The evolution of creative writing in Guyana

Creative Writing in Guyana has a long history, though the formal and certified training in it is very short. The production ‘Rumours and Things’ to be staged at the National Cultural Centre on Tuesday at 7 pm by the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) marks the end of the very first full academic programme in Creative Writing in this country.

The inaugural graduating class will stage a historic first public reading of their work on  Tuesday evening alongside the play Rumors by Neil Simon performed by the 2017 Drama graduates of NSTAD as their test piece. They will be reading selections of poems and short stories written out of the work they did in the diploma programme.

Although there is a great tradition of writing in prose, poetry drama and non-fiction, there was never a full time programme of training for official certification in these disciplines in Guyana before now. It coincided with the fifth corresponding programme in drama and theatre arts during the academic year 2016/2017 recently concluded. ‘Rumours and Things’ will raise the curtains on the NSTAD courses in both Drama and Creative Writing for the new academic year 2017/2018.

The achievement of this Diploma in Creative Writing and the work leading up to it was reviewed some time ago by Guyana Chronicle reviewer Subraj Singh, a University of Guyana and NSTAD graduate in English and Drama, in the Sunday Chronicle.  He reflected on the several months of exercises and the considerable amount of original writing that the students had to generate in addition to written examinations before fulfilling the requirements for successful completion of the programme. This public reading of the original work produced is the last piece to satisfy the activities of the courses of study.

The history that has culminated in this crowning fulfillment in Guyana as both a colony and a nation is very long and varied. It is a chronicle of an unending series of meetings, writers’ groups, small classes, workshops, discussions and readings over 100 years.

This journey probably originated in the agitating, inspiring and ideological work of Joseph Ruhomon of Berbice, who was responsible for the inauguration of social and cultural clubs and an ethnic cultural movement in the first quarter of the twentieth century in British Guiana.  Alongside him was Peter Ruhomon whose pioneering work included “editing an ‘Indian page’ in the Sunday Chronicle during the 1930s” (Petamber Persaud, Guyanese Writers of Indian Ancestry, 2017). Another contributor was C E J Ramcharitar-Lalla who was called “the father of Indian poetry in Guyana” (Persaud, 2017). All three were poets, writers and editors, interested in the cultural education of East Indians in British Guiana.

That interest resulted in the formation of many social, cultural and sports clubs for Indians including the British Guiana East Indian Association and the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS).  Some of these had literary interests and for many years revered the work of the great Rabindranauth Tagore of India. There was deep ethnic interest among the newly emerged local intelligentsia in the colony. While it had its roots in a rallying call to the BG indentured Indians in a publication by J Ruhomon in 1894 (To India, the Progress Of Her Children At Home And Abroad And Why Those In British Guiana Should Improve Themselves), it was also a reaction to the work of Norman E Cameron.

Cameron, a pioneering leader of black writers and modern Guyanese drama, published a comprehensive anthology of Guianese poetry without including any East Indian poet.  Ramcharitar-Lalla responded by publishing an Indian anthology.

For his part, Cameron led a charge to have black people represented with dignity in literature and to generate local creative writing. He also felt that blacks in the colony needed ‘improvement’ and once wrote that while he was reading Mathematics at Cambridge he was asked who were the Guyanese writers and couldn’t name any. Having returned home, he started the black cultural campaign in 1931. Afterwards this was to gain ground with the visit of Marcus Garvey, followed by the emergence of the likes of Walter McA Lawrence and A J Seymour.

Great volumes of poetry flowed out of that period, and the ethnic interests eventually retreated under a wave of emerging national poetry and prose. Given the activities of the various clubs including the League of Coloured People (and the Working People’s Art Class) these would have included an interest in the development of poetry and the writing of poetry. There were frequent readings of Tagore, but there was evidence of readings and discussions of poetry and the writing of it.

Edgar Mittelholzer wrote of sessions of that nature. Half in humour, he stressed the consistent flow of gallons of rum during the sessions, and that would have been some time through the 1930s up to the 40s. Two decades later, there is evidence of similar sessions in which Martin Carter was involved. There were regular series at his home, and that would have been impossible without liquor. By the time the New World group became active in the 1960s the poetry sessions were at their peak and David de Caires described them exactly the way Mittelholzer did – emphasis on the rum.

But the spirits of literature definitely flowed as well, and these were the teaching and learning sessions, unofficial classes for writers during those times. There was no formal tuition, but many writers would have received a good deal of training in this way.

However, closer to structured classes, would have been the focused activities of the PEN Club – an organisation for writers and their development. They had an interest in workshops and were very active in BG in the 1950s. They also worked in cooperation with Seymour and Kyk-Over-Al in shaping poets and publishing their work.

There were also quite sober developments in the National History and Arts Council, and the Department of Culture that came into being after independence. Such personalities as Lynette Dolphin, Seymour and Sheik Sadeek were active there and classes were held in creative writing.  That would have been the only organised classes in formal training outside of the more informal sessions with Carter, de Caires and the New World.

There were other telling developments post-independence. One was the Guyana National Service (GNS) and its arm the People’s Culture Corps. Rajkumari Singh worked in the GNS as well as ran classes at home. She was a daughter of the Singhs who were in charge of the BGDS and carried on the work of teaching literature. Her workshops and mentoring would have been a very important component in creative writing training in those years, considering the major writers that arose from there. But still, there were no certified programmes.

There have been many writers groups such as the Annandale Writers Group led by Rooplall Monar and another around the period of 1970 out of which Janice Shinebourne ascended. One of the largest was the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists led by Roopnandan Singh right through the 1990s past the turn of the century, and one of the advantages of this institution was that it published work. Singh published his and several selections of work by the group members.  The Janus Young Writers group arose around the same time led by Ruel Johnson and Kojo McPherson. Even after that group lost strength Johnson, who benefited from other workshops overseas, continued small classes with new writing prospects.

Then the Guyana Prize for Literature intensified and expanded its annual series of workshops up to the present time. But there was always the recognition that there was a need for formal official training with certification. The University of Guyana took that up when the Division of Creative Arts introduced a Minor in Creative Writing as a part of its BA in English. This was run by Carter and continued with a very small number of students until 1997 when it ceased. This was a fully recognised academic minor course but it did not have independent certification, being only a part of the English degree.

It was when the Institute of Creative Arts came into being under then Director of Culture in the Ministry of Culture James Rose that the first move for an independent major programme took off. The first idea was to establish a School of Creative Writing and of Media Arts which would join the already existing School of Dance, the Burrowes School of Art, the National School of Music and the very new National School of theatre Arts and Drama. The new schools would join those others in the ICA.

As a second strategy, it was decided to place creative writing in the School of Drama which already had a course in Playwriting as an option in the Drama diploma. This was done in 2016 and the programme was completed in the academic year 2016/2017.

It was therefore the first formal official programme with certification – a Diploma in Creative Writing on successful completion. It is a full time academic programme with major courses in Fiction, Poetry, Playwriting and Creative Non-Fiction. These are practical writing courses supported by theoretical courses, courses for relevant knowledge and courses for academic and technical enhancement. It is very demanding as a minimum of 42 Credits including a considerable volume of original writing in the major disciplines as well as courses in English Language, Literature, History of Literature in English, Research and Film and Literature. There are also options in Writing for Radio and Education – the Teaching of Creative Writing and Drama.

There is a calculated balance of theoretical and practical credit hours in the courses with a very large number of hours dedicated to actual writing. The students have to produce a volume of original writing at the end of the programme. The writers to be featured are Esther Hamer (Best Graduate), Melinda Primo-Solomon, Ayanna Waddell, Linden Isles and Nirmala Narine. Samples of their volume of work will be read at the production ‘Rumours and Things’ on Tuesday night. They will share the programme with the graduates of Drama’s performance from the American Neil Simon’s play Rumors. The best of this work will also be the contents of a publication: the first collection of work by Creative Writing Diploma students of the NSTAD.


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