In a recent column for “Kaieteur News” (9/06), Mr. Frederick
Kissoon suggested that the Guyana Prize for Literature money be
used for an “essential” service (e.g., fence the Lamaha Canal to
prevent pollution, which leads to the city’s water reservoir), because
it is often won by “writers who don’t live here.” While I agree
that the Canal ought to be protected, I find his suggestion immature
and ridiculous. The problem exists with the local writer, who rarely
wins because his work is characterized by mediocrity. The foreign-based
Guyanese writer wins more because his work, though not of any superlative
quality, is superior enough to beat the locals. If the Prize is
given, as it ought to be, based on the quality of a work, then the
only alternative for the local writer is to improve the quality
of their writings.
I am still skeptical about the idea (posed by one writer),
that awarding of the Prize is governed by a so-called “absentee
literocracy.” Still, this
should not be a problem, since all judges ought to be familiar with
our “regional” literature; thus, if a local writer produces a good
“local” work, it would be recognized as such. Further, overseas
residence does not make one inept to judge works produced locally.
A good work of literature is recognizable anywhere. When India’s
Rabindranauth Tagore completed his monumental “Gitanjali,” he passed
the manuscript to the Irish poet, William B. Yeats, who proceeded
to write the epic poem’s Introduction.
Of course, corruption is always possible, especially in Guyana
where dishonesty dominates. If a writer believes his work has been
misjudged, that writer ought to raise the issue with the Prize committee.
If no rule exists which allows for redress, one should be implemented
immediately, allowing for a committee consisting of, at least, the
panel of judges (or those that reside locally), local writers, the
minister of culture, and UG professors to review the claim. All
previous biased verdicts should be dismissed, and the discreditable
judge(s) should be barred entry from future competitions—either
as judge or candidate.
Despite my confidence in local writers, it is recognizable
that literature in Guyana has always and continues to suffer serious
setbacks, especially from an uninterested public. Then there
is a lack of seriousness; let me illustrate; sometime in 2000, Mr.
Al Creighton, writing briefly on Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,”
erred significantly in basic facts about the book’s two protagonists—such
as their religious background. When a leading literary critic errs
on something so fundamental about a prominent book, something more
sinister that lack of literary knowledge is operating.
It is inadvisable
to believe that a West Indian (or Guyanese) sensibility ought to
be the rule by which our literature is to be reviewed. Writers should
not become entrenched in the view that the local is better than
the foreigner (Guyanese), at reviewing Guyanese literature. It would
not be surprising to me if, deep in his psyche, the local writer
believes himself to be the unofficial heir to the Prize. But, losing,
what ought him to do?
First, he must find redemption however outdated the
state of our literary scene. He must reinvent his writer’s self
through writing, in an unprecedented production of serious, complex
works. He must live literature. This is the only alternative to
escaping this infantile tradition to which he is rooted, and from
which he has been given little with which to create. The more he
writes, the more he must liberate himself, though not totally from
our wretched literary culture which is still to produce a world-recognize
He must look beyond trivial expatriate writers like Harris
who merely disappeared into the obscure corners of English literature;
the writer ought to go beyond Martin Carter (our best poet whose
best work is some 40 years old), and must avoid repetition common
among his immature political leaders and reckless countrymen, neither
of whom can scale quoting Carter ceaselessly and, more ashamedly,
that one wearied line; “We are all involved…we are all consumed.”
The writer has
always been an ostracized figure among us—ignored and ridiculed.
In all the talks of “civil society” (whatever that means in Guyana)
assisting the politicians, nowhere is the word “writer” (or truth)
to be found. The people
have abandoned him, having been seduced into believing that two
political parties are all they need to have a prosperous future.
Before he can win prizes, he must reestablish his role as
a member of the society; him alone must determine which direction
our literary interpretation is to assume. It is not the job of the
political scientists who still reside in the past (as was evident
during the “Nobel” discussions on Naipaul, in which aspects of the
novel such as character development and plot outline never surfaced).
His is the responsibility to ensure that literary criticism in Guyana
does not become a wrestling match over the mundane topic of West
Indian identify or worse, racism.
In speaking of racism, let him read without prejudice as
he tries, like Whitman, to “arrive at the meanings of poems”; nor
should he complain of books written by
“dead white men.” Let him be willing to imitate great writers—copy
their techniques until he arrives at his own. He cannot subscribe
to the “division of man” (Walcott), but must replace his tendency
to debate whether dialects/Creole or Standard English is to be used,
with the culturing of his writer’s instincts. When he becomes an
accomplished writer, it will come naturally for he would recognize
what his characters and scenes demand.
Writing is an
unforgiving task that leaves no room for small mercies, no place
for bribery as in politics or law. While we have no prestigious literary magazines
or grants, he must begin to reshape his world by using what is available.
Let him study the various art types and artists’ styles; music,
cinema, art, dance, and photography, from Goya to Lata Mangeskar
to Miles Davis to Satyajit Ray to A.J. Seymour to Bernadette Persaud.
All art forms feed off of each other, as do artists. The Raj Kapoor
bum character we meet in the movie, “Shree 420,” originated in Charlie
Chaplin’s famed screen character, the Little Tramp.
he is celebrated overseas in a market that is welcoming now to “world”
literature, the local writer can pose no threat
to anyone anywhere. He may begin his rebirth by reading Soyinka’ s “The
Interpreters,” (novel), William Blake’s “Marginalia,” and the following
essays, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition
and the Individual Talent,” and Walcott’s “What the Twilight Said:
An Overture.” And in time, when he has become properly imposed
on our imagination, making reading more than an event of turning
newspaper pages, and possibly, rescuing his countrymen from the
suicide claws of their leaders, the local writer will get his Prize—and
much more. If he is up for the challenge, let him remember part
of the epitaph China’s greatest leftist writer, Lu Hsun, wrote for
himself; “The role of the writer is to criticize…I have only a pen
and it is not for sale.”
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