The Guyana Prize for Literature has gone missing

Dear Editor,
‘Stalin’s greatest crime was the murder of words’ – Eric Hoffer
On February 22, one day before the fortieth anniversary of the Republic, I attended a public symposium on the role of culture in Mashramani. At the sparsely attended event, I listened to a presentation delivered by Al Creighton, part of which dealt with the development of the literary arts over the four decades since 1970.

Granted the summation necessarily dictated by the time constraints, it was somewhat surprising nevertheless when Mr Creighton reached the end of his presentation with no mention made of the Guyana Prize for Literature; surprising particularly due to the presenter’s long tenure as Secretary to the Guyana Prize Management Committee.

My first criticisms of the Guyana Prize were made almost ten years ago. Those criticisms in summary were that the reality of the awarding of the prizes went against a significant aspect of the purpose of the prize, the development and reward of Guyanese writing at home and abroad since the majority of the winners were overseas-based writers, due primarily to better resources for the development and publication of their work, resources denied local writers. I should also add freedom from fear of the consequences of free expression.

The same year in which I won the prize was the same year in which I started working at the Guyana Chronicle, the same year in which I was invited to the first Caribbean-Canadian Literary Expo in Toronto. It was the same year I authored a document on behalf of the editorial department of the Chronicle outlining the objections of the staff to the interference by the Office of the President, including within that document the provisions of the Declaration of Chapultepec against which said interference constituted a contravention, Guyana being a signatory of that declaration. It was the same year that I was denied a place on Guyana’s delegation to Carifesta VIII in Suriname, despite there being a literary contingent.

In 2006, despite being an active part of the initial deliberations for the planning of Guyana’s participation, I was to learn shortly before the event itself that I was not part of the literary contingent of Guyana’s delegation to Carifesta IX in Trinidad and Tobago. Some consultancy work, nevertheless, facilitated my observation of, if not official participation in, that year’s Carifesta.

An interesting anecdote: on arrival at Piarco, I met the late Minister of Education, Desrey Fox. After learning that I was not, unlike her, part of Guyana’s contingent for the event, the Minister was perplexed for a moment before asking, “Well, are you still writing?” In the interest of the continuation of the always cordial relationship I had enjoyed with the Minister, I refrained from asking if the “still writing” qualification was one met by the members of the official literary contingent. We subsequently took a taxi together down to the Carifesta Secretariat in Port of Spain, the organisers not having seen fit to provide an official escort for the foreign dignitary.
In retrospect I should perhaps be grateful that the launching of my collection of short stories, Fictions, Volume One, was included on the official programme of the Carifesta X held in Guyana, although my name was notably absent from any other official literary event during the festival. I am not however holding my breath for inclusion on the literary delegation for Carifesta XI.

My point is that I don’t mind the personal exclusion per se – whatever slight delusional Messianic complex I possess thrives on that sort of individual disenfranchisement. Also it provides more than enough evidence of perennial sycophancy, incompetence and outright idiocy in the administration when I do make some sort of challenge to the powers that be.

For example, I can – as I am doing now – ask the Ministry of Culture to release the names and literary qualifications of the members of the literary contingent for Carifesta VIII and IX, as well as the criteria for selection, and not expect a straight answer from the newly appointed Director of Culture, Dr James Rose, the person whom the Minister will no doubt direct to give a public response, if any. I can say, as I am doing now, that the selection process for the entire Carifesta contingents under question bordered upon corruption, and no proof to effectively negate that charge would be forthcoming.

My problem is what I consider a concerted effort to completely extinguish the already weak flame of literary expression in Guyana as appears to be happening now, and which the local media seems to be blissfully insensitive to. The Guyana Prize for Literature has gone missing for an entire cycle – the last prizes were the 2006 awards, given in 2007, and the subsequent one should have been in 2008. If the Pulitzer Prizes skip a year in America, or the Giller in Canada, or the Booker in the UK, there would be grounds for a national scandal. So far, no public explanation has been given by the Prize Committee for the absence of the awards, not even a peep of interrogation by the Stabroek News which carries a weekly column by the Secretary of the Prize.

The Guyana Prize awards a maximum of US$21,000 in prize money, in addition to the expenses associated with the hosting of the ceremony, and transportation for the overseas based awardees and judges and perhaps miscellaneous administrative expenses which should amount to roughly an additional US$10,000 total.

In contrast, the President’s US$100,000 annual commitment to a regional publishing house seems to have been activated with the recent launch of the Guyana Classics series, by the unceremoniously named Caribbean Publishing House. The books were not edited or printed in the region, much less Guyana, nor are they currently available to local readers. There is no transparency of process, and the annual commitment to the publishing house which does not have any apparent verifiable existence is worth some $20 million.

And of course, there was not even an attempt at sourcing contemporary writing for publication or republication, particularly from local writers, with some vague commitment towards this end slated for when the current cycle of Guyana classics is through, some three years from now.

So instead of sending US$21,000 (often less) of taxpayer money biennially overseas, the administration has committed to send US$100,000 overseas annually, in the name of the further development of Guyanese literature. And somehow this makes sense to, or does not register any concern with, the independent media, civil society, cultural activists and the political opposition.

At the end of the presentations, I asked Mr Creighton about the Guyana Prize and was told, along with the rest of the audience, that an announcement would be made “soon.” This was two months ago. To be fair to the academic, the Guyana Prize Committee does not control the purse strings, but a principled stand should be taken in light of what is tantamount to the erasure of the national prize for literature, particularly in light of the fact that every other area of the arts receives significant attention while there is absolutely no mechanism to support the development of creative writing. But a mouth, to quote Martin Carter, is always muzzled by the soup* it eats to live.

Derek Walcott, in Codicil wrote of his experience in Trinidad, noting “the best minds root like dogs for scraps of favour.” It is a sad realisation for me to watch the same thing happen here. This sort of absurdity thrives on two things, ignorance and silence. Those who don’t know can’t do anything, and those who know are silenced by fear or self-interest or both. Unless something is said about it, unless we protest against the systematic murder of words, this necrotic silence is going to spread throughout the entire society until it stifles all of us.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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