A Review by Frank Birbalsingh
Kingston, Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 2002 pp.192, ISBN 976-637-065-6.
Sugar and Slate is a memoir by Charlotte Williams whose father—Denis Williams (1923-1998)—enjoys aniconic reputation among his Guyanese countrymen as painter, writer, anthropologist and art theorist. In 1946 Denis won a British Council scholarship that took him to England where he studied art, established his reputation as a painter, and married a Welsh woman Katie Alice with whom he had six daughters.
In 1957 Denis moved to Africa (Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana) where his young family lived with him for a time before they moved back to Wales and he later returned to Guyana. Sugar and Slate describes the author’s personal journey exploring her twofold identity as a person of mixed race, and someone who is Welsh, while the title refers to her father’s origin in a sugar producing British Caribbean colony, and her mother’s birthplace in the Welsh town of Bethesda, famous for its slate quarries.
Sugar and Slate is divided into three sections: “Africa” introduces Charlotte’s family history including, the meeting of her parents in London in the late 1940s, her childhood in Africa in the 1950s, and her adult life in Beiteel a seaside town in Wales in the 1960s and 70s; “Guyana” gives Charlotte’s impressions of Guyana following her reunion with her father there in the 1980s; and “Wales” provides her conclusive thoughts on identity and an account of her father’s funeral in Guyana in 1998. Despite a discursive narrative with much going back and forth between episodes, there is also a consecutive sense of chronology that springs almost spontaneously out of the author’s undaunted and unrelenting search for her true identity.
The end of World War Two heralded ideas of freedom and independence for former colonies like those in Africa and the Caribbean, and this explains why regular visitors to Denis and Katie Alice in London, at the time, included Michael Manley, Jan Carew, Wilson Harris and Forbes Burnham: “They were the Caribbean writers and artists and future leaders with visions and big thoughts. They were planning a different world.” (p10) Then Charlotte’s parents moved to the Welsh town of Beiteel where there were no Blacks, although Blacks were not unknown in Wales, for instance, in port towns like Cardiff and Swansea. In 1892 a Training Institute had even been set up in the small town of Colwyn Bay to train Africans as Christian missionaries who would return to Africa and preach the gospel. But racial prejudice reared its head when some Africans remained and intermarried. At any rate, in all-white Beiteel Charlotte felt alienated: “any associated reference to blackness haunted me. The word Africa alone did it to me for years.” (p.43) Although she was regarded as white in Africa, in Beiteel she was black: “I knew I stood for something but I had no idea what… black stood for nothing, nothing at all.” (p.47)
Denis returned to Guyana in 1968. He divorced not only Katie Alice, but his second wife Toni who was part-English and part-Scandinavian; and by the time he met Charlotte again, in Guyana, he had married a third wife Jenny, this time a Guyanese. From her arrival in Guyana in the 1980s, Charlotte was appalled by irresponsible work habits of the airport staff, and later by the harsh combination of poverty, breakdown, dereliction and distress that she witnesses: a lorry accident had pulled down power lines and half the city would be without electricity for days; sections of the Demerara bridge broke loose and floated away; a child who is knocked down by a minibus bleeds to death—no ambulance; and Charlotte picks up an elderly woman who had collapsed on the pavement after waiting all day in vain to see a doctor at the Public Hospital in Georgetown: “ The Burnham era had left a deep scar on the country’s economy—low wages, food shortages and high crime.” (p.112)
Charlotte’s observations and descriptions in Sugar and Slate are highly original and her writing nothing less than brilliant. For instance, when she visits Guyana’s tropical interior, she is: “humbled in the mighty cathedral of forest” (p.140) which, at night, becomes: “a sparkling vision of lights, flashing fountains of scintillating shapeless patterns across your eyes, like seeing stars from a blow to the head.” (p.145) And, to her, the Caribbean is: “a congregation of the dislocated and the dispossessed!” (p.149)
Meanwhile, her father emerges almost as central to the story as herself. Denis, after all, had written a novel Other Leopards (1963) in which the hero, Lionel Froad, is a blend of two competing characters—Lionel, his educated European side, and Lobo his emotional African side. This psychic conflict dogged Denis all his life, and in one of his frequent rants against colonialism he rhetorically asks: “How can you speak, act, create anything if your every thought has been shaped for you by the European… [and] your language has been relegated to the status of babble?” (P.53) He had also written books on art, and explored the pre-history of Guyana, while refusing funding for his research from Western sources or collaboration with Western academics. His daughter wisely comments: “He [Denis] had rejected the West but not the Western…he was rebuffing Lionel in his search for Lobo.” (p.115)
Yet Charlotte longed for Guyana as ardently as Denis had pursued Africa, and only at the end does she realise: “I had been chasing an idea of Guyanese-ness that would never be mine.” (p.184) The truth is she was neither Guyanese nor Welsh. She had to change “her perception of what it was to be Welsh or what it was to be Guyanese, or both.” (p.184) Charlotte concludes: “to be mixed race is not to be half of anything; mixed but not mixed up,” (p.191) and, in the end, she takes her father’s advice: “You have a symmetry with Wales you won’t find here [in Guyana] … Go back and find your own Wales… Go home.” (p.162) Charlotte does.