In Conversation: Zee Edgell on Belize, and Writing About Home From Afar

Our Guatemala Editor-at-Large interviews Zee Edgell about history and politics seeping into her fiction and Belize as a character.

Zelma Edgell is Belize’s most celebrated writer. Zee, as she’s better known, has also worked as a teacher and journalist. Zee’s first novel, Beka Lamb deals with the relationship between Beka, her best friend Toycie and their conservative community. Published in 1982, Beka Lamb has since become a classic of Belizean literature.

Three novels later, Zee continues her exploration and analysis of Belize’s history, political turbulence, and racial structure. In her second book, In Times Like These (1991), we’re thrown right in the middle of Belize’s independence. In 1997 Zee published The Festival of San Joaquin in which we get a glimpse of the way religion has shaped the country’s traditions and inhabitants. With Time and the River Zee presented yet another facet of Belizean history: slavery.

Zee regards Belize as one of her characters. Belize affects her as a writer and becomes the environmental engine of her protagonists. Belize shapes the community that psychologically cornered Toycie in Beka Lamb; it affects Pavana’s motivations in In Times Like These. Belize is often not only a compassionate and beautiful landscape but also the driving force of the elements that pull at and constrict Zee’s characters.

Formerly known as the British Honduras, Belize is sandwiched between Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea, and is the only country in the isthmus with English as the official language. Zee attributes Belize’s disconnection to Central America’s literary scene to this idiomatic difference. However, her work—and that of her peers—is historically and creatively crucial to the region, defining Latin America’s literary contemporaneity.

Asymptote Guatemala Editor-at-Large José García Escobar

José García Escobar (JGE): I am curious about your creative upbringing. Can you describe your experience of growing up in Belize, and your relationship with art

Zelma Edgell (ZE): In primary school, I participated in yearly school entertainments. We sang Belizean patriotic songs and listened to marching bands and marimba. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we listened to Garifuna drummers and watched their dances. We also acted out scenes from plays. Also, during the school year, we regularly attended masses at the cathedral. In that sense, yes, I was close to creative activities.

JGE: What were some of the early authors that shaped your reading and writing habits?

ZE: Some of the authors that I read in high school were William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Outside of school, I read a large a variety of writers, including books by Mark Twain.

JGE: Any Belizean or Caribbean writers?

ZE: As a young girl, I read the work of Belizean poets. I started reading the work of Caribbean writers when I was in my late twenties or thirties.

JGE: Before your first novel was published in 1982, you already had a long run as a journalist and newspaper editor. And although your style is more literary and lyrical, I can see the effect reporting had on your writing. How did journalism shape your work?

ZE: Undoubtedly newspaper journalism taught me how to begin a story and how to end it. Also, I got to interview people from all walks of life; I learned about the universality of certain aspects of human behavior and human emotions.

JGE: What was the Belizean literary community like in the sixties and seventies?

ZE: Unfortunately, I was away from Belize for much of the sixties and seventies. As my life has taken me all over the world, I have never been a part of a literary community. However, I know that the Belizean literary community was very active. People were writing poetry, short fiction, and plays. There were also groups that put on musicals and others that did theatre.

I’m aware of writers’ groups in Belize today. They sometimes organize writing workshops. There is also a Belize Writers’ Guild, which gets together for readings and other literary activities.

JGE: Guatemala and Belize have a shared—at times complicated—history. Did Guatemalan conflicts affect Belize’s artistic scene in any way?

 ZE: I do not know if Guatemalan history, in general, has affected the Belizean artistic scene. I can only speak for myself. I have tried to explore in my novels our shared, complicated history, which is a large part of the Belizean reality. I do this especially in In Times Like These, a book that is set in the 1980s, during Belizean independence and the following territorial disputes between Belize and Guatemala.

JGE: Artists across Latin America have faced political persecution. Do you think the political situation in Belize has ever deterred writers from keep on writing? Were Belizean writers censored or persecuted for the content of their work?

ZE: Writers who live in Belize do face a number of obstacles. Like in other small societies, most Belizean writers do not have the economic independence or access to resources that would enable them to write without considering that their literary work could affect their jobs, career advancements, business interests and endeavors, etc. Many writers do freely express their views—political and otherwise. But I am only able to speak for myself. The political situation in Belize has never deterred me from writing. As far as I know, I have never been censored, nor faced overt political persecution. In the British colonial era, a few politicians were jailed for sedition. But I am sure that no writers, or even politicians, in Belize have ever been killed for their political views.

JGE: The Central American literary scene remains disconnected from Belize. In Guatemala, for example, we don’t have access to Belizean literature. And whenever Central American authors writing in Spanish are translated into English, which is not often, they mostly visit the U.S., not Belize, for promoting their books. Do you think this detachment is mainly because of the language difference?

ZE: I think today the language difference may be the principal difficulty behind establishing a relationship. Belizeans, I think, do read novels in translation and in Spanish—as you know we have a large number of Belizeans who speak Spanish (approximately fifty percent of Belizeans). But Belize was a British Colony, and during the colonial period, the Belizean population was not encouraged to participate in Central American literary, and other, activities.

JGE: Throughout your work, you have always included Belize’s political history. It’s almost like a part of the scenery. In Beka Lamb you address the racial persecution in Belize. In In Times Like These you delve into the territorial disputes between Belize and Guatemala. In The Festival of San Joaquin you include a lot of the political influence religion has in the country. Why is it important to you to frame your novels within Belize’s historical and political turbulence?

ZE: Characters, for me, come out of historical and cultural environments. I’m interested in learning how the environment affects the lives of my characters. In In Times Like These Pavana—the protagonist—and her family are affected by the protests and the political unrest that took place during the independence. But also, I try my best to make sure that the events in my work do not contradict the historical record.

JGE: I also see Belize as a character in your novels. Do you agree? How has that character changed in your hands over the years? How have your opinions and the way you write about Belize changed?

ZE: Yes, Belize is a like a character in my novels. However, I have only written one novel that could be considered contemporary. The other three are based on historical record. But, regardless of the time period, I try to write each novel in a way, so the facts about Belize don’t change. Through my reading, my knowledge about Belize has deepened. I know more about the Mayans, the Creoles, the Garifunas, Mestizos, East Indians, Mennonites, and the Central American refugees than I did when I started writing. This knowledge is reflected in my characters, since most of them reflect, in major and minor ways, the various ethnic groups in Belize.

JGE: In your writing I also see a lot of interpretation and exploration of femininity. How important was it for you to include these themes in your writing?

ZE: I write from a woman’s point of view because I like to do so, although I always try to write in a balanced way. In high school, the authors I read were mostly male writers writing about male concerns. They all wrote from the male point of view, but I learned that it was alright for me to write from a female point of view. I believe that the concerns of women and men are universal themes. However, my greatest concern right now is to finish my new novel and to write it in the best way I can.


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