Is the Guyana Prize for Literature if Flawed?
by Rakesh Rampertab

PRELUDE: I wrote this, originally as a letter in December 2003. The letter was published in Strabroek News and Chronicle...and I am posting here because the Guyana Prize for Literature is up again and submission are in process, or ought to be, with the deadline I believe to be in August this year. Thus far, no one at UG have responded to this letter although Stabroek News was kind enough to send it to the committee that overseas the prize. Is it that they are afraid of what is being asked? Is this why they are silent on it, preferring not to respond, hoping that it would go away?

I recently, after much effort, was able to get a copy of the 2002 flyer for the Guyana Prize for Literature. There is a serious flawed rule that governs entries into this competition. For the poetry, fiction, and first book (of poetry and fiction) categories, there is one rule stipulating that only locally based authors are allowed to submit works in manuscript form. I do not know who or how this was arrived it. I do not know the reason, and can only assume that it was meant to accommodate locals in light of the absence of a publishing industry in Guyana. This is fair.

However, this rule is discriminatory because it automatically assumes that writers beyond our 83,000 square miles have easy access to publishing houses, regardless of where they reside, publishing costs, what actually sells on the market, and even the migratory nature of the Guyanese population from which the writer is not immune. This rule places undue burden on overseas-based Guyanese writers and this serves to reduce instead of promote our literature.

I hope the Guyana Prize Management Committee will address this letter and, hopefully, amend this rule. Before I state my views further, it would be good to know the nature of the business of this committee, who are it’s members, how were they elected, how often are these elections, etc. Who has the final say on whether a rule stays or goes? Now, those points.

Overseas writers living in the West Indies also suffer from a lackluster publishing industry. Since one of the “objectives” of the Prize as stated in the flyer, is to “stimulate” interest in creative writing “among Guyanese in particular and Caribbean writers in general,” (“Caribbean writer” means a Guyanese national by birth or naturalization but who resides in the Caribbean) the book-only rule automatically prevents them from free access to an unfettered fair entry. In other words, we say we want them to enter but we have a red-tape policy simply because they may live, say, in Suriname.

Secondly, there are many unknown Guyanese who write creatively in North America and Europe but who have never published books. Publishing costs money and unless one’s writing is excellent enough (good marketable value) to be picked up by a major publishing house, or one is a college professor and has a bit more leeway with a university press, the writer is left to publish on one’s own terms at a subsidiary publisher. This means you pay for your book. It is not cheap. Poetry and scripts almost never sell. Further, given the poor state of the publishing environment worldwide, acquisition editors sign less book contacts, and even university presses or private small presses which often depend on grants and endowments, suffer serious setbacks, clipping that aforementioned “leeway.”
So, expecting writers to submit books simply because of which side of the tropics they reside, is ridiculous and far-fetched.

Thirdly, this rule does not consider the reality of the Guyanese situation, which is marked by the constant flux of people migrating weekly. What happens when a locally based writer migrates two months before he could submit his “manuscripts”? His writings become invalid once Universal crosses the Guyana coastline. What if it has the potential to become a masterpiece? Well, we’ll never know. What if it is submitted overseas in a competition and wins surprisingly great acclaim? I suppose we all will claim its author hypocritically as “our own,” and refer to him/her as the “Guyanese writer.”

Naturally, by restricting writers this rule reduces the total number of submissions possible, and thus affects the diversity and the quality of writings. Because we have fewer submissions from outside of Guyana, the local writer is given a clear advantage. Instead of advancing literary creativity (“reward and award outstanding work”), it will foster a false prestige and a false sense of literary excellence among local “winners.” If this was the intention of this rule, it is treachery that will backfire for it is based on national bias and money. If the Prize is being projected as a financial venture, then we ought to rethink its purpose. As it is, this rule makes it appear quite undemocratic.

Freedom of expression is not only the freedom to “speak” but also the freedom to be “heard.” While the best of literature may preach ultimate self-destruction in the end, only the worse of literature encourages self-destruction in the beginning. This rule does this. We should not and need not exercise rules that are fitting for developed artistic and publishing communities such as London or New York, but allow open and equal access to all Guyanese regardless of where they reside. If we cannot have equal free access, then we should reword the flyer to indicate that only Guyanese residing in Guyana ought to partake. The rules will not be suppressive then.

I thank Ms. Althea Dover at the Faculty of Arts at UG and Mr. Kojo McPherson, editor of the Guyana Christmas Annual 2003, for their assistance.


May 2nd, 2004
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