The Coloured Girl in the Ring: A Guyanese Woman Remembers
by Brenda Chester DoHarris. 1997
Reviewed by Gokarran Sukhdeo
For a long time I was not inclined to read Dr. Brenda DoHarris' book, having been influenced by a previous review of it.
Having now done so, I find The Coloured Girl in the Ring a most colorful, heart-wrenching narration expressed with the richest and most appropriate literary devices.
Sometimes the simplest of plots, well cultivated, often yield valuable returns of great morals and lessons to follow. As in Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and equally so in Steinbeck's The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, and Los Pasturas De La Cielo. The main plot of The Coloured Girl in the Ring tells the simple story of an anonymous girl, identifiably colored and Guyanese, of equally anonymous parentage (also born and bred from the bowels and bosom of BG), growing up to physical and mental maturity during the most turbulent and traumatic period in the history of the colony, and how she broke out from the stifling ring of poverty and racial insularity that gripped the country in the late fifties and early sixties. The "Ring", having a double symbolthat from which she yearned to break outand the other, that she dreamed to enter. A ring that the East Indian girl, Drupattie and her Black boyfriend (in one of the subsidiary plots) dreamed of, but never really materialized, a ring that everyone believed only existed far from the 'mudflats' of the colony, only reachable by skipping across the ocean, tra la la la la. A mockingly, laughable dream of a ring that no one really achieved. A dream not really realized by the protagonist (or the author) for despite achieving her life-long desire to leave the shores, and having attained great educational and professional heights in Washington, she still wrote (unconsciously) with nostalgia of the Demerara dew, the Demerara shadows, the Demerara breeze as if part of her remained in Demerara. Nor Steven despite his PhD and big Commonwealth job, he has four failed marriages and drank (like his father). A dream of Ragunandan' daughter, Drupattie, going abroad and becoming a doctor, demolished into the drudgery of domesticity.
The major characters are developed with a dramatic flair. As the events unfold they changefor better or for worse. Even the protagonist's father, always indomitable, falls and is "swallowed up by the cavernous mouth of the Mazaruni and he was no longer part of us". Eustace the policeman falls to murder and suicide, a victim of his own flamboyant folly. Only the women grew stronger, even Shirley, seen by some as "part of the great Black unwashed" was perceived by the protagonist, "like a sakkiwinki...to soar above the tightening circle [ring], to live her life as she saw fit, giving full vent to her emotions, free of the restraints the middle class imposed on themselves" But she was restrained all rightby the circumstances of time and place. She too, lived in a surrealistic "ring". Of timeshe was practicing an independence that was not yet born, so she had to die. Of placeshe spoke with, "something in her voice, the yawning distance in her eyesas though she had entered some strange foreign country across the ocean where she could not be reached." Die she did. A martyr? Maybe a heroine. Shirley had in life and words and in death, taught the protagonist things the classroom could not. The real villain is Balgobin. From a hard-working milkman being chased by pre-dawn dogs, we see, as events unfold, his personality emerging as one frozen in primitive cultural patterns, an evil omen whose spirit runs throughout the book, the epitome of racism, sexism and greed. His number should have been 0666, not the badge number of policeman, Eustace. He effectively destroyed the lives of Drupattie and Steven, and poisoned many others. But his villainess was probably superseded by that of the 'Kabaka' who was subtly alluded to be behind the violence, burning and looting in Georgetown.
Written in standard English, the dialogues generally are Guyanese in dialect and uniquely in Georgetown vernacular. The author goes even further in her linguistics in being able to present the different inflections of different ethnic/geographic/economic groups. Hence we are able to observe the difference in the way the people from Georgetown speak from that of the Corentyne, or the way East Indians say "gyal", Blacks, "gyurl", and the white colonialists, "gehl". But a special flavor, distinctly Guyanese, like pepperpot, souse and black-pudding, a flavor which cannot be provided by standard English, is the prolific use of Guyanese proverbs and colloquialisms which not only bring out the intimacy and cultural uniqueness of the people, but takes many a reader (outside Guyana) back reminiscently to a time and place this way of speech was common. You cannot help being transported to Guyana when you hear 'rass', 'kunumunu', 'eye-pass', 'pork-knocker', 'typee', 'kyat eat alyou dinner', 'overdo de do', 'tek she belly an mek buryin grung'. In addition, the author further enriches the Guyanese vernacular by creating her own Guyanese metaphors, similes, symbols, images, idioms and other figures of speech, such as "stream of blood snaked like a black camoudi, stung his pride like a deep, lingering marabunta bite, his voice cut the silence like her sharp black pudding knife, Steven skipped softly out of our circle [ring] and across the ocean to England, visitor from Red China. Note the contrasting image in, "tenderly nursing a warm enamel cup...she then pushed open and propped up a few more Demerara windows...settled her large posterior into the comfortable Berbice chair...she followed the fortunes of the (foreign) radio soap opera heroine, Portia, in the serial Portia Faces Life". Other recurring symbols such as the stray dogs keep chasing Balgobin, and blue-eyed Jesus looking down (chastisingly) from the almanac in Edna's kitchen, tell of the inferiority (feelings) of the laboring class. And carrion crows circling the coconut trees, while the neighbor's radio played Nat king Cole's non dimenticar, tell of impending death.
It is remarkable that the protagonist herself (or author) having spent half her life following the fortunes of English and American heroes and heroines, and trained in strict English curriculum, should be so successful in narrating in the Guyanese "language".
There are several lessons to be learned: one can be a supporter of the "Chief" and still take, "a stern view of looting and pillage" as in the case of the protagonist's mother; there is a serious lesson to be learned about sexual promiscuity and the fate that follows, and that marriage is more sacred than just placing a ring on one's finger; education may not necessarily remove racial prejudiceboth the illiterate Balgobin and the London trained 'Kabaka' were equally guilty. And that while ethnic differences always existed, racial violence was seeded, germinated, watered and cultivated by the political events after 1955. In other words Guyana's racial problem is not an historical one but a political one; and, is there really a "ring" or a silver lining that one can reach by skipping across the ocean? In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Pecola prayed every night for blue eyes. In her eleven years no one had ever noticed her. But with her blue eyes, she thought, everything would be different. She would be so pretty that her parents (the races) would stop fighting. Her father would stop drinking. Her brother would stop running away. If only she could be beautiful. If only people would look at her. When someone finally did, it was her father, drunk. He raped her. In Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea, the old man made the greatest sacrifice (three days and three nights at sea) to bring in the largest fish ever, only to be robbed of it by sharks. And to add insult to injury, the sophisticated, capitalistic, American tourists, looked at the totally devoured skeleton and called that the shark Similarly, in Steinbeck's The Pearl Kino having found the largest pearl, which the thought would solve all his material and social problems, eventually threw it back into the ocean.
But the most serious lesson is sad one. One of lack of empathy. We have been made to see that while Blacks and Indians have lived next door to each other for near two hundred years, worked side by side while their children played with each other, while the two races mixed in many ways, they never really knew each other. There was no real empathy between the races. What was it they ate, how they ate it, using what wares and cutlery, how was it cooked, how was it earned? Did they also hurt and cry and bleed? Did they offer each other or ask of each other food, clothing or financial help for funerals, sicknesses, etc? What words comprise their cultural vernacular? Do Indians really know about 'child-father, que-que, bambye, fufu'; and do Blacks understand simple Hindi and Arabic terms commonly used in the Guyanese household?
Finally, is the author's voice, personality, opinion or judgment seen in the novel? Without doubt there is a strong pride in being Guyanese, Black and professional woman. She is proud of her parentage and recognizes the sacrifices they made to make her what she became. Like Grace Nichols in her book, Whole of a Morning Sky, DoHarris does not commit herself to make an opinion or judgment about the violence of the sixties. While she is traumatized by the tragedy of Steven and her best friend, Drupattie, she refrains from voicing an opinion on the sensitive issue of inter-racial marriage. Is the author weak or does she have a high sense of moral value? Does she have her head in the sand?
The Coloured Girl in the Ring is really a tragedy of many lives broken and lost as a result of colonial oppression and the racial conflicts of the sixties. But most of all it's a tragedy of a nation that cannot unite and must inevitably face demise. Hence, I feel the novel should have ended at the peak of emotion, at the point where Steven drains his glass and someone inside the 'Kaieteur' restaurant in Washington puts on Eddie Hooper's Passing Memories. The flashbacks of the following two chapters should have preceded this event.
All in all, Dr. DoHarris has done ample justice to the chronicle. The Coloured Girl in the Ring is worth reading again.
Dr. Brenda DoHarris was born in Guyana. She lived in Kitty where she grew up. She is now a professor of English at Bowie State University, Maryland. Her academic interest is post-colonial women's literature. She was/is politically conscious and takes an active interest in women's issues.