“By the time that I was twelve, in addition to various 'penny-dreadfuls,' and True Romance magazines. . .I had become familiar with the lives of literature’s great orphans in books like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield” (Coloured Girl, p.65).
In the above recollection, the narrator in The Coloured Girl in the Ring: A Guyanese Woman Remembers points to the genres in which the book can be placed. The attempts to find answers that would help the love encounters described in the book end happily are evidence of the True Romance influence. And the narrator’s journey from girlhood to young adulthood, is evidence of the bildungsroman (the German-originated coming of age novel of personal development or of education—David Copperfield being a British example).
Coloured Girl presents two notable departures from the above genres that are particularly relevant to Guyana (circa 1950s-1964—the novel’s time period). The departures signify that Coloured Girl belongs in the burgeoning field of contemporary female ethnic coming of age writing.
First departure: “True Romance” eludes coloured girls
Romantic happy endings elude all the Guyanese women in the novel. Due to poverty, unfaithfulness, and abusive, often alcoholic husbands and male live-in companions, the women live mostly harsh, painful lives. One of the novel’s clear messages is that a Guyanese woman in the 1950s and 1960s had extremely limited choices outside of marriage and often cruel domesticity.
Nothing really novel there, except for two stories that compellingly dramatize the condition of women at the time.
One is the story of a woman (Shirley) who attempts to live a life in mockery of her limited choices. She earns a living as a stripper in Tiger Bay, she refuses an offer of marriage, and she has an affair with a prominent married man. Another is the story of an Indian girl (Drupattie) who has a relationship with a Black man. Both stories end rather tragically, and solidify the narrator’s decision to get out of the ring—the cyclical ring of hopelessness for women in Guyana.
Second departure: A female Guyanese bildungsroman
The novel's coming of age focus attempts to depart from the traditional male individual quest for self that characterizes the origins of the bildungsroman novel. Coloured Girl's focus is on the coming of age of a young girl from age 12 to 18.
An additional departure from the tradition is that the narrator's journey towards a mature selfhood is intertwined with the entire community of women (and men in some cases) from whose lives she draws inspiration. Her journey involves her relationship with her community; it isn’t a chiefly individual one.
This female communal bildungsroman is similar to some we see from Black American, Latino, and Asian women writing in the genre. DoHarris's Coloured Girl makes a worthy contribution to the departure from a male individual tradition.
What does coming of age mean in the novel?
Another of the novel’s very clear messages is that in order for a Guyanese woman to make anything of her life—education-wise, career-wise—she must leave Guyana.
When the narrator comes of age (18 to be specific), she decides to leave Guyana for the United States. Encouraged by her mother, and the tragedies of other women in the community, she goes off to live her own life…on her own.
But, in suggesting that for a young girl to attain mature female selfhood she must separate herself from the community in which she was nurtured (largely a community of women—many of the men, including her father, are useless or gone by the time the narrator is 18), the novel presents an old, but still curious feminist dilemma: Can a female quest for selfhood (problematic term?) be realized outside the parameters of the traditional individual male quest?
DoHarris’s Coloured Girl, like many female coming of age novels that initially attempt to differ from the male coming of age aesthetic, eventually gives in to it.
Is Coloured Girl a signifyin’ work?
Like a rich, thick pot of Sunday soup, Coloured Girl is filled with cultural elements that are tastefully funny, nostalgia-inducing, and that teach well about Guyana. It also has a glossary of terms that I found very useful, and that my students will too. (DoHarris obviously writes for readers outside of Guyana.) And most signifyin’-ly important, the novel is a valid addition to the continually expanding coming of age genre.
Coloured Girl is undoubtedly a signifyin’ work.
My main problem was that this pot of soup needed a spoon for stirring. It congealed as it tried to connect the narrator’s developing sense of self to too many cultural elements. Narratively speaking, if the narrator’s role was to stir along this rich pot of soup, she ended up being stuck in the middle of it, her movements constricted.
Yes, that image of congealment may work wonderfully for the novel’s loudest message: that a coloured girl in the ring (circa 1950s-1960s Guyana) really had no “motion.” She had to get out of the ring to gain motion.
But, the frustrating result (for this reader anyway) was a rather sluggish read.