Having won the Guyana Prize for Literature three times, Harold Bascom has nothing to prove. He is the real deal. The celebrated Guyanese playwright is now focused being recognised and winning an award for film in the USA, his adopted homeland. As he puts it, “Those are my latter goals—do or die.”
Considering what he has done so far, Harold’s latter goals are certainly within his reach.
Born in the small East Bank Essequibo village of Vergenoegen, Harold spent most of his childhood and teen years as a bit of a nomad; Vreed-en-Hoop, West Coast Demerara; Pouderoyen, West Bank Demerara and by his teenage years found himself in Christianburg, Linden.
He grew up in a home where he considered the challenge to be creative as high. Every one of his brothers was talented one way or the other. What they all had in common was the ability to draw well. He was very introverted and felt he was forced into being that way, because he was judged as ugly, owing to having very strong African features. Growing up in post-colonial Guyana, he suffered being taunted by little rhymes like: “If you white you see the light//If you brown you stick around//But if you black—stay back”. Popular back then, such rhymes unfortunately still exist to this day.
Because he was very dark skinned and possessed ‘black features’ he was called a “ju-ju”. While the dictionary describes this as a charm or amulet associated with West Africans, its local connotation is the person who does the magic and it has been used as an insult to people of African heritage.
Whatever happened outside the home, inside Harold shared close relations with his family. There were fights with his brothers, but there was always love and a high pride for the Bascom family name, especially after his big brother, William, went into the civil service and later migrated to England to become an economist.
In general, life in multi-ethnic Vreed-en-Hoop was an improvement in social culture for Harold. The village used to be a plantation with predominantly East Indian immigrants, the dominant cultural traits were therefore Indian but the children socialised as equals. He revealed that black people referred to one another using Indian nomenclature and for them it was normal. “For instance, my brothers would greet other blacks and Indians thus: ‘Wha’appenin there baboolal?’ And it didn’t dawn on us that the word ‘baboolal’ was Indian. Or as children we’d say to one another, ‘How yo doing bhai?’ Not realising that the word ‘bhai’ is Indian. It didn’t matter,” Harold said.
Country life was enjoyable, he reminisced on coconut trees hanging over the side-line trenches, swimming in the punt filled trenches behind wooden colonial houses, the yellow rice fields and egrets (commonly called gauldings) wafting in the evenings and of course fruit trees: mangoes, genips, sapodillas. Stories were told on the front steps during moonlight nights, chanting from nearby Hindu temples, the Phagwah celebrations and burning of the Holika were cultural favourites for him.
And then they were the unforgettable village characters: Mangroo, an old and irritable man who, even though he could hardly run, tried to chase young Harold and his peers. There was a foul-mouthed woman who they called ‘katareel’. She was known for cursing the youths as they passed by. There was the character they called ‘Big Jeff’ who chose silent moments during a film to fart, clearing out the theatre in the process. He recalled the boys liming at the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling to meet girls from the city.
Harold went to St Swithin’s Primary School on New-Road Vreed-en-Hoop,
Malgre Tout Primary in Pouderoyen and West Demerara Secondary School but dropped out to self-study to become an artist. He never attended any tertiary educational establishment. “That’s it; self-taught all the way onwards,” he said.
Harold’s interest was on fine arts and he had an appreciation for drawing, painting and clay modelling among other forms.
He recalled looking at the back of comic books and wishing he could have drawn like Norman Rockwell, a 20th century American painter and illustrator famous for his artwork.
His father, he said, was extremely talented and earned an honest living by being a cabinet maker; a carpenter at most and a craftsman in his own right. Harold related that each one of his father’s offspring had some form of talent by genetic effect: His older brothers Kenneth and Wilbert were good artists, his younger brother Maurice was a fantastic craftsman and his big sister a talented seamstress.
So how did Harold move from fine arts to writing? He recalled that in Vreed-en-Hoop, there was an individual by the name of Rudolph Thomas who dreamed of becoming a writer. He was quite a storyteller and always had a good literary project going on. As a teenager, Harold befriended Thomas and later aspired to become a writer also.
In the meantime though, he became a book illustrator and graphic artist and later took a correspondence course in cartooning. He soon landed work as a commercial artist for the Guyana Chronicle.
But Harold wasn’t just using his hands to draw, he was writing. He stated that he never started out to become a novelist. APATA: The Story of a Reluctant Criminal (Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1986) was written because he was hoping it would be made into a film.
But in 2004 he won the Guyana Prize for Literature for the play Two Wrongs, which tells the story of a pair of friends, Kumar and George—one Black and one Indian—who faced down racial bigotry and died together for the truth.
Harold had travelled extensively around Guyana and gained a lot of insight into what was bubbling beneath the surface. His own traumatising experience of the 1964 political and race riots which he endured as a 13-year-old, was the influence behind Two Wrongs.
He was living in Guyana and described the experience of being recognised as extremely fulfilling. “It had been a very trying journey to that point,” he said.
Two years later, in 2006 he won the Guyana Prize for the play Makantali, which tells the story of the spirit of a legendary porkknocker (who lost his fortune through being gullible in love, and also through financial mismanagement) to find rest in his death through guiding a living, young porkknocker towards more positive outcomes with newfound wealth.
Harold feels Makantali is his most accomplished work to date, because it was a tribute to his parents, the dignity of village people and their aspirations to rise beyond limitations. “Makantali, therefore, is my epic in tribute to the glory of being ordinary… I continue to feel that this play continues to be my best work for the amount of local-life experiences I have been able to preserve and celebrate,” he said.
By the time he won this second award, he had already migrated to the United States. He was sent for and returned without hesitation. But this time though, he couldn’t shake the feeling that most of the government ministers at the ceremony seemed lost about what was going on, or maybe couldn’t care less.
In 2010 he won the Guyana Prize for the radio drama, Blank Document, which tells the story of how a woman—a writer, driven from Guyana because of her homosexuality, and finds herself living in North America unable to write. In the end she finds closure with what she is. After this happens she finds herself able to write once more, and is also able to return to Guyana with her head held high.
This time he chose not to return to Guyana because to him it was clear that the Guyana Prize had failed in what it was intended to be: an wakening of the whole of Guyana—even the grass roots individual—to the importance of literature. As it is now, the average person considers the Guyana Prize something for the intellectuals and their ilk.
Regardless, he acknowledged that each of the above pieces deserved to be awarded.
He has no plans to write any more novels in the future since the thrust of his work as a writer continues to be towards fleshing out Guyanese culture and life-experiences. But he questions: “What’s the point in writing is there is no readership in Guyana? Where is that respect for the craft of writing if copyright conventions are so ad hoc? Added to the latter, it is clearly obvious that literacy has plummeted in Guyana.”
For there to be improvement at the national level, young people need to see literature as something that can constitute a career from which one can make a living, he said. He highlighted that if, for example, a young man or woman is encouraged to learn to write a TV script and knows that he/she can find a job as a writer of sitcoms or drama for television, then that discipline can grow. In other words, unless TV stations and radio stations start mass producing local shows and create a need for writers, literature would struggle to find bread-and-butter relevance and would not catch on as far as being promoted. “Make writing relevant as something that can give a practitioner a living, and that sector will improve – simple as that.”
Speaking to his focus on the socio-political, he referred to his plays as “mirror plays” in which he hoped the audiences would reflect on the realities of their current existence.
Harold has returned to his roots as an artist and currently has a series of art exhibitions in Georgia.
Driven to create, he says, “I often wonder how others live as non-creative beings. I often wonder how others exist without cognisance of nature’s beauty about them—how they live without the contemplation of life in all of its vicissitudes. For me to be an artist is to feel relevance to being alive and a responsibility to interpret and pass on life-lessons and new points of view. As an artist I often feel driven to interpret and share.
“As a playwright I feel driven to mirror our lives—the positives of it; the negatives of it; and hope that through a process of catharsis, we can make things better for ourselves as rational beings. I believe, ultimately, that the artist is the antennae of society. As an artist; writer, and playwright I feel driven to contribute to the evolution of a noble mind.”
All artists need inspiration. Harold gets his from watching people and listening to their experiences. Other influences come from nature.
But he was motivated throughout his career by his now dearly departed mother, Lillian Bascom. She was a “simple country mother who was not a professional in anything but giving love and caring for her family”, he said. It was she who launched him as an artist.
He related: “…After I had left my first job as a teenager because it was clearly heading nowhere, I decided to stay at home to train myself to become an artist. My father snapped at me: ‘Why you don’t go out there and find some work?’ And my mother said to him: ‘Leave Harold alone… he knows what he doing.’ That was the vote of confidence that made me a commercial artist/newspaper illustrator; an old art director, and the chief illustrator of the Ministry of Education in just a few years from that altercation with my father.”
When not painting or writing, Harold is an avid air-gun shooter. He has two air pistols and one air rifle and focuses on being a target shooter. He enjoys the challenge of hitting targets one inch in diameter from a distance of 10 metres and noted that he has a personal range in his basement.
Now 62, he currently lives with his fiancée, Donnette and her 11-year-old son in Loganville, Georgia.