The government must move beyond the rhetoric to establish a sustainable environment for literary production in Guyan

Dear Editor,

I am heartened by the President’s remarks at the Guyana Prize awards on Sunday last, in that they signal what would amount to a drastic positive change in the government’s de facto policy on literature.

Before anything else, I’d like to congratulate fellow prize recipients Dr Ian McDonald and Cassia Alphonso, who co-won the Best Book of Poetry; Mosa Telford, who won Best Play; and Chaitram Singh, Best First Book of Fiction.

Mr Singh, who was selected to deliver the address on behalf of all of the prizewinners, can perhaps be forgiven his lavish praise of the state of literary development here, one he attributes to the benevolent actions of government, since he does not live in Guyana and would be therefore completely ignorant of what obtains when it comes to the blatant as well as clandestine attacks on artists and writers who seek to offer even constructive criticism, among other things.

Much more needs to be done by the Government of Guyana to make sure that its treatment of literature and those who produce it is in keeping with the President’s grand words.  For example, the Prize this year – a national award – has been treated as virtually non-existent by the state media.  There is not a single story coming out from GINA on the event, nor is there any in the Guyana Chronicle, and as far as I know, none of the winners have been invited on any show on NCN.

This is unfortunate since, four out of the five prizewinners, the exception being Singh, currently reside in Guyana, a situation I believe is unprecedented in the history of the Prize.  Also unprecedented is that the fact that majority of recipients, three out of the five are under 35 years of age.  Of note, additionally, is that two out of that three are women, each of whom is a recipient of two out of the three major awards: Mosa Telford who won for Best Play, and Cassia Alphonso who co-won for Best Book of Poetry.

Also important is the fact that none of the shortlisted and winning works were produced by established publishers.  Both of Mr Singh’s books were produced by iUniverse, a self-publication mechanism; Dr McDonald’s work was published locally by Moray House Trust; both plays were manuscripts, as were Ms Alphonso’s winning work and mine.  After submission, I subsequently published my book, under my own newly established publishing company, Janus Books, a mechanism that exists entirely in Guyana.  This illustrates that the centre of the production of what is considered quality Guyanese writing is shifting back to where it belongs, yet none of the above warranted the attention of the media houses run by the Government of Guyana.

In keeping with this anomalous state of affairs was that, even as the President affirmed his commitment to supporting the arts in general as a matter of party and government policy, no other senior functionary of either party or government was there.  The entire cabinet seems to have effectively boycotted a prestigious national award, held on a Sunday evening during the annual parliamentary recess.

This included both the Minister of Education, Ms Priya Manickchand who had been spearheading a national literacy campaign during the week immediately prior to the hosting of the national literary award, as well as the Minister of Culture and PPP Executive, Dr Frank Anthony.  Indeed, not a single senior Ministry of Culture executive was there to my knowledge.

It was therefore not surprising when, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds in apologizing for his own absence from the Prize ceremony at the Edgar Mittlelholzer Lecture, offered that the President had told him of some of the exciting fiction he had read and hence he was therefore excited at reading the young woman’s work – none of the winners in fiction this year, to my humble knowledge, were female.  Also strange is that for the first time in at least the recent history of the Prize, no winner’s certificate – signed by the President – has been given to the winners.

In light of this sad state of affairs, the President’s message of future support for the literary arts is most welcome, presuming of course that it is genuine.  I take special hope in his assurance that his Minister of Culture will some time in the near future be providing more accountability on the general operations and finances of the Caribbean Press than he, Dr Frank Anthony, has provided in the past nine months.  The President’s assurance that a board would be in fact set up soon is especially welcome and I officially offer my hand in helping to establish such a board, the first order of business obviously being a full assessment of the audited financial records of the Press and its management policy over the life of its existence, information which should be presented to Parliament.

It is time that we move beyond the increasingly hollow rhetoric when it comes to establishing a sustainable environment for literary production in Guyana. It is time that the government perhaps considers a new path – petulance and passive-aggressive behaviour has no place in proper public policy, particularly one that seeks to sell itself as progressive and inclusive.  I again extend my hand to work with the Government of Guyana in seeking to ensure that this environment becomes a reality, and this time I hope it will be taken.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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