I refer to the claims made in letters to the national newspapers by Rev. Gideon Cecil and Ras Aaron Blackman that the Guyana Prize for Literature privileges Guyanese writers resident overseas;
• that it only awards prizes to a small clique of friends in that circle of overseas
• that the local writers and unpublished manuscripts are overlooked;
• that they do not stand a chance against the foreigners; and
• are denied opportunities for recognition and development as writers.
The Guyana Prize was established “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
(ii) stimulate interest in and provide encouragement for the development of good
creative writing among Guyanese in particular and Caribbean writers in general.“
Since it began in 1987 the clear majority of winners have been resident overseas. The Prize Awards have always been meant to go to the best of the nation’s literature, and 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.
In spite of that reality, it is plainly not true that there was a bias towards those writers “in exile” and a neglect of local residents. The judges have proven themselves ready to recognise the best talent when it is resident in Guyana and have not hesitated to award the Prizes to them. Contrary to what has been peddled there have been outstanding cases of local writers, most of them with unpublished manuscripts, defeating well known names who have been established overseas.
Here are some examples. Harischandra Khemraj was an unknown writer – a school teacher in D’Edward Village, with no previous publications when he won the top prize – the Best Book of Fiction in 1994 with Cosmic Dance. Among the vanquished were celebrated literary high flyers based overseas Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Beryl Gilroy and Cyril Dabydeen. That was a major find, an emphatic advance for Guyanese literature at home.
Harold Bascom has now advanced to be a playwright with four Guyana Prize victories and one Caribbean Award. He resides in the USA. But he was a local writer and dramatist in Lodge, Georgetown when he received his greatest recognition up to that time – the Guyana Prize for the Best Book of Drama in 1994 for his unpublished manuscript of the play Two Wrongs. What is more, he repeated the achievement in 1996, while still a local resident who entered his playscript of Makantali.
Paloma Mohamed is now highly successful and recognised. But she was a local dramatist and poet who had not yet achieved any international accolades when she won her first Guyana Prize for the play Duenne. She progressed from there to win more Guyana Prizes for Best Book of Drama, including for Anansi’s Way (2006).
A local unknown, unpublished writer with his first collection of short stories became the youngest winner of the Guyana Prize to date. Ruel Johnson emerged as a significant talent, recognised by the judges as outstanding for his Ariadne and Other Stories in 2002. He won the Best First Book of Fiction, having entered an unpublished manuscript to defeat two published shortlisted books. His other first time manuscript was a collection of poems The Enormous Night, which was shortlisted for the First Book of Poetry.
It was against foreign competition that the second youngest writer to win the Guyana Prize emerged from the local writing community. Subraj Singh also won the Guyana Prize for the Best First Book of Fiction in 2014 for Rebell and Other Stories. Once again a first time local writer was identified by the Guyana Prize judges as a major talent when there were established intellectuals living overseas on the shortlist with published books. So-called hallowed and chosen overseas based writers must have been once more overlooked by the clique of judges who must have bypassed their friends to award the prize to an unknown disadvantaged local.
Increasing belief in themselves must have been among the gains for local Guyanese writers when yet another one of them beat the overseas competition in 2012. Dramatist Mosa Telford, a local writer with no previous publications or international achievement won the Guyana Prize for Drama with Sauda. This time among the vanquished was a successful three-time Prize winner named Bascom, who was by then resident overseas.
Neither must it be forgotten that Cassia Alphonso, an entirely new poet writing verse in Creolese, also won as a first-timer living in Guyana. Very significantly, she shared the Poetry Prize with the very established writer Ian McDonald, who, as a local resident, became a multiple winner of the Prize for Poetry.
Another distinguished local resident won the Best First Book of Poetry with an unpublished manuscript when Dennis Craig was awarded for On The Seashore. Although a veteran writer, it was his first collection.
Among that significant list of Guyana Prize winners are works which were entered as unpublished manuscripts. They had to compete against published books entered by publishers from abroad. It has been a consistent policy of the juries that these manuscripts had to be of publishable quality to be awarded a Prize. It ought to be obvious by now that the Guyana Prize created opportunities for local writers who were previously unknown to gain recognition and to emerge.
Surely the Prize has helped to create an environment in which a number of local developing writers are motivated to write and to improve. The list of examples provided above is evidence that many of them have achieved; some have gone on to become more successful, more accomplished and to join the corps of established writers.
Those examples prove the accusations against the Prize to be false, ultra vires and without merit.
Secretary, Guyana Prize