IF we attempt to sum up the issues and events in the literary
and performing arts at the end of the year 2001, we may find that
the greatest impact was made in the field of literature. For those
international developments with a direct Guyanese context, literature
predominated in the overall picture, both locally and overseas.
But inside of Guyana, literature shared centre-stage with two
aspects of the theatre. While dance was prominent among the performing
arts, the greatest impact in the theatre was made, not by any
performance, but by the absence of drama. Then, alongside the
devastating decline of the theatre during the year, were the rise
of poetry readings and the vigorous debates over V S Naipaul's
receipt of the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature.
In the extended world of Guyanese literature,
there was a grand celebration of the country's most outstanding
novelist, Wilson Harris. In March 2001, the world celebrated Harris'
80th birthday with many events, including symposia coordinated
by Hena Maes-Jelinek, a leading Harrisian critic. The University
of Liege in Belgium also conferred on him an honorary Doctorate
of Letters for his amazing contribution to literature, including
works of fiction, theory and criticism.
That this should take place in 2001, the first
year of the 21st century and of the third millennium is significant,
since Dr. Harris' fiction has been preoccupied with time and the
survival of civilization. Faber and Faber published his latest
novel, The Dark Jester, which continues his devotion to those
themes. This book exhibits Harris' fondness for images of the
theatre as well as the revolutionary changes he has achieved in
the form of the English novel. The Dark Jester dramatizes man's
rehearsals of the history of the second millennium, including
the wars of mankind against himself and his determination to destroy
humanity. In Harris' cross-cultural fiction, man, wearing the
theatrical masks of different races, brought about the destruction
of the great civilizations of the Americas.
Celebrations of Guyanese literature continued
in academia, not only with Harris' own honorary PhD, but with
theses written by students of his work. Michael Mitchell completed
a study of Harris, David Dabydeen on Derek Walcott at the University
of Warwick's Centre for Caribbean Studies and Gemma Robinson completed
a doctoral dissertation on the work of poet Martin Carter at Cambridge
University. While both Mitchell and Robinson are British, Guyanese
born academic Denise de Caires of Sussex, published a critical
work on the subject of gender in West Indian writing.
Also in 2001, the BBC took an interest in the
Guyanese past with a two-part documentary called Guyana, the “Forgotten
Colony” designed and narrated by Dabydeen. This delving
into the past was also reflected in the BBC's decision to film
Brother Man, a 1954 novel by Jamaican Roger Mais, and Merchant
Ivory' s just concluded filming of Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur.
Then another Guyanese writer, Fred D'Aguiar, was a member of the
panel of judges for the IMPAC-Dublin Prize for fiction.There were
other achievements in fiction for Guyanese writers belonging to
the Kempadoo family. Onya Kempadoo, whose Buxton Spice received
much attention, critical and otherwise in 2000, completed a second
novel set in Tobago this year. Then, in the continued revisits
of past novels, Peepal Tree reprinted Guyana Boy by Peter Kempadoo.
The book, originally published in the 1950s, is one of the early
novels written about rural Indian life in Guyana.
Recalled to Life
Inside of Guyana, literature was also relatively lively. Poetry
and prose readings have recently been recalled to life, with British
High Commissioner Edward Glover hosting a series of literary evenings
during 2001. However, catalysts to this development, were the
members of the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists led
by Roopnandan Singh, while the Ministry of Culture and the newly
formed Janus Young Writers Guild joined in.
Also a part of this rejuvenation, were the very lively Naipaul
debates which exploded in Guyana and Trinidad among other places.
They followed the announcement that Sir Vidia Naipaul had won
the Nobel Prize, which, while a triumph for the Caribbean, was
itself followed by controversy to which Naipaul is no stranger.
The hot debates injected new vigour in the flagging tradition
of public discussions about literature in this country, even if
some of the loudest arguments arose from the reading of remarks
made about Naipaul rather than from the reading of his books,
and were more about socio-politics than about literature.
Also significant in this literary activity, was
the launching of the novel Hendree's Cure by Moses Nagamootoo,
who is better known as a politician and a journalist. It documents
life among the Madrasis at Whim on the Corentyne. The book attracted
some attention. Its inclusion on the Guyana Prize shortlist for
First Books of Fiction was itself a tribute, but it was also noticed
by Caribbean Beat, the BWIA magazine. Not surprisingly, Nagamootoo's
journalistic inclinations limited his ability to successfully
turn documentary into fiction.
There were two prominent book fairs during the
year, another feature of literature's rising prominence. A book
exhibition accompanied the major conference on West Indian Literature
hosted by the University of Guyana at the Hotel Tower in 2000.
But in 2001, the scale was more public. The first fair was mounted
by the University's Berbice Campus. It attracted booksellers,
libraries, research centres and other institutions from Georgetown
and Berbice, as well as the public and a large school population.
The second was mounted by the Guyana Book Foundation,
with very wide participation from several different sectors and
special interests. Notably, while the foundation's event was prominent
and inspired a Stabroek News' editorial, the usual academic modesty
that discourages self promotion, the location far away in Tain,
or a deficiency in public advertisement, caused less attention
to he paid to the Berbice Campus' fair which preceeded it. Akin
to a book fair is a film festival and it was the British High
Commission which again provided one during the year, mainly offering
screen versions of Shakespeare's plays. The highlight of the series,
however, was the feature film, Elizabeth, about the greatest English
Queen of the 16th and 17th centuries who was a patroness of Shakespeare.
The Reign of Dance
While 2001 will not go down as a brilliant year
for fresh artistry in dance, it saw this discipline maintain its
place at the top of the theatrical arts in Guyana. The year witnessed
the rewarding hard work put in by some practitioners, the setting
of traditions and the survival of dance despite a major slump
in local theatre. The major annual productions, which include
“Nrityageet,” “Naya Zamana” and the performances
of the Indian Cultural Centre, held their own under the leadership
of Indira Shah, Vindya Persaud and Nalini Mishra. Dr. Mishra rose
to greater prominence as both choreographer and dancer in the
major Indian shows as well as in performances hosted by High Commissioner
Prakash Joshi, whose own contribution was also noteworthy. But
the National Dance Company, led by Vivienne Daniel, was particularly
prolific and most consistent in quality. In addition to a good
annual season, there were other productions such as a special
one to mark African heritage. This high productivity, however,
again turned to overwork, although it was very rewarding for a
company of committed dancers, and for the systematic training
coordinated by Linda Griffith in the National School of Dance,
whose students performed in the usual Studio to Stage.
The Decline and Fall of Drama
Dramatic productions, on the contrary, took another
battering this year, with productivity falling even below the
meagre levels of the year 2000. There were only three full-length
plays: Silent Sins and The Hypocrite by Jianna Tyrrell, directed
by Fitzroy Tyrrell, and Michael Duff's Crabs in a Barrel. Added
to that was the annual Awe Society which included The Mango Tree,
a one-act play by Ken Danns as well as the Theatre Company's Link
Show and Twenty, a retrospective production to celebrate the company's
This achievement by Guyana's first professional
theatre company was the only thing worth celebrating for the year.
But to this may be added the rapid ascendancy of the Tyrrells
as notable newcomers to local playwriting and directing. Their
swift rise is a credit to their enterprise, but a further reflection
of the crisis. The year 2001 was Guyanese theatre's annus horribilis.
Yet this dramatic crash to six from years when the number of plays
easily exceeded twenty can see no promise of an improvement next