Biography

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Born in British Guiana in 1926 to Melrose A. and Jessie R. Heath, both teachers, Roy Aubrey Kelvin Heath lost his father in 1928. Heath attended Queen’s College in Georgetown after he graduated from Georgetown’s Central High School, and he supported himself from 1946 until his graduation from Queen’s College in 1951 with civil service jobs.

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Upon completing college, Heath moved permanently to London, although he continued to visit Guyana frequently. He received a B.A. in French from the University of London in 1956, having again held various clerical jobs while studying. He continued his studies in law and was called to the bar, Lincoln’s Inn, in 1964. By this time, however, he was married to Aemilia Oberli Heath, with whom he had three children, and he had been teaching French and German in secondary schools for five years. Rather than practice law, he decided to continue teaching.

Despite his residence in England, Heath’s roots are in the country of his birth. Much of his writing centers on Georgetown. Like many expatriate artists, Heath developed deeper understandings of his native country upon viewing it retrospectively, and often nostalgically, from afar.

In 1972 Heath’s play Inez Combray, which is set in Georgetown, was performed and received the Drama Award from the Theatre Guild of Guyana. In the play Heath tried to do what he attempts in all his work: to present a dramatic chronicle of twentieth century Guyana.

On one level Heath’s work captures the sights, sounds, smells, and speech cadences of life in Georgetown. Heath knows the middle-class neighborhoods of his youth, but he is also intimately acquainted with Georgetown’s slums, with their crime and poverty, and with the sordid streets of its red light districts. The play gives an accurate depiction of the whole city. Underlying this depiction, however, lurks another world, one that may elude casual readers or theatergoers. At this level is the world of Heath’s ancestors, the complicated world from which originated the myths and legends that pervade the lives of the Guyanese. The roots of these myths and legends are African and East Indian as well as aboriginal. The Creole society of Heath’s Guyana is cloaked in the secrecy and mystery that underlie his writing.

Heath’s greatest literary strength is his ability to penetrate and present individuals with an elusive complexity that causes readers constantly to reconsider their initial interpretations of and reactions to his work. An example of this is the presentation of the deaths of Bird Foster in A Man Come Home and Gemma Flood in The Murderer. In both instances the characters, because they overstep the roles women conventionally play in Guyana’s society and reject domination and subjugation, are punished with death; however, their deaths relate to their rejection of society’s rules only on a deeper level of interpretation.

In his three interconnected novels From the Heat of the Day, One Generation, and Genetha, a trilogy drawn largely from Heath’s own family history, Heath creates a panoramic view of life in Guyana from about 1920 to the 1950’s. His depiction of the Armstrong family extends from the marriage of Sonny Armstrong and Gladys Davis, which seems preordained to failure, through the lives of their children, Rohan in One Generation and Genetha in Genetha. The three novels, which present and examine the clashes of values that perplex their main characters and lead ultimately to their difficulties, are in some ways reminiscent of Reynolds Price’s interrelated generational novels, The Surface of Earth (1975), and The Source of Light (1981). One Generation focuses with particular insight on the divergent values of Rohan and the East Indian community in Guyana, from which Rohan’s wife, Indrani Mohammed, comes.

Underlying the psychological conflicts in most of Heath’s male characters, particularly Sonny Armstrong, is a sense of their own lack of worth. Nagging insecurities engender in them a need to control and dominate that leads directly to their personal tragedies. Heath’s psychological depictions of Guyanese men are particularly penetrating and psychologically sound.

In The Shadow Bride Heath shows how a docile woman, brought to Guyana from India for an arranged marriage to a rich but disreputable Guyanese, takes control, presumably by poisoning her husband, and becomes the dominant figure in her household, to the point of imposing her Indian culture upon her son, Betta. Kwaku, or The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut and The Ministry of Hope are rather lighter, picaresque novels relating the adventures of Kwaku Cholmondeley, a character that some reviewers compared to Charles Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick. Of particular interest to readers of Heath’s novels is Shadows Round the Moon, the first volume of his autobiography, which concludes with his departure for London. This book suggests the origins of Heath’s vivid fictional depictions.

Bibliography

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Akoma, Chiji. “Folklore and the African-Caribbean Imagination: The Example of Roy Heath.” Research in African Literature 29, no. 3 (1998): 82-98. Uses Heath as an example of the influence of African oral narrative and how myth reconfigures the aesthetics of black Caribbean literature.

Boxill, Anthony. “Penetrating the Hinterland: Roy Heath’s Guyana Trilogy.” World Literature Written in English 29 (Spring, 1989). Evaluates Heath’s writing well.

Harris, Wilson. “Roy Heath, The Murderer.” World Literature Written in English 17 (November, 1978). Worthwhile, although limited to a discussion of one novel.

McWatt, Mark A. “Tragic Irony—The Hero as Victim: Three Novels of Roy A. K. Heath.” In Critical Issues in West Indian Literature, edited by Erika Sollish Smilowitz and Roberta Quarles Knowles, 1984. Background information on Heath. Focuses on Heath’s depiction of women and their place in Guyanese society.

Saakana, Amon Saba. Colonization and the Destruction of the Mind: Psychosocial Issues of Race, Class, Religion, and Sexuality in the Novels of Roy Heath. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1996. Analyzes Heath’s novels from a position of colonialist theory.

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