On Heroes Lizards and Passion by Zoila Ellis (Cubola Productions, 1997)

This was a recommendation from Shirlene at Belizean Publisher Cubola Productions, who I emailed for suggestions. There were several authors she could recommend, she said, but Zoila Ellis was her top pick and she was sure I would enjoy her work.

It turned out Shirlene was in good company. When I opened my copy, I was met by a foreword by Governor-General Dr Colville Young, in which he remembers Ellis’s tentative request that he might look at her work and see if it was worth publishing in 1988 and talks in glowing terms about what he found when he did. It sounded promising so I settled down to read.

The seven short stories in On Heroes Lizards and Passions paint a powerful and varied picture of life in Belize and the Belizean diaspora. Centring on moments when characters find release from fears, prejudices, assumptions, hopes and dreams, they reveal the way that, wittingly or unwittingly, we can change the course of one another’s lives. There is the lapsed priest who finds a way to make peace with his inadequacies through a neighbour’s chance comment, the pregnant teenager set free by her grandmother’s compassion and the lizard community thrown into confusion by the arrival of humans.

Ellis’s speciality is pinpointing the blind spots and bigotry lodged in her characters’ psyches, all the while keeping their humanity in the forefront of the reader’s mind. The most memorable example of this is ‘And the Subway Takes me Home’, in which Carla struggles against prejudice in her work as a maid for a rich white American pensioner, all the while pondering how to get her son away from his Kerub girlfriend back home in Belize:

‘How could she explain to him: “Son I don’t know her, but I know a lot of people like her. Kerubs are all alike. Clannish, dirty, smell of fish. Before you know it you married to her and her whole generation move in with you.”‘

The power of the story lies in Ellis’s tracing of the steps that have led to Carla’s skewed way of thinking, which makes the explosion of her plans at the end of the story all the more devastating and cathartic.

Ellis’s eye for the wrinkles in the human mind can give rise to a great deal of comedy too. The final story, ‘A Hero’s Welcome’, in which a remote Belizean community prepares a grand celebration to welcome home Mas’ Tom, its one and only member to go off and fight in the second world war, is at once hilarious and touching. As we watch the villagers scrambling to devise fitting entertainments for the man they have pictured playing a pivotal role in secret missions all over the globe and come to think of as ‘their salvation’, the widening gap between their imaginings and the unprepossessing truth becomes funnier and sadder with every page.

Occasionally Ellis’s phonetic representations of Belizean speech can sometime be a little hard to decipher. This disturbed the flow of some of the early stories, although I did find myself keying into it more and more towards the end.

But this was a minor issue. Overall this was a great read by a subtle and empathetic storyteller with a keen awareness of how the cogs turn in the human (and possibly lizard) brain. Shirlene and Dr Colville Young were right: I thoroughly enjoyed it. If only every constitutional figurehead were as proactive in championing writing like this.