New writers' body launches four books at State House
by Linda Rutherford
September 3, 1998
LAST Friday evening saw the unprecedented launch of four new titles as well as the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists (AGWA) at State House, official residence of the President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.
The Association, whose main objective is to promote Guyanese literature and art and to create the environment conducive to their development, was founded this May through the combined efforts of Mr Rooplall Monar and Mr Roopnandan Singh. The former is a writer of some acclaim, both locally and internationally, and the latter is just beginning to blossom.
The four new publications are `Sky Dance', a collection of poems from the works of 12 Indo-Guyanese, five of them women, in honour of the Late President Cheddi Jagan; Roopnandan Singh's `Roll Play', a novel depicting the harsh realities of 1970/1980s Guyana as they affected the lower class; `Mosaic', a selection of poems from Roopnandan Singh and Rooplall Monar; and the controversial `Ramsingh Street', a collection of short stories by Monar.
President Janet Jagan, in her feature address at the event, said the recent resurgence of literature reminded her of a period in the country's history when she was fortunate to have been close to the likes of Martin Carter, who epitomised the most what was happening in the society. Other writers of that time were Wilson Harris, Jan Carew and Peter Kempadoo.
Describing the late 40s and the early 50s as an exciting period, President Jagan said not only was there a blossoming of literature but also the visual arts. At the political level, there was, too, the emergence of the independence movement when feelings about the revolutionary changes taking place in the society ran so deep that they were reflected in the art of the day.
Noting that she had since lost count of the number of book launchings she has attended in the last few years, President Jagan said the one striking factor is that "there has again been a flowering of the arts".
It does not matter, she said, whether they are great, mediocre, works of art, or just the beginning of a career in the field. What does matter, the President said, is that people's minds are blossoming, for during this period there has also been a renewal of many things, one of which is the spirit, after years of suppression. "...it's as if the bonds have been broken and there is this burst now expressed today and in the last few years with one book after another; some fiction, some research, some autobiographical works", she said.
Optimistic that reading, which is felt in some quarters to be on the verge of being a lost art, will survive in spite of the advent of the television, President Jagan said not only is it one of the great pleasures in life but that reading is also one of the greatest forms of acquiring knowledge.
Mrs Ameena Gafoor, whose brief remarks reflected some of the President's sentiments, opened by complimenting AGWA on its formation at what she feels is a "crucial juncture of our history". The juncture is crucial in the sense that while on the one hand "we struggle with economic freedom and political reform, on the other is the threat to our cultural identity, right in our very living rooms, from western television programmes like `The Young and the Restless' and `Days of Our Lives'.
While there are invaluable lessons to be learnt about human behaviour from these `soaps', Gafoor contends, one has to learn how "not to copy wholesale the cultural imperialism which threatens us".
Recalling the same period as did Mrs Jagan and the political and other changes it brought about, Gafoor said "I feel that this re-grouping of a literary core is a good thing, for while I am aware that there are associations connected with the other art forms, especially theatre, I am not sure that a grounding exists for those of the literary bent".
Ideally, she said, she would like to see Guyana arrive at a stage where literature is taught at every conceivable school in the country because of the power it has to help one find oneself, attain a sense of identity, reclaim some of one's devalued cultural forms, and find creative ways of resolving some of life's daily problems. It is in these works, she said, that such issues as race, class, gender, adolescence and growing up are portrayed, resolved, or sometimes not resolved.
Turning her attention to the controversy surrounding `Ramsingh Street' and a recent threat to torch the author's house, Gafoor, who holds a Masters degree in Literature from the University of the West Indies (UWI), said that to her mind, "if we can identify ourselves, others around us or aspects of society in a novel, then that novel has succeeded".
A good novel, she pointed out, seeks out truths; holds up a mirror in society wherein "we may see ourselves, and what we see in that mirror is supposed to shake us from our complacency".
It was truth, she said, that cost Nigerian environmentalist Ken Sara Wiwa and much closer to home Father Bernard Darke, their lives, and has Salman Rushdie still in hiding.
"Truth is something for which we sometimes have to die; something we have to come to terms with; something we cannot compromise," Gafoor said. "What literature does is disturb us; it disturbs in order to change consciousness."
The evening was punctuated by readings from all four publications by Gafoor; Singh; Mr Kit Nascimento; Ms Mavis Benn, one-time Mayor of Georgetown; and City lawyer Anande Trotman, among whose works are published in `Mosaic'. There were also two reviews, one on `Roll Play' by Mr David Ramdayal and the other on `Ramsingh Street' by acclaimed arts critic Mr Al Creighton. `Roll Play', according to its author, has been entered for the Guyana Prize for Literature this year.