H is for Roy A. K. Heath (1926-2008)

Although many women writers of the Windrush period have been particularly vulnerable to critical invisibility, it is also the case that talented and acclaimed male writers can slip from view. It is perhaps because, although living in England, Roy Heath retained his compelling literary gaze on Guyanese society that his works fell out of step with a canon of Caribbean-British writings increasingly focused on diasporic narratives. Almost an exact peer of Beryl Gilroy’s, Roy Heath was born in what was then British Guiana in 1926 and migrated to London in 1950. He read modern languages at London University and, like Gilroy, took employment as a London schoolteacher, returning often to Guyana in the holidays. Heath was later called to the bar in London and Guyana but never practiced law. Heath published short fiction in Caribbean little magazines, Guyanese Kaie and Jamaican Savacou, before his first novel, A Man Come Home, was published in the Longman Caribbean series in 1974 after he shared the manuscript with Anne Walmsley, who was then editing this important educational series. Recognising his literary talents, Walmsley recommended Margaret Busby and the emergent publishing literary house of Allison and Busby for Heath’s next typescript The Murderer (1978).  

This striking work won the Guardian Fiction prize that year and has since been listed in The Modern Library: 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (selected by Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin). An equally enthralling narrative of Guyanese lives unfolds across the Armstrong Family trilogy (From the Heat of the Day [1979], One Generation [1980], and Genetha [1981]), which was also widely critically acclaimed. Heath’s focus on the social complexity and political turbulence of Guyana and its disquieting human consequences both during and post-colonialism continued throughout his career. He published three more novels in the 1980s: Kwaku, or the Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut in 1982, Orealla in 1984, and The Shadow Bride in 1988, which won the Guyana Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Ministry of Hope, his final novel was published in 1997.

More about the author

Aftermath of Empire: The Novels of Roy A.K. Heath, by Guyanese writer and editor Ameena Gafoor, is the first critical study of Heath’s entire body of work.

A transcript of Heath’s lecture “Art and Experience,” focused on the sources of Guyanese and Caribbean fiction. 

An obituary by The Guardian describes Heath as a “brilliant, gentle writer whose novels explored the subtle textures of Guyanese life.”

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