Of course I visited Mabaruma as part of the launch of Children of the Spider.
After all, this is where our two heroes, Mayali and Joseph, begin their journey. So I asked CODE to include a trip to North-West Secondary as part of the literacy outreach that accompanies the distribution of the winning Burt Award books to libraries across the Caribbean.
Getting to Mabaruma is only possible by aircraft or river. As you can see in the satellite picture, it lies in a sea of green jungle, isolated in many important ways, but not out of touch, as I was about to find out.
The school visit started out a bit rough as the students were not at all responsive, unlike those at the schools on the coastland. After a frustrating Q&A that had no Q’s at all from the blank-faced students, I began preparing for the afternoon session, a writing workshop with ten students who had an interest in writing.
Except I couldn’t. Smiling, happy and even giggling students kept showing up at my door to talk to me and ask me questions. The SAME students who had basically ignored me just minutes before. Something about a formal session just didn’t work for them, but they had so much to say and they let it all out in an informal setting.
But the real fun started later that afternoon. As I worked with the ten students on descriptive techniques, one older boy kept giving me nervous, grimacing looks. Eventually, as we were doing evaluations of their work and he stood next to me one-on-one, his body began to almost vibrate with tenseness and he managed to squeeze out one word.
He hurriedly confessed, “I…I’m writing a book. Can you look at it?”
The way he said the word ‘book’, I knew this was serious business. And I got the sense that while he wanted comments or advice, more than anything he wanted a ‘real’ writer to acknowledge his work. (Which amused me inside since I can scarcely think of myself as a ‘real’ writer as it is.)
“Sure, I’ll look at it.”
He produced a laptop, whose backlight had gone yellow with age. On it were the opening one-and-a-half chapters of a genuine sci-fi space opera novel.
He had many of the missteps of a beginner, such as redundant words, awkward dialogue tags etc, but he had avoided many of the sci-fi pitfalls, such as over-explaining his world. He had instead started with an action scene, with our main character’s city coming under attack by another country. He referred to the alien technology by the fictional names his characters would have used and trusted the reader to understand enough from the context to stay engaged, pulled along by the on-screen struggles. It was the kind of subtle world-building even successful sci-fi fantasy novelists sometimes don’t achieve.
And it was cinematic: full of waving capes and swirling smoke and waves of fire…It was in fact TOO cinematic, I realized. For one thing, there was no actual viewpoint character. No internal dialogue. It was all told from outside.
Just as with the students earlier who wouldn’t ask questions in a classroom, I suspected I was caught in a cultural misalignment. So I asked him what books had influenced him and what he enjoyed reading.
“Oh, I don’t read books, sir. We don’t get books here to read, really.”
“But you seem to understand about space and superpowers and all that. How?”
“I have a lot of anime on DVD.”
So that was the mystery solved. The medium he knew was film, and his urge to create was probably oriented to film as well, but with no film-making tools, he had ‘resorted’ to novel writing to appease his storytelling urge.
Without the influence of reading books, he had missed the possibility of the character’s internal life being explicitly available to him as a novelist.
Maybe my student was destined to be a screenwriter, not a novelist. Maybe when he had the tools, he would make the first Guyanese anime. Or maybe he could make the transition to my tribe and master prose.
In the end, I told him about scriptwriting and the role of the writer in anime and told him of websites where he could learn the conventions of the format. And I also gave him a few pointers on what was possible when a novelist delved into the mind of their characters.
The choice of path I left to him.