As a writer concerned mainly with the stylistic quality of written language, I am diverting from what interests me about literature to comment on Rev Gideon Cecil’s letter ‘Former judges of the Guyana Prize for Literature should not be allow to submit entries,’ on April 29 in Stabroek News. First of all Rev Cecil should realize that former President Hoyte’s innovative act in creating the Guyana Prize placed an enormous responsibility on the small number of Guyanese literary figures who still remain in the region, or pay attention to creative writing coming from it.
These are the first Guyanese literary figures on whom the burden of getting the Guyana Prize rolling obviously fell; experienced, well published, and well read writers like Ian McDonald, David Dabydeen, Mark McWatt, and maybe a few others who not only served as chairpersons or judges once (but not during their submissions as competitors), but obviously had to help get the Prize off the ground in its first years. Unlike the European literary prizes Rev Cecil mentions, or Canadian and American ones, the Guyana Prize does not have an enormous amount of professional literary figures to choose judges from. I suppose that is one reason why there are some proposals for expanding its jury members and the contestants to include Caribbean literary figures. I am not sure if this will be a remedy for complaints surrounding the Prize.
It should be noted that in the last Guyana Prize competition of 2006 – a good choice of winners and nice reception – not one of the winning writers was also on the management committee, chairman, or on the judges panel. The committee members were: – Al Creighton, Gwyneth George, Alim Hosein, Yvonne Lancaster, Joycelynne Loncke, James Rose and Gillian Thompson. The Chairman and judges were Prof Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Elfrieda Bissember, Ameena Gafoor, Ian Robertson and Gemma Robinson.
Rev Cecil’s letter goes on to make some ridiculous comments like, “a judge is a scholar and a distinguished writer… and should not compete with lesser writers than himself in a contest.” What does that mean? That the Guyana Prize must only be for “lesser writers”? This comment is an insult to new local writers whose manuscripts may even surpass already established Guyanese writers. This happens all the time in international literature where juried prizes are on the look out for the best new talent in literary style and content. I think Reverend Cecil’s desire for “a children’s category” could reduce the Guyana Prize as it now stands to some less seriously focused arena for growing minds to compare and question their own attitudes and opinions. Also his didactic desire to predetermine or strait-jacket the freedom of creative literature – which is not the same as ‘religion’ or ‘social etiquette’ – by censoring prize entries with “curse words, sexual overtones, racist remarks, etc,” is simply laughable, since it censors and ignores a vital literary function which places the eternal negative and positive dual sides of human nature and social interaction within the evolving moral context of profound literary works. Good character is more realistically and firmly formed by facing evolving experiences, not by receiving pre-emptive dictates. The good Reverend’s judgments would veto literary prizes for indisputably great fiction by writers like James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, Claude Simon, Alain Robbe- Grillet, Jorge Amado, Jamaica Kincaid, Orlando Patterson, Cecil Brown, Marguerite Duras, etc.
The Guyana Prize committee and judges however can steer clear of such zealous, but flawed good intentions.