I wish to address a few issues pertaining to the Guyana Prize for Literature. These are varied; but the first set on which I will comment arises from criticisms raised by two local writers through letters in the press. Rev. Gideon Cecil has raised them repeatedly in the Kaieteur News and the Stabroek News, while, most recently, Ras Aaron Blackman repeated some of them in the Kaieteur News of July 2, 2018.
The letters contain a number of inaccuracies and false notions about the Prize and about how other prizes around the world operate.
1. That the same persons reappear as winners of the Guyana Prize at one time and as
Judges of the Prize at another;
2. that former judges ought to be disqualified from entering the competition in any
3. that no other literary prize allows former judges to become contestants.
Rev. Cecil misquotes the rules from the international IMPAC Dublin Prize for Fiction to support his claim.
It is basic common sense – in fact it is a sine qua non in any literary prize that no one can be a judge and a contestant at the same time; no one can be a member of the prize committee and enter his work in the same competition. That is standard practice: those rules do apply in the Guyana Prize and have never been violated. It is such a basic understanding that many leading international Prizes do not have it as a written clause in their eligibility statements. Rev. Cecil argues that such a clause is missing from the Guyana Prize regulations and he is correct – they are not there in writing and perhaps they should be, to leave no room for doubt. But they have been very strictly observed.
There are persons who have been winners of the Guyana Prize and who have also served as judges at different times – never at the same time. This is standard practice in the large international literary prizes, and we have made this correction before in the press. I can repeat factual examples. The IMPAC Dublin rule says no person can enter the competition who “is” also at the same time a judge or a committee member. It says nothing about them being in the capacity at different times, and in fact, has allowed it to happen. One example is novelist David Dabydeen who served as a judge in the IMPAC Dublin and whose novel The Counting House was short-listed for the same Prize in a different year.
In the OCM Bocas Literary Prize a number of writers have been judges of the Prize at one time and winners or short-listed entrants at other times. A few examples of those are: Kendel Hippolyte, Merle Collins, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, David Dabydeen and Kei Miller. Examples in the Commonwealth Writers Prize include Olive Senior and Mark McWatt, whose Suspended Sentences won the Prize in 2006 after he had served as a judge in previous years.
All literary prizes, including the Man Booker, use literary critics, academics and practicing writers as judges and none of them tell those writers that as a condition of serving as judges they cannot enter their work in the prize in future. This, therefore, cannot be cited as something wrong in the Guyana Prize.
4. That the Prize is dominated by foreign based writers;
5. that local writers are at a disadvantage;
6. that the Prize is biased towards the favoured foreign writers .This is the repeat of a
very old argument advanced since the very early years of the Prize. The argument
is that there is unfair competition since foreign based writers are privileged and
have advantages over the locals who lack facilities for development and
opportunities for publishing. The prizes should not keep going overseas and there
should be something for the locals. However, even worse than that, the Prize was
accused of favouritism towards a small circle of friends that closes around the
overseas writers and ignores, overlooks and shuts out new, unknown and young
The Management Committee responded in two ways. The Prize was created to reward and promote good writing among Guyanese
writers at home and abroad in particular, and among Caribbean writers in general. It was for the best works and was restricted to published books only. However, in answer to appeals from the local community, self published and privately published books were admitted; and Guyanese living in Guyana were allowed to enter unpublished manuscripts. Overseas residents still have to enter only
There was even an attempt to reward the best local unpublished manuscript. This was however, quickly discontinued following advice from several quarters. The prize was intended for the best Guyanese literature and the manuscripts have to compete with the published books. It was felt that a separate local prize was doing no favours to the local writers and might even be an insult to them as inferior and lower class creatures. Further, it would lower the standards and reputation of the Guyana Prize, and there would always be less regard and respect for whatever local prize was given. It would not sit well even with the locally resident writers.
What was worse, however, was the charge of favouritism. This is a very cynical judgement and condemnation of all Guyanese literature. It says what has been declared as the best of the literature over all these several years could not have made it without unfair advantage and is not really as good as has been declared. Moreover, it is an insult to all the winners, all the excellent writers and the very wide range of distinguished and expert international judges, most of whom are not Guyanese, who have worked with the Guyana Prize since 1987.
Finally, it is the easiest thing to say the judging was unfair. One can glibly publish this charge with no proof and less responsibility to support what one tells the public with sound evidence. The fact is, there is only one way that you can tell that the judging was unfair – you would have to have read all the entries. Unless one has read the entries one cannot know which was better than which.
In order to cap the length of this letter, I will withhold further proof that those accusations are ultra vires, false and without merit, and include the details of it in my next submission.