Saturday, January 18, 2003

Ruel Johnson is the youngest nominee for the 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature. What's remarkable is not just his age — twenty-two — but the fact that he's been nominated in two categories, Best First Book of Poetry & Best First Book of Fiction, in both cases for unpublished manuscripts, which he submitted to the Prize committee "to make a point". A few days ago the Stabroek News published a substantial interview with Johnson, the first in a series on this year's Guyana Prize nominees. (Read the whole interview here — appears to be a permalink.) Johnson has strong opinions on the state of Guyanese literature, & has not been shy about declaring them loudly, with the result that he's become something of an enfant terrible in Georgetown's literary circles:

Stabroek News: How do you view the work of local and overseas writers since the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature? Do you agree that local writers don't usually win because of mediocre work?

Johnson: ...As is common knowledge, the Prize goes mainly to overseas Guyanese.... much of local writing is abominable, much of it makes for very painful reading. I edited the Christmas Annual in 2001 and was fortunate in attracting some genuine talent, but the fact that I felt that I had to add two poems and part of a story of mine as sort of glorified fillers shows that there simply wasn't enough good writing floating around the place. But good writing from emerging writers who are not afforded good editors, publishing houses, a literary environment, workshops, writing resources, alternative sources of income, etc. is not non-existent; I humbly prostrate myself as proof of that.

In my view, I do not believe the Guyana Prize should just spread its small net and hope that the occasional fish such as myself swims in. I believe that the people behind it, financially and administratively, should go after us with trawlers, submarines and sonar equipment. It should be investing in the environment, not just rewarding the individual. As it is now, the Guyana Prize may attract highly qualified judges, it may reward writers that are critical successes in the societies they live in; it however remains an award without that which nothing literary should be without — a soul....

Stabroek News: What are some of the limitations you face as a writer living in Guyana?

Johnson: Only one — Guyana. Seriously, many of the ones I mentioned earlier — workshops, resources. Most importantly is the interaction with as many other serious writers as possible. The best experience that I have had as a writer was at the Cropper Foundation Workshop in 2000. Three weeks with some wonderful people, writers, who were willing to challenge each other's work tenaciously to the dot in every "i", argue over the politics of homosexuality in the Caribbean, wrangle over the merits and demerits of globalisation — but friends, a community, with whom you could go out and enjoy a Carib and listen to the overplayed Bob Marley CD at the bar....

Stabroek News: How much do you think a nation depends on literature?

Johnson: I believe that a nation ... needs a constant mirror to its face, a lens which aspires to some coarse, soap-smelling truth perpetually focused upon itself. Otherwise our very identity, our sense of self, based upon our common experiences, is eroded. That for me, that function of reflection, is the role of the creative/artistic process, more particularly the role of literature.

Sadly, we here cannot claim of anything close to a national literature and what we have being rewarded as Guyanese literature (by the Guyana Prize) does not, indeed cannot, by virtue of the producers being resident elsewhere, perform that function of reflection. An essay I read recently on Anglophone Caribbean literature, written by Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press, makes the point that writers like Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar, both multiple Guyana Prize Winners, are, "in all essentials, British authors whose concerns grow out of British experience and whose readership is predominantly British." Poynting goes on to say that Caribbean societies, with a focus on Guyana, lack writings that really reflect contemporary life within them and that it is unhealthy for us to lack fictive reflections of our changing natures.
I believe that I've argued ad nauseam, gratis Stabroek News' letter pages, that we need to define Guyanese literature by virtue of a Guyanese sensibility. I believe that right now there is an urgent need for a "hic jacet" [Latin term: literally "here lies"] attitude in local literature, a renewed and conscious provincialism, an engagement with our landscape and society and people that is not ashamed of itself. The sort of thing is not, as some would have us believe, invalid in literature. It can be seen in the work of superior writers like Mauriac, Patrick White, Naguib Mahfouz, Toni Morrison. Somebody needs to sit down and start working on the Great Guyanese Novel.

(Note to Ruel: get cracking, then!)

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