literature

On Celebration of the Guyana Prize for Literature

(by Andrew Kendall)

Are writers being acknowledged as much as they ought to be? Is the political climate of Guyana conducive to writing as a career?  Is (literary) writing an economically viable choice of career? These are all questions that have, and continue to, inspire conversation in Guyana.

The need for respect and recognition for literature in Guyana as well as its writers are issues which continue to be debated by academics and members of the public. Such continuous debate made the revelation of the shortlist for the 2012 Guyana Prize for Literature earlier this month, and the corresponding Ceremony to celebrate the winners two Sundays ago, at The Pegasus an especially timely and even auspicious occasion.

The revelation of the nominees for the largest government sponsored prize in the English speaking Caribbean seemed to be an ideal time to further open the conversation on the merit of literature in the Guyanese populace. But, ten days after the ceremony celebrating the Prize the conversation on the merits and winners of the competition seems curiously muted.

The bi-annual prize, first inaugurated by then President of Guyana Desmond Hoyte, sees winners being rewarded in the literary categories of Best Book of Fiction, Drama and Poetry and additional prizes for Best First Book of Poetry and Fiction.

Since its inception in 1987 the prize has functioned as a cogent means of celebrating literature in Guyana and a number of renowned Guyanese writers have been shortlisted to, and won, the prize – including David Dabydeen, Wilson Harris, Ian McDonald, Paloma Mohammed.

In a year which has seen the dialogue concerning literature and literary merit in Guyana, and the Caribbean, rising to a somewhat feverish pitch (with debates on the Caribbean press being especially ferocious in earlier parts of the year) the Guyana Prize Ceremony for the year 2012 – held a few months later than anticipated – was as good a time as any to take a step back and celebrate Guyana’s literary output; – or, at least, assess it.

The nominees for this 2012 iteration of the prize were as follows:

BEST BOOK OF FICTION

  • Ruel Johnson – Collected Fictions: A semi-autobiographical collection of short fiction that addresses racial and political tensions, relationships and displacement.
  • Chaitram Singh – The February 23rd Coup: A fast-paced fictional account of an attempted coup by a group of disaffected Guyanese soldiers.

BEST BOOK OF POETRY

  • Cassia Alphonso – Black Cake Mix: A collection of evocative poems with a well-realized creole voice.
  • Ian McDonald – The Comfort of All Things: Elegiac musings by a mature poet on aging and mortality.
  • Sasenarine Persaud – Lantana Strangling Ixora: Complex, introspective poems with a bitter edge.

BEST DRAMA

  • Harold Bascom – Deportee: A screenplay for a crime thriller set in New York and Georgetown, involving deportation, narcotrafficking and corruption.
  • Mosa Mathifa Telford – Sauda: A morality tale about the need for understanding and forgiveness between mothers and daughters, and the difficulties of escaping from a legacy of self-contempt.

BEST FIRST BOOK OF FICTION

  • Chaitram Singh – The February 23rd Coup: A fast-paced fictional account of an attempted coup by a group of disaffected Guyanese

Only ONE entry was shortlisted from among those in this category.  It will therefore be declared the winner.

No one was shortlisted in the category Best First Book of Poetry

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The winners were announced at the ceremony by the Chairman of the 2012 Jury, Professor Jane Bryce: Professor of African Literature and Film, Dept ofLanguage, Linguistics and Literature, UWI, Cave Hill. Professor Bryce also presented the Judge’s report giving a brief summary and analysis of the Jury’s opinions of the shortlisted pieces.

The winners were Johnson for the Best Book of Fiction, Alphonso and McDonald for Best Book of Poetry, Telford for Best Book of Drama and Chaitram the winner, and only nominee, for best first book of fiction.

The announcement of the winners was itself something of significance. The Guyana Prize has previously come under scrutiny for the perceived imbalance of expatriate writers being more predisposed to win prizes than resident Guyanese.

However, of the seven shortlisted writers for this year’s slate of nominees  four of them were residents – Johnson, Telford, McDonald and Alphonso. Each of these four residents emerged as winners in their various categories. Additionally, it was a sign – no matter how small – of good things when two of the three main prizes were won by young female writers.

Further, Ruel Johnson who had a decade ago won the Guyana Prize for Best First Book of Fiction of 2002 becoming the youngest winner in the category at the time made himself a repeat winner when he won the prize again this year for his subsequent book of fiction.

Amidst continuous back and forth on literature’s merit in Guyana, surely the results of this Guyana Prize – where three of the winners were young writers below the age of 35 – was something , if not worthy of being heralded, at least something to which attention should have been paid.

And yet, such deserved and necessary attention seemed scant. Illusory even.

As the Guyana Prize for Literature in 2012 made strides in what could be argued are especially positive areas, the lead-up to and aftermath of the actual ceremony was marked by a significant lack of coverage and attention in the Guyanese public.

Chairman of the Management Committee Al Creighton wrote a spirited letter to Stabroek News a day later to bemoan the egregious lack of attention paid to the Prize asserting that the it presented “quite a lot to celebrate”, and such a claim is not an injudicious one.

Where was such celebration? Perhaps the muted media coverage pointed to growing loss of literature and reading as a beacon of Guyanese culture, a problem not peculiar to Guyana when international prizes like the Booker Prize have been victim of waning public interest.

But, perhaps, even more problematic than the distinct lack of attention given to the prize and its ceremony in much of the popular press, though, was that the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, under whose auspices the prize would conceivably fall was egregiously absent from the ceremony announcing the prize winners.

Ironic, and perhaps even telling, that as the prize winners come home to roost seeing locals outnumber expatriates in the winners’ circle and two vibrant young female writers getting their due public and governmental interest seems decidedly subdued.

Ostensibly, the prize still benefits from a generous grant from the government that sees millions of dollars meted out to it and its winners every two years but it is sobering to consider how one of the nation’s top prizes of artistic merit has come and gone with so little ado about so very much.

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