At 72, I suppose I have resigned myself to the realization that I will never produce a major work of fiction, which was my intention when I returned to Belize from college in 1968. A lot of socio-political controversy quickly surrounded me on my return home, and complicated matters no end. The fact of the matter was that I was black-conscious, and with the boldness of youth, I made an unconditional call for the teaching of African and Indigenous (Mayan) history in Belize’s schools.
Despite the fact that the masses of Belizeans were in the throes of a determined, militant struggle for self-determination and self-rule, it became evident that the shadowy, secretive people who controlled the curricula in the leading primary and secondary schools in Belize, had no intention of opening up that curricula to the liberating influences sweeping the planet in the decade of the 1960s.
I was stunned, and very pleasantly so, when I began teaching at Wesley College in 1971 and found the Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s outstanding Things Fall Apart on the Methodist high school’s reading list. I believe Achebe’s inclusion at Wesley College would have been the influence of the previous principal, Rev. Coleridge Barnett, and perhaps his wife, Catriona (both deceased).
Be that as it may, with no real evidence, I am willing to wager that Achebe was not on the reading lists of the Roman Catholic and Anglican high schools at the time. In 1971, then, the Methodists were taking the lead, kinda.
As a writer of poems in the 1970s, I’ve been modestly honored in Central and Great Britain for specific poems, but this has never happened in the power structure circles of education in Belize. As I said before, there was controversy from the very beginning in 1968, and so be it.
My younger brother, Colin, however, who spent his younger years as a fisherman and as a farmer, eventually began to produce quality fiction work which was deserving of inclusion on local reading lists in the schools. And, Colin was not controversial. He is “Baymen’s Clan.” More than two decades have passed, however, and it has not happened. Colin’s work is in the wilderness.
If the shadowy, secretive power structure does not include you on their school reading lists, you will wither and die as a writer in Belize. The statement is almost categorical. I guess the writer who has made the most money in Belize is someone who does not consider himself a professional writer as such, and that is the attorney, politician, diplomat and scholar, Assad Shoman. The inclusion of his Thirteen Chapters on Belizean reading lists led to multiple printings of his history book.
In any case, the main purpose of this column is to publicize the fact that our newspaper last week began the serial publishing of a novel by my late, much beloved paternal aunt, Mrs. Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan. She wrote the novel late in life, in her seventies and eighties mostly, while living in Atlanta, Georgia with her daughter, her son, and her grandchildren.
All of our interested family members were surprised when she finally completed the novel a few years ago, before she died tragically. It was not what we had expected. Aunt Chrystel had been a faithful listener to all the exciting, rollicking, sometimes rowdy stories told by my paternal grandfather, James Bartlett Hyde, a seaman and sometime bootlegger, and in fact the first time my aunt had appeared in print, to the best of my recollection, in the magazine Fun & Games, which was published for about six months by Cream, Ltd., in 1979, it was as a purveyor of some of her father’s stories which she wrote under the pen name, “John Direc’ly.”
This novel my aunt produced, however, was completely different in flavor, tone, and perspective from the John Direc’ly work. Aunt Chrystel’s novel was very, very serious, and in the beginning most of the Hydes were disappointed. After a while, though, I realized that the work had great historical significance insofar as creating a record and defining an era in our little country when our people were moving, on the individual and family level, from British colonialism to Belizean self-rule.
A whole lot has been written about all the party politics here in the 1950s and 1960s, but none of the individual stories have ever been told at the ambition level where the relevant socio-political phenomena were operating. In Beka Lamb and In Times Like These, Zee Edgell did relevant, important work on the era of decolonization in Belize, and she has been properly recognized. Mrs. Straughan’s work, I dare to suggest, is more deeply analytical from the standpoint of British Honduras’ colonial texture and flavor.
We are reproducing the novel chapter by chapter in the newspaper, in the first instance, and we have already confronted the issue of corporal abuse at the family and school level. British Honduras, few people talk about it in print, was a very violent society at the official level, and that violence is swept under the generalized rug of “discipline.” But under the British there were many Belizeans who perished on the gallows who were not guilty of murder in our understanding of it in the modern context. I’ve done research on this. We don’t discuss the brutality of the British in Belize, because, I guess, people want the Queen’s honours, but the violence at the official level in British Honduras negatively influenced the behavior of those in charge of homes and schools. Our parents and teachers felt the need to “beat down” our children.
I have done some mild, minimal editing on Mrs. Straughan’s novel, to increase its palatability to the reading public, but the vital gist of her story is certainly there, and I believe it will be worth your while to read the work. This novel took a lot out of Mrs. Straughan emotionally, because she was looking starkly at issues which Belizeans at the power structure level, to repeat, have been in the habit of sweeping under the rug in our lifetime.
Self-rule in Belize has represented freedom from the harsh level of official violence which the British had imposed on us. The question is whether that violence still exists in our society in a different form and in different places other than the Supreme Court and the gallows at the old Central Prison. Perhaps the word may be “subliminally.”
Power to the people.