Does the Ministry of Culture know what to do with itself?

Dear Editor,

It seems as though everything that can be said about the Caribbean Press has been said, analysed and expounded upon at length, from a variety of viewpoints ‒ all probably done more eloquently than I will do here.  In particular, I found the contribution from PD Sharma to be among the more edifying ones.  I only wish to offer another viewpoint as an artist and as a creative professional.

In 2010 a number of writers were invited to a meeting with officials of and persons associated with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport to discuss the submission of their work for review by David Dabydeen ‒ who was scheduled to arrive in two weeks’ time ‒ for publication. I was but one of a number of persons present who asked the question about how we would be compensated for our work ‒ in the form of a one-time upfront payment or a small royalty to be collected, say, on an annual basis.  While I can’t remember the conversation verbatim the general thrust of the response from the different figures at the head table seemed equal parts amusement, embarassment and an attitude of ‘you should be glad that we even considered you for exposure.’ But for us it was not about money, not primarily at least.

Those who have been around long enough know that fortunes ‒ great or small ‒ are not guaranteed in our chosen vocations of poet, novelist, playwright and songwriter.  What was more important was the acknowledgement that our talent was worth something and that the ministry respected that talent and the time and energy invested in pursuing, perfecting, and broadening the art and craft of our chosen field and contributing to the cultural landscape of our country.  I only mention this here because I wonder whether Dr Dabydeen’s claim that the submissions he has received from local writers was of exceedingly poor quality has anything to do with the fact that a number of us simply walked out of the meeting and refused to submit after seeing the attitude of the ministry’s panel towards our query. Those of us who left never looked back, that is until Dr Dabydeen turned “doggerel” into the latest trending word on Facebook.

I believe that one would be hard pressed to find any great inventor, scientist, explorer, or writer ‒ you name it ‒ who has not had the benefit early on, if not throughout their career, of some mentorship, patronage and/or training.  Dr Dabydeen’s attack on Mr Johnson and the Guyanese literary scene at large, shows that he misses this point completely, or perhaps doesn’t see the Caribbean Press being engaged in a mentorship role, even though he was kind enough to offer editorial services to Dr Anthony’s daughter.  Just so I’m clearly understood, I bear no malice against Ashley Anthony; the controversy surrounding her publication is solely the fault of Dr Frank Anthony, who should have foreseen the outcry at what is clearly a conflict of interest.

Dr Dabydeen’s last attack was not only low-minded, but to me is evidence that, professional qualifications notwithstanding, he does not possess the requisite concerns or tact to be Editor of the Caribbean Press.

The sad fact is that many creative professionals who have been dealing with the ministry for years have simply become resigned to the fact that the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport does not have their best interests at heart.  They continue to create despite the ministry and not because they are supported by it; some even seek to avoid it completely.  Even though recently we’ve seen such initiatives as the National Drama Festival and National Visual Arts Competition coming out of the ministry, one is hard-pressed to say what the true character of the ministry is against the backdrop of the fiascos surrounding the Caribbean Press, the complete axing of the President’s Film Endowment for 2012 and the censorship of calypsonians.  The least cynical and sceptical approach would be to say that the ministry does not know what to do with itself.  I hate to be a cynic.  I wish more often that my scepticism was proven wrong.

Another sad byproduct of this months-long debate is the infighting instigated by Mr Johnson that has very recently heated up amongst the very literary community that he claims to defend. ‒ righteous as it is ‒ by being a bully and a braggart, accusing fellow writers of being complicit with the Ministry of Culture’s policy simply for not jumping on the bandwagon of his letter-writing campaign. One has to admit that Mr Johnson’s long term strategy and shrewd tactics have borne fruit, even if it has taken the better part of ten or more years, but I believe that Mr Johnson is very, very mistaken to think that this is the correct route to take with regard to his fellow artists and creative professionals.  As the youngest person to ever win the Guyana Prize for Literature, as someone who exhibits great passion, talent, understanding of the literary craft and literary industry and has shown himself to be a tireless and dogged advocate, Mr Johnson, some would argue, is a prime candidate to serve as an ambassador for the concerns of the literary community.

At the risk of being attacked (again) I would add that Mr Johnson undermines his position by his lack of tact and leadership ability, and his skill for alienating those around him.
Finally, given the Minister’s most recent remarks in Kaieteur News, I think it’s high time that the ministry do the tactful thing and  suspend the Caribbean Press or for Parliament to cease all funding, until questions of its proper management, mandate and financial accountability are resolved.

Yours faithfully,
Kojo McPherson

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