The other day, a lawyer called me a liar. Of course it was a joke (in self-defence at my casting nasturtiums at the integrity of the law profession), but it echoed an ongoing writing struggle that I don’t think I’ve talked about.
In choosing four Amerindians to write about for each week of Amerindian heritage month, I have begun and aborted many descriptions. First, take out the people who might read it and mind. Next, take out the venal, the drunk and the corrupt. Last, take out anyone about whom I have negative impressions on a slim acquaintance because, in my experience, it’s extremely easy to be unfair about people you don’t admire.
I slightly fear the resultant Dharma bunny accumulation. I do not want to glorify Amerindians in the way that so many people idolise Tibetans. Having lived in a 97% Tibetan town for a year, I will vouch for it that people are just people, and I believe that every city, town and village on the planet has its fair spectrum of inspiration, aspiration, ugliness and violence.
However, this is only the first, and easier, portion of the conundrum. The second is political. Guyana is, yes, a small society. On the coast everyone knows everyone, and even legitimate or verifiable criticism tends to go down like a chilli sandwich at an acid reflux convention. Double it if you’re a foreigner. Innocent of this at first, in the interior, on the one instance where I spoke unguardedly it blew up in my face like a blunderbuss stuffed with broken glass and rusty nails. I’m still picking the bits out. This limits not just freedom of speech but trust. And I can’t tell you about it.
So how can I sharpen the focus on what it is I’m not telling? I’ll give an illustration from that year on the Tibetan Plateau. The college president there is a grease of a man, who keeps his eyes half-shut to prevent their barrenness leaking into his permanent half-smile. A heavy gambler with a beautiful, silent, forbearing, unmanned wife. A heavy drinker whose favourite food is the gristly tendons from a goat’s back hock. A man who allegedly stole the whole of the college’s caterpillar fungus crop- he certainly rebuilt his house on the proceeds of something. One does not have altercations with this man; seabirds don’t have altercations with oilspills. The nearest I came was when I found a notice on a lamp-post downtown proclaiming that I would be staying for the whole of the summer vacation to give lessons in Business English to anyone who could pay (him, naturally, not me). As a VSO I was forbidden (and would also have refused) to give lessons for profit, even had I been lunatic enough to sacrifice my six weeks of hard-earned oxygen-rich air down in Xi’an. So VSO, bless them, had the altercation on my behalf. He was a significant player in that experience. My sister Ruth once accidentally made a cake with no flour in it: that’s pretty much what you’d get if I described that year without him in it.
But to a certain extent that is what I have been doing in Guyana. I have four people-descriptions tucked away that I would dearly love to load but know I never will. Cathartic to write, but Guyana will not forgive me if I make them public. Of course the contrast is partly due to the fact that almost no-one from the Tibet year can read English. But it is more than that. I think Guyana is extremely touchy about its dirty linen. Coming from a Britain where we practically compete with slagging each other off as a nation, it’s easy to fall foul of a sensitivity that is uncustomary to us. And I suspect there’s a kind of inverted disingenuous snobbery in the way a powerful country denigrates itself. I think I’ve learnt my lesson (a year ago I would have told you the Tibetan college president’s name!).
So self-censorship has run through the whole of 2009 and 2010. At one point, I actually started keeping a record of ‘the stories I didn’t write’. I look back through it now, and wonder with some amazement whether I have given any kind of genuinely evocative representation at all when I see the giant characters, the extraordinary frustrations, the pertinent and unnecessary obstructions that I have never described. It’s like expecting you to understand the dynamics of the Cinderella story with no ugly sisters and a curfew.
What is left? The truth, two-fifths of the truth and nothing but the truth.