Mark McWatt’s multiple prize-winning work of fiction Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement provides an extremely unique way of handling the issue of Guyanese Independence, which is perhaps the most remarkable direct treatment of such a theme in Guyanese literature since Independence. There are other works which are remarkable manifestations of the independence of Guyanese literature, not least among them being the fictional fabric of the Wilson Harris novel and the poetic genius of Martin Carter, unique for their exceptional originality.
Fifty-one years after Independence, Guyana holds a vaulted place internationally for the assertion of its contemporary literature, remarkable for the size of its population as against other nations. Yet McWatt, who before the publication of Suspended Sentences had advanced prominently as a foremost Guyanese poet, brings a unique and extraordinary way of approaching Guyana’s Independence and Guyana’s literature in that work of fiction.
The short stories in this collection are cleverly and tightly held together by the use of a tactic somewhat close to Wilson Harris’s “fictional autobiography”. The main narrator tells a story from his youth, when he was one of a group of sixth formers at St Stanislaus College who created quite a bit of mischief after their ‘A’ Level exams just when they were on the verge of leaving school. He is a version of Harris’ “W.H.”, but handled in quite a different way. McWatt is indeed an old boy of St Stanislaus in Georgetown, and the events narrated by his story-teller are set just at the time of Guyana’s Independence. In the overall structure of the plot, the narrator picks up the story many years later when the protagonists have gone their separate ways, some away from Guyana.
The sixth formers behave like typical educated, intelligent teenagers attracted to the radical and the maverick, eager to express their anti-establishment intellectualism. First of all, they may be symbolic of a young nation as Guyana was at the time, just becoming Independent, fresh and militant in its new status with a strong sense of post-colonial rejection of neo-colonialism. The teenagers are revelling in their first taste of freedom with a sense of independence and a spirit of rebellion against the status quo. For their mischief they are condemned to atone for their sins. Each has to write a story. The young potential nation builders are sentenced to the task of writing the literature of the nation – create Guyanese literature.
The fact that many years pass before they actually keep those promises suggests a theme of absence, of neglect of the nation and the national pledge, of migration and unfulfilment. When they do, in fact, present their stories, it is actually the contents of the book, with one of them undertaking to collect and edit. The end results are stories of Guyana with a variety of themes and preoccupations, not quite like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but not entirely unlike them either.
They represent Guyanese literature by various authors, most of whom had left to reside overseas. The stories contain Guyanese folklore, a deep preoccupation with the Guyanese landscape, including the breath-taking depth of the interior locations, the Guyanese countryside, psychical explorations and disintegrations of the mind, Guyanese overseas, and the burning issue of migration that has continuously affected the independent nation. There is humour, there is a good deal of pathos and tragedy, there is mystery, there is romance – both in the sense of love and in romance as a literary form ‒ and there is adventure. Taken as a whole, the stories represent the national literature in a startling way.
But Suspended Sentences is a post-modern work some forty years after Independence. It can also express something of the state of Guyanese literature, but it most expresses the state of the country as a nation. Each piece of fiction is an independent short story in its own right, but all told, they form what may be termed a novel, with stories knit together by the outer frame or plot. The final realisation is a marvellous work of art in post-Independence Guyanese fiction.
A suspended sentence is a legal term, and it applies to the doom read out to the sixth formers for the havoc they wreaked – “sentences” which were suspended. But apart from the sentence of a court in the legal sense, McWatt puns on the word, since it may also refer to what is written – written work, sentences used in writing. These, however, are suspended, hanging in the balance, like work not yet fulfilled, and in the context of the Independent Guyana, an unfinished situation.
This brings to mind the fulfilment of a promise, or its unfulfilment. There is a suggestion of promises made to a nation by its people, thus far unkept, not fulfilled. There is that sense of guilt – like the guilt of the teenagers – hanging over those culpable, and in the manner of Greek destiny and the prophesy of the Oracle, hanging over the whole nation. For Independent Guyana, there are promises not honoured and contributions still awaited.
A poem by McWatt called ‘Untilled’ may be recalled. The persona leaves Guyana for university study overseas and there is a promise of return to serve and develop the nation. He never returns, leaving his country untilled in the agricultural sense. But he refers to the language – the word ‘until’ used by Guyanese when someone is going away: “until I see you again” or “until you come back”. But the until is a promise not kept. The poem expresses a touch of guilt on the part of the poet himself who left to study and never returned.
In many ways, Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement is one work that can represent Guyanese literature 51 years after Independence. Fifty-one years of nation building. But what was Guyanese literature at the time of Independence, and how has it developed?
The written tradition of Guyanese literature was set on its course by Sir Walter Ralegh’s The Discovery of the large, rich and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a Relation of the great and golden City of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado (1595) more widely known as The Discovery of Guiana. The very long period of colonial literature which followed was dominated mainly by nineteenth century works and written by Europeans – explorers, geographers, botanists, anthropologists, missionaries et al. Much of what they wrote captured the oral literature that preceded Columbus, produced by the Amerindians. Few local writers of any note emerged, and these include Simon Christian Oliver and Thomas Don, both black natives of British Guiana.
Modern Guyanese literature was ushered in by the outstanding work of Leo (Egbert Martin) 1861-90, credited as the founding father of the literature. He was followed by two characteristics of the succeeding age – imitation of English verse, and ethnic cultural movements driven after the turn of the century by such writers as Joseph Ruhoman, CER Ramcharitar Lalla and Norman E Cameron in the 1930s. These led easily into a growing sense of nationalism when AJ Seymour began his tireless work in marshalling the poetry and the work strove to achieve Guyanese identity, through the 1940s right up to the time of Independence.
It was during this period that Edgar Mittelholzer founded Guyanese social realism and internationalised the Guyanese novel in ways that other novelists before him did not. Also emerging were a number of novelists and poets who took the literature through Independence. The rise of the Independent nation saw a deepening of the nationalist work. But there were also more complex developments through Martin Carter, who, starting in the 1950s commanded extraordinary dominance of the poetry that continued without end. The social realism in the fiction also crossed the line from the Pre-Independence period around such leading writers as Jan Carew.
The Guyanese novel more definitely came into its own after Independence, riding on the pre-Independence works of Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris who took the national fiction not only into different famously original directions, but into wider international acclaim. Quite apart from Harris’s new revolutionary and world celebrated forms, Realism continued to grow through such writers as Roy Heath and Angus Richmond.
Two decades of widening in poetry saw new writers between the 1970s and 1980s, with women poets eventually making a mark through Rajkumari Singh, Shana Yardan and Mahadai Das, who was to become the leading talent as a female poet. By the 1990s when the Guyana Prize for Literature began to broaden the horizons and see several new talents emerging, the literature was moving in many different new directions.
The contemporary literature is dominated by writers living overseas such as David and Cyril Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Jan Shinebourne, Sasenarine Persaud and Pauline Melville. But a small number of locally resident writers are among the variety of standard bearers who make it very difficult to summarise the literature. These include Ryhaan Shah, Ian McDonald, Ruel Johnson, Rooplall Monar, Imam Baksh and Subraj Singh.
The contemporary literature since the 1990s has broadened to include the emergence of tragic political treatment and satire, including a corpus of work on the Burnham era; a new body of East Indian literature revealing the Indian ethos; similar slants in work about the Amerindian cosmos; popular novels; and a notable rise in the short story.
The works pay overwhelming attention to the Guyanese experience at home and abroad, including the unfulfilled national promise treated by McWatt. Most of the foremost writers are living ‘in exile’, but they have contributed to a literature that has exploded and taken its place alongside the acclaimed writing of the world. A national post-Independence literature has been created that cannot be adequately summarized in 2,000 words.