M is for Edwina Melville (1926-1993)

If we refuse to be persuaded by the Windrush myth that West Indian writing in the mid-century was comprised of novels written by men in diasporic locations, we can begin to notice and to trace a number of talented women writers who might well have achieved professional authorship, had they had the same opportunities that male authors had. Such opportunities include a metropolitan network and links to agents and publishers. West Indian women writers might then have been published in the cluster of anthologies that came out in the mid-1960s, and might still be taught to students of Caribbean Literature today.

Edwina Gordon was born in Georgetown to an affluent family, but fell in love with the Rupununi savannah and settled there after her marriage to Charles Melville in 1950. Her stories and accounts published in Kyk-Over-Al and broadcast to the West Indies on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices via London in the 1950s, render life in the hinterland with an affectionate and attentive creative sensibility and are energised by their enchanting blend of fiction and life-writing. A number of her poems were also published in A J Seymour’s A Treasury of Guianese Poetry.

In her first broadcast story, ‘Fishing in the Rupununi’, Melville describes a fishing trip taken by a husband and wife that is rich in local detail and names the trees and fish in Wapishana. ‘The Voice,’ broadcast a year later, is a brief but compelling vignette that centers on the moment when she heard the first short story broadcast with all the challenges and the excitements of listening in from her remote location.

Aware of her radio medium, Melville skillfully assembles acoustic imagery:

“Wispy rags of cloud stretch out across the moon’s face; so much space up there, cloud, stars and a solitary moon—air, air that is full of voices. Limitless dome of heaven so full of sound. Some men build slender steel pyramids to clutch the sounds out of the sky and transmit them for all the world to hear. Others simply press their hands together and their fingers form a pyramid that points to the sky, not to clutch so much as to pray.”

The piece draws a careful, respectful symmetry between new and old worlds, reversing the eurocentric gaze so that the New World of the Caribbean becomes an already occupied land, shaped by the particularities of the Amerindian peoples. Henry Swanzy, the then editor of the Caribbean Voices programme, was so struck by Melville’s story that he recommended it to be published in London Calling, the overseas journal of the BBC, where it appeared on the front page.

Melville’s illustrated book This is the Rupununi: A Simple Story Book of the Savannah Lands of the Rupununi District, British Guiana, was published by the Guyana Information Service in 1956. Her dedication to representing District 9 and its people later took political form when she became the area’s MP in 1985.

More about the author

The 2018 event “Raising Caribbean Women’s Voices” included a reading of Melville’s work by Prof. Tessa McWatt.

The book Bonds of Empire includes a section on Melville and her broadcast to the West Indies on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices.

Published by the British Guiana Writers Association, several issues of Kyk-Over-Al feature Melville’s work.

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