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I remember being really excited the first time I came to Wales... Author Maggie Harris remembers her Caribbean childhood in her first full length novel. Abbie Wightwick spoke to her about race, the Rolling Stones and finding peace in Wales.

[bar] ALES has always been a land of escape for Guyaneseborn writer Maggie Harris. As a teenager recently arrived in England from her Caribbean homeland in 1971 she soon came to love Wales as a holiday destination.

The green hills, empty spaces and colonial history reminded her of home, she says.

And it was nice to be back in countryside, something she missed living as a new immigrant to London.

"England was cold, I missed my friends and for the first three months I wondered what I'd done," she recalls.

"I thought the UK was cool but it was a shock. It was very, very difficult."

Maggie, who moved to Carmarthenshire six years ago, has just published a memoir of growing up in Guyana in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book details her life growing up in Caribbean culture and how life was influenced by literature, the new reggae sound and British and American film, at a time when Guyana was searching for identity as it broke away from slavery and colonialism.

Maggie remembers it as a time of parties and fun, friends and boyfriends and the contrast with her convent school and strict Catholic upbringing.

"I was always falling in love," she laughs.

"I had one boyfriend I had to leave when I came here and he went to the US."

Maggie was torn from the colourful, diverse world she grew up in after her father died and Guyana gained independence in 1966, slipping into political unrest.

Her mother, believing the family would be better off in England, came to London with Maggie to stay with her uncle.

London seemed bleak after Guyana, one of only two Caribbean countries that is not an island (the other is Belize).

But having grown up in a mix of diverse cultures Maggie was open to new experiences and soon made friends and a life for herself in London, which she had viewed from her old life across the ocean as somewhere "cool" and fashionable.

Guyana, bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname was colonised by the Dutch and then the English in the 19th century.

They brought with them Portuguese, Indians and Africans, making up a colourful cultural mix along with the native Amero Indians.

Maggie herself embodies this eclectic cocktail.

The daughter of a second-generation Portuguese mother and a mixed-race father she has Scottish, African and Portuguese blood as well as "tales of a white Barbaduan blood".

"None of my family would have been in Guyana if it was not for slavery and colonialism," she explains.

"My mother's father came from Scotland, her mother's family from Madeira, my father's ancestors from Africa."

The first part of her memoir Kiskadee Girl tells their stories, as much as she could find out. It then details her life growing up, the parties and convent schools, family gatherings and friends.

"It was a fun time for me," she recalls.

"We'd go to parties outside at people's houses, we called them fetes. We went to barbecues and bingo and it was all outside."

Growing up with her parents and three sisters in a middle class home in New Amsterdam Maggie had a good life.

They had a servant and two houses and their father, a tug boat captain taking bauxite up the Berbice River, wore a smart, white commodore's suit.

The family's strict Catholicism often caused a clash in Maggie's life as she became a teenager but she always studied hard.

Aged 11 Maggie won a scholarship to a high school in the capital Georgetown.

But she hated the school, couldn't study and missed her friends, returning after a year.

"I was always a bit of a handful," she laughs.

"As Guyana was an English colony we had a lot of influence from the UK and North America.

"As a teenager growing up the pop culture and music impacted on me.

"Reggae was just starting to come in and we had The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Motown.

" There was quite a mix and it was very exciting. We were in a maelstrom.

"I went to lots of parties but it was always a battle and it was more complicated because we had so many different traditions in Guyana."

Although she says there was some racism - she herself was bullied for being "too white" - Maggie had friends from different cultures and religions.

Muslims and Hindus had come from India with their customs and strictures on friends in those communities and there were also people from North America, she recalls.

"For teenagers at that time you had parental, religious and cultural control.

"My family didn't talk about our roots that much and in the country you did have barriers between races. But it was a very rich place to grow up culturally."

Determined to tell the story of her background as well as write a memoir of growing up Maggie found out what she could about her family.

Her mother's parents had died when she was baby and she had had an arranged marriage, aged 17, with Maggie's father, by then a sea captain in his 40s.

"My father had lots of brothers and sisters and his family lived upriver near an African community," Maggie recalls.

She says she was inspired to write the book partly to give her own grown-up daughters a greater sense of their heritage.

"As an adult in the UK, my growing up in Guyana played a surreal role in my mind," she explains.

"It also seemed to have no significance for my children. I began to wonder how many children of migrant parents were losing out on their ancestral culture.

"I wanted to write it to make it real for myself and my children, as well as produce a diverse perspective of Guyana and promote cultural understanding."

The book is a story of Maggie's coming of age as much as a family history, recording her thoughts and dreams and the unsettling episode when she had a premonition of her father's death.

"I was 15 when I had a premonition about it," she says.

"I just knew. It just came into my head that he was going to die. It was quite freaky. I knew it would happen even the morning it happened.

"I had a geography exam and said goodbye as he was going to work. I went to school and just knew something was going to happen."

Later she got a message in the classroom to say her father was sick. She raced home on her bike but he'd had a stroke and was dead before she reached him.

"It was pretty traumatic," Maggie recalls.

"At the time I had the premonition I thought I was being silly and didn't tell anyone. But after he died I said I'd had a premonition and apparently he knew as well and told my younger sister to look after my mother.

"He was 61 so he wasn't young, but it was a shock."

She remembers her father as a warm man who played the guitar very well.

"I grew up with his music, he played blues, everything."

Today she recalls that he kept sheet music under the bed but she doesn't know where he learned to read it.

"I still have his guitar with me here," she says.

It was a time not just of personal tragedy but national troubles too. When Maggie's father died in 1969 Guyana was descending into political unrest as factions vied for power in the newly independent country.

"Awful things happened in the 1960s," Maggie recalls.

"There were riots and buildings burned, but I only saw a bit of that because I was young."

Her mother, whose brother lived in London, decided it would be a safer and better future to bring her daughters to London.

"It was very rich racially and culturally in Guyana and I had good friends from all races," she says.

"That helped me have a universal outlook and make friends.

"I am quite happy with what I am."

In 1973 Maggie made her first trip to Wales camping in the Brecon Beacons with a boyfriend.

It was a long way from the lush rainforests and rivers of Guyana but something in the countryside and people struck a chord.

"I remember being really excited the first time I came to Wales," Maggie recalls with a laugh.

"I loved the space, the country, the landscape and everyone was friendly.

"I don't know if I reconnected with Guyana because of the green and the space and Wales having been under the English crown.

"There is a freedom of spirit in places of colonialism.

"There is an edginess against the empire."

Excited to visit Wales Maggie, couldn't tell her mother she was sharing a tent with her boyfriend and concocted a story that she was staying with friends.

But the trip was a success and followed by further trips when Maggie married and had three daughters.

Angie, now 34, Eloise, 30, and Aimee, 23, have given her 10 grandchildren, all of whom also love to holiday with her in Wales.

Maggie and husband Steven, who works for the British Arts Foundation, moved to a stone cottage near Newcastle Emlyn six years ago.

"I love the space and I love my garden," Maggie says.

From here she writes and organises writing workshops.

She hopes her book might help her finance a trip back to Guyana which she hasn't visited since 1977 when her first daughter was two.

"I would definitely love to go back," she says.

"And I would like to travel more."

As well as the cost of visiting Guyana Maggie has, until now, often been too busy.

After bringing up her children she went to the University of Kent as a mature student to do a degree in African/Caribbean Studies which she followed with an MA in post-colonial studies before becoming a writer and creative writing teacher.

An award-winning poet, Maggie taught creative writing at Southampton and Kent universities until recently.

Her 1999 poetry collection Limbolands (Mango Publishing) won the Guyana Prize for Literature in 2000 and her second poetry collection, From Berbice to Broadstairs, was published in 2006.

She also won second prize in the 2008 Kingston University Press Life-Writing Competition for her memoir Being Caribbean in Carmarthenshire and her poems and short stories have appeared in journals including Poetry Wales, Wasafiri and Agenda, as well as anthologies published by Virago and Little Brown.

This is no small feat for the party-loving girl from Guyana.

It has also kept her so busy that Kiskadee Girl is the first full-length book she has written.

Maggie took the title from the Kiskadee bird, a flycatcher from Guyana.

"The name of the book is after the bird and the fact the French thought it was saying 'What are you saying?' in French, so it's essentially about language, the freedom to speak, and also the possibility of being misconstrued or misunderstood," she explains.

"Being more or less a common garden bird it places me nicely too."

But a common garden bird is precisely not what Maggie is, as her extraordinary story shows.

[bar] Kiskadee Girl is published by Kingston University Press at pounds 12.99 [bar] Author of 'Kiskadee Girl' Maggie Harris, who was born in Guyana, in the Caribbean, at her home in Carmarthenshire. She moved there six years ago but first felt an attraction to Wales on a camping trip in 1973

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[bar] A series of pictures of author Maggie Harris in Guyana and, right, her aunt, Angela, uncle in Guyana
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:3GUYA
Date:Oct 14, 2011
Words:1925
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