumed by the dominant political strata and survive in a marginal existence if not in total anonymity.
In his seminal work, “History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estates: 1869 to 1946”, published in 1996 by Edwin Mellin Press, New York, Dr. Mangru chronicled the history of Indian militancy and detailed its impact on the development process. And in a subsequent review, Donald Wood, a professor at the University of Sussex concluded that Dr. Mangru’s book had debunked for all time, the myth of Indian docility. Mangru’s landscape has been painted in greater detail by Clem Seecharran, in his book "Bound Coollie Radical in British Guyana 1894-901", a study of the ideology and activity of Bechu, the Bengali indentured servant. In a review of this book Eusi Kwayaan stated, it “is in part a study of this triumph of purpose and mission over circumstances. It shows that it is possible for a person to live two lives, one in the grip of multiple oppression of the self and its Kind and another in the ideal of an alternative regime for which one strives and strives”.
While he does not want to make the claim that his book has contributed in any change in the Indian psyche, Dr. Mangru, in an interview with this presenter, noted that over the last decade or so Indians have become much more militant in Guyana. He pointed to the work of Indian activists such as Ravi Dev as reflective of this new militancy. The result has been that Indians are finally claiming their own social and political space in Guyana, armed with the knowledge that their contribution to the developmental process has not been insignificant and they have as much right to political participation and socio-cultural expression as any other group.
A significant sidebar to this process has been a rejuvenated interest in the affairs of Guyana by Indo-Guyanese in the Diaspora who now exhibit greater pride in being known as Guyanese and who often passionately expound of things Guyanese – from politics to religion, from jamming to liming.
In short there has been a reconnection with the fatherland that has replaced the sense of alienation, in limbo existence (referred to as a second exile by Dr. Jeremy Ponyting in his book ‘The Second Shipwreck’) with respect to national self-identity. One sees this in the many events such as the Big Lime in Toronto, the Guyana Awards in London, the work of the Tri-State Alliance in New York, to some extent, the Folk Festival of which this conference is a part, among many other happenings. There is more self-debate, discussion and affirming expression by Diaspora Indo-Guyanese in both the back home media and the Diaspora media. A greater number of Indo-Guyanese are coalescing in various entities – alumni associations, area support groups, charity organizations at al and realigning their focus on helping Guyana because of this reconnection.
Is there a nexus between all of this and the writings of Dr. Mangru? This is a question that will perhaps be addressed in time as this reclaiming of their national space by Indo Guyanese becomes more substansive and impactful to offer scope for research and study.
Another sidebar of note is the view that Indo-Guyanese attempts to reclaim their space and heritage as Guyanese has been met with a horrific response by a tiny segment of the Afro Guyanese brethrem. This response is manifested in the spate of violence against Indo Guyanese that has been happening in spurts, especially so for the last three years. The robbing, brutalizing and killing of Indo-Guyanese and the destruction to property has created fear in some geographic areas of the nation. But more frightening, has been the argumentation in some quarters that serves to provide justification of sorts for this horror. The simple fact is that crime cannot be justified regardless of the political, economic or social climate.
Of note also is the fact that a number of creative writers have established the Guyanese Indian as the main protagonist within a heroic context. Cyril Dabydeen comes to mind, in relation to a number of his short stories as well as his novel The Wizard Swami published by Peepal Tree Press circa 1980. So too does Gowkarran Sukhdeo, in his award winning The Silver Lining. In the latter case, whether consciously or unconsciously the author locates his hero within a context whereby he reclaims his space as a Guyanese after returning from overseas study.
The author, indicated that he used the hero to comment upon concepts such racial harmony and the hold of the plantation on the community as exemplified by issues such as sexual exploitation. Sukhdeo also stated to this presenter that his hero was a composite thereby suggesting that in everyday life there exists many Indo Guyanese who are heroes in their own way.
And that is the crux of the matter, especially since ordinary Indians had not hitherto viewed themselves as heroic and consequently held on to the classical literature such as the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, to reference heroes while flocking to the cinemas to vicariously live acts of heroism through the stars on the silver screen Thus writers such as Dabydeen and Sukhdeo brought to the fore the reality that heroism does not have to be a vicarious experience but in fact, is something that abounds in daily life.
To what extent these works have impacted on the psyche of Indo-Guyanese is difficult to determine because enough time and space does not exist to gather evidence. Certainly, however, in activists such as Ravi Dev, Moses Nagamootoo, Khemraj Ramjattan and others, Indians are not only displaying heroism but also giving esteem to their compatriots while leading the struggle for the reclaiming of political and social space.
Secondly, with respect to liminality vis a vis the cultural/ancestral author and poet, Sasenarine Persaud , is one writer whose articulation stands out. In a school of writing he calls Yogic Realism, Persaud has sought to “articulate the ancestral connection” thereby giving the Guyanese Indian the right to that heritage that he feel is denied him by his kit and kin from the Indian sub-continent.
As Persaud pointed out in an interview with this presenter, “Yogic Realism was not so much a way to establish an ancestral connection as to articulate such a connection. The ancestral connection was there in my/our writing long before I knew it was there, long before I thought of Yogic Realism. For those of us who grew up in Indian homes, even before we were born, even in our mothers' wombs we were being exposed to Indian/yogic literature as our mothers took us around to Kathas, pujas, yajnas, as they sang songs to us - often the poetry of Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabirdas without even realising the source and Songs/poems/literature which themselves came straight out of Vedic,Upanishadic, Mahabharic/yogic literature.”
This unconscious influence of Indianess in one’s writings is also alluded to by author Cyril Dabydeen. In email communication with this presenter, Dabydeen stated, “I don't think I dwell consciously on my Indianness as such, though it comes out all the time, inevitably; and the way I am moulded, and social contexts too: my being born and raised in the Berbice/Canje Rose Hall sugar plantation, and with seminal socialist ideas, invariably, PPP-type ideologoical things.”
Like the Afro-Caribbean in relation to kith and kin from Africa, the Indo-Caribbean has found cultural / ancestral acceptance by kit and kin from India to be somewhat elusive. And so one could argue that this intrinsic cultural connection underpinning the writings of Indo-Guyanese authors provides the existential framework catalysing a back to Bharat Mata movement. The result has been a conscious effort by Indo-Guyanese to form community with Indians from the subcontinent in Diaspora politics and culture, an ongoing stream of Indo-Guyanese going back to India to visit, connect, study, research and be astounded, spurred on by tour packages organized by travel agencies such as Hillside Avenue, Queens, New York City based Kali Travel, which, in fact, pioneered tour packages to India for Indo-Caribbeans in the Diaspora.
Of note also is that while at the person to person level, Indians from the subcontinent display respect for appreciation of Indo Guyanese/Caribbeans, because of our preservation of the culture and our work and other ethic.
With respect to the current habitation the most important point of note is that there has been a flowering of Indo-Guyanese writers, whether self-published, coop-published or published by stand alone houses. A significant amount of these works are somewhat autobiographical – many have been, in fact, been reviewed by The Caribbean Voice and the Guyana Journal. This would seem to suggest that Indians are beginning to believe that their life stories are worthy enough to be told to a larger audience.
But perhaps too, this telling of these stories can be viewed as the beginning of a movement to claim legitimate space in the communities in which we live, a movement that is also manifested in other ways – for example seeking for political office, contesting leadership positions in professional and community organizations that extend beyond their own communities, establishing a presence in corporate America and developing a vibrant media. All of this and other manifestations would also seem to say we exist as a group, separate and distinct from the Asian groups and certainly from the Hispanics. And finally, it would seem to want to debunk a myth about who Caribbeans are, a myth that especially exists in the corporate world and one fueled by certain Caribbean organizations that are uniracial in structure and membership. Combatting the misperception that all Caribbeans are descendants of African slaves has not been easy but one can argue that the body of writers have played a part in giving recognition to Indo-Guyanese as legitimate Caribbeans. And this recognition is manifested in many ways – invitations to various social functions, individual and community profiles in mainstream media, inclusion of Indo-Caribbeans in functions that honor Caribbeans.
But the process of claiming our space as Guyanese and Caribbeans is far from complete. Far too often Guyanese functions are patronised predominantly by one of the two major groups especially if the event is kept in Queens or Brooklyn. In this respect one must give kudos to the Guyana Folk festival Committee, which is one of the few organizations that have begun to become more inclusive. But even here more work needs to be done. For example, a perusal at the names of the organizers of the Folk festival indicate only one Indo Guyanese in a group of 22 persons. By the same token I would be amiss if I do not chide Indo-Guyanese for not seizing opportunities such as this to continue to reclaim their Guyaneseness and help portray Guyanese as a multiracial group.
And once we succeed in doing that in the Diaspora, then perhaps we can go back to Guyana and show them how it is done.
GUYANA DIASPORA FORUM ON CONFLICT AND CONFLICT ANALYSIS IN GUYANA
Saturday, December 14, 2002
Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center
Howard University, 2216 6th St. NW, Washington DC 20059
RELATIONS WITHIN THE DIASPORA AND BETWEEN GUYANA AND THE DIASPORA
By Annan Boodram
A young couple was at their wits’ ends. Their dilemma? Two out of control sons. The distress was even greater for the couple, because they themselves had been brought up in an environment of nurturing love, bolstered by positive values, the same environment they had sought to establish for their two sons. The reason their own failing parenting efforts was a puzzle.
One day, the mother, nearly in tears at the poor behavior of her children, was advised by a friend to seek the help of the local pastor, who had built a solid reputation in dealing with delinquent youths. So the mother sought an audience with the pastor.
“I will help you,” the pastor told the mother, “But I want to speak to the younger lad first.”
On the designated day, six-year old arrived and entered, coming face to face with the pastor’s imposing desk. He was motioned to sit down in the chair opposite the pastor, who immediately, and in a loud voice, asked the boy, “Where is God?”
The lad began looking all over the room, when the pastor repeated in a louder voice, “Where is God?”
The lad started searching more frantically, looking under the desk, the chair, the books.
“Where is God?” thundered the pastor, a third time.
The lad shot out of the chair, scampered all the way home, grabbed his older brother, and hauled him into the room where they usually plotted their mischief. “We are in big trouble,” he exclaimed.
“What do you mean, big trouble?” asked his elder sibling.
“God is missing and they think we did it, said the small one.”
Ladies and gentlemen, in the context of Guyana’s turmoil, some have argued that God is indeed missing. But then again, others feel that visionary politicians are missing. And yet others feel that a strong government is the missing element. In fact, there are so many perspectives as to just what is or are the missing ingredients that have led to the current problems afflicting Guyana, that one would perhaps find easy justification for the contention that if you put three Guyanese in a room, you will have four opinions.
Today, I would like to propose that a vital missing ingredient is conversations, to plagiarize a concept mooted by Attorney Derek Arjune, a very good friend of mine. Just what do I mean? Well let me begin by drawing a picture the Guyanese Diaspora for you or, rather, one aspect of the Diaspora – organizations.
One researcher, Professor Manuel Orozco, Project Director for Central America at the Inter-American Dialogue, has disclosed that there are some183 organizations in the Guyanese Diaspora of the US and Canada, but, based on our own records, The Caribbean Voice believes that the number is much higher. In fact, when England is also included, we see a number beyond 300.
Perhaps the largest number of organizations exists in New York City, followed by Toronto, Florida and London. But Guyanese organizations can be found in New Jersey, Maryland, the United Nations, Quebec, and almost anywhere else that Guyanese live in significant numbers. Indeed, Guyanese seem to have a penchant for gregariousness.
Many of these organizations are socio-religious. For example, in New York City there are over sixty Guyanese mandirs, along with quite a number of mosques and churches, predominantly Guyanese. But there also exist organizations of myriad hues – sports (especially cricket and to a lesser extent soccer), health (the Guyana Medical Relief in Los Angeles and the CC Nicholson Foundation in England being two of the many), political (the Association of Concerned Guyanese and PNC Support Groups in New York, London, Toronto and elsewhere), cultural (Rajkumari Cultural Center in New York, OSSIC in Toronto), professions (the Guyanese Nurses Association in New York, (X GDF Association, ex-Police Association), school alumnae (Queens College Alumni Association in the US, Canada and England being one of many), area-based (Hampshire Reunion Organization and many others), educational (Anne Blue Memorial Scholarship Fund in New York, the Tony Kissoon Foundation in Washington and the Guyana Friends Association in the United Kingdom among others), and so on.
Membership in these organizations vary, numbering from over 100 to, in a few cases, one person. Many of these organizations almost invariably include in their objectives, some assorted ties with Guyana, ties that take the form of charitable works, as Professor Orozco revealed in a recent study "Remitting Back Home and Supporting the Homeland: The Guyanese Community in the U.S". And thus, they have linkages with back home. But before I examine that relationship, I want to take a closer look at these organizations themselves.
I must, immediately, point out, however, that this area is one of the few in which documented research does not seem to exist (I am subject to correction, of course). So based on anecdotal and empirical evidence at our disposal, I will merely put forward some logical propositions.
In terms of membership, these organizations are mostly ethnocentric. Even many of the cricket clubs does not escape this reality. The fact is, that countries like the US, Canada and England, make it very easy for people to exist in virtually self-contained enclaves – ethnic, national, whatever. For example, in New York City, Afro Guyanese predominate in black areas such as Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn, while Indo Guyanese live in their own communities such as South Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, the latter dubbed Little Guyana. This kind of settlement pattern is also found in Canada and England (most Afro-Guyanese live in Brixton, for example). So while it would seem that this polarization is a vestige of the Guyana experience, one must not negate the impact of social realities or complexities that foster polarized settlement patterns in the Diaspora. We must note that this polarization is much more complete in the Diaspora than in Guyana.
Back home, Indo and Afro-Guyanese have to interact as co-habitants, as co-workers, in social and political settings, and so on. In the Diaspora there is no critical rationale for such interaction. Thus Indo-Guyanese in Queens minimally interact with Afro-Guyanese in Brooklyn. In short, while one may argue for unity in diversity in Guyana, diversity is an end in itself in the Diaspora.
Speaking recently at the University of West Indies (St. Augustine campus) graduation, noted Caribbean writer, Earl Lovelace asked, “What do we intend to make of our diversity in making ourselves a nation? What vision do we have for ourselves as a people?”
While these questions may be critical for the Caribbean and Guyana they mean little to Caribbeans and Guyanese in the Diaspora. For Guyanese overseas are not creating a nation and do not have to grapple with all the concomitants thereof. Yet the paradox is that Guyanese everywhere are expressing genuine concern for Guyana and general lament about the prevailing situation. Does this not therefore argue for some sort of glue that would hold us in the Diaspora together as a prerequisite for us to be able to impact on the situation back home, especially since unofficial estimates indicate that Guyanese overseas may well equal to those in the county?
Professor Orozco indicated that, "Although no reliable data exists about the number of Guyanese abroad, estimates run as high as the total population residing in the country, which today is over 700,000."
Unofficial estimates place Guyanese in the Diaspora at somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,00. This, combined with the fact that remittances to the tune of some US$100M or some 13% of Guyana’s GDP, are sent annually to family and friends back home, and that donations in kind perhaps value more than cash remittances, one can very well argue that overseas Guyanese do not have corresponding influence back home simply because of fragmentation and disparity. Again I suggest that what is needed are conversations.
So then, what do I mean by conversations? Certainly not merely talking to each other. And certainly more than just talking with each other. Let’s face it – many of us are somewhat like concrete, set and solidified to the extent that it would take many pickaxes to rent asunder our outlook. But renting asunder out outlooks is the first prerequisite for conversations. None of us, regardless of how many letters of the alphabet we have at the back of our names, or how many celebrities we know on a first name basis, should enter into conversations on the basis that we have nothing to unlearn and to relearn. Conversations must be premised on finding common grounds and therefore there must be give and take. Conversations must also be cognizant of the sensibilities of the conversing partners. Indeed, that is what we all become when we enter into conversations – partners, with one goal aimed at finding what would work best firstly in bringing us closer together and secondly in promoting the welfare of Guyana.
Conversations must be premised on historical accuracy and social reality – not a worldview that postulates ‘what I say is correct because I am Dr. Always Right, with quite impressive credentials and esteemed academic distinction.’ For then, what results is talking down to rather than conversations. And there can be nothing more antagonizing than talking down, a common characteristic of academia I have been told.
Of course there will be disagreements. But it is the ability to converse through the disagreements that grow the conversing partners.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I am not saying that this would be an easy or quick process. But I am saying that unless there are less ‘I’s’ and more ‘we’s’, then the Diaspora cannot impact on Guyana’s developmental framework, because we would be busy trying to best each other whenever and wherever we can. And therefore we would continue to be mere suppliers of resources in cash and kind.
Guyana’s political culture has been, and continues to be laced with suspicion. It, therefore, does not take a stretch of imagination to understand why the government of the day would not extend open arms to all and sundry, who approach to say ‘I want to help’. But if that approach is done in concert, then the government would be forced to be more accommodating, because the approaching entity would be broad enough to allay suspicions of ulterior motives and personal agendas and weighty enough not to be easily ignored. An ‘I’ can be easily dismissed. Not so a ‘we’, especially when that ‘we’ includes PPPites, PNCites, Otherites, black, brown and everything else in between.
The reality is that ulterior motives will always elicit suspicions, but personal agendas, if they coincide with the larger altruistic agenda, may be allowable. And if not, we in the Diaspora have got to help the government of the day to be able to differentiate between the two so that Guyana does not lose out.
By now some of you may be wondering how do we get these conversations off the ground. Well I could repeat a mechanism outlined by Bahamas Prime Minister, Perry Christie, when he keynoted the recent conference of the Caribbean Tourism. Said Mr. Perry, " Maybe there is a black hole into which we can fly this entire hodgepodge of national and regional carriers and out of which will emerge the shining light of a single Air Caribbean."
But unless someone here has knowledge of such a blackhole into which we can fly the Guyanese Diaspora then any approach we come up with has to be more pragmatic. I would therefore suggest that the process starts with people who are open minded and confident enough in themselves not to feel insecure if they are proven wrong; people who genuinely like people and are always able to search for the good and positive in others; people who are willing to agree to disagree, without becoming hostile or acrimonious; people who possess the ability to move beyond the self.
At the end of the day these conversations can enable the Diaspora to force the Guyana government to follow Jamaica where deputy foreign minister,, Mr. Delano Franklyn, now holds responsibility for spearheading the government's outreach program to Jamaicans living abroad, in recognition of their numbers and contribution to Jamaica.
And conversations can enable us to work with the government to establish a strong lobby in Washington, as India, Israel and Pakistan have been able to do. Further, Guyana can take advantage of the myriad skills of its overseas nationals, many of whom are quite willing to spend their vacations giving back. We at The Caribbean Voice have spoken with Guyanese within the US military, the postal service, experts in water and soil technology, finance, et al, who simply want to be facilitated to lend their expertise to their nation’s development. Conversations can enable us to force the government to set up an entity as a strategic imperative, that would deal with these Guyanese and ensure that capital can be made of their offers. And, by extension, much resources, to which many Guyanese have access because of their jobs or businesses, can be channeled to Guyana – from garbage trucks to military equipment.
The challenge then stares us in the face. Will this conference be just another talk shop, showcasing the achievements of some of our esteemed scholars, or will the desire for something much more substantial become fructified?
Mr. Chairman, fructifying desires always come at a price as our supposed progenitor found out. A few days after creation God said unto Adam " You have been quiet lately - is there something wrong?
Adam said he didn't have anyone to talk to. So God said that He would make him a companion and that it would be a woman.
And God said "A woman will gather food for you, cook for you and when you discover clothing, she will wash it for you. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you have a disagreement. She will never get a headache and will freely give you love and passion whenever you want"
Adam asked, "What will it cost me?"
God replied, "An arm and a leg."
Adam asked, "What can I get for a rib?"
THE REST IS HISTORY.
There are some who will say this little anecdote is politically incorrect, perhaps even sexist. But I merely want to point out that for conversations to start we neither need to give up an arm and a leg nor even a rib. A young Guyanese college student by the name of Asif, in New York City started a web site that, among other things, facilitates an email group. Membership in that group currently stands close to 3000 and messages have spanned the range. But amidst the disagreements and the debate, the group kept growing and members generally were loud in their praise of a forum that enabled Guyanese from literally throughout the world to talk to 3000 of their fellows at one go. The amount of positives that have come out of that process is already immeasurable.
Also, in New York City, the consulate called a meeting of Guyanese organizations in the tri-state area, ostensibly to discuss the possibility of an umbrella body much like Jamaica, Barbados and many of the smaller islands have. Only about 20 organizations turned up but eventually a body was established and has since been organizing the independence gala and awards dinner that has been slowly bringing together Guyanese from all persuasions. Similar attempts in Toronto and London have met with acclaimed success.
Finally may I point out that for us in the Diaspora to know how we can impact change in Guyana we need to know what we have available. It is only by conversations that the size, scope and potential of the Guyanese Diaspora can become common knowledge and consequently mobilized to help move Guyana out of its morass and into forward gear. Conversations will build the requisite relations among organizations in the Diaspora and set the stage for the building of required relations between the Diaspora and Guyana. And a good starting point would be a standing committee, to be expanded to include representatives from various parts of the Diaspora, to come up with mechanisms to set up a database of Guyanese organizations and a directory of human resources.