by Rakesh Rampertab

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 literary figure.

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.

Until 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.”        <<< Page X                                                                        Page X>>>                       

Oct 10 , 2002
© 2001