Tuesday, January 21, 2003

In his "Arts on Sunday" column in the Stabroek News two days ago (yes, I'm a little late with this post...), Al Creighton replied at length to various criticisms of the Guyana Prize for Literature published recently in Stabroek's correspondence columns. Unfortunately, there's no permalink to Creighton's column (though you can read it here till next Sunday), & it's much too long to reproduce in full; but, for the sake of those of my half-dozen readers with a burning interest in Guyanese literary politics, I'll attempt to summarise by quotation.

The central issue, it seems, is the definition of Guyanese literature. "A writer, no matter how far flung his imagination, writes out of a particular place and time and the validity of his work is tested as it evolves, or fails to, with that particular time and place," argues young Ruel Johnson. "Guyanese literature ... cannot develop outside of a Guyanese sensibility, one that is in constant interaction with the people and the environment, one that relates through intimacy, not one that dictates through ignorance." In other words, Guyanese literature needs Guyanese writers actually living in their home country; but the list of past winners of the Guyana Prize is dominated by writers living elsewhere.

Creighton replies:

...Local writers feel that most of the awards have gone to foreign-based authors because something is wrong with the adjudication. The system of judging is accused of unfairness to local writers who claim that it becomes controlled by an incestuous clique of foreign-biased writers/critics. Moreover, the arguments continued, long residence, socialization and orientation overseas have rendered these persons incapable of producing or evaluating Guyanese literature....

Johnson ... remains guilty of imposing restrictions when he defines a Guyanese sensibility as "one which is in constant interaction with the people and the environment, one that relates through intimacy...". Here he returns to a notion previously visited that Guyanese writing must reflect the Guyanese environment and writers "in exile" who are not in "constant interaction" with it cannot produce Guyanese literature. Among the points raised by the local writers is the conviction that these exiles who are out of touch with the Guyanese landscape cannot reproduce it with any accuracy....

Guyanese literature is not limited to works set in Tucville or work that can reflect from intimate contact the subtle ethnic dimensions of an East Indian visiting his Black girlfriend in contemporary Buxton [references to two of the stories in Johnson's Guyana Prize-nominated fiction manuscript]. It may be about a Guyanese trying to relate to his Canadian neighbours in Toronto. It may be about the identity crisis facing a British born girl of Guyanese parentage in London who has never visited Guyana. One can say that Guyanese literature is literature written by Guyanese set anywhere on any subject in any style. It may be written by or about Guyanese at home or in the "diaspora" or it could be about a trip to the moon. A poem about the tragic state of humanity does not have to be set anywhere except somewhere within the ambit of human experience, yet, if written by a Guyanese, it is a Guyanese poem.

Debates of this nature have long ago taken place about West Indian literature and the clear consensus has been that we should be wary of prescriptions. Edward Baugh discusses the development of the poetry from the early imitative variety to the attainment of verse that is independent and fully aware of its own audience. What is important is that it speaks to that audience as confidently as it does to the international community without any self-consciousness about identity. None of the writers say consciously that I am going to write a West Indian poem or this one is going to be international. They simply write whatever they wish, placing no limitations on their language or subject, not caring if any Englishman or American does not understand the Creole.

A key component of the debate is the significance of Wilson Harris, who most would call Guyana's greatest living writer, though Johnson believes he "shut the door to the Guyanese reality in literature for a generation of writers". I'd love to wade into this particular fray, but, as I admitted a few weeks ago, I've always found Harris pretty much unreadable (which has nothing to do with whether or not he's "Guyanese enough"). A couple years back I picked up C.L.R. James's little pamphlet called Wilson Harris — A Philosophical Approach — the text of a lecture James gave at St. Augustine in 1965 — & after reading two or three pages felt properly frightened off from Harris for the rest of my life. But perhaps the time has come to clear my thoughts, practise meditative breathing, take a week's holiday from the office, & make another try at Palace of the Peacock. But not till after A Box of Matches....

And, by the way, I don't agree that "a writer ... writes out of a particular place and time and the validity of his work is tested as it evolves, or fails to, with that particular time and place." The "validity" of a writer's work, as a work of literature (as opposed to politics or polemic or whatever else), depends solely on its aesthetic achievement. We don't quiver at Shakespeare because his plays "evolved" with Jacobean England. We quiver at his words. The words are enough.

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