Roy A(ubrey) K(elvin) Heath Biography
Roy A.K. Heath comments:
Nationality: Guyanese. Born: British Guiana, now Guyana, 1926. Education: Central High School, Georgetown; University of London, 1952-56, B.A. (honours) in French 1956; called to the bar, Lincoln's Inn, 1964. Family: Married Aemilia Oberli; three children. Career: Treasury clerk, Georgetown, 1944-51; clerical worker, London, 1951-58; primary school teacher, Inner London Education Authority, 1959-68. Since 1968 French and German teacher, Barnet Borough Council, London. Awards: Guyana Theatre Guild award, 1972; Guardian Fiction prize, 1978; Guyana Literature prize, 1989. Agent: Bill Hamilton, A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA.
A Man Come Home. London, Longman, 1974.
The Murderer. London, Allison and Busby, 1978; New York, Persea, 1992.
Kwaku; or, The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut. London, Allison and Busby, 1982.
Orealla. London, Allison and Busby, 1984.
The Shadow Bride. London, Collins, 1988.
The Armstrong Trilogy. New York, Persea, 1994.
From the Heat of the Day. London, Allison and Busby, 1979.
One Generation. London, Allison and Busby, 1981.
Genetha. London, Allison and Busby, 1981.
The Ministry of Hope. London and New York, Marion Boyars, 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Miss Mabel's Burial," in Kaie (Georgetown, Guyana), 1972.
"The Wind and the Sun," in Savacou (Kingston, Jamaica), 1974.
"The Writer of Anonymous Letters," in Firebird 2, edited by T.J. Binding. London, Penguin, 1983.
"Sisters," in London Magazine, September 1988.
"The Master Tailor and the Lady's Skirt," in Colours of a New Day: New Writing for South Africa, edited by Sarah Lefanu and Stephen Hayward. London, Lawrence and Wishart, and New York, Pantheon, 1990.
"According to Marx," in So Very English, edited by Marsha Rowe. London, Serpent's Tail, 1991.
Inez Combray (produced Georgetown, Guyana, 1972).
Art and History (lectures). Georgetown, Guyana, Ministry of Education, 1984.
Shadows Round the Moon: Caribbean Memoirs. London, Collins, 1990.
A Man Come Home relates the story of a large working-class Guyanese family whose mores provide a striking contrast to those of their middle-class brethren. From the Heat of the Day and One Generation are the first two parts of a trilogy treating the condition of the middle classes in Guyana in the 20th century. Genetha completes the trilogy and shows the heroine faced with the choice of joining the Catholic church, returning to a life of prostitution, or living with her aunts in a stifling middle-class atmosphere. Kwaku is the tale of a trickster figure. Orealla, the unseen haven for the main character in the novel of that title, is real, yet imagined.
I see myself as a chronicler of Guyanese life in this century.
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Roy A.K. Heath's eight novels, beginning with A Man Come Home and concluding with the most recent, The Shadow Bride, represent a distinctive body of fictive insights into contemporary Guyanese society. It blends traditional social realism with local folklore and myths to dramatize the everyday lives of the poor and the lower middle class in the capital, Georgetown, and, occasionally, in the rural hinterlands. Indeed, it is this kind of blending, or interweaving, that makes for one of Heath's distinctive strengths as a novelist. The folk myths of "obeah" or voudun ("voodoo"), the strict orthodoxies of biblical morality, local legends drawn from Amerindian or East Indian sources—these all co-exist with the empirical "realities" of everyday village life, the familiar routine of middle-class home life, or the rough-and-tumble of the streets and slumyards of Georgetown's impoverished districts. Heath's is a world of popular beliefs and customs which determine the perceptions and choices of his characters; and the very diversity of values and viewpoints, not only within the community but also within any single individual, dramatizes the discrete complexities of the social milieu, complicates the very notion of moral judgment or social choices in the recurrent tensions between classes, religious traditions, and cultural backgrounds, and, finally, challenges conventional assumptions about "social realism" in prose fiction.
This discreteness also goes hand in hand with Heath's other strength—his ability to evoke a given environment and its social milieu (urban slum, middle-class neighborhood, rural village, and so forth), bringing to life the sights and sounds of a family dining room or a Georgetown whorehouse in vivid, richly suggestive vignettes. In his more recent fiction, especially in the impressively crafted Kwaku, he has shown signs of developing a flair for a lively, effective prose style as well as for credible characterization; but even in the previous novels where thinness of characterization and of style is often a problem, Heath's reader is always aware of a provocative intelligence perpetually raising questions about the nature of social reality and of moral judgments in a vividly realized world. These questions are integrated with recurrent themes which typify all of Heath's fiction: the inevitable obsession with material success in a society dominated by poverty, and the price of success as well as of failure; the conflict between the needs and desires of the private self and the restrictive conventions of a world in which ideals of family responsibility, social respectability, and moral conventions are paramount; and that unending war between the sexes in which mutual exploitiveness and shared dependency, hostility and desire all seem to mirror tensions and contradictions in human society as a whole. In turn all of these conflicts center on a fundamental dilemma which links all the novels, the dilemma of freedom: for whether the quest be freedom from poverty or from some intolerable marriage, Heath's rebel-protagonists must always wrestle, usually inconclusively, with certain unresolved contradictions—it seems all but impossible to flee from poverty without losing a part of one's basic humanity in the process of amassing wealth; the despised spouse (Heath's marriages are invariably wretched) is also an integral, indispensable part of one's self; and the young rebels against family and conventional morality soon discover that the target of their rebellion is also an ineradicable part of themselves.
In A Man Come Home the chief rebel is Archie "Bird" Foster who tries to escape from the poverty of Georgetown's slum-yards by entering into a liaison with one of the legendary "Water People" of Guyanese folklore, a "Fair Maid," or witch. She gives him unlimited wealth on condition that he returns regularly to her bed at her bidding. Now wealthy, he quickly collects the usual trappings of middle-class affluence—an ostentatious house in the suburbs, expensive habits, and a wife (in the person of his long-suffering girlfriend from the slum-yard). The legendary materials provide Heath with a rather obvious and ready-made allegory on the middle-class aspirations of the poor, and the moral cost of acquiring wealth in exchange for one's humanity—for the contract with the Fair Maid is, in effect, a Faustian pact. His marriage, his ties with the rest of his family and with his old friends all conflict with that pact, and when he reneges on his agreement with the Fair Maid in order to re-establish the "normal" relationships and "respectable" conventions of his society, she exacts the inevitable price: he dies in a car accident which also claims the life of his sister's children.
Bird's tragedy is not isolated, for even the most isolated of Heath's characters are bound up with their families and the rest of society. The deaths of the children therefore emphasize that Bird's tragedy has become a family disaster. His sister never recovers from her loss, and her marriage eventually collapses. At the same time his father's household continues the steady decline which actually started before Bird's misadventures. Egbert Foster, the father, tries, unsuccessfully, to establish peace in a home in which his mistress envies the social life and sexual activity of her young daughter Melda. She administers a savage beating from which Melda never recovers fully, spending the rest of her life as an idiot. In the meanwhile the older woman enters upon an affair with one of Bird's slum-yard friends (who is also Melda's lover), then betrays him to her husband's inevitable violence. Viewed in the context of the Foster family as a whole, then, it becomes clear that Bird's liaison with the Fair Maid is not only an allegory on the moral dilemmas of poverty and materialism; it is also a mythological re-enactment of sexual conflicts and contradictions. The weakness and domination, the mutual exploitation, the futile obsession with escape and freedom—these are not only the patterns of Bird's ill-fated liaison with the Fair Maid, but also the familiar, repetitive patterns in his family and among his friends.
This grim vision of sexual relationships dominates The Murderer, where the waste and mutual destructiveness of many conventional relationships are explored through the experiences of abnormal psychology—a narrative strategy which allows Heath to juxtapose images of the "normal" or "conventional" with patterns of "abnormality" in order to challenge settled assumptions about these terms. The murderer is an archetypal psychotic: Galton Flood has been scarred by a wretched childhood in which his sexuality and social instincts were repressed or warped by the ridicule and harshness of a domineering mother who also made life miserable for her husband. His parents' marriage is a model of the shared resentment and contempt which characterize sexual unions in Galton's world, and when he becomes an adult he is deeply suspicious of women, a suspiciousness that is aggravated by his general inability to socialize. When he does marry, he chooses a wife whose prior experience (with an older lover and a dependent but unloving father) has convinced her that men are unreliable and weak beneath the usual male bravado. The marriage quickly fails because of Galton's jealousy and because of the unsociability which prevents him from developing a stable career. His jealousy is the first symptom of criminal insanity. He kills his wife, and although he confesses the murder to both her family and to his own, he is never brought to justice. He ends up, instead, as a street derelict, a relatively harmless idiot who is supported by his kindhearted brother. Galton's inability to function as part of the family unit or in society at large is partly counteracted by the generosity and family loyalties of his older brother; but Heath's main achievement is to evoke ironic parallels between Galton's "abnormal" obsessions and those familiar habits of possessiveness and abusiveness which characterize the sexual relationships of "normal" people. "Abnormal" psychology is as much an allegory of the "real" world here, as "supernatural" events are in A Man Come Home.
Heath's other family tragedy, the tragedy of the Armstrong family, is the subject of his Georgetown trilogy, From the Heat of the Day, One Generation, and Genetha. The first work traces the history of the parents' marriage (Sonny Armstrong, from a poor, relatively uneducated background, resents his wife's middle-class family even before he marries her). It is a history of failing affections and growing isolation on both sides, a growing misery which inevitably affects the two children, Genetha and Rohan, and which concludes with the death of Mrs. Armstrong. Her misery, at least, ends with her death. He drowns his in drink, until he dies as a derelict pensioner, early in One Generation. The second novel describes Rohan's flight from the Georgetown family home, away from the possessive caring of his sister, to a Civil Service job in rural Guyana where he falls in love with a married woman while living with her sister. He is killed by his impoverished East Indian assistant who envies him his social standing and relative prosperity. His murderer is never discovered, and his impunity reinforces the grim realities which lend an air of inevitability and repetition to the trilogy as a whole: Rohan's personal life has been as wasted as his parents'; his sexual relationships have been equally fraught with betrayals and exploitation; and he, too, leaves behind him a legacy of hurt. The inheritors of that legacy are Dada, the mother of his unborn child, who has been victimized by his duplicity with her sister, and his own sister, Genetha, whom he has abandoned to face life alone as a single, inexperienced girl in Georgetown. Finally, in the third part of the trilogy, Genetha recalls her late mother by virtue of her loneliness and isolation, her inability to develop satisfactory relationships with men, and the perpetual tension between her need for the middle-class respectability of her mother's family and her dislike of the family's suffocating propriety. She ends as a total dependent on the family's former maid, now a very successful "madam" of a Georgetown whorehouse (another "success" acquired at the cost of one's humanity). Esther, like Mr. Armstrong before her, despises the middle-class attitudes of Genetha and the late Mrs. Armstrong, but the eventual bond between Genetha and Esther transcends the barriers, for it has been strengthened by their common experiences as women in a world of weak, bullying men.
Kwaku, the hero of the novel of the same name, is no bully, but he is another weak, insecure male whose dependency on his wife (Gwendoline) and his close, lifelong friend (Blossom) has been intensified by the fact that as a social misfit he has never made friends among the villagers with whom he has grown up. Like the other figures of poverty in Heath's fiction, he tries to make money, succeeding for a while as a "healer" in the small town of New Amsterdam. But his insecurity, his need to brag and command respect, leads to his downfall: he runs afoul of the village fisherman when he fails to "cure" the latter's family problems. The fisherman retaliates by resorting to obeah: Gwendoline becomes blind and the family sinks into utter destitution. Kwaku's children rebel or are forced to leave home for sheer survival, and both Kwaku and Gwendoline end up as a drunken pair of derelicts in New Amsterdam. It is worth noting that, to his credit, Kwaku never deserts his family in order to resuscitate his business as "healer"—despite the fact that the expenses of supporting a blind wife and eight children make it impossible for him to start up his business again. But the familiar irony with which Heath handles family and love remains the final judgment here. Kwaku is loyal to his family because he needs them. As he himself recognizes, his love for his wife is a kind of possessiveness—a possessiveness which we can easily recognize, in some of its most repulsive forms, in Gwendoline. Unlike Gwendoline, Blossom is fiercely independent—but her own marriage survives, after a fashion, because she has bullied her own husband into his (accepting) place, even manipulating him into "accepting" a child which, he himself knows, he never fathered. In the uncompromising realism of Heath's 20th-century vision, Wilfred's marital happiness with Blossom is the happiness of the Swiftian fool in A Tale of a Tub—a state of being well deceived. It is the kind of "happiness" which exemplifies the solid achievements and rich possibilities of Heath's narrative irony.
—Lloyd W. Brown