Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to respond to Mr Gideon Cecil’s letter ‘Former judges of the Guyana Prize for Literature should not be allowed to submit entries’ (SN, April 29). I will begin with a minor correction. Mr Cecil states that Al Creighton has been “Secretary and Administrator of the Prize for the past 23 years.” That is not accurate. The Prize itself was established 23 years ago, and the first Secretary, Mrs Yvonne Stephenson, served in that position for many years before Creighton took it over.
Mr Cecil goes on to say the Guyana Prize has no regulations which prevent persons from being judges and entrants to the Prize at the same time, and that there have been persons who were both. First of all, the Guyana Prize does have such a regulation and no one has ever served as a judge at the same time that he has submitted an entry. In addition, no one can be a member of the Prize Management Committee and a contestant at the same time, and this has never happened. Mr Cecil writes, “Prof 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.” That is not accurate. Prof Craig had already resigned as Vice-Chancellor (from 1996) and was no longer a member of the Management Committee (since 1995) in 1998 when he entered his unpublished manuscript for the Poetry Prize.
Mr Cecil also gave the example of Dr Ian McDonald. But Dr McDonald had already stepped down from the Management Committee in 1992 when he became a winner of the Prize. In fact, what Mr Cecil did not mention is that Essequibo in 1992 was not McDonald’s first entry. He had ceased to be a member of the committee in 1989 when he entered for the first time with his poetry collection Mercy Ward, and he did not win then.
Other examples provided by Mr Cecil were David Dabydeen and Mark McWatt, both of whom were Prize winners and also served as a judge at different times. He also names the Booker Prize, the Cohen Prize and the IMPAC Dublin as literary awards in which this would never have been allowed to happen. These are interesting and very ironic examples. David Dabydeen’s novel The Counting House was entered and shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award in 1997, but he also served as a judge for the IMPAC Dublin in a different year. Dabydeen was a judge for the Cohen Prize in 1993, but there is nothing to prevent him winning it at any time. Mark McWatt had already served more than once as a judge for the Commonwealth Literary Prize when his book Suspended Sentences won that award in 2006. Additionally, in different years, McWatt has been a winner and a judge for the Casa de las Americas Literary Award. Furthermore, in 1992 when McWatt judged the Guyana Prize, he had a book of poems, Interiors, published in 1991, but did not enter it, obviously because he could not have been judge and contestant at the same time.
In addition, Mr Cecil quotes from the rules governing the IMPAC Dublin which state that no book can be eligible if the author is a member of the management committee, a judge, or a parent, spouse or child of any committee member or judge. Those rules apply to any such prize, the Guyana Prize included. What Mr Cecil did not see is that, while one cannot be both judge and competitor at the same time (which is logical and obvious, the rules say nothing about serving in both capacities at different times. There is proof that they allow the latter because Dabydeen has done it, and he is not the only one. It happens every year in the major international literary awards and no one has cried out or made an issue over the practice because it is the norm.
My final comment will be on Mr Cecil’s claim that when there are books by “scholars and distinguished writers” who “already have a reputation” and “high academic degrees behind their names,” the judges “will never read the unpublished manuscripts” of “Guyanese-based writers.” The fact is that Harischandra Khemraj was a schoolteacher living in D’Edward village, totally unknown as a writer when he entered Cosmic Dance in 1994. Not only did those same judges read his entry, but they awarded him the major Prize. He beat off scholars and distinguished writers with high reputations and degrees behind their names like David Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar and Wilson Harris(!) If Mr Cecil’s allegations were well placed, totally unknown writers like Gowkaran Sukhdeo (1998) and Ruel Johnson (2002) who entered unpublished manuscripts would never have won the Guyana Prize.