‘A cruel and poignant irony’

Dear Editor,

It was with no small amount of amusement that I saw, at last, the shortlist for the Guyana Prize for Literature 2011. I formally repeat my call for the resignation of the Management Committee, not only from the committee itself but from the publicly-funded posts they occupy.

I have been repeatedly asked, often with some light derision, why is it that I continue to harp on about a Prize that no one knows or cares about? The Guyana Prize was launched by then President Desmond Hoyte in 1987 with two specific purposes: rewarding Guyanese writing at home and abroad; and fostering the development of local writing. By failing to do the latter, it has jeopardized and skewed the actualization of the former. If there is no development, then there can be no reward. That is why – and this is something the Management Committee has released without shame or apology – the Best First Book categories, not for the first time in the history of the Prize, remain empty due to the lack of quality of work submitted.

Yet the band plays on, apparently ignorant of what has been a clear trend with regard to literary development initiatives in Guyana. For example, when Derek Walcott complained about the need for direct investment in the arts while visiting Guyana during Carifesta in 2008, it was immediately announced by the President that US$100,000 would be given towards the establishment of a Caribbean publishing house. A year later, the result was not a mechanism to publish contemporary Guyanese/ Caribbean literary work, but the disingenuously and also ingeniously conceived ‘Guyana Classics‘ series – the reprinting of books originally published decades ago with the ostensibly noble intent of preserving our literary heritage.

That the independent press did not question why it was that the much-lauded Caribbean Press initiative could not have published both classic as well as contemporary literature, in keeping with the spirit of Walcott’s exhortation, was personally disappointing to me, particularly since Stabroek News had carried an article in which I had warned not only about the sustainability of the initiative but the danger of political control. Or why, as it has subsequently developed, that the press has only committed to publishing contemporary writers until 2012, the year after the upcoming general elections?

In case my point isn’t coming through clearly enough, the present administration does not believe it beneficial to provide either the means of development for literary expression, nor the vehicles for literary expression – indeed it is outright hostile, if covertly so, to any initiative in this area. If there are workshops, they will be not be publicized, and limited to a few acceptable to the regime, as has happened in the past month and a half; when there are contingents for events like Carifesta or the recently concluded Inter-Guiana Cultural Festival, the literary contingents will continue to consist of the mediocre and the incompetent being paraded as the best the country has to offer; publishing houses will be launched but no contemporary writing, particularly post-1992, will ever make it to press; supposedly grand literary ventures will be launched, the substance of which will continue to be the mediocrity that the administration is most comfortable with.

And, as the list of national awardees clearly indicates, those who enable this absurd intellectual fraud will be rewarded and given the legitimization that would expressly be denied them in any fair or sane socio-political milieu, as opposed to this large-scale Dunning-Kruger hypothesis test lab we appear to inhabit.

One particular saying that I hold as a perpetual caution with regard to such affairs is that warning given to Aeneas, attributed by Virgil to the Sybil of Cumae, that “The descent into Avernus is easy; day and night the gates of Hell stand open – But to make your way back up into the upper air, therein lies the toil, therein lies the hardship.”

If it is that literature – the ultimate refinement of our very words, the primary means through which we communicate – can be corrupted, and manipulated, and effectively marginalized without comment, and with the quisling facilitation of academia, then all else will follow. And a reversal of the situation will not be easy – today the perversion of the Guyana Prize, the next day the removal of ads from Stabroek News, the next day the cancellation of Merundoi, and the next day the imprisonment of a young man showing his middle finger in the general direction of the presidential motorcade. What can we expect tomorrow?

Of course, the blame cannot simply be attributed to the administration alone – this state of things with regard to literature has come about not only by crimes of commission but those of omission as well. When President Hoyte launched the Guyana Prize for Literature, it was at a time of relative economic turmoil in Guyana. His justification was that even in direst of straits, we should look to the cultural as well as the economic for sustenance – he quoted the Persian poet Saadi, who exhorted that a hungry man who has two loaves of bread should sell one and with the money “buy hyacinths to feed the soul.”

That Hoyte’s party remains silent – with that blissfulness that is the particular pleasure of the ignorant and the unenlightened – the most concrete aspect of his legacy has been corrupted, and twisted to engender the very thing it was founded to combat: it is a cruel and poignant irony.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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