On Monday, May 22nd, I revisited Chapter One of my two-year-long neglected work in progress. As I revised the chapter, the familiar thrill of creating images with words surprised me. Once again, I was eager to engage with the creative process. I woke up in the mornings with ideas for improving or adding to the text. What a joy!
Since last working on this chapter in January 2020, I found it easier to “kill [my] darlings”—words, phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs. While maintaining the purpose of setting the stage of the world in which the featured women fought for agency in their lives, I found it challenging to cut and tighten critical historical information. Although the players in our own time have changed somewhat, women and minority groups are still fighting the same battles.
To establish the author as a participant-observer in the lives of these women, the narrative also contains autobiographical information. The author, like all the players on the stage, shares their legacy of severed ancestral roots.
Regardless of the efforts of some among us to rewrite or erase America’s brutal history, the legacies of slavery and colonialism continue to impact our lives at home and worldwide.
In all the years during this life, my voice within has never fallen silent. Until now. It was an imperceptible change. The moment of realization came as a surprise, but I did not panic. Only an inner calmness.
No inner voice telling me I was not good enough. No inner voice telling me I had deserved every punishment suffered for one failure or the other. No inner voice telling me what I should or should not do. No inner voice criticizing my decisions and actions. No fictional or real-life character demanding to be heard.
When measured by the word-count for my third book in progress, Year 2022 was not a productive one. All my efforts to refocus and get back on track produced only a rewrite of the Introduction and Chapter One. Two major events early in the year derailed my efforts: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and my reading of Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (UK & USA 2021), edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read.
What is wrong with the Men in Power of our world!? How can we waste human energy and taxpayers’ money on war games when humanity is faced with an unraveling climate and ecological crisis? More than ever, our society needs more women in top decision-making positions worldwide. After all, we are the ones who suffer the most when calamity strikes our communities.
Until recently, I have paid little attention to parents protesting about books they would like to remove from the shelves of their school and public libraries, alleging moral corruption of their children. Since I don’t enjoy the privilege of seeing my novels on the shelves of libraries, I had no cause for concern. Then, the article “Forty Years of Banned Books Week” by Priscilla Wu, published in the September/October 2022 issue of the Poets & Writers Magazine, grabbed my attention.
It turns out that book challenges for the eight months into 2022 is set to exceed last year’s alarming record, according to a press release on September 16 from the American Library Association (ALA) ahead of Banned Books Week (September 18-24, 2022). ALA documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library books and targeted 1,651 unique book titles. Compare these numbers to the year 2021 when 729 attempts of censorship targeted 1,597 books, then the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling these lists more than 20 years ago.
For this week’s Sunday post, I had planned to share my reflections on “shifts in being” needed for deep adaptation to our planetary climate and ecological existential crises unraveling in real time. While regions of our planet face heat waves, wildfires, droughts, floods, and other Acts of God, our political leaders fumble, grumble, and stumble to implement the solutions proposed and agreed upon at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences held since its establishment in 1992.
I could not find the right framework to put my reflections into words. By the end of my workday on Friday evening, I had scrapped four unsuccessful attempts. After clearing my mind with a touching father-daughter movie, Don’t Make Me Go (Prime Video, 2022), I returned to my writing task shortly after 10:00 p.m. At 2:24 a.m. of a new day, with frustration taking hold, I scrapped another four drafts and went to bed.
Since March, fifteen months after putting my current writing project on hold, I have been struggling to get back on track. Lots of false starts. Wasted words. Is my writer’s block an aftereffect of my first encounter in January with the coronavirus? Is it the new medication that my doctor has prescribed to lower my high blood pressure? So much has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Our world has changed. I have changed.
I suffered yet another blow with the discouraging news from the United Nations about our slow global response to reducing carbon emissions. Instead of working to cut our emissions by levels recommended by the global climate science community, we continue to release carbon dioxide at renewed speed into Earth’s atmosphere. A more recent report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), released on May 10th, presents an even more dire situation for humanity. We face a 50:50 chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C [2.7℉] above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the next five years – and the likelihood is increasing with time. What’s more, there is a 93% likelihood of at least one year between 2022-2026 becoming the warmest on record and dislodging 2016 from the top ranking.
Faced with this reality of life on Earth, my writing project about the woman as a social construct seems meaningless. Is this the best way of living out my elder years during this cycle of life? Should I focus more on our global existential climate and ecological crisis? That night I went to bed filled with anxiety and doubt about my path ahead.
What a year! With the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 still upending our lives, the year 2021 has taught me that, with constant adaptation to ever-changing conditions, I can endure. The coronavirus had already taken over 385,000 American lives when I watched in disbelief the live TV broadcast of the January 6th assault on the US Capitol building. Terrorism had come home to American soil. Future generations may come to regard that day as the meltdown of our global War on Terror.
Nature’s ever-mutating, coronavirus terrorist has thrown our divided forces into disarray. When you cannot see the enemy, you are unaware of any imminent danger of a stealth attack. Underestimating the strength of the enemy can also lead to defeat and possible death. Instead of confronting our common enemy, we have turned on each other. Unable to agree on proven scientific strategies of defense against this formidable foe, we have sustained thousands of casualties within our ranks, especially among our weakest and most vulnerable members.
As the mother of an anti-masker and anti-vaxxer, I have learned to stay afloat amidst the tsunami of distrust, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. A mother’s love should not be conditional. Our adult offspring should be free to make their own choices. To reduce my chances of contracting the virus and suffering from its worst effects, I got both doses of the vaccine and, more recently, the booster shot. I continue to wear my face mask in public indoor spaces and maintain the recommended six-foot distance from others outside my household, where possible. Overcoming my fear of contamination when using the bus is a work in progress.
When I finished my first complete draft of The Twisted Circle: A Novel in 2016, the total word count of 92,602 had exceeded the desired 80,000 words that literary agents and publishers require for newbie authors. Subsequent revisions in tightening sentences and scenes did not achieve the magical number. In 2017, I took the undesirable and difficult step of removing a beloved minor character. This is known as ‘killing your darlings.’
Over the years, the phrase ‘to kill your darlings’ has been attributed to many famous writers: Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton, and William Faulkner. But many literary scholars credit British writer and University of Cambridge Professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, he recommended writers to “murder your darlings.”
After spending over a month researching details of her background, I killed off Sylvia Flores since her character played a negligible role in my story’s main plot line. It hurt. This fictional character was my way of memorializing a Filipino woman whose tragic, premature death in Guyana’s northwest rainforest region has stayed with me after all these years.
The real-life woman was the wife of the Filipino resident doctor in charge of the Mabaruma Hospital at the time I lived and worked in the region. Owing to the isolation of the region and lack of proper medical facilities, Guyanese doctors then and now avoid the post like a death trap for their medical career.
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.