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When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy

Written by Al Creighton for Stabroek News on no date provided

Janet Jagan’s collection of short stories for children was first introduced to me in England last year by my colleague in the faculty at Warwick University, well-known writer David Dabydeen. They were then being considered for publication by Jeremy Poynting whose press has released several Guyanese works, but their humble beginnings were explained. Mrs. Jagan, famous for her long career in Guyanese politics, had written them for her own grandchildren with no initial thought of publication. This genesis makes an accurate statement about the nature of these stories without doing [Grandpa Cheddi] much justice as a published book.

The purpose of the tales becomes obvious in some of them, particularly the title story, unfortunately placed as the first one in the book. It gives a synopsis of the early life of Guyana’s current president, Cheddi Jagan who happens to be the author’s husband. But it does little more than that and does not work as fiction and will not stand as an independent narrative as most of the other stories in the collection can. We only hear Janet talking to her grandchildren. As long as these narratives remained within the Jagan family this is the best opening piece, but once they become public property as a publication, ‘When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy’ is an injudicious and limiting title for the whole book, because few who have not read it will divorce it from the family or from the partisan politics with which the family is famously associated.

This is a pity because the book itself is innocent of any partisanship and if any reader knows nothing about Guyanese political parties, he will not find out from reading it. Also, must of the stories deserve to be taken more seriously than the title suggests. It is a very positive document as reading material for children and its appearance is made infinitely more important because of the literary wasteland that so many Guyanese have inherited where the habit and value of reading became alien to many local children. Further, those who do read know no strong tradition of Guyanese children stories although a few writers such as Paloma Mohamed have had some appearing in newspapers.

Printed stories have been foreign and the popular oral tradition of folk tales, like European fairy tales in their original versions, were not really meant for children. Janet Jagan provides largely Guyanese elements in what sometimes come over as moral tales and as educative pieces about the country’s fauna. Some of them do not quite make it as art, such as ‘The Baby Otter’, or ‘Melissa and the Hibiscus’, simply an encounter with a fairy of the European marchen variety, or ‘The Water Dog and the Monkey’ which builds up like an Ananse story but lacks an ending.

But not one of them is badly written as the author has a consistently clear, confident, neat and mature style in her narration which the most discriminating reader will appreciate. This is fortified by her talent for crisp and lively dialogue even where plots are slight. Her moralizing comes over very smoothly even where it is obtrusive such as her description of Grandpa Cheddi’s shooting birds as ‘a bad practice’ and her slight blemishing of the excellent tale of ‘Kathy and the Ring’ in which the moral is laboured in the final paragraph. However, the very moving story of ‘Kathy and the Ring’ is one of the most memorable in the book, which is effectively illustrated by Paul Harris who never fails to capture the correct expressions and give life and character to the various animals. (The publishers, however, describe him as ‘Guyana’s foremost cartoonist’, a title which Paul himself readily agrees belongs to his father, Hawley, who is the Caribbean’s best for satirical cartoons).

For literary and artistic value, ‘Kathy and the Ring’, ‘The Green Ship’, ‘Who was the Laziest Sloth?’, ‘Barney and Boris’, ‘Lily- A Daughter’s Love’ and the piece de resistance, ‘The Adventures of Prince Wai’ are the strongest in the collection. Anita Armadillo declares ‘I’m running a test on who is the laziest sloth. If this doesn’t work, I’ll try a poll. Everyone seems to be taking polls these days’ in a narrative that has the humour and cleverness of a Caribbean folk tale; while Mrs. Jagan’s best moment of literature is the sequence in which the various birds of the forest bestow gifts upon the young Prince Wai - written with the flavour of an Amerindian legend, its plot engulfs this ritual in which each bird gives a gift which vividly reflects the inherent quality in the bird itself while expressing valuable qualities which ought to dwell in each man.

It is a strong piece of fiction which any category of reader, except feminists, would admire. The tale, after all, is meant for children. But its world, like its hero is perhaps too perfect and like many of the other stories does not quite touch on the plain reality of Guyana in the way ‘When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy’, ‘Kathy and the Ring’ and ‘Lily - A Daughter’s Love’ which touches the harsher side of what could be Pomeroon River life, do. The world of some of the stories is fable, stress-free and raceless, living like Prince Wai’s people, ‘healthily and happily ever after’.

Would it were so.

This is a review of When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy

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