November 26, 2002
One of the greatest tragedies of Guyana’s ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s was the undermining of the educational system by chronic underfunding, understaffing, mismanagement and the migration of skilled teachers. The system was weakened, also, by being deprived of a supply of books caused by the closure of many bookstores, such as the Argosy, Central, Chronicle, Cosmopolitan, Fogarty’s, Midget and SPCK, which ceased functioning after restrictions were placed on foreign currency exchange.
The decline in book imports and the disappearance of the bookstores throttled the market for local books. Once a promising private sector enterprise and a vibrant state activity, the publishing industry came to a virtual standstill.
Not only books, but also periodicals, such as the Commercial Review, Guyana Times, Kaie, Kyk-Over-Al and New World Fortnightly, became infrequent, unpredictable or disappeared altogether.
Serious writers had to search for foreign publishers with the result that, when the Guyana Prize was launched in 1989, and ever since then, most of the best books came from abroad, Peepal Press being one of the better-known houses. More recently, the few academic books that deal with Guyana come from the Jamaica-based University of the West Indies Press and Ian Randle Publishers.
The Guyana Book Foundation (GBF) seems to have taken the initiative to contribute to the revival of publishing books by mounting a national bookfair.
This serves the admirable purpose of creating publishing opportunities, strengthening publishing skills and disseminating Guyanese books. And, like any other trade fair, it brings potential buyers and sellers together, an impossibility if vendors had no books to sell and buyers were not interested in reading.
Over the last 12 years since it was established, the Book Foundation played the role of a catalyst in publishing books, supporting Guyanese publishing enterprises and producing other reading materials for children. It also assisted in the distribution of locally-produced materials and conducted workshops for writers as a means of encouraging literacy in children.
Because of the dearth of local publications when it started, the Foundation was supplied with books, and funds, from the Canadian Organisation for Development through Education (CODE). This support enabled the Foundation to establish over two dozen community libraries, mainly in the rural and hinterland regions; to train and support 300 library assistants in library management; and to distribute over 400,000 books to nearly 500 schools. Now, the focus is on distributing local books where such are available.
By bringing together booksellers, libraries, schools, printeries, publishers and the general public, the Foundation provided another stimulus for the local book industry. Having done that, the Foundation’s biggest challenge will be to encourage enough adults - particularly parents in homes and teachers in schools - to buy or borrow books so as to inculcate the habit of reading in children.
This can happen only if books are accessible, enjoyable, cheap and plentiful, all very difficult without good writers, a viable publishing industry and a network of bookstores.
Fortunately, many Guyanese writers and academics who migrated continued to write and publish about themes and topics relevant to this country. Their books should find a reading outlet in the education curriculum and a ready market through the bookstores. A good way to stimulate serious publishing in Guyana may be for private and public sector agencies to consider printing the work of contemporary overseas-based Guyanese writers for distribution and sale in this country.
The Book Foundation came into existence at the end of a difficult decade when good books had become scarce. The bookfair, held earlier this month, demonstrates what could be done to restore books to the central position it once enjoyed in the Guyanese home, workplace and school.