Monday, December 23, 2002

The 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature shortlist has been announced; interesting to note that the judges have decided no entries in the Fiction & Drama categories were strong enough to make the final cut. Here's the list with notes as published in yesterday's Stabroek News (no link because Stabroek has no permanent online archive):

For Best Book of Poetry
Fred D'Aguiar: Bloodlines (Chatto and Windus)
Michael Gilkes: Joanstown (Peepal Tree)
Sasenarine Persaud: The Hungry Sailor (Tsar)

For Best First Book of Poetry
Stanley Greaves: Horizons (Peepal Tree)
Ruel Johnson: "The Enormous Night"

Best Book of Fiction
These entries in particular, stood out in this category: Arnold Itwaru's Home and Back, Churaumani Bissundyal's The Game of Kassaku, and Cyril Dabydeen's My Brahmin Days. However, in light of the very high standards associated with the Guyana Prize, the judges felt that no entry stood out with sufficient distinction for a prize to be awarded. It was felt that the best among these had significant flaws despite their powerful evocation of the writers' concerns and their sometimes detailed and moving descriptions.

For Best First Fiction
Deryck Bernard: Going Home & Other Tales (Macmillan)
Ruel Johnson: "Ariadne and Other Stories"
Andrew Jefferson-Miles: The Timeherian (Peepal Tree)

While two of the entries for drama contained many elements of merit, the judges did not feel that they were of such a standard to warrant a prize.

The Books
Bloodlines (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000)
Fred D'Aguiar was the winner of the first Guyana Prize for Poetry in 1987. Since then he has won twice in the prose category, with the Best First Book in 1994 and the Best Book in 1996. Bloodlines is a "verse novel" set in slavery in the American South, a subject D'Aguiar has been researching and on which he has already written two prose novels. It is a long poem, ambitious in its portrayal of the brutality of slave society, and poignant in its commitment to retrieving humane values. The author is an accomplished craftsman and a rewarding poet who attempts elaborate styles, not all of which quite work.

Joanstown (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Michael Gilkes, who returned to live in Guyana a year ago, won the Guyana Prize for Drama in 1992. He is known for his extensive work in the theatre and in film and as a leading authority on Wilson Harris. When one gets past the Walcott influence in Gilkes' work, Joanstown is a most accomplished collection; a lyric sensibility of a logical order. It powerfully conveys a sense of place in its detailed portrayal of Georgetown, and is a compelling evocation of a life-long love of the city and of Joan Gilkes. He plays on her name as he does with the notion of "Georgetown" and the infamous "Jonestown" for which Guyana has come to be known.

The Hungry Sailor (Toronto: Tsar, 2000)
Sasenarine Persaud has on a number of occasions been shortlisted for the Guyana Prize in both poetry and fiction. He is more acclaimed for his poetry, which has definitely matured, particularly in his two most recent collections, The Wintering and Kundalini, and in The Hungry Sailor. The latter has an admirable variety of subject matter and interesting poetic treatment of diasporic experience. He weaves between various locations such as his native Guyana, his adopted homes Toronto and Florida, as well as his spiritual compass, the Hindu Heartland of India, which exude his own sense of place and placelessness.

Horizons (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Stanley Greaves is best known as one of Guyana's most accomplished artists, who lives in Barbados. A painter, sculptor and musician, he describes himself as "a maker of things," and these things now include his first full collection of verse, Horizons. But he has been making poems throughout his career. This well-ordered book contains a powerfully metaphoric poetry deeply rooted in a painterly imagination. It is a considerable achievement.

"The Enormous Night" (unpub MS)
Ruel Johnson is now experiencing a rising career as a writer of prose and poetry. He was the leader of the Janus Young Writers Guild and edited the Chronicle Christmas Annual 2001. "The Enormous Night" is a collection that shows great promise and real engagement with the craft of poetry. There is a strong Walcott influence and a general literariness which rather calls attention to itself, but he is very talented and manages to venture courageously into formal explorations.

Going Home and Other Tales (London: Macmillan, 2001)
Deryck Bernard has already established himself in many fields. He is an accomplished musician and singer, has served the nation as a Minister of Government and is now a Member of Parliament. He is an academic, a geographer and a University Dean. His strong artistic orientation has inevitably led him into fiction and Going Home and Other Tales is very much autobiographical. It is a well-constructed collection which deals engagingly with childhood in colonial Guyana. His prose is very "clean," un-showy and assured, although his tales often lack a satisfying ending.

"Ariadne and Other Stories" (unpub MS)
Johnson's "Ariadne and Other Stories" is, perhaps, more obviously driven by autobiography, but exhibits undeniable talent. Although the range of his subject matter is rather limited, this is an impressive first collection in which the author is seriously engaged in exploring the potential of the short story.

The Timehrian (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Andrew Jefferson-Miles, Guyanese by birth, is also a poet and a visual artist who is currently a researcher at the University of North London, UK. The Timeherian is an ambitious and challengingly experimental novel. There is an unmistakable Harris influence in this book, but it is compellingly thought-provoking.

Of primary interest is the 2002 Jury's announcement that no prize will be awarded in two of the five categories, viz Fiction and Drama. This will be the first time in the history of the Prize that this has happened in Fiction, which, for most of the years, emerged the strongest category. In 2000 only one of the plays entered in the Drama category was selected for the shortlist, and that was the winner, Paloma Mohamed's Father of the Man, while there was a similar occurrence in Poetry on one occasion. In 1996 the Best Book of Poetry, Grace Nichols' Sunrise, was the only one shortlisted. Poetry, which has always had the largest number of entries, seems to have had no such difficulty this year.

The second significant observation returns us to the issue of an imbalance between the local and foreign-based writers each time shortlists and winners have been announced. This has led to much controversy. In this context, it is significant that of the eight shortlisted entries, four are by local writers this year. Of note also in this context is that a local writer, Ruel Johnson, appears on both the Poetry and Prose shortlists with unpublished first collections. This is a first for any local writer and the first occasion on which any of them has had two unpublished manuscripts nominated. Rooplall Monar came close in 1987 with his fiction, Backdam People, on the shortlist and his poetry, Koker, highly commended. Overseas-based writers, David Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar, have, in the past, appeared on both poetry and prose final lists.

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