Cultures on the Cusp in 1970s Guyana
– a review by Chris Cormack in the Hastings Online Times
A newly published book by author and Hastings resident, Rosie McAndrew, gives important insights into the nature of inter-racial relationships and an historically key period in the development of multi-culturalism, namely the 1960s/70s when old cultural props were de-stabilised and emerging nations were to develop a new cultural pride and identity, writes Chris Cormack.
Rosie McAndrew’s memoir Wordsworth’s White Wife works on a number of planes; as a simple memoir of an extraordinary relationship with the odds set against it; as a historic memoir of two nations on the cusp, sixties’ Britain self-questioning of long held hierarchical and ethical codes of society and Guyana (formerly British Guiana) seeking its own new cultural identity after recent independence from Britain in a cultural ‘melting pot’ that reflected multi-racial Guyana. Given Rosie’s philological background (French and Spanish), it is also a fascinating exploration of linguistic melding and development, as creole language and culture is brought to prominence by a remarkable man for the cultural recognition that it undoubtedly deserves. Through the linguistic devices the reader is able to glean important insights into life and culture in 1970s Guyana.
It was indeed a cultural fusion of Guyana. Dutch, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Hindi and West African words and mores. This did not exclude the possibility of ‘racist’ attitudes from all quarters; Rosie has the intellectual honesty to unpick these a little in a tolerant way to elucidate the 1970s mindsets that nowadays are so often met with intolerance.
Rosie’s experience in VSO and her BBC training for ‘Broadcasts to Schools’ in Guyana also put her in the best position to consider the implications of a nascent multi-culturalism and the ‘World’ perspective of the globalism that was to develop, all the more so as she, sixties flower child as she is, shunned the cocooned life-style of the average ex-pat, to participate wholeheartedly in local culture. As the book shows, her husband ‘Mac’ inadvertently immersed her in local culture by separating her from other ex-pats at an early stage – Rosie’s acquiescence did her credit and added to the book’s interest.
By the time Wordsworth McAndrew died in 2008, he had become a ‘National Treasure’ in Guyana and the voice of Guyanese ‘folklore’, the cornerstone of the new cultural identity. He stated: In my view, the folklore of a people is at the root of their being, and to cast it aside is to set oneself adrift culturally – an act which one performs at one’s peril. ‘Folklore’ covered language, ritual, music, folktales, ring play games, but the book also highlights Mac’s (and Rosie’s) interest in culinary culture, a lipsmacking view of Guyanese cooking – delicious sounding!
In the same year as their marriage in 1970, Mac published a pathfinder book, Guyana – A Cultural Look‘, and in 2002, six years before his death in 2008, the Guyana Folk Festival Committee established the Wordsworth McAndrew Awards to celebrate creative Guyanese talent, many of whom were unrecognized during their lifetimes.
Given that Mac became such a national institution, championing local cultural identities, one wonders what narrow-minded people might think of such a person marrying a white woman from a very alien cultural background. Mac was interested in global culture sufficiently for this not to matter, but the marriage was not to last and the book describes the stresses and strains that can accompany a multi-racial relationship at the best of times. Modern inter-married partners can probably identify with this still; how much more so would these stresses be in the background of 1970s intolerance and lack of understanding?