Guyana Prize has helped to take Guyanese literature to prominent place on world stage

Dear Editor,

According to the Stabroek News Editorial on the Guyana Prize, “the debate has strayed off course” (July 11, 2018). I was constrained to respond to false notions that kept reappearing in the press, and I still am; but what appears below as my final intervention, includes statements I had already planned to make but had to suspend in order to write necessary responses. 

1.  What is the track record of the Guyana Prize?  Has it been carrying out its functions and objectives?

These functions and objectives begin with a quotation from a poem made by President Desmond Hoyte as a justification for founding the Prize and funding it from scarce resources. The following is the poem, which has been widely quoted, attributed to 13th Century Persian poet Muslihuddin Saadi, but according to the Paris Review, some sources cite the Classical Greek physician Hippocrates as possible author.    

If thou of fortune be bereft

And in thy store there be but left

Two loaves, sell one and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

The Prize, therefore, represents the importance placed by the state upon its literature, its cultural output, which is measured in value equal to its economic well-being, and cannot be measured in a counting house of materialism, cannot be weighed in dollars and cents.  The Stabroek News Editorial calls it “priceless’.

The Prize, the leading one of its kind in the Caribbean, has won the nation of Guyana high levels of respect, admiration and praise from international circles for the profundity of vision that founded it; for its continued existence.  Foremost literary critic, scholar, poet and artist Stewart Brown, who was a judge in the Guyana and Caribbean Prizes commented on the magnitude of the contribution made by Guyana in the face of economic challenges, comparing it to his home city, Birmingham, whose literary authorities were arguing over a sum of money to be allocated to a literary festival.  “The amount of money they were asking for was, really, so small – half that devoted to the Guyana Prize – in Britain, in the English second city, with a population several times that of Guyana and, by comparison, massively wealthy.  I couldn’t help but make the comparison between that reluctant, carping, petty-minded version of state patronage and the vision, the essentially Caribbean generosity of spirit, that underpins the Guyana Prize.”

This invaluable institution has continued consistently since 1987 with only one cycle missed because of Carifesta 2008.  It has helped to give Guyanese literature international stature, reputation, exposure, uniqueness and identity.   It has made Guyana a leader in the Caribbean as the birthplace of Carifesta and the Guyana Prize.

2.  What has it done for Guyanese Literature, its development and its writers?

The Guyana Prize has helped to take Guyanese literature to a prominent place on the world stage.  Since 1987 it has been a companion to the development of the literature through the extra exposure given to the foremost celebrated writers who have been winners and most significantly, to new writers who have emerged and risen to prominence since then.

Leading Guyanese writers of world fame have won the Prize.  With each victory, such writers have enhanced their reputations but at the same time validated the Prize and given additional international recognition and attention to the literature of Guyana.  These winners have included Sir Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Roy Heath, Ian McDonald, Pauline Melville, John Agard and Michael Gilkes. 

But the Prize has been responsible for the discovery and rise to international prominence of several others who are now internationally recognised, but who were unknown or first time emerging writers when they first entered their work in the Guyana Prize.  It was through the exposure given to them, and the encouragement, that they climbed the ladder to become the highly decorated world writers that they are today.

David Dabydeen, for instance, had never written a novel before when he won the Guyana Prize with his first work of fiction, The Intended, in 1992.   Fred D’Aguiar won the Prize for Poetry with his very first collection of poems, Mama Dot,  as a totally unknown writer in 1987.  Then the Guyana Prize actually launched his career as a novelist when he entered his first novel, The Longest Memory, and won the Prize for the Best First Book of Fiction in 1994.

Other writers who grew to the status of the prominent Guyanese authors that they are today developed their career as first time writers in the Guyana Prize.  Cyril Dabydeen is an outstanding example of one who submitted entries in his early career until he eventually won the Best Fiction in 2006.  There are others who came to notice when they won the First Book Prize and developed considerably thereafter.  Prominent examples are Berkley Semple, Brian Chan, and Maggie Harris.

Still, in addition to those are new contributors to Guyanese literature who were previously totally unknown as authors and whose work gained from the exposure of winning the First Book award.  Examples of these are Gokarran Sookhdeo with the novel The Silver Lining and Clive Sankardyal with Brown Curtains.  Were it not for the Guyana Prize, the works of all these new and unknown writers might have remained unknown with a small readership and not enriched the reputation of Guyanese literature as they have now done.

These are Guyanese writers and Guyanese literature in the international community.  The cases of writers living in Guyana have already been detailed in previous letters.

3.  What innovations, what new developments has the Prize created?

It is to be remembered that this is a literary prize awarded to the best writing that has been produced.  While the Commonwealth Foundation always seeks ways of helping to develop Commonwealth writing and the OCM Bocas has an elaborate complementary programme, none of the large leading Literary Prizes get involved in any other activities.  But the Guyana Prize recognised its role as not only a rewarder of good literature but an encourager, a promoter and a developer of it in the context of Guyana and the Caribbean.  It has therefore put into practice many events and activities and has planned others as substantial contributions to Guyanese and Caribbean literature, public awareness and education.

These include the following.

1.   Created through the UG Library, the largest, most extensive and elaborate

      exhibition of Guyanese Literature, Guyanese writers and Guyana Prize entries and

      winners ever assembled.

2.  This has been exhibited in Guyana and at Carifesta in Haiti 2015, Barbados 2017

     and at the Inter Guianas Festival in French Guiana 2014.

3.  Created, with the Dept. of Culture and the National School of Drama, the annual

     National Poetry Slam.

4.   Established and staged the National Literary Festival (to continue in 2018)

5.   Revived and staged the Martin Carter Lecture Series

6.   Revived and staged the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series

7.   Held several writers’ workshops.

8.  These workshops have not been sufficient, so, with the Dept. of Culture,

     established the full courses in Creative Writing – Fiction, Poetry and Playwriting at

     the National School of drama.

9.  Has planned a Masters in Guyanese Literature for offering at the University of 

     Guyana.

Literary Prizes do not publish.  They generally leave the complex and costly business of publishing to the publishers.  Because of the Guyana situation, it always comes up whether the Guyana Prize should not be publishing unpublished winners, publishing works generally, and even ensuring that winning works are circulated so Guyanese can read them.  Truly, that is somewhat beyond the Prize.  Yet, because of its developmental role, the Prize took these things seriously.

Where publishing is concerned, there was action.  When the Caribbean Press was established part of its mandate was to provide a good publishing house that would publish local writers, and many  were published.  Attention was then to be turned to Guyana Prize winners.  But the Caribbean Press has not continued.

Yours faithfully,

Al Creighton

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