Whilst the world has been enthralled over the last few weeks as thirty-two countries battled for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a much heated debate has been growing here in the letter columns of the local broadsheets.

 The subject of this discourse is the Guyana Prize for Literature.  The rumblings over the delay in the announcement of the 2017 prize winners have being simmering for a while, since the last deadline for submissions to the biennial competition was the 31st March, 2017, and the highly anticipated results were expected before the end of last year.  To date not even a short list has been released and when the secretary of the Guyana Prize, Al Creighton was approached, it was revealed that there was a problem with the lack of funding.

Minister of Social Cohesion, Dr George Norton, whose responsibilities includes the Department of Culture, Youth and Sport, told this newspaper on the 4th of June that the Department of Culture has to determine whether the competition was feasible and worth the large investment.

“We would not go spending that kind of money if we are not certain that it is achieving what it set out to achieve in the first place and if it’s worth the amount of money—because it runs into millions of dollars that we can ill-afford at this time,” Minister Norton was quoted as saying at the time.

“…I would like to present to Cabinet my take on the present situation after I have gathered all the information that is available to me with regards to the aims and objectives of the whole reason for having this prize, it’s success or shortcomings over the years, the cost and particularly if we’re getting value for money with the whole exercise,” the minister further added,  while noting that there is a need for such a review because those who held responsibility for the portfolio are either not providing all the information, or do not have access to all the relevant information.

The fire was lit and the public discourse has ensued. As is often the case with discussions of this nature all manner of opinions are delivered, some very original and worthy of further thought and application, some are just useless rhetoric, while some are from those with axes to grind and totally irrelevant. 

This dialogue which some writer could perhaps use as the plot for an entry in the Drama section for the Guyana Prize, has received both local and overseas contributions, including past winners, aspiring writers, and observers of the whole process.  One excellent suggestion was for the Government to assist local prize winners with the publication, marketing and distribution of their literary efforts. Other topics broached include the need for more workshops for local writers and public readings. The subject of lifetime awards for persons who have participated and encouraged the development of our literature did not make the cut; teachers who have toiled for years in the depths of the secondary school system spring to mind.

Surprisingly, as of late, the focus has shifted to the subject of the participation of members of the diaspora.  Should the overseas based scribes be allowed to participate since they have an unfair advantage?  There was also the narrow-minded and myopic proposition that the judges favoured these writers, who are quite often doing more than one job and actually have less time to write, as one previous local winner, now based in the USA pointed out in the exchanges. He also added the fact that they are fewer Guyanese around to drop in, review and critique his work-in-progress like when he was back home.

These charges prompted Al Creighton to pen a detailed response in which he stated the local winners of the Guyana Prize.  The secretary also noted that “the harsh reality has been that since the 1950s the vast majority of practicing and professional writers left the country, most of them settling overseas. This meant that the bulk of the best Guyanese literature was being produced in the UK, Canada and the USA. It should not be surprising that that is where most of the winners have been.”  One local writer, however, pleaded for their inclusion to maintain the high standard of the competition and not give a “watered down” version of the prize to the lesser mortals, the local writers.

The debate has strayed off course. We need to remember that the Guyana Prize for Literature is the leading one of its kind in the English speaking Caribbean since it was inaugurated in 1987 and has a long and proud history. According to its mission statement the Guyana Prize is: “To recognize and reward outstanding work in literature by Guyanese and Caribbean authors in order to:

(i) provide a focus for the recognition of the creative writing of Guyanese at home and abroad;

(ii) stimulate interest in and provide encouragement for the development of good creative writing among Guyanese in particular and Caribbean writers in general.”

We have produced an incredibly long line of wonderful writers including the likes of Edgar Mittelholzer, Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Roy Heath, Jan Carew, Sheik Sadeek , Rooplall Monar, Walter Rodney, just to name a few.  The Guyana Prize for Literature is a legacy to those writers, who have paved the way for the current and future generation of scribes, and placed our country’s name in the highest of literary circles.  

Why? Why do we have to keep asking the question, why the arts, our writers, painters, sculptors, artists, musicians are treated as step children? When will we begin to understand and appreciate the value of the arts to our society?  When will we grasp the importance of the National Art Collection housed at Castellani House?  The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology?  The National Museum?

With all due respect Mr Minister, “not worth the money we are spending?” Return on investment? The value and worth of investment in the Guyana Prize cannot be quantified in dollars and cents.  Our literature is the mirror of our society, we should be proud of it, not to pretend that it does not exist.

Let’s get on with the 2017 Guyana Prize awards, the deadline for 2019 submissions is fast approaching. The Guyana Prize for Literature is a national treasure which needs to be sustained.

It is priceless.

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