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.