THE MAKING OF THE TWISTED CIRCLE: A NOVEL





After I had finished the final revision of my debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel, and was sending out query letters to literary agents and publishers, my close friend, American poet Angela Consolo Mankiewicz (1944-2017), told me that my next novel had to be about my life in the convent. I shook my head. At the time, it had been thirty-five years since I had buried that period of my life. I had no desire to unearth the pain of betrayal and rejection.


The following year, in February 2013, I watched with distress and anger the 2012 documentary film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. In the documentary, four deaf American men expose a Catholic priest who had sexually abused them and over 200 other deaf children in the mid-1960s. Years of cover-up. No accountability by the Catholic Church. Their case was not unique. British sexual predator priests had served in the Guyana Mission, a British colony until 1966. I knew then that as a former nun I had to add my voice.


In drawing from my experiences of the religious life, I knew that I would be remiss to bash or get even with the nuns and priests. The vast majority of religious men and women among whom I had lived and worked were sincere individuals who strove to live their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Christian God. We humans are all flawed beings, struggling with our own demons. As Jesus described the hypocritical priests of his day (Matthew 23: 27-28), there are those who are like “whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.”


The Twisted Circle is a work of fiction. The story unravels in Santa Cruz (fictitious name), an indigenous Amerindian village in Guyana’s northwest rainforest region where I spent my final year in the convent, teaching geography and art at the regional high school. It’s the period (1979-1980) of civil rebellion against the autocratic government. I remember well the rallying cry: “People’s Power! No Dictator!” The regime controlled the police and armed forces, as well as the media. The economy was in shambles. Austerity was the order of the day. The Catholic Church was under attack, as were dissenting teachers.


To reveal the conflicting narratives of advanced and developing countries, as well as racial disparities, I challenged myself to tell the story through two points of view: the protagonist Sister Barbara Lovell, a mixed Afro- and Indo-Guyanese, and the antagonist Sister Frances Adler, a white American from Ohio. While Barbara struggles to become the religious sister required by the community, Frances deals with the guilt and loss of her younger brother, a Vietnam veteran. America’s wars in distant lands come home to haunt and destroy the families of the nation’s war veterans.


A story interwoven with Guyana’s indigenous peoples could not be complete without a strong Amerindian character. Raven Mendonza, Barbara’s thirteen-year-old Form Two student, emerged as the best person to fill that role. The son of a local shaman, descendant of the Carib ‘warrior tribe’ that fought to the death against the European colonial invasion of their territory, Raven is an emotionally damaged child with an uncanny perception. To Barbara, his painting of a twisted circle for his end-of-term art test hints at dark secrets guarded by the dense forest enveloping them.


As I struggled with the revision of each draft, Angela’s critical eye and insightful comments were invaluable in shaping the plot and characters. At her request, I named two characters after her childhood best friends, Barbara and Agatha. Did she tell them? I don’t know. She died of lung cancer before I had completed the novel. This year, on the fourth anniversary of her death, I changed Agatha’s name to Angela in her memory.


In exploring the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, I could see the symbiotic relationship between the Catholic priests and nuns. The truth about my failure to meet the requirements of a good nun bubbled to the surface of the murky waters of the Barima River flooding the village of Penitencia (fictitious name). The Forest Spirit has set me free from the deception of those dark days spent in Santa Cruz. I thank Angela for that.


The captioned photo was taken in Mabaruma, Barima-Waini Region, located in the northwest rainforest region of Guyana.


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