Guyana Prize awardees have not yet been issued with a certificate of achievement

Dear Editor,

It has been two weeks since the Guyana Prize for Literature has been awarded and, contrary to convention with the Prize, a certificate of achievement has not been issued to the winners.  For those who enter to contest the award, particularly those who live here, the money is an important aspect of the Prize but not necessarily the most important. The recognition of achievement after hard work, and the commemoration of that achievement from your country, at least for me, comes high on one’s personal agenda and the previous certificates that I have received (one for winning, and one in recognition for the significance of that win) are among my most prized personal possessions.

This year, not only has the Cabinet boycotted the award, as has the state media, but we can now add the non-issuance of Guyana Prize certificates to the administration’s clear message that it ‘vex’ and will not be playing ball any more, despite the commitments made by the President at the ceremony that his party is supportive of a culturally rich environment in which literature can flourish.  This is a blatant display of the administration’s disrespectful attitude to the literary arts in particular, and national institutions in general.

The executive Government of Guyana needs to undergo a rapid maturation process when it comes to developing a component of our economy that is based on the creation and leveraging of intellectual property, and it has to begin with the frank recognition that the ruling party is suffering from an almost fatal deficit of intellectual capital, something that is made manifest in its institutional hostility to intellectuals.   Next, the PPP has to recognize that its continued hostility towards the creators of intellectual property is a losing position, and that a quasi-Stalinist policy of intimidation and manipulation might work on the majority of writers and artists living here, but it cannot work on everyone.

After a year of being subject to discrimination, attacks on my constitutional right to earn a living, attempts at public degradation by state and PPP-affiliated media, attempts to undermine personal relationships, all to avoid my public criticism of a mechanism mismanaged by a government and senior party official, all that has been achieved is an illustration of how petty, petulant and inane those in government can become in seeking to defend their incompetence and corruption.  All that energy could have been spent in engagement and seeking to correct the blunders that continue to be committed by the powers that be when it comes to cultural policy formulation and enactment in Guyana.

Then as now, I can still ask about the absence of a board for the Caribbean Press, I can still ask the Minister of Culture to make public the accounts of the entity, I can still ask that the Minister provide proof that the books have been distributed to schools as has been claimed, and I can still ask about the scheduled publication date for the anthologies of local writers.  The difference is, now people are going to see the silence of those behind the Caribbean Press for what it is, the inability to provide any information that the public is going to find palatable, even as millions of taxpayer dollars disappear annually on this project.  And that is in just one area of cultural policy.

People have asked me what my end game in all this is.  It is remarkably straightforward.  I believe that culture activities, particularly those based on the literary arts, can provide a two-pronged component for development.  Literature and its derivative/complement, film, can cause us to examine ourselves in deep, meaningful ways, beyond the patina of politically constructed masks, and hence provide a crucial step towards removing the divisions that continue to incapacitate our collective growth as a cohesive society; additionally, managed properly, cultural industries can serve as an increasingly relevant sector of our economic growth.  Were we to establish a functional and comprehensive cultural industries policy, one that integrates public education, intellectual property legislation, investment strategy, a revamped tourism promotion framework, ICT development, and the LCDS into a new national development strategy over, say, the next 15 years, I believe that we would be able to reap tangible rewards even as we build the sort of polity that is influenced by real issues, and not tribalism.

But all that has to be premised on whomever is occupying the seat of government demonstrating the capacity for respect, particularly for state institutions – without that basic foundational element, we cannot move forward.  I am therefore calling on the Guyana Prize Committee to lobby the President of Guyana to show some modicum of respect for the institution of the Guyana Prize and to sign the certificates and to hand them over to the winners.  After that, again, I am willing to voluntarily engage the Government of Guyana in developing the cultural industries policy as outlined above.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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