On May 26, Guyana celebrates 51 years as an independent nation. Independence did not come easy. Worker strikes, riots, lootings, burnings, beatings, rape, and killings turned the coexistence of the country’s multi-ethnic population into a toxic stew of animosity and mistrust. The so-called “racial disturbances” of the 1960s drove hundreds from their homes. Those who could, fled overseas.
In his collection of sixteen short stories, Down Independence Boulevard And Other Stories, Guyanese-Canadian author Ken Puddicombe, who migrated to Canada in 1971, takes us within the homes of families faced with racial violence and upheaval. With the keen eyes of a master story teller, Puddicombe lays bare their ruptured lives and re-invention as immigrants in a foreign country.
In “Black Friday” – the day that the capital’s commercial district burned out of control – Augusto Dias, a widower with four sons, sobs at the total loss of his life’s work. The thirteen-year-old son has never seen his father cry.
“Sounds in the Night” takes us to a village in the bauxite mining region. Lata, a mother of four whose husband Rahim owns a barbershop, knows that something is amiss when dogs, chickens, cows, and donkeys sound the alarm—fire. When her neighbor warns her family to leave fast-fast before the crazed mob arrives at their doorstep, Lata hesitates. How could they leave everything for which they had worked so long and hard?
The flight overseas to escape the violence fractures families. Three of Lata’s children leave for Canada, England, and the USA. Their return to Guyana ten years later for their father’s funeral, recounted in “The Family Picture,” is a heartbreaking story of separation and loss.
Augusto’s sons also go their separate ways. During his final days, none of his sons are at his side. Only two sons return to attend his funeral. The brothers’ brief reunion in “The Return of the Prodigal” is a tale of regret and guilt.
In “A House Is Not a Home,” Muniram’s wife, Cassandra, leaves him in Guyana to migrate to Canada with their two children, one and five years old. Muniram joins them later. On his retirement, his wife and adult children do not share his dream of returning to the land of their birth. “[Dad], can’t you see that you can never go home? Home is here, now, in Canada,” his son tells him.
In the final seven stories, Puddicombe takes us to Canada and the United States. He is at his best in “The Last Straw,” where we meet Lata’s unhappy daughter, Zorina, in her Toronto home bought with money from her work as a seamstress. Her husband, his mother, and sisters treat her like a servant.
For other immigrants, financial success comes at a price—divorce and family disintegration. Childhood friendships turn sour. A deceptive father robs a loving daughter of a future she could have had. Illegal immigrant Ram Persaud – a former prison warden in Guyana turned mailman in New York City – risks exposure after his heroism during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Racial violence disrupted the lives of the families living along the crater-filled Independence Boulevard – once a canal used for transporting punts of sugarcane to the factory – and sabotaged the future of the newborn nation.