It is impossible for Guyanese literature to develop outside Guyana

Stabroek News
June 12, 2001

Dear Editor,

Let me continue the debate on Wilson Harris by first stating that whatever opinions I express on Harris have to be taken as personal opinions and not as representative of The Janus Young Writers' Guild.

No writer ever "writes for himself." The mere act of putting pen to paper is a manifestation of the human desire to communicate an idea/thought/memory/emotion to an 'other' outside of the 'self'. Harris, if he had wanted to keep his writing private, would never have submitted a single manuscript to Faber and Faber.

And, accepting the idea that 'Guyanese' literature possesses a certain dichotomy, this does not detract from the fact that the half of that dichotomy that Harris exploits in his work is one that he is far removed from geographically and temporally. Beryl Gilroy once said that "Caribbean writers in Britain have to deal when writing about the Caribbean with a retrospective and increasingly unrepresentative view of reality of the places they call home." Wilson Harris is unapologetic in his continued misrepresentation of a living land as his own static dreamscape. Even our vast hinterland has undergone changes since Harris left. One other serious flaw in the argument that Harris' work belongs to one particular half of the Guyanese literary geographical dichotomy is shown when he uses Stabroek Market, Georgetown in Carnival (1985) and Albuoystown, Georgetown and New Amsterdam in Jonestown (1996).

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. To assert that Wilson Harris was born in British Guiana, grew up in British Guiana, left British Guiana and began writing out of Great Britain would not be hairsplitting chauvinism on my part; the point to be noted here is that the pre-independence zeitgeist and the post-independent zeitgeist were two vastly dissimilar 'spirits'. This might be most evident in the poetic art of Martin Carter who evolved from the angry British Guianese poet, raging against the injustices of the "oppressor", to the Guyanese poet, disgusted and disillusioned with the direction in which his country was heading. Wilson Harris, in accepting the anachronistic misnomer of "Guyanese writer" has chosen to [mis]represent a society, a people and indeed a landscape that he is almost completely detached from personally. To label Harris, as some have, as a Guyanese/Universal novelist is to falsely imply that he has, in his work, engaged in some deep and meaningful dialogue with , some profound and continuous exploration of, Guyanese society, the people and landscape, though which he transcends to the plateau of Universality. What Harris has done, from Palace of the Peacock to Jonestown, is to concoct his own 'universal' plane and then selectively used his personal 'dream-map' of Guyana for simple reference' sake. To accept Harris' 'Guyana', a Limboland in which he can randomly stage his metaphysical melodramas, is to deny the course of our history, the essence of our struggle for independence, indeed our own self-assertion, pathetic as it has yet proven to be, as a nation. It is to deny ourselves.

Wilson Harris, for all his talk about engaging history in order to confront the naked and terrifying past, could not bear to stay here and face the naked and terrifying present, one which Martin Carter faced fearlessly, that was pre-independence British Guiana. Harris chose to bury his head in the sands of time.

As an author, as a person, it is Harris' prerogative to inhabit whatever Fantasia his mind takes him to. My concern is the attitude of what Robin Muneshwer calls Guyana's "emasculated" literary society to Wilson Harris and indeed most expatriate writers; this stupefied awe. If any intelligent person , living in Guyana and concerned with its literature, were to approach Harris's oeuvre with a truly open mind and a truly critical eye he/she would be able to see it for what it really is; Harris' self-criticism is merely a palliative for his literature which happens to be a palliative for his 'philosophy' which, on its own, would prove a very hard pill to swallow.

Guyana at present is facing a double crisis. Firstly, thirty-five years after independence, we are still a cleft nation. The majority of people here are still unable to see that spectral "other race" as essentially human. For the majority of the Guyanese population, this "other", (although subject to the same laws, injustices, climate, diseases), experiences a completely different reality. Politicians having virtually eroded our national pathos by distorting reality in their myopic bids to capture a certain demographic, the onus is now on our writers and artists to set the stage for a deeper, emotional intra-national dialogue through which our people can speak their own metaphysics of the mundane, sing the spirituality of a particular week of their lives. Our artists here have just begun to realise this; the proof is the current exhibition of contemporary Guyanese art at the National Art Gallery. It is time the literary society here catches up. It was a young Pakistani poet who urged that we should live in "the humanity of the moment, which is the only home of humanity." What is infinitely more difficult than any of Harris' ambitions of "encompassing history" (by neutralizing our particular place, time and people, relegating our representation as human beings to some "crude emphasis"), is to capture the ephemeral present, that humanity of the moment.

Secondly, in an increasingly hostile global environment, our humanity as a nation has as its strongest representation, figures coming out of WHO HIV/AIDS surveys, the UN Poverty Index and Amnesty International reports; i.e., the impoverished humanity of statistics, an expression of our humanity rivaled only by Harris' representation of our people. The single event that has had the largest global impact as representative of anything worthy of pathos coming out of the Guyanese landscape remains the Jonestown mass suicide. A tragedy Harris deals with in his latest book. An excerpt from a Caribbean Writer review of Harris' Jonestown reads,

"The novel is set in New Amsterdam, Guyana (formerly British Guiana), scene of the infamous 1978 Jonestown massacre, a human tragedy that serves as the concrete source of inspiration for the author's fertile imagination. Francisco , possibly Harris' alter ego, reflects that New Amsterdam, Guyana, stands as a decrepit memorial to "Spanish, French, Dutch, British colonization across the centuries.'"

Does anything more really need to be said? I am still to get a response from Frank Birbalsingh on the issue of the "huge picture-poster of Wilson Harris" at the New Amsterdam Public Library. It is time we writers here began to represent our own human reality to the rest of the world. It is time we began to explore, in our literature, our present situation; examine it closely, analyse the lives we live; and not depend on the detached, distant and clinical pontifications of [writers like] Wilson Harris. In our continuous self-abasement to Diasporic literature we are simply being complacent, lazy, deluding ourselves that there can ever be such a thing as a disembodied brain or mind or heart or soul. It is impossible for Guyanese literature, the strongest and most tangible manifestation of the Guyanese spirit, to develop anywhere outside of Guyana.

Finally, the Janus Young Writers' Guild was never formed with the intention of shutting the door on any writer, in or out of Guyana. In fact, implicit in the name "Janus" itself is the opening of doorways...for expression, for the mind. Its specific purpose is to open/reopen all the doors that were closed to the [young] Guyanese writer, living and writing the Guyanese reality. What Harris did was to shut the door to the Guyanese reality in literature for a generation of writers. Anything I write on Harris is simply in keeping with the 'door-opening' spirit of Janus, and should not be seen as some shallow act of iconoclasm for iconoclasm's sake,

"Nor to spite some winter-bitten novelist
praised for his accuracy of phlegm,
but for something rooted, unwritten
that gave us its benediction,
its particular pain..." (Derek Walcott, Hic Jacet)

Yours faithfully,

Ruel Johnson

President, The Janus Young Writers' Guild