Guest blog: Reading the Caribbean story

16 Feb

Holly Edgell is Zee Edgell’s daughter.

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As a younger person, I did not consider myself overly interested in reading my way through the canon of Caribbean writers or books set in the Caribbean. Looking back, I realize I was a Caribbean lit junkie all along.

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A literary landscape like no other

There is something about the Caribbean, isn’t there: a “you can’t make this stuff up” quality pervades much of what is essentially a canon of fiction. Talk about magical realism.

But in many Caribbean societies the magic is real and the real is magical. You can sense this in works by foreigners–for whom the mix is intoxicating–and among natives, though in a different way. For writers born and raised in the Caribbean, the outlandish, ridiculous, brutal and beautiful are the normal rhythms and fabrics of life. And the grace notes are there, too, reflected in works by Caribbean and foreign writers.

In no particular order, here are some classics and newer items on my bookshelves. My mother and I have both enjoyed comparing notes on many of these!

V.S. Naipaul: Miguel Street (1959), The Mystic Masseur (1957), and A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) Read more in “Times Topics” (NYTimes.com)

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) Read more in The Independent

Bob Shacochis: Easy in the Islands (1985, not all of the stories in the collection are five stars, but several are great) Read more at amazon.com

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) Read more from The New York Review of Books

Graham Greene: The Comedians (1966) & Our Man in Havana (1959) Read more in “Times Topics” (NYTimes.com)

Toni Morrison: Tar Baby (1981) Read more in  The New York Times

Andrea Levy: The Long Song (2011) Read more in The Washington Post

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place (1988) Read more from MacMillan.com

Edwidge Danticat: Krik? Krak! (1996) Read more from Kirkus Reviews

Maria-Elena John: Unburnable (2007) Read more at amazon.com

Junot Diaz: The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao (2007) Read more from The New Yorker

Earl Lovelace: The Wine of Astonishment (1982) Read more on Google Books

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Guest Blog: Bliss-ful Beka, the play was a smash hit

7 May

Holly Edgell is Zee Edgell’s daughter. She attended the May 4 performance of Beka Lamb, The Play in Belize City.  

Yes, I am biased. And, yes, I was prepared to positively disposed toward the play before the curtain was raised; to me, it was enough that the Saint Catherine Academy cast and crew had produced Beka Lamb for the stage.

My first clues to the fact that it would be great came via email. Corresponding with the very professional and organized director Melissa Espat, who is a teacher at SCA, I got a feeling the production was in good hands. Hearing about the excitement of the cast and behind-the-scenes workers, the support from St. John’s College staff and students, and enthusiasm from the Minister of Education served to bolster my impression that this was no small-time undertaking.

My next clues came on Friday morning during a couple of media appearances in Belize City.

First, at Channel 5′s “Open Your Eyes” I got to meet Leandra Flowers, the SCA student playing Beka, and Tremett Perriott, a well-known educator and actor playing her father, Bill Lamb. That was a treat in itself! During the show, the producers played a clip from dress rehearsal; it was the scene in which Beka tells her father that she has failed first form.

View “Open Your Eyes,” May 4, via Vimeo (Beka Lamb is the second segment of the show)

Later I met Daina Balan, the SCA student playing Toycie Cuello. Leandra and Daena performed a brief scene from the play (the “barge foot” scene) live on Love-FM and TV’s morning show, where we (along with Mrs. Espat) appeared to talk further about the play and the thirtieth anniversary of the book, Beka Lamb.

They embodied Beka and Toycie!

That night at the Bliss Centre for the Performing Arts, I watched as the seats filled: first, the upper tier (Belize $20) and then the main floor (Belize $30). There had been some talk in the Belizean press (see “Zee Will Fix It” from the Belize Times) that the ticket prices were too high for most people to afford. Judging from the cross-section of society I saw Friday night, many Belizeans decided to invest in the opportunity to watch history in the making, no matter the cost. Proceeds from the play will help pay for much-needed renovations at SCA.

The play’s the thing

  • The set. Designed and constructed by SCA and SJC students, the set with just right. There was a verandah module that moved in and out for the flashback scenes (featuring a second Beka, played by Nia Arthurs) as well as few others. The crew set up and broke down the wake, Sister Virgil’s office, and even the chapel–complete with pews and kneelers! One of my favorite visual moments was the scene in which Beka and Toycie and taking Beka’s little brothers for a stroll. Photographs from around Belize City–including the Baron Bliss lighthouse–were projected on the back wall of the stage and rolled along as the girls moved across the stage. Their destination was the church, where Toycie hoped to talk with her boyfriend Emilio.
  • The hurricane. The play incorporated students from the Belize Ballet Art School, literally dancing up a storm as a means of depicting this force of nature. Genius!
  • The costumes. I will never forget the “old-school” uniforms created for the play; long-sleeved despited the Belize heat, this is the way the SCA girls had to dress five days a week back in the 1950s. Another great looks was the nun’s habits. Priceless.
  • The performances. You would have thought these girls (and the boys from SJC) had been acting all their lives; their commitment to the roles was impressive. As far as I could tell, no one forgot their lines and the timing was right on–including the many moments of comic relief, when we in the audience chuckled or roared with laughter. As I told Mr. Perriott on “Open Your Eyes,” he managed to imbue hat he allowed the student actors to carry the play, when–as an actor–he could have easily stolen their thunder. (If you know Tremett, though, you know that’s not his style).

Of course, I could go on and on. And, I probably will add to this post as I remember more highlights!  In the meantime, you can peruse the following coverage:

From Cashew Street to the Bliss: More on the Beka Lamb play

4 Apr

Saint Catherine Academy teacher Melissa Espat provided these great behind-the-scenes details about the school’s adaptation of Beka Lamb for the stage. Mrs. Espat is coordinating the production and wrote the final three scenes of the play.

  • Last year, when the Parents Support Group suggested we stage a play, some people were suggesting we do Grease, or some other play. But I thought it would be genius to do something local. The best choice would be Beka Lamb. What is great about this novel, is that it is part of the CXC curriculum for Belize and the Caribbean region, so many high school students can relate.
  • At the time I asked Rochelle Haylock to get in contact with Zee Edgell to ask permission to use the novel on stage. We knew we wanted an SCA cast and crew, so we contacted Mirna Scavone, a graduate, to write a script. She worked on the script, and from there we called auditions.
  • Mirna, myself and Zee Edgell met at SCA and discussed the approach we would take on the play, and Mrs. Edgell gave us some insight on the characters and setting–which helped us tremendously!
  • Because Mirna moved to San Pedro, she was unable to help with directing; so, the students decided that they would read the script and from recall of the novel, started to direct themselves. So, we are all directors of the play.
  • I also got the help from  Saint John’s College (SJC) students to participate, and they were so generous to put in their time. Mr. Tremett Perriott, a teacher at SJC, volunteered to be Bill Lamb. Tremett is no stranger to the stage, and so he is also helping with the directing.
  • The Women’s Department invited us to perform an excerpt from the play, and so did Leo Bradley Library for its Open Day. The girls performed a mother-daughter scene, which captivated the audience. The Minister of Education was impressed and even made a verbal commitment to sponsor the play.
  • Because of the structure of the novel, it was a bit challenging to capture all the important details. So, the set is very important to help us with the transition of scenes. The SJC Art Center, under the direction of Kirkland Smith, will work on our set. SCA students take art classes at SJC, so they will be in charge of the set.
  • I will have two Beka’s: Nia Arthurs will be Beka having the flashback, and Leandra Flowers, the Beka in the flashback (her picture, taken by Dirk Francisco, is on the flyer). Leandra is a senior, and has perfected Beka’s role. Nia is a junior who is just about to read Beka Lamb for the first time.
  • Other roles: Damitha Meighan is Granny Ivy, Taysha Choc is Aunt Eila, and Daina Balan is Toycie. Our Sister Virgil will be performed by Sydney Medina. The Belize School of Ballet will have SCA students do a dance peice at the end of Act 1! We have over 25 cast members.

30th anniversary Beka Lamb news: Belize City high school puts novel in the spotlight

3 Apr

Students at Zee Edgell‘s alma mater, Saint Catherine Academy, have adapted Beka Lamb for the stage and will perform the play in early May.

Details

  • When: May 4 and 5, 8 p.m.
  • Bliss Institute for the Performing Arts, Belize City
  • Tickets: $30 for reserved seating, $20 general seating
  • Purchase tickets at Saint Catherine Academy from Mrs. Espat or Mrs. Ramclam
  • Call 223-1758 for more information

This is the first known adaptation of Beka Lamb for stage or screen. Congratulations to the students of SCA!

Beka Lamb has been in continuous publication since 1982.

"Beka Lamb" (first edition cover, 1982)

Guest Blog: Beka Lamb finds a home in the world

3 Apr

NOTE: Holly Edgell is Zee Edgell’s daughter. She wrote this reflection about Beka Lamb in 2009 and revives it here as the novel celebrate 30 years of publication.

Holly Edgell, St. Louis (2012)

How does a work of literature become beloved? This question is especially interesting to me, as over the last two decades or so, young people have gotten used to having an almost unlimited menu of entertainment options from which to choose.

My own theory – based on nothing more than my own love of reading – is that compelling characters will always resonate with audiences. Margery Laing (nee Fairweather) saw this first-hand recently on a visit to Dominica, when she talked about Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb with students at a local convent school. Margery was visiting the island at the invitation of old friends, and met a teacher named Daria Sorhaindo who was about to start teaching the book. She promptly invited Margery to come to her class to answer questions about Belize and the book.

Here is how Margery described that visit to me:

“… (T)he students had very little time to prepare. Yet when I arrived there at 1.30 pm they were quite ready and eager, seated at their desks in their dark blue skirts and white shirts, notebooks open and questions clearly written out in preparation for our discussion.

When I asked the teacher what she thought was the “hook” for these students she felt it was the character of Toycie that they identified with most – a bright, ambitious young woman who had “fallen.” And remember the setting of a Catholic school is one they live every day. Those students were clearly not being controlled by the teacher. They spoke with knowledge and confidence and passion about issues in the book. There was no doubt that they had read and had read carefully.”

Margery also told me that a Jamaican teacher working in New York, upon learning she was a Belizean, shared that Beka Lamb was her favorite book. Doneshia Gordon continues to use the book in her New Rochelle High School classes. When I was teaching journalism at Florida A&M University a few years ago, a Jamaican student named Shelli Green was ecstatic to learn that I was the daughter of Zee Edgell. She spent some time in my office telling me about the impact Beka Lamb had on her life.

Beka Lamb has been continuously in print since it first appeared in 1982. It has been required reading for CXC-takers around the Caribbean, and is on syllabi for university literature courses around the world. In May 2008, my mother and I traveled to France at the invitation of a professor at the University of Paris. Her graduate students presented insightful and impressive papers (in English) about Beka Lamb and my mother’s other books at a conference. I was so moved, and I know my mother was as well, when the students concluded that Belize was the central character in the work of Zee Edgell.

My mother wrote Beka Lamb so that, in her words, she could “document the Belize of the 1950s for future generations of Belizeans.” She didn’t write the book for the world, but the world found it. She is especially pleased that the book resonates with young people around the Caribbean who have so much in common with Belizean youths.

Margery and I saw these commonalities in action in November, while attending the Antigua & Barbuda International Literary Festival. My mother was a featured participant, and as such, visited local schools and took part in a panel discussion with fellow-writers.

Ron Kavanaugh, who publishes a literary magazine and web site called Mosaic in New York, was on a panel called “Establishing Yourself in the Literary World,” with my mother and others. Here is an excerpt from his blog:

“The panel focused on writers finding their niche in the marketplace. Panelists included Tina McElroy Ansa, Marie Elena John, Rosalind McLymont, Zee Edgell, myself, and moderator Ava Hutchinson.

Everyone made smart contributions except for Zee, who sat quietly, waiting for the right moment. Near the end she interjected a wonderful story about her early efforts with trying to get published. Then, almost in passing she mentioned she was the author of a book called Beka Lamb. I have to admit I had never heard of Zee Edgell. But with her revelation came gasps of joy from the audience.”

The next day my mother sat beneath a tent at Jolly Harbour Marina (on the western side of Antigua) and answered questions about Beka Lamb from teachers who were teaching the book. It was heartening to see how these women cared so deeply about their students reading more, writing better, and having success on their CXC’s. This hit home with my mother who taught English and literature at St. Catherine Academy and now is a tenured professor of English at Kent State University in Ohio. (Note: Zee Edgell retired in May 2009)

Slowly, dozens of high school students from around Antigua began to fill the tent. They had dozens of questions, including:

  • “What is Toycie to you?”
  • “Why do you use flashbacks in your writing?”
  • “Why did you write Beka Lamb?”

There was appreciation, too, as the students seemed to relate to my mother’s stories about life at a strict Catholic school, doing chores without the benefit of modern appliances, the dynamics of boy-girl relationships, taking care of younger siblings, and getting sick from eating unripe mangos.

Anyone who knows Zee Edgell, knows she is a fairly low-key person and modest about her accomplishments. She writes for Belize, for her family, for history. Beka Lamb grew out of her love for her country and her desire to record the Belize of her youth for generations to come. The characters — like Beka, Toycie, Granny Ivy, National Velour, Emilio, Lilla & Bill Lamb, and the others – have done the rest.

The new Zee Edgell site

10 Mar

Welcome! This is my new site, where I will share my thoughts about the creative process. You may know me by my first book: Beka Lambpublished in 1982.

My other novels are In Times Like These, The Festival of San Joaquin and Time and the River. I am working on a fifth novel now, a story set in Belize between the wars.

I invite readers, students, writers, and others interested in my work to comment on blog posts and suggest content for this site.

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