Over a year ago, I had levelled what I believed to be a serious charge of nepotism and discrimination against the Ministry of Culture in its selection of literary contingents for Carifestas 8 and 9, held in Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively. I claimed that artistic qualification was superseded by political bias in the selection of said contingents and twice challenged the ministry to prove me wrong by releasing the names of the members of the contingents and the criteria under which they were selected. As expected, the only response I received was silence.
I saw last week, via the Guyana Chronicle, that the Government of Guyana took a forty-member delegation to the first Inter-Guiana Cultural Festival, a delegation which included a literary component. While I understand that it is the policy of the government not to respond to interrogations of its integrity and fairness, I nevertheless would like to – for the record – make a query. Who were the members of the literary delegation, what were their qualifications, what were the criteria used for selection, and was the good Minister of Culture satisfied that the literary contingent offered the best Guyana had to offer?
Let me be, no pun intended, frank. I’m going to say unequivocally that the Minister of Culture remains woefully out of his depth both in regard to cultural policy as well as the enactment of cultural initiatives. And while the discrimination of conscience in the selection of literary contingents did not begin under him, it has been perpetuated under his tenure. Further, his ministry’s perpetuation of this should not only be taken as reflective of the government in which he is a high-ranking official, but also of the political party – the People’s Progressive Party – which not only does he represent, but in which he is a ranking member of the highest decision-making body, the Central Committee.
Founder of the PPP, Cheddi Jagan would not have approved of this, and in fact would downright be ashamed of it. One of the first things Jagan did when he was first elected to power in the pre-Independence era was to institute the Cheddi Jagan Gold Medal for Literature. When he was again elected to power in 1992, he could have easily removed or weakened the Guyana Prize for Literature – initiated by President Desmond Hoyte – on the pretext, or justification, that it was a luxury in times of economic hardship; not only did he not do any of that, he endorsed it. In his speech at the 1992 Guyana Prize Awards ceremony – a month after he was sworn into office – Dr Jagan stated emphatically:
‘The Guyanese writer has a major role to play in the rebuilding of our society – people engaged in the arts must see themselves as part of the development process.”
It is clear that Cheddi Jagan would have seen the covert and insidious marginalization of any writer as anathema to the spirit of what he fought for, if not an outright resurgence of that which he fought against.
The problem with the sort of mediocrity that permeates the highest levels of government is that its accompanying myopia dictates the policy of the powers that be, often to ends inimical to the state they are given temporary responsibility for. With regard to literature and free expression, what seems to be at work here is this moronic and tepid bastard of Cold War/Iron Curtain literary suppression, attempting to clumsily operate in the age of the Internet and WikiLeaks.
I really can only conceive of this approach in terms of the absurdism present in the work of Douglas Adams. In particular, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there is the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal – a furious and indestructible creature, but one so densely stupid that if you were to cover your eyes from it, it assumes that since you can’t see it, it can’t see you and thus goes away. I get the sense that this is essentially the government’s view of the creator of free literature in Guyana; here is this cartoonishly furious monster snarling at us, and maybe if we close our eyes long enough to him, he won’t see us and maybe starve to death or just leave altogether so that we can continue our absurd and self-righteous system of doing things in peace.
I’m still here, and I’m asking for the Ministry to publicise the literary contingents for Carifestas 2003 and 2006, and the Inter-Guianas Cultural Festival; the literary credentials of the members of the contingents; and the Minister’s assurance that he was and remains satisfied that those contingents represented the best that Guyana had to offer. Otherwise, we can reasonably take his continued silence to imply not only discrimination of conscience governing literary expression in Guyana, but also a severe tarnishing of the legacy of the great Cheddi Jagan, perpetrated by implication by that party itself.