The Guyana Prize for Literature has failed to foster the development of local writing

Dear Editor,

I wish to thank Mr Al Creighton (‘Arrange-ments are in progress for the Guyana Prize 2010’ SN, May 1) for responding to my letter of April 25.

I believe that before anything else, I need to address Mr Creighton’s claim that I have repeated my “dissatisfaction that most often the winners reside overseas.”

“This again causes me,” challenges the learned academic, “to ask him a simple question: to whom should the Guyana Prize be given? Should it go to the best book whether or not the writer is local?  Or should it go to a local writer whether or not his book is the best?”

This exercise in rhetoric is as useless as it is misleading. Nowhere in my letters, nor in any of my criticisms of the Prize, have I suggested that there be some affirmative action element favouring local writers in the judging of the Guyana Prize for Literature.  I believe, without equivocation, that the best book in any category should be awarded the Prize as decided by the jury.

What I have addressed ad nauseam, over the past ten years, is that the fact that the Prize has a mandate to foster the development of local writing which it has seminally failed to undertake, outside of allowing manuscripts by local authors to be submitted.

Since the 2002 Prize, at least, the Jury of the Prize has recommended that the Prize put in place developmental mechanisms in order to level the playing field for locally resident writers.   I can draw Mr Creighton’s attention to an excerpt from the Guyana Chronicle article, written by yours truly, on the 2004 Prize awards ceremony:

“As in previous years, the issue of works by locally based amateur writers going up against works written by overseas-based writers who benefit from professional support was raised.

“‘The judges were somewhat concerned,’ said [Chairman of the Jury] Dr [Victor] Ramraj in his Judges’ Report, ‘about the possible unfairness that saw manuscript publications, particularly by locals, compete against published texts that had the advantage of editors’ supervision and editors’ suggestion for improvement.’

“Dr Ramraj said it was the thinking of the judges that holding inter-session workshops between Prizes – involving writers, judges, editors, academics and other interested persons – would help to level the playing field. He stated that many judges voiced a willingness to voluntarily aid in developing such workshops, sentiments which were communicated to the Prize Committee.

“‘I was pleased to see [that] Al [Creighton] is addressing our concerns,’ said Ramraj.”

If I may be allowed a bit of rhetorical indulgence, perhaps Mr Creighton can inform the general public of the steps taken by the committee since then in rectifying the concerns raised by Dr Ramraj and co.  I may have missed a few of those intersession workshops they recommended and offered their voluntary service in facilitating.

I frankly don’t buy Mr Creighton’s implied claim that it is an issue of funding which has stymied the Prize’s addressing of the developmental mechanisms. I am sure that Mr Creighton is aware that the actual costs of running a non-residential writing workshop are negligible.  One or two facilitators, a classroom or similar space, a competent module, ten willing participants (selected perhaps from a writing competition), snacks, stationery, and probably access to word processing facilities are adequate to run a fairly good workshop.  I would presume that the university has ample space and human resource capacity, as well as the resource mobilisation experience to engage the corporate community in co-funding a one-week non-residential workshop at the very least.

With regard to his claim that the Management Committee is “committed to the presentation of the award in the usual way,” the mere fact that four years have elapsed in the reward of a biennial prize means that the awards will not be presented in the “usual way.”  Indeed the call for entries for the 2010 Prize, “in the usual way,” would have been advertised months ago, at the beginning of the year, instead of the nebulous “as soon as I am able announce further details.”  And this still does not offer a scintilla of explanation or apology for the non-hosting of the 2008 Prize, other than the interruption from the hosting of Carifesta X in 2008.

It is both telling and sad that Mr Creighton would rather fall on his sword by implying incompetence and incapacity on the part of the Prize Committee (of which he is Secretary) and by extension the university – in his de facto admission that the Prize Committee has failed to mobilise developmental resources for local writers over two decades – than to even hint that the erasure of the Prize and the failure to commit to developmental mechanisms are clearly a result of an official policy of malign neglect  of literature  of which the political decision to attempt to dispense with the Prize is simply the latest manifestation of.  A little over a year ago, I was personally witness to Mr Creighton’s strenuous yet unsuccessful attempts at engaging a senior cultural policy official with regard to the release of funds for the Guyana Prize; it was obvious that the academic will to host the Prize was at odds with the political will to fund it.

In reference to Reverend Gideon Cecil’s insinuation that the fact that past winners being judges constituted some conspiracy with reference to the awarding of the Prize, I believe both Mr Creighton and Terrence Roberts dealt satisfactorily with that issue.  The Guyana Prize awards are the results of the collective deliberations of senior academics or similarly qualified persons – to imply that one or two members, supposing they were so inclined, could sway a panel of seven to further the aims of some clique is both illogical and disingenuous.   The Prize should not be lowered to allow for the shortcomings of local writers; the playing field needs to be levelled.

Finally, with regard to the other “issues and allegations” raised in my letter, please permit me to summarise and repeat them.  Firstly, the Caribbean Publishing House as presently constituted goes exactly counter to the spirit of President Jagdeo’s commitment two years ago in that the principals reside overseas, the money is not invested in the local economy, the books are not currently available here how many months after their launch, and contemporary writers do not benefit from this endeavour in any way with regard to getting their work published.   I believe the Guyana Review article “Fiction, fantasy and the art of publishing” (SN, April 29) dealt somewhat ably with providing some context to this fiasco.

Secondly, my personal experience has been that the Ministry of Culture’s selection process for placement on Guyana’s official delegations to Carifesta has been based on discrimination of conscience, nepotism and the absence of transparent criteria, with artistic qualification or merit being placed to tertiary to political and other concerns.  I again challenge the ministry to respond to these claims, with a reasonable first step in negating my charge being the release of the names and qualifications of the members of the literary contingents for Carifestas 8 and 9.

It’s been a week since those “allegations” were made and there has been no response, as I have expected.  I therefore won’t be holding my breath.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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