The records that were available to me indicate that the first book ever published about Guyana was The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empyre of Guiana (With a Relation of the Great and Golden Citie of Manoa (Which the Spanyards call El Dorado) and of the Provinces of Emeria, Aromaia, Amapaia, and Other Countries, with Their Riulers, Adjoyning by Sir Walter Raleigh, an Englishman in 1596. Much has been written about Guyana, though, despite the contributions of a number of fine novelists and poets including the likes of A J Seymour, Martin Carter, Sheik Sadeek, Roy Heath, Jasn Carew and E R Mittelholzer, I have heard it said that the contemporary literary tradition of this highly literate country is constrained by the fact that most of its contemporary published writers live abroad. More than that, some of the contemporary writings of these ‘exiled’ creative spirits (at least so it has been suggested) do not ‘speak to’ what one might call native themes. That may not diminish the quality of their writings though it means that people will inevitably question whether or not their writings can correctly be described as being part of Guyanese literature.
Ruel Johnson, winner of this year’s Guyana Prize for Literature (Best Book of Fiction) says he is on a mission to alter that condition. “For the past 10 years I’ve been on something of a dedicated mission to produce writing from Guyana that deals with Guyana. For me the confidence in my own writing is not necessarily a confidence that’s solely based on self, but confidence in anyone who has the will to write from here to do it. That is why the publishing company I started wasn’t intended only to produce my own work, but to produce work from this place.”
It is a challenge to build a truly Guyanese culture. Most Guyanese are descendants of people who were brought here from African and India. They have a past that goes beyond Guyana. “We were historically shipwrecked here,” says Johnson. “There is a temporariness that has been the prevailing ethos of Guyana.” That sense of being ‘shipwrecked’ has informed much of Guyanese society. There seems to be a certain unwillingness to build anything lasting, and instead a desire to escape. Nor do the political and racial divisions in Guyana do anything to help. Instead of uniting as a single people in a single country, the nation has been separated by “political and tribal divisions. We’ve never taken time to consolidate our collective identity.”
Johnson alludes to what he says have also been movements to return people to their continent of origin, of which Johnson is also very critical. In his poem ‘Retour au Pays Natale’ (which was in his collection The Enormous Night, shortlisted for the Guyana Prize in 2002) he says that they are ‘reducing an era to some
insane episode where
everyone just dying to
get off these Gilligan’s islands.’
Rather than attempt to escape, the other option of the shipwrecked man is to make a new life for himself. Johnson thinks that the Guyanese people should be trying to build a united Guyanese culture; to “establish a sense of self. Literature allows us to create a psychic permanence as Guyanese.” Indian stories remain part of Indian-Guyanese culture just as African stories are part of African-Guyanese culture, but stories from here are important to both groups. Without losing their African, Indian, or Asian heritage, Guyanese literature pulls people together as Guyanese. The stories that can be told in Guyana can’t be set anywhere else, and in the same way without Guyana its people would not be themselves.
Johnson embarked on his literary journey many years ago. As a young man he found pleasure in writing. At some point during those early years he won a prize in a Short Story Competition.
“The next step was four or five years later, finding the same sort of satisfaction in a class. Shortly after that came the formation of Janus Young Writers’ Guild.” The Guild, he says, was meant to encourage young local writers to develop their craft.
A turning point in his journey came in 2000 when he sought participation in the first writing workshop offered by the Cropper Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the development of Caribbean literature. There he learnt various practical writing skills. Two years later (at age 22) became the youngest person ever to win the Guyana Prize, when his book Ariadne & Other Stories won in the Best First Book of Fiction category. Afterwards Johnson took up writing as a career.
Changing a society is no small task but Johnson is dedicated to the belief that “literature can be a catalyst for change. It can be an explosive catalyst or a subtle catalyst. Good writing is writing than impact, opens up parts of the reader to whatever it is the writer wants communicated. Great writing does the same thing, but also plunges into the person and causes some fundamental shift in their psychic makeup. It is a question of magnitude. At the level of the individual reader good writing is a tremor, great writing is an earthquake.”
Johnson hopes that Guyanese will eventually lose their sense of being shipwrecked, and embrace their home and uniquely mixed culture. As the final verse of ‘Retour au Pays Natale’ reads:
May it come soon, that clear, sweet
day, when some new, unwavering
voice may – above all this vestigial,
neurotic din of empire, above all
absurd vindications, above this
godawful clamour – say simply,
I am here.