A Serious Need for Literature in Guyana
by Rakesh Rampertab

IT is refreshing that an exhibition of V.S. Naipaul’s works was staged at the Berbice campus of UG. Those responsible ought to be congratulated. Of course, I hope this exhibition spreads to schools and libraries, and that literary exhibitions of work of writers from Guyana (e.g., pioneering figures like A.J. Seymour and Rajkumarie Singh) the West Indies shall become a norm. The restoration of literature (and art and music) to some sort of cultural existence is essential if any substantial socio-political reform is to occur in Guyana.  

Our literary lacking is reflected almost everywhere; in “international” athletes and members of parliament who cannot speak properly, in foreign affairs officers who cannot converse about local fiction with foreigners, in the numerous overseas-based Guyanese who have won the Guyana Prize for Literature, in the psychological disregard for English literature as an “English B” CXC subject, in our media reports, and even in the redundant references to “Miguel Street” and “Animal Farm” amongst so many—the extent of our literary background, a rather ridiculous position that exists feebly between political tragedy and social comedy. 

There is nothing to fear in literature. On the contrary, most great works of literature aim at reform, and we are in desperate need of reforms. Those who complain of books written by or for the “white” man, have a universe of “world” literature to select from; Soyinka, Tagore, Kincaid, Rushdie, Ngugi wa Thionga, Narayan, et cetera. Some of these authors should be distributed in our schools along with the "usual" Shakespeare. Literature is not the reason that parents insist on their children to seek careers in any field but the arts, or for students with 5 O’ Levels ending up as money handlers on “Wall Street,” or for people being afraid to break from the PPP-PNC loophole of eternal suffering. The same attitude that operates here also operates in our disregard for the importance of our artists and writers.

Perhaps the following helps to explain, partially, our unwillingness to be different, to accept odd or drastic changes, and our anti-literature attitude; that we are mostly descendants of two races that had little “literary” cultures of writing or reading. There were strong oral traditions and sacred readings, but not a culture of creative writing or a great history of libraries. Derek Walcott once advised West Indian writers not to believe in the “division of man,” in deciding whether English or a local vernacular is best for their writings. Walcott, of course, is steeped in the benefits of classical and what some refer to as “imperial” literature. One of the reasons why “great” nations are as such is their wiliness to allow choices, even if it means having a tradition constructed out of those belonging to another people. 

Economic woes should not be reasons for not having cultures of serious reading (beyond mere newspapers) and writing (more than letters). In poor Latin American nations, literature has not been nailed on a cross by peasants, but lives in Cervantes and Marquez and Neruda. They know that a hungry, educated peasant is fitter to face challenges than a starving idiot. This is why the Public Library building is more important than Parliament building or the Bank of Guyana. A government can be replaced, money borrowed, but literary knowledge cannot be loaned or usurped. But we are not concerned with knowledge, but only money, and this creates pomp instead of humility in our thinking. Literature, thus, is a threat because it forces us to confront our hypocrisies; it shows us how pathetic we are even with a little money in our pockets.

In our case, it is asking; “If you’re not backwards, then how progressive is not having a public library on the East Coast/Bank or West Coast/Bank of Demerara, some 35 years since independence?” It continues; “How come you don’t have more than 2 or 3 books stores, none of which offers books and novels you considers as written ‘for’ and ‘by’ you?” Finally, it ends, “If your desire is not to be described as being backward, you must prove that such descriptions are not rightfully deserved. Until then, such descriptions will hinge on the truth, and the truth is, as always, a hard verdict to readily dismiss.” 

nov 17, 2001 [Reprinted from
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