A brief look at Guyanese Independence literature

20110807artsonsundayOn previous occasions we have offered surveys of different areas of Guyanese literature, from its origins in the oral literature of the native Amerindians in the pre-Columbian period, through the beginnings of the scribal literature—both Dutch and British—covering the colonial literature up to the founding of modern Guyanese national literature. These accounts have mentioned the pre-Independence literature and Guyanese literature since Independence.

Last week there was a brief comment on patriotic Independence verse, quite fitting at a time when there is an extensive, ongoing celebration of Guyana’s 50th Independence Anniversary. It is very topical at this time to revisit the literature in a survey of how Guyanese literature has developed in 50 years and what advancements may be isolated in 50 years of Guyanese literature since independence.

As neat and decorous as that might appear to be, it comes with a warning that it is an extremely extensive and complex subject, very difficult to summarise. Care must be taken not to offer too many generalisations, and it is dangerous to assume too much that would impute homogeneity in a number of diverse areas.

The attempt here is to suggest the state of Guyanese literature at the time of political Independence in 1966 and to survey its advancement over the last 50 years.  There cannot be any intention to be detailed and several important items are likely to be omitted. In particular, several Guyanese writers have been involved in the process, have made contributions, and their place in this account may be well worth mentioning. It is ambitious, however, to hope to name them all.  The idea here is to provide a good idea of the march of the literature with a few examples of the factors and of some of the individual players.

For useful accounts of factors responsible for the development of the literature during the long and interesting pre-Independence period we are indebted to a number of writers. These include David Dabydeen and Gemma Robinson concerning some nineteenth century developments and Jeremy Poynting in a comprehensive understanding of other various factors. Clem Seecharran is valuable on ethnic cultural movements in the early twentieth century, as is Norman E Cameron about the first 50 years of the twentieth century.

A strong national literature had already developed in 1966. There were Guyanese among the pioneer West Indian writers, among the ‘exiles’ in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, as well as others of that period who were either at home in Guyana or in North America. Both novelists Beryl Gilroy and Edgar Mittelholzer were pioneers in the UK and had already contributed to the fiction. Mittelholzer’s entire collection of fiction had already ensured a Guyanese international presence. However, there were other developments. Jan Carew and Peter Kempadoo, for example, were making their presence felt in a Guyanese establishment. Wilson Harris, who, as a poet, was a part of the pre-Independence literature, had already rocketed to meteoric success as a novelist of exceeding originality. The work of the little known Eric Walrond and O R Dathorne was part of the fiction, while Martin Carter had already begun to lead the poetry, which included leading pre-Independence figures C E J Ramcharitar Lalla and A J Seymour.

It was a period when there was strong and developing nationalism in both politics and culture and these movements helped to drive the growth of a literature at home. But already the Guyanese writers overseas were beginning in individual ways to build a national literature worldwide. There is little evidence that the mere fact of an official end to colonial status pushed any strong identifiable factors of literary growth, as nationalism was already there. It did, however, help in the establishment of institutions such as the National History and Arts Council, which became the Department of Culture, prompting significant local publication. There was Kaie, and there were a few anthologies of poetry and short stories.

By 1970, the corps of local writers had been strengthened with the works of poets such as Rajkumarie Singh, Shana Yardan, Syble Douglas, Donald Trotman and Milton Vishnu Williams.  The Theatre Guild as an institution was strong, and was responsible for a distinct rise in local Guyanese drama, specifically through Frank Pilgrim, Sheik Sadeek and Francis Quamina Farrier.  At the same time plays were being written by rising practitioners such as Bertram Charles, Michael Gilkes, Slade Hopkinson who began to campaign overseas, as did Michael Abbensettes who went to London. Norman Cameron had actually founded modern Guyanese drama in colonial years and was a part of the charge in 1970, as was the dancer Helen Taitt.

Institutional strength would also have come from two very important conferences initiated by the new Guyanese government. The first was in 1966 and the second in 1970 when several of the leading artists of the Caribbean were invited to Guyana for discussions and activities in many sectors of the arts. There were musicians, writers, dramatists, dancers, painters and sculptors whose work in the two meetings founded Carifesta which was first held in Georgetown in 1972.  It also prompted the publication of the anthology New Writing from the Caribbean edited by Seymour.

Writers groups were also known to have flourished – two of these were the Annandale Writers Group whose celebrated rising talent was poet and fiction writer Rooplall Monar, and another group which included the University of Guyana, whose famous graduate was Janice Lowe Shinebourne, a novelist.  The Guyana National Service, notorious as it proved to be for its other sins, was instrumental as an institution in which Rajkumarie Singh worked and which, in the 1970s, produced a prodigy of Singh’s—Mahadai Das—who became the country’s most outstanding female poet.

There was a great deal of activity over the two decades to 1990, including much political upheaval, marked migration, which included many writers, and the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1987. By that time the roll call of prominent writers and new rising talents included Ian McDonald, who had already produced the celebrated novel The Humming Bird Tree and was on the rise as a leading Guyanese poet. Roy A K Heath and Angus Richmond were established novelists then living in the UK, Harold Bascom was a local novelist and dramatist, while the Guyanese literature was rapidly developing internationally led by Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Marc Matthews, John Agard, Grace Nichols, and Brian Chan. Thereafter, the Guyana Prize was to be another factor that fuelled development.

One of the major movements in the 1990s was the strong advancement of Guyanese literature through writers living overseas, who were responsible for literary development in several new directions. Wilson Harris, by that time, was a world leader in areas of fiction including the literature of the Amerindian ethos, in which he was joined by Pauline Melville, and a new power in poetry and later fiction, Mark McWatt. Literature which draws upon the Amerindian cosmology is numbered among the notable features of contemporary Guyanese literature. Harris, Melville and McWatt, however, are not limited to that literature as they are individual writers of acclaim in their own ways.

It took some time before Guyanese literature of serious political satire and the more tragic treatment of past political realities emerged in a notable way. Time and distance assisted, since most of the writers who engaged in it were living overseas. There was work reflecting the politics and the racial turbulence of the 1960s, and there were works delving into the PNC era of the 1970s and 1980s. Different writers treated with these themes, including Grace Nichols, Harold Bascom, Harischandra Khemraj, Sasenarine Persaud, Fred D’Aguiar, and Narmala Shewcharan.

Another development that took some time to materialise was the rise of what may be called East Indian Guyanese literature. This was the development of writing by Guyanese of East Indian descent who began to draw sharply upon their ethnic background and the Guyanese Indian ethos to create a distinct literature. Many of the writers were living overseas and included Arnold Itwaru, Sasenarine Persaud, Clive Sankardyall, Harischandra Khemraj, Cyril Dabydeen, David Dabydeen, and Shewcharan, while others like Ryhaan Shah were writing from home. A writer like Monar, for example, had joined earlier dramatist Sadeek in writing about Indians in their rural environment in Guyana, much earlier.

At the same time, a strong corps of local writers was slowly building and these included a mixture of disciplines and types. Among them were Paloma Mohamed, Shah, Gentian Miller, Imam Baksh, Ruel Johnson, and McDonald.

Among these is a significant charge of new, younger writers who are beginning to make a mark in local literature. These include Subraj Singh, fiction writer and playwright; Baksh, short story writer; Cassia Alphonso, poet; Mosa Telford, playwright; Sonia Yarde, playwright; as well as Nicholas Singh and Rae Wiltshire, playwrights.

They join others like Mohamed, Ronald Hollingsworth, Harold Bascom and Sharda Shakti Singh who lead the now established playwrights operating from both out of Guyana and at home. The Guyanese drama is now very much diversified, although what is very significant is the move away from comedy which had become immensely popular, to a choice of social commentary among the newer playwrights who have elected to tackle burning social issues in the new plays.

While thinking about popular theatre, another branch of popular literature cannot be ignored.  That is the continuing emergence of the occasional popular novel. Quite a few writers have produced these, including Lewiz Alyan; Roopnandan Singh, who also produced a couple of novels of more conventional type; Chaitram Singh; Godfrey Wray and Theodore Raffudeen.  One may also mention the new trend of spoken word and performance poetry that is now the growing interest of new performers, as well as the stories of traditional spiritual experience being written by Stephaney Bowry to add to a corpus of popular literature.

Guyanese literature since Independence has become much too varied and multidimensional to be properly covered in a single short account. Having said that, an extremely noteworthy attempt to do that has recently been made by Frank Birbalsingh in his Guyana History and Literature. He also covers some pre-Independence texts in that volume, but one must refer readers to that publication for many elements not properly covered here, or mentioned at all. It is hoped that a fair idea has been communicated here, of 50 years of Guyanese literature.


I offer corrections to Arts on Sunday, “Patriotic Verse at Independence” (Sunday, May 22, 2016).  The name of the poet Walter MacA Lawrence was in places rendered as “McLawrence”. Cyril (RCG) Potter wrote the music, not the words, for Guyana’s National Anthem. I apologise for those errors.

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