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Calabash Parkway: A Novel
by Brenda Chester DoHarris. Tantaria Press, 2005, 158 pages

Reviewed by Gokarran Sukhdeo
(Winner, Guyana Prize for Literature)

For forty years our lovely native land, this Eldorado for which Sir Walter Raleigh literally lost his head, has been torn apart by racial conflicts and brutal partisan politics, two specters that still continue to haunt and ravage the land while new spectral off-springs of drugs and “phantom gangs” add to the depressing landscape with daily grotesque massacres. An unnatural endemic and perpetual fear blankets this land so phenomenally endowed by nature. Its children, fleeing in hordes from their umbilical homes are scattered in a global wilderness and sit by strange rivers and mourn or “pass like ghosts through changing seasons on alien shores” – many “undocumented” and “languishing in limbo”.

From the exiled view of her second diaspora window, Brenda Chester DoHarris looks down and laments (like so many of us), and personifies this, the “hemorrhaging” of the lifeblood of Guyana, as Leon who is the personification of those left at home, says, “One day dis country may get better, but before dat, somet’ing tell me dat it will get much, much worse. Guyana bleeds, Lou. Guyana bleeding to det, an’ dare’s a racist arrung every corner waitin’ to get into power to continue killin’ de country future.” And again he states, “Wid all dese people leavin’, is like Guyana lyin’ in de street, hemorrhagin’ slowly to det, while people jumpin’ across de body on de way to de airport.”

Thus DoHarris writes her second chronicle, Calabash Parkway, for her undocumented sisters and brothers, many of whom, like ’Gatha, the main character in the novel, have taken great risks and made great sacrifices to enter and live in the U.S., and who prefer to languish in an “undocumented” twilight zone and die rather that remain in an economic and political ferment at home. And die she did.

In a post-modernistic genre with the nationalistic fervor (and a strong feminist empathy) of exiled post-colonial writers, DoHarris pours out her heart in the story, assuming, as she did in her first novel, a stereoscopic role as some ubiquitous individual overlooking the unraveling of events from the sixties to present. Narrating in the first-person, the author becomes personal as she skillfully weaves herself into the lives of her characters, who are indeed real persons with whom the author actually lived in a very nostalgic distant past. Calabash Parkway, a sequel to The Coloured Girl in the Ring is no less a fiction than its prelude, as the author succeeds in this, another clever blending of life and art.

In The Coloured Girl in the Ring, DoHarris tells the tragic story of people trying to break out from several insular rings – rings of poverty and spousal infidelity, of frozen cultural patterns and racial stereotypes, of political and cultural dogma; and, in breaking out, skipping across the ocean into new and equally ruthless rings. The story of the lives of some of these very characters continues in Calabash Parkway, a pseudonym for Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, one of the two main Guyanese safe havens in New York City. In ascribing the name Calabash Parkway to this place that provides refuge to the exodus of Guyanese, DoHarris aptly connects it through the Guyanese proverb, “hungry dag ah nyam kyalabash,” to Leon Benjamin who had been a rock of a safe haven for ’Gatha during her troubled times in Guyana. Like Leon, Calabash Parkway is not particularly attractive, and definitely no “bed of roses for an unskilled Black woman in her late middle-age.” But nevertheless, “Brooklyn was New York, and New York was America”.

DoHarris begins the narrative with a dramatic contrast of a delightful re-connection of two long lost buddies in the “subterranean, graffiti-smeared world of the subways of New York City”. An aptly chosen place for such delightful and dramatic encounters and re-connections with long lost loves across time and space, for, in this most heterogeneous city in the world, the subway is a characteristic moving melting place for millions of laboring lives. Thus begins the narrative with the meeting with ’Gatha, a woman whom the narrator had always strongly admired for “her fierce determination to ride the waves of grief and not be submerged by them.” From here threads of youthful memories begin to unravel, and the main plot takes shape.

The main plot is about ’Gatha and how she arrives in New York (twice), her struggles for survival, the things she sacrificed in this process, and the eventual tragedy of unfulfilled dreams, hopes and plans. ’Gatha epitomizes every Guyanese. She arrives in New York both times and ekes out a meager subsistence in the City by creative and morally questionable means. But she is Guyanese, and this is a universal and natural practice for those wanting to survive. In this context, therefore, her methods of getting into the U.S. and surviving are quite understandable and justified, (at least by Guyanese).

The majority of (honest) Guyanese in the U.S., like ’Gatha, do not really live, they survive, yea, barely exist, calabash style, and must of necessity tell creative “white lies” to survive. Those that tell the biggest lies and resort to unscrupulously illegal and ruthless means are the ones that really live, and not in places like Calabash Parkway. That is why people like Compton and Evadne yearn to break out of the calabash and buy a house in Queens. And when, after finally succeeding to break out from their steamy, cramped apartment where they have been “fighting unending battles with cockroaches”, and having achieved their aspiration, they tragically cannot/did not enjoy the benefits of it – because they had cracks in their calabash. Compton was killed and Evadne was left a widow in a lonely house.

There are several subsidiary plots. But the most touching one is that about Samantha, the product-child of a (tragic) inter-racial love affair between Drupattie and Steven Osbourne at a time when racism was threatening an implosion of the Guyanese society. The delicateness with which DoHarris treats this story shows how close she must have been to both parties, how distraught she must have been by the deliberate destruction of this affair and the lives of both parties, and how thrilled she was to learn that the pretty and successful “dougla” attorney was “the one good thing to come out of all the racism and sexism of the time.”

Race has always been (deliberately kept) skin deep in Guyana and DoHarris treats the subject with personal familiarity. She, like Oonya Kempadoo in Buxton Spice, has a way of boldly getting behind the insular stereotypes of Guyanese Indian and African communities and accessing their innermost and suppressed desire to actually break through the racial barriers and openly show their heterogeneity and their essential Guyaneseness, for, indeed, it is very bold and daringly post-modernistic for anyone to suggest that miscegenation was the solution to the seemingly eternalized racial problems of Guyana. One of the driving forces for this might be because DoHarris, herself, like Oonya Kempadoo, has mixed blood in her veins, and the “dougla”, if ever any people truly feel the cold anguish of marginalization and a deep yearning for the warmth of absorption, be it in Guyana or elsewhere, it is they.

Calabash Parkway powerfully and emotionally describes the pressures faced by Guyanese immigrants in New York, beginning from the gate of the American Embassy where, like Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow Is Another Day, Guyanese are considered ‘beggars at the gate’ by such people as “Miss Haggerty-Responsible – for-the-Issuance-of-Visas”.

Then there are the family tensions created. N.D. Williams shows that whether set in Guyana or elsewhere in the Caribbean, characters on the point of leaving are always suffocated by their feeling, the ambivalence between wanting to escape the narrowness of Caribbean life, and the regret for the relationships they scar and damage after they have left. Even the relationship between ’Gatha’s and her own daughters became so coldly strained that the girls referred to her as, “de lady”.

But family tensions often heal. What doesn’t heal is that spousal vacuum that is created and of which nature forces occupation through infidelity. Spousal infidelities cause permanent damage, especially to children. ’Gatha’s friend, Evadne who has had a lifetime of experience in this department, being both a result and a victim of it, sums it up nicely when she said, “children deserve both parents.”

Spousal infidelities lead to treachery and even murder as in the case of Compton who so heartlessly used his mistress’s wedding dress to marry his wife, and in his sexist masochism continued in his illicit affair which finally led to his murder.

The characters are fully developed as they are all drawn from real people changing (for better or worse) as they face real experiences. Three of the most admirable characterizations are those of ’Gatha’s cultured and altruistic paramour, Jack Feeling, her very helpful friend in Canada, Gwennie, who smuggled her across the Canadian/U.S. border, and her second husband, Leon, who like a rock, or like Charles Dickens’ Joseph in Great Expectations, is not very bright, but solid, dependable and always there with support, even though he, himself is hurt in process of helping.

DoHarris has shown that the successful narration of a Guyanese story must essentially include the colorful folk wisdom and Guyanese dialect which add to the flavor of the story. Indeed, she must be admired for such prolific command and use of the unique Guyanese dialect, idioms and proverbs which proliferate the 158 pages of the book, and are further paraphrased in a glossary for the benefit of non-Guyanese readers. She has also shown that the calabash, a most versatile gourd in Guyana, has multifarious symbolic connotations, the most significant one being, “woman alone like calabash: ev’rybaddy wan pass an’ dip deh han’”, speaking about the vulnerability of women in distant, lonely places, and how easy it is for them to be exploited. Thus, in Calabash Parkway, DoHarris uses a feminist empathy and a rich intersperse of Creole and Standard English to explicitly bring out the apathy and hardships experienced by ’Gatha, herself a symbol for the Guyanese undocumented immigrant in the cold metropole.

Calabash Parkway is a social tragedy of so many immigrants who invest their lives seeking a better life in the metropole and in the end fail to reap the results. There are some true morals and lessons to be learned from the narrative, as indeed from the lives of all persons we come into contact with, whether real or fictitious. I think the foremost lesson is one about living decent lives so that in the end we can “go to our ancestors, bearing a full calabash”. The multiplicity and permutations of sexual relations and spousal infidelities (for example, ’Gatha and Eustace, Eustace and Shirley, ’Gatha and Leon, Leon and Doreen. ’Gatha and Jack) are definite cracks in calabashes that do not portend for rich blessings, even though many of these relationships are inevitable developments from unfortunate circumstances in which the characters find themselves.

But these unfortunate circumstances arise because, according to Leon, “every Tom, Dick and Jack Rabbit tryin’ to get on a flight out uh dis place”, and not taking full cognizance of the cost of separation. As Leon puts it, “marriage is a funny t’ing. Fuh it to wuk, it need to have boat people present in it.”
The most serious lesson therefore is that one must carefully weigh all the costs – the social and opportunity against the economic gains before deciding on separating from your family to enter the U.S. and live as an undocumented person. This is a good lesson for so many Guyanese wanting to come by the “back-track” route.

But then again, many of us whose umbilical cords are buried in Guyana’s soil, including Brenda DoHarris’, have been out of Guyana for so long that we are sentimentally stuck in some time warp, two, maybe three and four decades ago, and can only write in nostalgic idealism. Perhaps we do not realize that Guyanese no longer need to make those types of sacrifices that DoHarris writes about to make it rich. There are easier, faster methods of making a killing (pun intended) right there in Guyana.

Brenda DoHarris has done justice to this work. For people with some colonial or post-colonial experience, reading Calabash Parkway is a must. For our children, especially of the second generation, who were born in the U.S., it would be an education for them to learn and appreciate how their parents struggled and suffered to progress in the U.S. There certainly needs to be more documentary narratives, like this, of the lives of Guyanese immigrants in the U.S.

Brenda Chester DoHarris, born in Guyana, was actively involved in the Guyanese political struggle for democracy in the nineteen seventies. She received a PhD in English and is currently professor of English at Bowie State University in Maryland. She previously authored The Coloured Girl in the Ring.

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