Response to Ms Ryhaan Shah’s latest letter, ‘Scrap the Prize and mount an investigation,’ SN, February 28,
Ms Shah says:
“Mr Johnson writes hopefully of a new dispensation where writers and artists would be free of fear from victimization intimating, perhaps, that he has been so victimized. I am no proponent of the current government but could he say when and how this occurred, especially given the fact that he won his two Guyana Prizes under the PPP administration.”
First of all, I won two Guyana Prizes despite the PPP administration, not because of it. If there is anyone I have a depth of gratitude to, it should be Desmond Hoyte who insisted upon mitigating political or other interference in judging the work by creating a jury structure in which three of the judges are based overseas and two locally. The system is not perfect but I am the last person that could said to have benefited from those imperfections.
There isn’t enough space to detail all the victimization I’ve been faced with, but I’ll provide some highlights of the most public. In 2003, the year I won the Guyana Prize, I was refused a place on the Carifesta delegation because as a young reporter at Chronicle I sent an internal memo criticizing Office of the President interference in the newsroom.
In 2006, I was invited to meetings with the Ministry of Culture to plan for Carifesta IX that year in Trinidad. I criticized their selection process and insisted that they expand the spaces for writers from 2 to 4, and that selection be open and transparent. The result was my being kept off of that delegation. I went on my own under the consultancy work I was doing with Caricom.
In 2008, I provided the Ministry of Culture with a report on the flaws of Carifesta IX in Trinidad, so we as host country for Carifesta X would not repeat those mistakes. While I was ‘allowed’ to launch my book at the Festival, I was never invited to officially participate.
In 2013, I received an invitation to participate in the Inter-Guianas Cultural Festival (June) and Carifesta (August); according to persons on the planning committee, my participation was vehemently opposed by senior government officials. I was kept off IGCF and if I had not made my own way to Suriname, I would have missed Carifesta altogether. When I won the Guyana Prize in September, 2013, the entire Cabinet boycotted the event.
Outside of public scrutiny, the PPP has made a fine art of blacklisting my employment locally. In 2013, when I first raised the issue of Frank Anthony’s daughter being published with the Caribbean Press, I was sent a letter threatening suit. When I refused to apologise, a senior government official I was dating at the time was pressured to rein me in and give me the choice between speaking out and a continued relationship. When I criticized the Minister of Culture in January of 2014 for his deliberate misdirection on several issues, an attempt was made to sabotage a lecture I was scheduled to give at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Not a week goes by without some slanderous anonymous column being published in both the PPP controlled Guyana Times and the Guyana Chronicle.
Secondly, Ms Shah writes:
“I would advise new writers to have personal integrity, an extremely rare commodity in Guyana, and to stand above it all and take their time to think, write, review and reflect then rewrite, and when their work is good and ready, and is the best they can do, then they submit it. They should have their own standard of excellence since Guyana has none.”
I agree that writers should seek their own standards of excellence, but this does not preclude them from an example of excellence being possible despite a stultifying environment. From 2013 to now, in addition to winning the Guyana Prize, I have won the Small Axe literary award in both Fiction (1st place) and Poetry (2nd place), the only time in the competition that has occurred. I have undertaken presentations and readings in both Germany and the Netherlands, and served as curator for the Read My World Literary Festival in Amsterdam last September. Last year, I was awarded a Prince Claus Fund grant to further the work I’ve done on cultural policy, work I will be concluding in the upcoming weeks.
Fictions has been pre-selected for consideration for this year’s Grand Literary Prize of the Association of Caribbean Writers, scheduled for April in Guadeloupe where I will be presenting as both writer and publisher.
After Guadeloupe I will be in Trinidad to conduct a writing workshop as well as attending the Bocas Literary Festival launch for a Peepal Tree-Akashic Books anthology of contemporary Caribbean poetry in which I am featured. While I insist on publishing my work under Janus Books in Guyana, I have been approached and am in negotiation for an anthology of some of my selected short stories to be published in the UK and North America. In October, I am scheduled to present a paper on creative industries in Amsterdam. Currently, I am being interviewed for two publications, a European academic journal and an American monograph. In all that time I have not once been asked to speak at the University of Guyana and when I volunteered to do a workshop last year for the Rights of the Child Commission my name was withdrawn and someone else asked to undertake it.
Thirdly, Ms Shah writes:
“Either way, this is more than enough reason to scrap the prize and mount an investigation. Since Mr Johnson has written to the media on so many occasions to hold government accountable, I am sure he too will insist on this investigation by whoever forms the next government.”
While I disagree that the Prize should be scrapped, not only would I insist on an investigation into the management of the Prize, but I intend to spearhead a comprehensive managerial and financial audit of every aspect of government’s intervention in culture, particularly over the past ten years. When this happens, I will personally ensure that Ms Shah has an open forum to voice her concerns because I believe that they are valid and necessary, as are others.
The Guyana Prize, the Caribbean Press, the hosting of Carifesta X as well as participation in other Carifestas and overseas cultural festivals, expenditure on the National Museum, Unesco support, the National Drama Festival, the National Sports and Arts Development Fund – every single one of these has attracted questions and controversy over the years. Perhaps the question Ms Shah should be asking is how it is that – despite my consistent harping upon accountability, and her position that at least one aspect of cultural expenditure needs investigation – there seems to be resistance by even the independent media and other stakeholders to undertake that task.
Janus Cultural Policy Initiative