The local future of Guyanese writers is no different from that of their forebears

Dear Editor,

It was interesting to read an editorial by Jairo Rodrigues, titled ‘The Brain Drain’ in ‘The Scene’ in Stabroek News on June 22nd, 2013. Rodrigues, an engaging young contributor to ‘The Scene’ no doubt, notices a “brain drain” intensifying in Guyana since the 1970s, but rather than continually cast blame he wants to identify why it is happening, and find ways to “slow it down.” Such an attitude puts him on the right track. But the reasons I am going to offer for this brain drain may deconstruct the initial interpretation that a brain drain actually exists at all, inserting rather that drastic, nationally damaging changes have occurred in independent Guyana since 1966, which gave another meaning to the term ‘brain drain’ from within Guyana, before it became associated with young citizens literally packing up and emigrating outward to the Caribbean, North America, Canada, Europe, etc.

First of all, those Guyanese in BG [British Guiana] who fought in the two World Wars and helped build the Panama Canal (like mostly other Caribbean citizens/labourers) were not contributing to a world foreign to Guyanese benefits (all Guyanese benefited through these involvements), that is because the European colonial foundation of Guyana back then, and now, did not involve only exploitive labour and economic dependence, but had a futuristic positive flipside, which involved high literacy, scientific training, broad cultural knowledge, the right to freedom of expression, etc. For example, apart from Guyanese migrating to find employment, better opportunities etc, long before the 1970s there is the fact that numerous Guyanese pharmacists, lawyers, architects, engineers, doctors, teachers, agriculturalists etc, of African, East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and mixed race origin, existed in BG since the beginning of the 20th century. These people did not complete their studies for these vital professions in BG or the Caribbean, but mostly in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, or the USA. So why were these people back in BG since a century ago working at their professions and helping to build the nation we see today? There were others who stayed abroad, since these developed countries were always interested in competent professionals they helped train. The foremost reason they returned, apart from family connections, was because they saw BG as going in the same educated and developed direction as those ‘metropolitan’ countries where they had studied. This direction began to change drastically and detrimentally after Independence in 1966, but did not really become the ‘brain drain’ exodus Rodrigues speaks about until around the mid 1970s. Since the early 1960s mainly social and political interpretations of Guyana’s future began to take precedence over the everyday (quotidian) intellectual and culturally developed necessities that ambitious Guyanese had been enjoying for decades prior to 1966. Even the exodus started from Guyana after the 1962-64 years of devastating arson, riots, political and social violence, which was Guyana’s worst period, never equalled or repeated since, thankfully, did not affect the attraction of young Guyanese for their homeland after they went abroad, since they returned in droves at the quickest opportunity throughout the ’60s and the first years of the ’70s. Why? Because except for skyscrapers, subways, highways, and huge supermarkets with many brands of diverse food, the exciting cultural experience of seeing the best classic and contemporary films from Hollywood, continental Europe (not just Britain) and India, and reading the best classic and contemporary literature in 9 city cinemas, 7 top quality bookstores, 3 poublic libraries, one local, one British and one American, could be had right here too, as in the foreign  metropolis.

Back then the entire ex-snackbar area of Bookers Universal (today’s Guyana Stores) and where Fogarty’s ground floor cafeteria is today, were bookstores of the highest quality and quantity, where the classic and modern literature of all Europe, the Americas, and Russia could be bought cheaply brand new, along with hard and softcover Art books on 20th century artists and movements, also African, Oriental, and Pre-Columbian art history. The works of Freud, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Kierkegaard, Ortega Y Gasset, Alan Watts, R D Laing, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Marshal McCluhan, etc; the fiction of Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Georges Simenon, Simone de Beauvoir, St Exupery, Alberto Moravia, Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortazar, John Braine, etc; the illustrated film scipts of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Antonioni, Fellini, etc, were all easily available right here in Georgetown. In the best Georgetown cinemas, like Plaza, Globe, Empire, Metropole, and Strand de Lux, not only the films of these directors could be seen monthly during the 1960s, but their highly intelligent and social actors on screen, such as Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimee, Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, Elke Sommer, Romy Schneider, Alain Delon, Marcello Mastroianni, Victorio Gassman, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo etc. Try finding such films or books in Guyana today, as you still can in ‘foreign’! Any Guyanese youth today who cannot and does not feed their intellect with such films and literature will not and cannot reach the same cultural and  informative level as a past generation which had the opportunity to absorb such works in their nation during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Finally, the local future of young Guyanese writers/playwrights today is no different than that of their forebears since the 1940s, where, unlike Latin American writers, English speaking Caribbean writers will have little readership or sales, even if they have local publishers. They should keep in mind though that Edgar Mittelholzer ‒ still the greatest modern Guyanese writer in my estimation, along with Wilson Harris, and Denis Williams ‒ sent his first novel from Berbice to England and got published after several tries. Guyanese writers should think first about writing truly well, before thinking of publishing. Guyanese youths should also peruse the local newspaper archives for The Argosy, Daily Chronicle, Graphic and Evening Post from 1950 to 1969, if they want to see just how advanced in writing, criticism, fashion, film appreciation, history of Guyanese exists in those newspapers, not in much of today’s miopic axe-grinding academic reports. The Guyanese brain drain will probably become redundant when Guyanese professionals and their government (s) rejoin the international cultural community from their ‘brains’, first.

Yours faithfully,
Terry Roberts

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