Arts on Sunday
“On Thursday the 6 of Februarie in the yeare 1595, we departed England, and the sunday following had sight of the North cape of Spayne, the winde for the most part continuing prosperous; wee passed in sight of the Burlings and the rocke, and so onwards for the Canaries and fell with Fuerte ventura the 17 of the same moneth…
“The empire of Gviana is directly east from Peru towards the sea, and lieth under the equinoctial line; and it hath more abundance of gold than any part of Peru, and as many or more great cities than ever Peru had when it flourished most.”
Those are the very first words written in Guyanese literature, and they are taken from the first work in Guyanese literature, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Gviana; a Relation of the great and golden CITY OF MANOA , which the Spaniards call EL DORADO, and the PROVINCES of EMIRIA, AMARAIA, AMAPAIA, and other Countries with their rivers adjoining. Performed in the yeare 1595 by Sir WALTER RALEIGH, KNIGHT, CAPTAIN of her Majesty’s GUARD, Lord Warden of the STANNAIRIES, and Her Highness’ LIEUTENANT-GENERAL of the COUNTY OF CORNWALL, written in 1595 by Sir Walter Ralegh.
Is this the correct place to start? Did the literature of Guyana begin with this myth? It is certainly an account which might have been responsible for the enslavement and genocide of generations of the Amerindian people in the pursuit of gold and power. Without doubt the myth of El Dorado has been the most fantastic, the most definitive and the most enduring metaphor for Guyana and inspiration for Guyanese literature.
Every year on May 26 comes the temptation to attack the subject of “Guyanese literature since Independence,” or “Pre-Independence” and/or “Post-Independence Guyanese literature,” otherwise called “the development of Guyanese literature since Independence.” Never mind the seemingly easy ways in which it may be phrased or approached, it is a very daunting subject. It is deceptive in its attractiveness as an appropriate thing to write at that time of year in this country, and because of the so very nice and convenient sound of the title. But if anything meaningful or truly informative is to be written, it is difficult and complex.
There is no quick, simple way of defining what is Guyanese literature, what constitutes it and exactly when we should say it began. Should it be confined to works of the imagination, that is to say, fiction, poetry and drama; or should it rightly be extended to a more comprehensive coverage of what is truly literature? This would then make it possible to include some non-fiction with all those accounts like Ralegh’s; great works of travel and scientific writing which would admit the likes of Schomburgk, Vincent Roth and Walter Roth. Then who is to qualify as a Guyanese writer? How far should we take nationality and citizenship, and do those in ‘exile’ ever cease to be Guyanese regardless of how many decades overseas, foreign passports and alien subjects? What then of second generation Guyanese in the diaspora and even ‘diasporal’ writings by Guyanese overseas?
Guyanese literature, of course, involves much more than that. It further complicates questions of when to start and where to stop when the real frontiers of the writing are acknowledged. The very use of the word “writing” brings definitions of these frontiers into focus, because the work under review must include the great corpus of Guyanese oral literature from its ancient pre-colonial forms to contemporary post-independence traditions developed in the popular culture. These range from Amerindian myths, legends and tales, through the speech events and traditions of enslaved Africans, folk songs, folk tales, to the fairly elusive tales or jokes of Balgobin, the elaborate corpus of the kwe-kwe (queh-queh), its kin the dig dutty and the contemporary post-independence chutney music.
To what extent, then, does Ralegh qualify as the starting point? He was never Guyanese in any way, he never really explored and most certainly did not know the country. He was a creative writer; a (paradoxically) fairly important minor poet of the 16th century and author of one of the most definitive poems of the courtly love and pastoral traditions. His poem in response to Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ is ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.’ It is ironic because it is an anti-pastoral, anti-romantic piece debunking myths of eternal bliss, while his The Discoverie of Gviana… turns out to be more myth and romance, more imagination than history. Yet it set the stage for the Guyanese literature that was to develop later. Inspirational works of both pre and post- independence literature were inspired by the writing of this poetic ‘ancestor.’ Outside of explorers like Schomburgk and Roth, outstanding imaginative explorers like Wilson Harris and Mark McWatt have been inheritors of an empathic obsession with the interior landscape and the spirit of El Dorado. David Dabydeen, whose Our Lady of Demerara takes him deep into those same interiors, is reprinting Ralegh’s work as the first publication in the Guyana Classics series, as if once again establishing The Discoverie… as the founding volume in the literature.
Another factor that helps to make writing on “Guyanese literature after Independence” more difficult than the glib sound that topic suggests is the problem of dates and dating. The attainment of political independence on May 26, 1966 will have more meaning in the history books or in the political life of the nation than it might in literature. The line of demarcation for what is pre-independence and what is ‘post’ is a date: one day. But no literature ceases to be one thing and becomes something else with 24 hours notice.
A work may be classified post-independence purely by the accident of the date of its publication and not by anything in its style or content. The literature of colonial British Guiana did not suddenly disappear the night the Union Jack descended on a ceremonial flagpole. Nor did British Guiana switch its social, cultural, architectural landscape and climate overnight. Those changes took some time, as would the kinds of literature that developed afterwards to reflect all the nationalism, the post-colonial responses and resistance, and the new protests against the new sovereign administration.
Yet it is possible to discern and analyse the many factors that might have pushed the politics of the literature in a newly independent Guyana. Although literature is not going to be easily decreed or manufactured, and might even resist any such attempts, there were conscious moves made in the name of nationhood to influence Guyanese literature in and after 1966. Independence anthologies were published, the History and Arts Council and its magazine Kaie did their best to nurture the writing and did help to bring emerging local writers to the fore.
Another example of a positive influence is a significant nationalistic institution which was more patriotic in the intention than in what it became because of how it was mishandled. The Guyana National Service produced the People’s Culture Corps, which might sound like something out of North Korea, but it produced some good in Guyanese literature. Outside of the expected propagandistic and party-supporting pieces, there emerged work of importance as a result of this corps. Of note is a minor writer but noteworthy cultural activist like Rajkumari Singh who helped the development of major talents like the poet Mahadai Das, whose first inspiration was patriotic verse, and much later, an emerging playwright out of the Singh family, Sharda Shakti Singh. However, the same movement that inspired and discovered her, soon lost the political sympathies of Das and turned against her, denying her a university degree and driving her out to the USA where she became ill. The late seventies and eighties was a period in which the same political forces alienated Martin Carter and though not totally responsible for the shape of his consciousness, contributed to the drift of his poetry of resistance afterwards. But while Carter is too
powerful a poetic force to have been altered by this, that political period influenced the nation’s literature again, for ill and for good. While it distorted and stultified much of the writing at home, it forced many others out and led eventually to the emergence of a prolific, interesting and important outflow of Guyanese fiction and poetry overseas.
Yet it was late in this same political era that another important institution was founded that drove the development and production of Guyanese literature in the post-independence period. The Guyana Prize for Literature which was established in 1987 sprung like a sparkling oasis in a desert shooting up bright flowers in a steady flow of fiction and poetry, though this prolificity was still taking place much more outside of the country than at home. At the end of the eighties right through the 1990s Guyanese writing began to take stock of the situation within the country, particularly confronting the troubling elements of politics and race. This two-headed monstrous enigmatic sphinx had plagued Guyana with unanswered questions for so long that once the writers threw off the lid that had restrained them, the writing began to confront not only the problems of the seventies and eighties but also went back to interrogate the bloodbaths of the early sixties as well.
An in-depth analysis of these kinds of developments could go a long way into satisfactory coverage of the development of the literature since Independence. But it requires more than a superficial sweep of a survey to provide meaningful analysis and there are other ways of approaching it. One would then have to account for what really brought all of this into being from the very dawn of the colonial period. And one would need the amazing insight and creativity of a Jeremy Poynting who in 2005 produced an analytic account of Guyanese literature that is difficult to surpass in excellence, depth, understanding of the country, and imagination. Poynting found an approach and themes to cover almost every angle and every area of the literature except the oral literature, even though he makes reference to the folklore.
Poynting’s account omits very little and disqualifies nothing. What matters is the literature coupled with the factors that produce the literature, not superficial boundaries of nationality, residence or genre. He takes us on a journey from the treasure hunt of Ralegh through the plantations to the times of sovereignty, migrations and other exiles. But any true exploration of the Guyanese literature will discover that the elusive El Dorado in the city of Manoa on Lake Parime, was not lost forever in any myth; it is a true gilded bounty to be found within the pages of the literature of Guyana produced before and after Independence.