I refer to a very fascinating letter published in the Sunday Stabroek of April 25 by Ruel Johnson under the caption ‘The Guyana Prize for Literature has gone missing.’ Mr Johnson was an ardent critic of the Guyana Prize many years ago, but he has now awakened from his slumber once again.
The Guyana Prize for Literature is the most prestigious literary award in the English-speaking Caribbean that was inaugurated in 1987 by the late President Desmond Hoyte. The objective of the Guyana Prize is to, “recognise and reward outstanding work in literature by Guyanese authors at home and abroad.”
As a concerned author/poet, I observed some flaws in the Guyana Prize Management Committee since I was an entrant in the Guyana Prize for Literature from 1996-2006. My thesis is that the Guyana Prize judges are becoming entrants, and entrants are becoming judges. Mr Ruel Johnson failed to address this issue in his letter. In 1987, the very first year in which the Guyana Prize was established, Dr Ian McDonald, distinguished literary critic and author, was the Chairman of the panel of judges and a member of the management committee. In 1992 Dr McDonald became an entrant for the prize and emerged a winner in the poetry category with his collection of poems, Essequibo. He subsequently entered again for the Prize in 2004 and won the award for the second time with his poetry collection Between Silence and Silence. In the case of the Booker Prize, the Cohen Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, etc, his entry would have been disqualified since he was a former judge for the award, but the Guyana Prize has no such rule.
In 1992, Dr David Dabydeen won the Guyana Prize in the fiction category with his novel, The Intended, and in 1996 he entered again for the award and was short-listed with his novel, The Counting House. In 1998 Dr Dabydeen became a judge in the Guyana Prize. In 2000 he entered for the prize again and won with Harlot’s Progress and in 2004 he entered for the prize and won in the Best Book of Fiction category with his novel, Our Lady of Demerara. Only in Guyana can these unethical acts take place because our standards have fallen very low.
In 1994, Prof Mark McWatt won the Guyana Prize in the Poetry category with his collection of poems, The Language of El Dorado. Then in 1992 he was the Chairman of the Judges for the Guyana Prize just two years before he entered for the prize in 1994. In 2006 Prof McWatt won the Best Book of Fiction for his novel, Suspended Sentences.
Professor Dennis Craig was the Vice-Chancellor at UG when the Guyana Prize was in progress, and he became an entrant in 1998 and won in the Best First Book of Poetry category for his collection Near the Seashore during that period, and worked with the Guyana Prize Committee. It is my opinion, like any other literary award in the world all these former judges who became entrants for the Guyana Prize should have been disqualified.
The Guyana Prize for Literature has now become a society of friends, or an incestuous elite group, winning the Prize all the time. I have read the brochure for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and its rules state: “A book shall not be eligible for entry for the Award if the author or translator thereof is any of the following:
1. a member of the Board of Management
2. a member of the staff of Dublin City Council
3. an officer or employee of IMPAC Ltd.
4. a member of the judging panel.
5. a parent,spouse or child of any of the foregoing.”
It is very unfortunate that the Guyana Prize for Literature Awards brochure has no such rule listed. Mr Al Creighton who happens to be the secretary and administrator of the Guyana Prize for the past 23 years and a judge in many awards abroad does nothing to have these rules included in the Guyana Prize brochure.Why is that so?
In my opinion, a judge for a literary award is a scholar and distinguished writer in the field of literature and should not compete with lesser writers than himself in a contest. It’s not surprising that all these overseas-based Guyanese writers who were judges and entrants for the Guyana Prize are winning the Prize all the time. It’s because they are professors and well recognised authors entering the contest with published books that already won several literary awards abroad. So how can Guyanese-based writers with an ordinary CXC level education compete with these experts with their unpublished manuscripts?
In most cases the judges will never read the unpublished manuscripts but they will focus on books that already have a reputation and where there are high academic degrees behind the author’s name. In 1998 Roopnandan Singh’s novel Roll Play was short-listed in the fiction category but did not win the award because he was competing against The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville that had already won the Whitbread Award and had been short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction in England in 1997. This book that already won a major literary award one year before entering for the Guyana Prize should have been disqualified, and Mr Singh’s book Roll Play should have won, but did not because many of the judges and entrants are friends of the elite group.
If the Guyana Prize for Literature is ever to progress in Guyana then the entire committee will have to be changed completely. The Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Culture will have to administer the prize and not UG, because the prize has been compromised by literary hypocrites. The prize must be in different categories and age groups. The works of writers living abroad should be judged separately from manuscripts.
A children’s category should be established. The prize should be called ‘The Guyana-Caribbean Prize for Literature’ and should include works from the wider Caribbean. More than one prize should be given in the various categories.
It is my sincere hope that the integrity of the prize not be compromised and the religious committee should play a significant role in the judging and giving of the awards. If a new ethical standard cannot be integrated by our PPP administration then it would be wise for the prize to be erased from our dead history. The literature submitted should be free from curse words, sexual overtures, racist remarks, etc. Many books that were given US dollars for their awards are books of a very vulgar and vile nature. We must remember the words of Mohandas Gandhi: “Literary education without character is a waste of time.” Literature will only help this nation when it can become food for the human soul. I hope our government doesn’t waste taxpayers’ money on words without value. I wonder why Desmond Hoyte established the Guyana Prize for Literature when Guyana became the second poorest nation in the West under his regime?
Rev Gideon Cecil
We are sending a copy of this letter to Secretary of the Management Committee of the Guyana Prize for Literature, Mr Al Creighton, for any comment he might wish to make.