The Atlantic Adventure
Kim Dismont Robinson, The Bermudian
Angela Barry has a unique way of looking at the world. And as anyone who picks up a copy of her just-published book Endangered Species and Other Stories will quickly realise, Barry, 52, has a real knack for capturing life's and humour. Childhood asthma helped her to become a writer. "I spent a lot of time out of school and had all these long hours to kill so I made up lots and lots of stories," says Barry. "I remember being in the midst of a severe asthma attack, and I remember watching my concerned relatives watching me." The experience of being both participant and observer, she says, was crucial to her literary development.
In the weeks before last Christmas, it became increasingly difficult to buy a copy of Endangered Species since they'd been selling so well. Bermudians, not surprisingly, are hungry to see recognisable details about their Island and themselves on the printed page. And part of the buzz about this book is that it wasn't printed solely for the local market. Its early release in Bermuda last November by Peepal Tree Press, of Leeds, England, is to be followed by distribution this year in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and the U.K. This makes Barry the first Bermudian adult fiction writer to have work released by an international publishing house since Brian Burland in the 1960s.
Don't make the mistake of thinking, however, that Barry or her book can be defined solely by constraints of this Island. Although Bermuda is the setting for three of the five stories in this collection, her portrayal also of African, British, Caribbean and American characters reflects a familiarity with different cultures of the African diaspora. "Doudou's Wife," for example, is about a 60-year-old Gambian, who after 40 years of residence in England, and liaisons that have produced "nothing but girls," decides to return home to find a traditional African wife. "Ceremony of Innocence" explores the cultural tensions that beset the Cote d'Ivoire elite, a society influenced as much by its former colonial ruler France, as by Africa.
Although Barry, the youngest of three children born to Madree and Edward Richard-- later Sir Edward and Lady Richards -- is unquestionably a daughter of the soil, the international scope of Endangered Species reflects a lifetime of migration. Barry left Bermuda at the age of 15 to study in England and spent more than 20 years living abroad. She attended universities in the United Kingdom and France and earned a master's degree in literature from the University of Sussex. She worked as an English teacher in England. She has also lived in The Gambia, Senegal and the Seychelles.
She returned to Bermuda in 1989, and published her first short story a year later in Palmetto Wine, which was produced by the Bermuda Writers Collective. In 1993, she won a James Michener Creative Writing Fellowship to attend the Caribbean Summer Writers Institute at the University of Miami. She describes that experience as "a watershed, absolutely pivotal in building confidence." There, she met literary heavyweights who would play pivotal roles in her life: Barbadian novelist George Lamming, whom Barry considers a literary mentor, and Guyanese playwright/filmmaker Michael Gilkes, whom she married in 1999. Gilkes, a contemporary of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, staged Walcott's play Remembrance at Hamilton's City Hall Theatre in 1998. Walcott flew to Bermuda to see the production.
Barry finished the manuscript for Endangered Species about four years after attending the Writers Institute. Her publisher, Peepal Tree Press, specialises in Caribbean, South Asian and Black British writings. Its promotional literature says the book is "undoubtedly one of the most significant works of fiction to come out of Bermuda, giving a glimpse into a society which lies culturally somewhere between the USA, the Caribbean and its British colonial past." George Lamming's endorsement, which appears opposite the title page, reads: "Endangered Species displays an astonishing virtuosity in bringing together the multiple narratives that define the Atlantic adventure."
Barry's literary accomplishments come as no surprise to people who recognised her talents when she was a brainy youngster. Friend and fellow writer Ronald Lightbourne remembers "a petite, meek person with an intelligence you could almost feel." He says that she has matured into a global writer, who, nevertheless, retains the ability to explore the complexities of Bermuda. "Her book raises the bar for all fiction writers on this Island," he says. "If you're going to call yourself a Bermudian writer, from now on you have to measure yourself against the quality of this book."
Endangered Species is not solely the result of Barry's physical relocations over the years. Education -- both as a teacher and as a student -- has been a driving force in her life, and it radically shaped her artistic vision. Barry began with what she considers a "very wonderful start" at Central School, which produced many of Bermuda's black leaders. She credits Edna Mae Scott's influence, recalling how the wife of Central's legendary headmaster Victor Scott, "had seven, eight, and nine-year-old children singing Bach and Handel in this tight, four-part harmony. There were island-wide competitions, and Central always won."
Barry also recalls the discipline and lack of choice that defined her early education. "The aspect of no choice was a great aspect of my Bermudian education. And it wasn't such a badthing. Your parents and teachers chose for you, and you were the recipient of the choice. I didn't feel in any way constrained, because that's what it meant to be a child. We had the burden of choice taken away from us. In a way, there wasn't then the level of confusion among children as there is, possibly, now."
At the remarkable age of nine, she attended secondary school. She remembers The Berkeley Institute primarily for the strictures of its British colonial education. "In our history classes, for instance, we were not given any structure to look at the world in which we currently were living. Similarly, in our studies in literature, we examined some wonderful writers, but there was never any suggestion that they were writing about us."
But at home, there was plenty of evidence to counter the prevailing view that literature was something produced by "other people." Her father came to Bermuda from British Guiana, now Guyana, to teach at Berkeley. Later, he became an editor of the Bermuda Recorder. After becoming a lawyer, and a politician, he went to make history in 1972 when he became Bermuda's first premier, and the Island's first black government leader.
During Barry's growing-up years in the 1950s, his teaching days were long behind him and he had a public life as a lawyer and Member of Parliament. But E.T. -- as he was known -- was well acquainted with the works of early Caribbean writers and eagerly passed on his knowledge to her. "I knew about a man called Edgar Mittelholzer because he was from Guyana," she says. "I read one of his Kaywana books and thought it was very racy. But these were books that had no place whatsoever in school; school books were there for exam purposes."
The Richards household was more international than most in the 50s because of her father's heritage and prominence. "Our parents always had people visiting from overseas, particularly from the Caribbean. I remember a time the whole West Indies cricket team came to the house, and I have photos of my dad with some of the great West Indian politicians such as Grantley Adams."
Still, Barry says her own literary talents were inherited from maternal grandmother Edna Louise Williams, who earned a place in history when she became the first black woman in Bermuda to cast a vote in 1944."My grandmother actually was a poet. My mother collected my grandmother's poems and published them in a collection called Little Bermudianas, which was very much about the natural beauty of the island as well as her faith." The other early influence she received at Berkeley came from outside the classroom -- in conversations with older schoolmate Ronald Lightbourne, who was born and schooled in the Caribbean. "Ronald was one of the first young people who spoke to me about contemporary literature," says Angela. "I was mightily impressed with Ronald because he was the first young intellectual that I had ever met, and he was the one who got me to read James Baldwin for the first time."
Barry left Bermuda to study for her A-levels in England at the age of 15. Her parents planned for her to attend boarding school as older sister Patricia had. However, Patricia persuaded their parents to allow Barry to live with her and enrol in a nearby comprehensive school Holland Park. It was then Barry embarked on a two-year journey, which she describes as "one of the great educational experiences of my life."
Barry says her time at Holland Park allowed her to "break out of the Bermuda mould," completely altering her perceptions of race and class. Until then, Barry was a product of a segregated school system. Indeed, her father had spent much time in Parliament in the 1950s, battling to overturn segregation laws. Holland Park, on the other hand, was a model for multi-cultural education, with an extraordinarily diverse population of more than 2,000 students.
"The school was a remarkably rich environment for me, a very sheltered country bumpkin from Bermuda," she says. "I stumbled into this place where my classmates were from so many different countries -- Cyprus, Iraq, Somalia, Venezuela. We had people from all continents. We also had the various social groups. On one end, you had the new immigrants from the Caribbean along with working-class whites. At the other end of the scale, you had incredibly posh people such as Anjelica Houston."
The purpose of the comprehensive model of education was to reduce the class-bound nature of British society, and several of Barry's Cambridge- and Oxford-educated teachers had socialist leanings. "Many of my young teachers came with a kind of missionary zeal to Holland Park and places like it, since it was seen as an opportunity to level the playing field for the first time. And it was fantastic."
Although her subsequent schooling at the University of York failed to provide Barry with the same level of intellectual excitement or diversity, her coming-of-age was, nevertheless, shaped by the changing times of the anti-war movement, the women's movement and the Black Power movement. "It was wonderful for me to be young at that time, because everything -- values, philosophies -- everything was up for grabs."
Although the radical 60s caused tension between many young people and their parents, Barry recalls that her family welcomed diversity. "The family was so strong, and my parents became very inclusive as they got older since all their children brought home foreign spouses." After spending two years studying French at the Sorbonne, Barry married Senegalese Abdoulaye Barry. Although they later divorced, during their years together, their two sons, Ibou and Douds, now 23 and 14, were exposed to a variety of cultural influences. French and English were spoken in the household.
Barry, who taught English at the Bermuda College for 10 years, currently teaches English on a part-time basis at Bermuda High School. Her earliest years as a teacher were spent in London's East End, which had a primarily working-class and immigrant population. In some schools in the area, the entire student body was learning English as a second language.
Throughout her challenging years in the classroom, Barry developed a nostalgic memory of Bermuda that had little to do with reality. "For me, Bermuda was frozen in time, and I imagined lots of quiet, polite, uniformed Bermudian students. I was seeing myself as I had been, as we had all been, in the '50s. So when I saw these children in England throwing lighted paper airplanes across the classroom, I thought, Oh well, at least in Bermuda everything is under control."
The fond portrait, however, was wiped away the moment Barry returned to Bermuda and worked as a substitute teacher. "I realised during those 20 years of my absence, Bermuda had changed beyond recognition. I didn't know or understand the children I saw, and it was very, very distressing." Out of that experience, the first story for which Barry became known in Bermuda evolved. "Song for Man" was published in Palmetto Wine. "The story was directly written after a term at a local secondary school, and I feature in the story as the substitute teacher who was totally mauled by her class," she says.
Although "Song for Man" marked her local debut, years before Barry has sent letters to her parents about motherhood after her first son was born. "They loved my letters and encouraged me to begin writing, but I didn't have the time. However when my son was in pre-school, I wrote a story called 'The Message' about my grandmother who had a white father. It wasn't the greatest story, but I felt fantastic writing it."
Since then she has written many stories fiction and non-fiction. The tales she selected for Endangered Species share common themes despite their marked difference. "There's a preoccupation in these stories with how we deal with difference of all kinds -- racial difference, class difference, differences of gender, and how we look at the whole notion of diaspora. These are things that have been a part of my life. Africa has been a major theme in my life, and how those of us of African descent locate ourselves. I needed very much to write those African stories, and I also needed to write Bermudian stories. Bermuda is much more complex than people give it credit for. It's an extremely challenging place to live, particularly for people who don't march to the drum of conformity."
The Bermudian pressure for conformity repeatedly arises throughout the book. For example "Where the Remote Bermudas Ride" -- a version of which appeared in The Bermuda Writers Collective's 1993 book An Isle So Long Unknown -- has a character who resists becoming a "glossy success story." In a mist on this theme, the wife Eve in "Voices of a Summer Night" has decided to conform to societal pressure. But as Barry notes: "Although she did all the right things, it still didn't work for her because it was done at a great cost. She had given up her artistic talent. "As an advocate for the arts, I believe we, like Eve, ignore our creative powers to our peril. We are in the realm of the spirit, and can't afford for that process not to be given its due. If so, we will have a society where the people are just as plastic as their credit cards."
The title story -- the longest in the collection -- is set in Bermuda and was inspired by a Dianne Reeves song "I Am An Endangered Species." Readers have been intrigued about its meaning. "Some people think it's about young black males. Some think we Bermudians are the endangered species. To be honest, several people are endangered species in this story. There are several types of persons whose existence is threatened in some way." She admits that she intentionally included a well-developed, sympathetic male figure, Mr. Bean, in the novella. "It would've been easy not to have him, it would've been easy to say he doesn't exist, but I think he does. He may be a rarity, he may even been endangered, but we all know people like that. However, the point is made that this kind of person is quickly disappearing. In a way, he represents what some people call 'the lost Bermuda.'"
Writing about life on a small island can sometimes be challenging, and Barry says when it came time to publish her stories, she realised locals would, undoubtedly, attempt to draw parallels between her fictional characters and real people. "But I can't take that on. You can't write anything unless you dip into yourself, but that can have many different forms. It can be your own personal experience, it can be people known to you, things you've overheard, things you've seen on the television. But as a writer of fiction, you have control over what you do. In this book, the characters are a mixture of all kinds of people."
Her writings are not restricted to characters who share her race, class and gender. "A writer can get into any head," she says. "You don't have to be a woman to write from a woman's consciousness. It's a little easier if you are, but you're not precluded from doing so if you're not. In the stories in Endangered Species, there are a lot of black characters, but there are white characters too. I didn't feel because I wasn't white, I couldn't write about white people. It would be ludicrous to give myself those kind of restraints."
Barry is currently completing Interior Monologue, a non-fiction account of a trip into the Guyanese interior. She has also started a novel. The novel will be divided into three segments which will once again, not surprisingly, assume the broad scope of the African diaspora. Bermuda readers will be pleased to learn one segment will focus on a small Atlantic island.
However, don't expect the characters in her subsequent books to be any less engaging, challenging or complex than Endangered Species characters Doudou, the embittered Bermudian wife Eve, the Ivorian beauty Joelle and Clarence Ellsworth Bean with the "brown weather-beaten face." After all, as Barry herself declares with characteristic wit: "Literature is not about easy answers."
This review relates to the book
by Angela Barry