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In Radical Matrimony | The Nation

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In Radical Matrimony

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While the PPP's mission statement--"to build a just socialist society, in which the industries of the country shall be socially and democratically owned"--was clear enough, Cheddi refused to take sides in the cold war: "I don't like this sort of either Communist or West, you know? I think this tendency toward black or white is a tendency which can lead to a lot of harm," he tells a reporter. America, however, turned a deaf ear to this reasoning, determined as it was to avoid another defeat in the Caribbean after the Bay of Pigs. So the CIA committed what Kennedy adviser and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. later admitted was "a great injustice" against Cheddi Jagan, funding strikes and race riots in Georgetown in an effort to destabilize his government. (Schlesinger's apology, delivered to Jagan at the Nation offices in 1990, was the subject of the magazine's June 4 lead editorial that year.) As the violence spread, scores of people died, Guyana's economy was crippled, a state of emergency was declared and, by tweaking Guyana's electoral system (Britain replaced popular with proportional representation), the West got its wish: In 1964 Burnham became Guyana's president. And in 1966, with the country still in a state of emergency, Guyana became independent.

About the Author

Baz Dreisinger
Baz Dreisinger, who teaches English and American studies at the City University of New York, is writing a book about...

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Tony Kushner's latest play, Caroline, or Change, left me contemplating its curious title, which suggests an indecisive playwright. Why not just Caroline, or simply Change?

Burnham is hardly seen in Thunder in Guyana--no PNC advocates are interviewed--but he is the film's villain. After taking office he turned sharply to the left and, much to America's dismay, out-Jaganed Jagan, nationalizing the bulk of Guyana's industries. As Guyana became the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the PNC retained its power by rigging elections until the 1992 presidential race, when the Carter Center arrived in Georgetown as monitors--and Cheddi Jagan ended Burnham's run.

Janet Jagan ran for office after her husband died of a heart attack, but the results were so disputed her victory was not declared until days after the election. The "eureka" moment of victory was thus never quite there for Wasserman's camera to capture; after winning Jagan heads home to rest. Still, her level-headed triumph is the crescendo of the film. Her presidency may have been short-lived--because of health problems, she stepped down after twenty months--but it was the climax of Janet Rosenberg's transformation into Janet Jagan.

Such is the plot of Thunder in Guyana--and it is hardly impartial. In fact, there were gaffes on both sides of the political fence: Afro- and Indo-Guyanese parties relentlessly used their respective realms of influence--the public-service sector and the agricultural sector--to sabotage each other's agendas. And while Burnham was indeed a corrupt dictator, he is not Guyana's principal villain. That dubious honor goes to race itself: a synthetic system of biases that Guyanese and Western politicians consciously milked, engaging in what Cheddi Jagan, in his book Forbidden Freedom, called "the familiar imperialist game of divide and rule." Professor Ralph Premdas concludes his study of Guyana with a grim diagnosis: The country suffered--and still suffers--from "ethnically inspired collective insanity."

It is a surreal plot twist that at the crux of this racial "insanity" sits a woman who confounds race altogether. Who--what--was Janet Jagan? To the Western media she was a dangerous Jew misidentified by journalists as a relative of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. To Burnham she was a "stupid American" (he allegedly addressed her as such during sessions of Parliament). To many Indo-Guyanese she was simply white: "They used to call me a blue-eyed bouchie," Jagan recalls ("bouchie" is a brother's wife; "brother," here, is Cheddi). Rolling her eyes, Jagan shrugs. "I'm not even blue-eyed."

It's one of the few moments in the film where Jagan addresses her racial identity; another is prompted by an Associated Press reporter who directly inquires about it. Jagan replies, "I don't know if people see white when they look at me--except, you know, the diehard politicians. But maybe I am living in a dream world.... I don't feel anything like being a minority." She pauses and adds that perhaps her identification with the underdog was a product of growing up Jewish in America.

It's a plausible explanation, as well as a familiar one. Janet Jagan is one in a long line of Jews--from 1920s-era musicians George Gershwin and Mezz Mezzrow to civil rights martyrs Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and hip-hop Hebrews the Beastie Boys--who have, in various degrees and contexts, identified cross-racially. How such crossover figures negotiate the conflicting facets of their identities--how, for instance, a Jewish-American woman feels about being, as daughter-in-law Nadia Jagan puts it, "more Guyanese than most Guyanese"--is a profound issue that Thunder in Guyana could have probed.

It doesn't, perhaps because Wasserman's interviews with her cousin, more informational than emotional, emphasize the public over the private, history over her story. We learn little about Janet and Cheddi's relationship, and only slightly more about Janet's rift with her Jewish family: "Unfortunately," states Jagan, speaking flatly of her father's death, "my husband and my father never met." Jagan seems uninterested in reflecting on the emotional dimension of her cross-identification--which alone could indicate how deep this identification runs: Analyzing one's identification with the "other" (as Mezzrow did in his memoir Really the Blues) means standing apart from that group; taking this identification for granted, by contrast, suggests a sense of peace with one's cultural crossover and, perhaps, with the inherently vexed nature of race and identity.

The film's only reading of Janet Jagan's racial identity comes from Nadia Jagan, who suggests a rich tension at the heart of Thunder in Guyana. "She fell in love with [Cheddi], and they had a common goal." Jagan's daughter-in-law shrugs. "That's all they saw."

The cruel irony of Janet Jagan's story is that her personal narrative and her public one--her story and Guyana's story--are at odds. Janet may have fallen in love with Cheddi, and from then on seen cause over color. But her beloved Guyana could never do the same; it evolved into a nation that privileged color over cause. In Janet's triumphant personal saga, politics trumps race; in Guyana's tragic one, race trumps politics. And though the latter saga is the more disquieting one, it is also, in our race-fixed world, the more universal and familiar one--and thus the easiest one to recount. To plumb the depths of Jagan's personal story is an altogether different coup, one that Thunder in Guyana comes tantalizingly close to achieving.

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