The Guyana Prize should be a purely local award

Dear Editor,

Because Ruel Johnson and I have had friendly exchanges in the past, I feel that I have been too harsh in my public criticism of him. However, I think he has become grandiose and wholly insufferable especially over the Guyana Prize which he speaks about with authority as if it is his personal property.

But what is the Guyana Prize other than a substandard literary award tailored to Guyana? No reputable literary award accepts self-published works as entries. Nor manuscripts – I understand that manuscripts can also be submitted. Given that publishers are now available to everyone everywhere, shouldn’t this policy be revised?

Yes, Martin Carter self-published but we, none of us, are as grand as Martin Carter. And everyone knows that he never cared about awards and never wrote with the idea of winning any. As with every serious poet and writer, he wrote for his personal satisfaction, because he had talent, and because he had a whole lot to say and in beautifully stirring ways.

In a Kaieteur News report of February 27, 2015, Mr Johnson complains that UG never invites him to speak or lecture to its students. Universities abroad do not usually use self-published books in their curriculum. However, given that UG manages the prize and accepts self-published works as entries, perhaps their standards, too, are different.

In a nutshell, Mr Johnson has won prizes because this is Guyana and the Guyana Prize does not operate to internationally accepted standards. Is this government’s intent or would they rather have a prize that stands as one of the world’s reputable literary awards?

I do not believe we have enough good writers and poets around to sustain such an award, which is probably why the prize has become corrupted by cronyism and worse. I would advise restructuring it to a purely local award for promising writers with the winners getting medals or trophies. Perhaps, it should be tied to schools’ reading and comprehension classes. And it should be under new management.

I do believe Mr Johnson and I are engaged in some cross-talking. Bocas, Small Axe, Guadeloupe and Amsterdam do not register on my antenna as a writer but given that Mr Johnson is obviously satisfied with such accolades from abroad why does he still crave public and official recognition here? Does he value the approbation of our mostly ill-qualified state officials that much?

There are other writers and artists here who are never invited to participate in official government delegations. This is not victimization. I see it as a feather in my cap that I upset the powers that be. It is a tribute to your independence to be ignored by every official around.

It appears that Mr Johnson is expecting to be a grand public official himself in a new post-elections administration and insults me with his anticipated patronage, saying he will invite me to sit on a forum. Eh-eh! But he tek his so-and-so eyes pass me!

Unlike Mr Johnson, I do not crave participation in any forum. All his criticisms of the current administration would be commendable except that they are now exposed as mere self aggrandisement geared to gaining him a position with a possible new dispensation. Such machinations do, however, make him perfectly suited for a position as a public official in Guyana. With all his busyness with policy making, etc, he does appear to be more of a typical local politician than a writer.

In a conversation I had with Mr Johnson a while back, I told him, vis-à-vis the idea of a cultural policy, that culture is something of the people, by the people, for the people and from the people and that government has no business in any of it. I also questioned the anachronism of having a Ministry of Culture. We are still be moulded into what the state wants?

Writers and artists of integrity do not usually sit in committee rooms to make policy. They are most often found outside looking in, armed with their criticisms. That’s where the revolution happens.

If Mr Johnson does become a grand official, he knows where I will be.

Yours faithfully,

Ryhaan Shah

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