THE MAKING OF UNDER THE TAMARIND TREE: A NOVEL





When my two sons and I migrated to the United States in October 2003 to unite with my family, I expected challenges in adapting to a different culture and work environment. After over thirty years of separation, I never expected that my mother would abandon us on our third day of arrival in Los Angeles. How could I dare to say no to her plans for me, after all she had done to bring us to the United States? She exploded like my deceased father had done during an alcohol-fueled rage. I didn’t change my stance. She moved out. Defiance can be costly and painful.


Abandonment had pursued me from Brazil. The father of my sons had done the same. After four years of failing to earn a living income, he left us in Fortaleza, capital of the Northeast State of Ceará, to return to Guyana, the land of our birth. By that time, he was already living with a Brazilian woman who had borne him a daughter. He had abandoned them, too.


What had I done to deserve such treatment from my mother and husband? It took me four years, while working on Under the Tamarind Tree, to realize that my crime was not living up to their expectations. Broken over the estrangement with my mother, I started a journal as a form of self-therapy. By August 2004, I decided to fictionalize my story of overcoming adversity in Brazil. In September 2007, the plot for my first novel, to be set in Brazil and Guyana, took an unexpected turn after I read the poetry collection of a young Guyanese American poet. The collection shook my Guyanese roots.


During my twenty-year absence, Guyana’s racial divisive politics had grown deadlier. I knew then, with clarity, that I had to address the divisive racial birth pangs of our young nation. Richard Cheong—son of a Chinese father and East Indian mother, with an African surrogate mother at thirteen years old, following the death of his parents—was the best person to tell that story. A male protagonist. Was I up to the challenge?


Richard Cheong’s family reflects my own multiracial family. His wife, Gloria, is the daughter of descendants of African slaves and Portuguese indentured laborers. While Richard bears some character traits of my own father—loves reading and listening to music, with several friends across racial lines—he’s a fictional character obsessed with finding redemption for the death of his younger brother, Edward, then eight years old, found murdered under the tamarind tree on the sugar estate road.


When we seek answers to the adversity we confront in our lives, we may discover forces outside of our control. Like Mary Elizabeth Cheong, Richard’s firstborn child, we must partake in the bitter fruit of deceit sown by a grandparent or other relatives. In then British Guiana, until its independence from Britain on May 26, 1966, the coming together of diverse cultures—Amerindian (the indigenous peoples), African, Chinese, European, and Indian—amplifies conflicts that fracture our families and communities. We all share the blame. We all share the loss and pain.


The captioned photo is an aerial view of Georgetown, Guyana, showing a view of the North Atlantic Ocean.


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