Look, gyal. Look you, standin there and grinnin grinnin big. Your skin. You lookin like a ghost, nah. Your skin so white it hidin you.” I looked and I laughed too. I looked again. I stared, and then I knew that she was right. My shape was more a blank of space outlined by all the others. My edges in that photograph were defined by what was around me. My skin so white, my hair and eyes so pale, the ink dots barely there to fill in where I was.
—The Water Here is Never Blue
As an adolescent in Georgetown, going to an all-girls school, I wanted to fit in with my Guyana friends. I wanted to be Guyanese. At St. Rose’s high school, though, I was the only student among the 700 there who had blue eyes, blond hair, white skin. I was the easiest to spot each morning in assembly. I was 13 years old, naive and looking still just from my blue eyes out, not yet seeing myself from the other side of air. So, although I knew I was the only white kid in the school I was also unaware of how that really looked, what that meant, who that meant I was wrapped up in my pale pale skin. I hadn’t learned that what is all around us shapes the thing we are, marks our outer edges, give us definition.
They call Guyana the Land of Six Nations and my skin was right for one of those. I could be a Guyanese among my friends because of that list. And, I was. When I was told that I would stand with them, lined up to shake the hand of Tanzania’s president, Julius Nyerere, I was one of six, six nations of Guyana. And, for a while, I was very proud of that.
Six Nations, that confused me even then because they were listed as African, Indian, European, Portuguese, Chinese and Amerindian. In Guyana then it was important to identify yourself with one of these. Make sure you know from where your bloodlines flow. But, there’s a hidden message in that list. The question is, “Are you a bringer or a brought?” Are you a slaver or a slave? Or, are you one of the few, and always tacked on at the last, who just were always there?
That was when I began to learn about the politics of “us and them.” I started to learn in that moment when my friend Farida pointed out my near invisibility in the Guyana Graphic photograph of us shaking Nyerere’s hand. Soon I realized that even Farida—how could she not be Guyanese, I thought—could also feel unwanted, outside of, not part of what had just become the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.
This is one of the legacies I carry from my adolescence growing up in Guyana and on Timor, Indonesia where I did not belong, could not belong, in the sense that people of that age seek. I still find myself, more often than not, choosing to live in places where I am, more or less, not part of the majority. In Montreal I am not Francophone, not Quebecois, not even rooted like so many of my Anglo neighbours in these streets where they have lived for generations.
But, that’s not a thing I mourn. I am more comfortable being part of something that “is not.” There is an ironic sense of anonymity that comes with that, and, particularly as a writer, I find it’s a good place to be.