While The Twisted Circle is a work of fiction, it has been inspired by real events that occurred during my final year in a Catholic convent in my native land of Guyana. This presented a challenge when creating unique characters who did not mirror the true-life individuals. To distance myself from the protagonist, Sister Barbara Lovell, I made her a dougla—a person of African and East Indian ancestry, the country’s two major racial and ethnic populations. With a family background much different from mine, her journey led to its own resolution for the character.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 when readers first meet Sister Barbara:
SISTER BARBARA LOVELL’S life was unraveling like the thread in the hem of her habit. Seated under the mid-morning September sky at the passengers’ waiting area at the Ogle Airstrip, she squeezed her thighs together and adjusted her habit hanging over her knees.
What had she done for Father Andrew Peterson to make his hands fast with her? She was just a plain dougla woman—a mixture of African and East Indian, descendants of slaves and indentured laborers fighting each other for supremacy in Guyana. Their thirteen-year-old independent nation still suffered from the hangover of British colonial rule.
Father Peterson, her parish priest and local-born son of a former British sugar plantation owner, was pale skinned like cow’s milk and tough like cane stalk. Her family had raised her to revere white priests like him.
Her Vow of Chastity was a personal choice. Perhaps, the same was not true for Father Peterson. Catholic Church law dictated that clergymen practice celibacy, yet the law did not stop him from forcing himself on her.
She tucked her sandaled feet beneath the three-seat wooden bench. Beside her on the left, Sister Angela, who had insisted on driving her to Ogle, chatted with a buxom, black woman. From snippets of their conversation, Barbara learned that the woman’s seventeen-year-old daughter had run off with a married man.
In her late forties, the white American nun had been her favorite teacher at St. John’s Catholic High School for girls. Those were the days before the government took over the church-run schools and turned them into co-ed public schools.
As a twelve-year-old in Form One, Barbara had difficulty understanding Sister Angela’s fast-spoken American English, different from British English. In the years that followed, the nun’s firm but kind and generous personality attracted her to joining the Religious Sisters of Christ the Redeemer—an American order with its Provincialate in Cleveland, Ohio.
Though Angela had become her religious mentor and friend, Barbara did not tell Angela what had driven her to move to their isolated sister-convent in Guyana’s North West District. Angela worshipped Father Peterson.
Only Hazel knew.
Seven years ago, in January 1972, she and Hazel, three years older, had entered the convent together. Hazel, too, had grown up in the countryside along the East Coast Demerara where sugarcane and rice lands jostled for sunshine and rain. As a black woman, Hazel understood how intimidating it was for Barbara to confront a white priest—and an older man at that.
Barbara wanted to report the incident to the Bishop; Hazel had disagreed.
“Anybody see him grab you?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then is his word against yours. And you know, in this country, the white man tongue never lie, much less a priest.”
When I began working on The Twisted Circle, over forty-seven years had passed since the year I had worked in Guyana’s northwest region. Yet, I could still visualize the convent in Santa Cruz (fictitious name) and the secondary school in Mabaruma, the administrative center of what is now known as the Barima-Waini Region. I recall the lethargy I felt during the first month or so as my body adjusted to the high humidity of the tropical rainforest. I recall awakening to the howls of baboons on my first morning in my new home. Later, I learned to discern the groans of the jaguars.
At the time, there was no electricity in the Santa Cruz Amerindian village. When darkness descended at six o’clock, our two Jesuit parish priests in the presbytery, located on the top of the Santa Cruz hill, turned on their generator that supplied energy to the presbytery, church, and convent. Lights went out at ten o’clock at night. The convent had a refrigerator that ran on kerosene oil. It was so old that it did not preserve food very well. Potable water came from a large wooden cistern in the backyard.
My only existing record of the year I spent at the Santa Cruz convent is an unlined school notebook with crayon drawings of the variety of moths that visited my room at nighttime. The setting would not be complete without them. Below are a few of my drawings of my nightly visitors.