Guyana- A Poem

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

DOIN’ GREAT by Wendy Sargeant March 2021.


Perfectly white teeth

Open friendly face

Scintillating smile

Most times sincere

Though sometimes suspect

This, a now familiar greeting in this my new land

The usual pleasantries

How are you?

Awesome. Great. Doin’ Real Good.

Not …well. Like back home on a particularly excellent day

But, Amazing. Great. Real Good.

Seems they’re always Doin’ Good

These perfectly perky people. Casually confident

At home in their skins

The world their oyster

I’m here for oysters too

I have developed a taste

Quietly inching my way to

The table, where the smorgasbord of prosperity is set.

I came for such things.

Or …. so I thought.

But maybe, just maybe

What my seeking soul searches for

Is that clean confidence

Unburdened by history

Unworried by past wounding and wounded

Easily existing in the ether of entitlement

Me and mine

We’re still marred by the murky waters of the Middle Passage

Scarred by centuries of seeking solely survival

Marked by that message

You? You don’t count.

They’re wrong. Of course.

So wrong that thanks to my feisty and focused forbears

In lands that happily, never met Jim Crow

I too sit and sup

But it’s a precarious perch

And some will have me off it.

Below the table

There be dragons….. Still.

So I move. Careful. Cautious

How am I?

I answer like my Caribbean kin

Surviving

Poca Poca

Keeping my head above water boy, keeping my head above water

Comme ci, comme ca

Rolling with the punches


But, Doin’ Great?

Not by a long shot

Not yet, my friend. Not yet



 

Welcome Wendy and thank you so much for sharing your work on my blog. I was immediately drawn to it when you shared it in our writing group last month.

Can you tell the reader a little about the genesis of this poem? What are you trying to convey?

I have been quite fascinated, particularly since arriving in the US South, at the perkiness of the people generally. I remember when I first moved to The Woodlands my children were both, for the first time, going to be in full time school. I was planning on using my new free time to help people; to be of service to a good cause. But after a few weeks I was completely taken in by first the perfect physical appearances of people around me and their confident manner. I remember calling my sister and saying these people have perfect lives I can’t think what help I’ll be giving! Of course I was new and just seeing the surface of things, and a limited slice of life, but though I was an experienced adult I was still taken in.

It was also amusing to me that everyone was always having an extremely good day if you asked. In my culture people are far more reserved with their answers even when things are going well. I was wondering why that was one day and said to my father, maybe it’s linked to the fact that many cultures that came to Guyana held a traditional belief in the “evil eye” and thought boasting about one’s successes would attract bad luck. I suggested to him that maybe our responses are just an old habit we are not even aware of. He laughed and said: or maybe in our less prosperous economy we know that if people think someone’s doing really well they’re more tempted to ask for a loan!

I particularly relate to the second and third stanzas:

The usual pleasantries

How are you?

Awesome. Great. Doin’ Real Good.

Not….well. Like back home on a particularly excellent day

But, Amazing. Great. Real Good.

I love the hint of irony here as well as the “outsider’s” perception of the way Americans always claim to be doing great, with their “Perfectly white teeth, Open friendly face, scintillating smile” that you astutely describe in the opening stanza.

Can you tell the reader a little more about this observation? This is best noticed by a foreigner whose experiences with greetings are vastly different.


I have lived in various parts of America at various times of my life and feel comfortable here but it wasn’t until I started writing recently that I understood the depth of my feeling of otherness. It pretty much emerged from my subconscious in this poem because I didn’t set out initially to write about being an outsider. My accent is different, my use of words also quite different, and of course so are my experiences, and I realize that I find myself having to explain me quite a lot. That becomes tiring after a while. I know it’s not unique to me. Many newcomers must experience the same thing. It’s just that coming from Guyana, a pretty unique country (geographically South America, culturally West Indian; only English speakers on the continent; mixed race population with the majority originally from India) few people really know anything how that complicates things for me.

My family and I are here for work and for all the opportunities on offer but we don’t have the luxury of thinking this world is our oyster. I don’t know how long that takes to fully acculturate and maybe it won’t happen for me as a first generation immigrant. Hopefully it will for my children who can be American and still celebrate the culture they originally come from.

You go on to say:

These perfectly perky people. Casually confident

At home in their skins

The world their oyster

I’m here for oysters too

I have developed a taste

Quietly inching my way to

The table, where the smorgasbord of prosperity is set.

I came for such things.

Again, you drew me right into this world you create: the aspiration of the newcomer to America who is observing the native, who fits in and belongs. I remember such felt perceptions of not belonging from my own personal experience moving here 24 years ago. It seems as foreigners, our experiences are universal. Can you tell the reader a little more about this stanza and how it reflects your personal experience of acculturating to America?


I come from a mixed race, black and white family. In Guyana that is how I am identified and it has always been how I have identified myself. And I have always understood that in America there is still little room for that nuance. The systematic racism of the centuries in the United States is designed to identify anyone with visible (and even invisible) black blood as simply black. I used to resist this. I was always just here for a time and as an expat. My identity was mine. But having returned to America in the past five years, a time when the need for social justice has once again become clear and there is a new national understanding that racism is still as real as ever, I now also see myself in this country through the lens of race. That confidence and sense of belonging I see in Americans is a largely White phenomenon that is at ease either because they are ignorant of, or choose to be unburdened by the brutal treatment of Americans of African descent in this country. As someone with forebears who were slaves on another continent this knowledge affects me and heightens by sense of not belonging because I know how Americans with that history are still being treated today and that I can be also treated that way now that I live in America.

photo credit: Selman Family- Courtesy The Chung family


These lines ignited my curiosity “Unburdened History, Unworried by past wounding and wounded”and “We’re still marred by the murky waters of the Middle Passage”- Can you share a little more what they convey?


In Guyana we come from a past of slavery, indentured labor (another form of slavery in some views) and colonialism. We have a history, as do African Americans of what it is to be “other” or considered “less than” in one’s own land. What was different for me is first, people of color make up the majority of our population, and second, after slavery and colonial rule there was no continued systemic racism like Jim Crow embedded in our law. So that in my lifetime I did not grow up experiencing racism as African Americans of my age would have and still do. That gave me a confidence to go out into the world and to aspire equally. That’s not to say that racism is extinct in Guyana. Not by a long shot. These days its different and more of an Afro against Indo Guyanese struggle for political power and the wealth that comes with that.

A more overt reference to racial tension is expressed in the next stanza: “thanks to my feisty and focused forbears In lands that happily, never met Jim Crow, I too sit and sup.”

The first reference the reader has to your own cultural heritage is towards the end “I answer like my Caribbean kin”

Tell the reader about your Caribbean country of origin and how racism did or did not play-out within the culture.


I ended the poem with Caribbean dialect because it reflects my essence, and is still often how I speak. I am proud of my roots, my heritage and the Caribbean way with words. Our culture values wit and humor and much of that is best delivered and appreciated in dialect though of course we also speak and write the Queen’s English. Many of those responses to the question “how are you” are still what one would hear today in Guyana or the Caribbean.

I love the ending: you make more use of the Caribbean dialect, the multi-cultural aspect of it is revealed and there is also a sense that the author is still not quite assimilated. Can you elaborate on both points?


Guyanese multiculturalism is seen not just in the plethora of mixed or racially ambiguous faces that make up our population at home and abroad but also in our food. Guyanese people cook the food of our wide racial heritage. Our national dish is called pepperpot and is from our Amerindian or native Indian heritage. When tribes went out to hunt they found a way to preserve the meat from the hunt with a special cassava (a vegetable) based liquid called cassareep, which also happens to be delicious. We cook and eat curry and roti (our version of naan), Chinese food, stews with African roots and saltfish (bacalao) introduced during slavery and indentured labor days. One of my favorite dishes is garlic pork, a traditional Portuguese dish usually eaten on Christmas and New Year’s Days. I made it in Texas last Christmas for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised to see, as I researched recipes, that even Guyanese Hindus and Muslims who don’t eat pork or meat have now come up with their own versions of this dish like garlic chicken and garlic chickpeas which I had never heard of when I still lived there.

https://caribbeanpot.com/simple-guyanese-pepperpot-recipe/


http://guyanainc.biz/daily-updates/christmas-recipe-garlic-pork/


Is there anything else you would like the reader to know about Guyana, racial tension, multiculturalism or something else?


Guyana has always been and still is a country with great potential. We have one of the largest and most educated diasporas in the world per capita and great natural resources. Our old problems that drove much of our already small population away in the 50’s and 70’s are still the problems of today. Blacks and Indians vie for political control sometimes violently, corruption is rampant as are political inefficiencies. My hope still is that one day we can be the peaceful, harmonious and prosperous multi racial society we were meant to be and our mixed race population can teach others, even the great United States, lessons in racial harmony



 

Wendy was born in the UK to Guyanese parents and was raised in Guyana. She spent much of her working life as a Broadcast Journalist before retiring to start a family. Over the past years she has spent time living between Barbados, England and Texas.


 

Thank you Wendy for illuminating me and my readers on your beautiful country. I hope to have an opportunity one day to visit and explore all these awe-inspiring places, not to mention, to indulge in the cuisine.


Reader comments welcomed.


64 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All