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Stabroek News: This is the first time a local writer has had two works nominated for the prize in any category, and it is the first time that two unpublished manuscripts, by the same author, have ever been nominated in both categories as well. Is this, in itself, a reason for feeling a sense of accomplishment, and how do you feel, in general, about making the shortlists?
JOHNSON: I turned 22 last September, so, in general, I feel like I've been fortunate, as a relatively young writer, in having a perhaps very egotistical and ambitious venture pay off. I wanted to make a point that writers resident here - writing about here, with no metropolitan pressures by publishers milking an overseas niche market - can write critically successful books, something other than what we were in danger of being stereotyped as writing; I believe the phrase used was "popular literature", that is, a literature that has only a `plebeian' critical resonance. In a sense, I've accomplished my major task.
SN: As a first-time nominee, how confident are you about winning the Prize?
JOHNSON: I think I used up all my confidence in typing out the two manuscripts, printing them and submitting them to the Prize. I am up for two of the four prizes to be awarded this year so I suppose, statistically speaking, I am in the most favourable position relative to the other nominees. But, of course, other factors come into play.
SN: Stanley Greaves, Deryck Bernard and Andrew Jefferson-Miles: what chance do you think your manuscripts, `The Enormous Night' and `Ariadne and Other Stories' have against such illustrious names?
JOHNSON: I honestly cannot speculate. I haven't had a chance to read any of the others' work. I suppose it has to do with the critical perspectives from which the works have been approached by the jury.
Stanley Greaves is one of our more accomplished artists and hence he possesses a sort of critical base for his poetry, his other art so to speak; I am coming raw from reading, discovering Walcott and Neruda and trying to shake their respective styles from my head and pen, whilst at the same time, acknowledging their influences.
On the fiction, I think I have more control in the sense that I have found, more or less, my own voice emerging from the clamouring resonances of writers like Mukerjee, Naipaul, Stephen King (yes), a hundred writers now anonymous in my memory, but more importantly, Nabokov and Borges. This means that I am not quite ready to be placed within the post-colonial/modernist/structuralist/whatever mould and this gives my work a, perhaps, distinct disadvantage against Jefferson-Miles who, as the release says, indulges in an experimental and more importantly, `Harrisian' (may literature be saved from the permanence of such a coinage) mode. In both cases you can class me as the underdog.
SN: How did you choose the titles of your manuscripts?
JOHNSON: The fiction, `Ariadne and Other Stories' was named after the story within the collection which I had the most fun writing and which, I believe, has the least `parochial' scope of the all my stories. Within it, I wanted to accomplish a great many things, thematically and structurally. Thematically, I wanted to produce a story with as many subtle metaphors and allusions as I thought necessary with a running commentary as such on a literature of place; the importance and unpredictability of love and its role in the creative process; the essential poverty of plots that every writer has to deal with; and paradoxically the riches to be rewarded in fleshing out these few skeletal stories with your own particular situation; the impact of tourism; the literary iconography of writers resident here...I could go on. Structurally, I wanted to disrupt the whole theory of the 'physical' unity of the short story.
The poetry, `The Enormous Night', was taken from the Pablo Neruda poem, `El Tango Del Viudo' (The Widower's Tango), a poem that deals with the emotional aftermath of a passionate and destructive affair. The particular line reads "Maligna, la verdad, quT noche tan grande, quT tierra tan sola!" (Oh Evil One, really, what an enormous night, what a solitary earth!") The poem is the over-arching emotional influence of the anthology.
SN: 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: I believe the Prize, and this relates more to its monetary value than to its rumoured prestige, has helped the winners to better their writing. As is common knowledge, the Prize goes mainly to overseas Guyanese.
On the aspect of mediocrity in local writing; 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.
SN: Would you describe your technique as original?
JOHNSON: I believe, as one Holy Book says, there is nothing new under the sun. My poetry is the ugly bastard of Kipling, Lord McCauley (The Keeping of the Bridge), Derek Walcott and Neruda. I have some pieces in which I feel I have radically enough modified some technique - the use of an abruptly blank space of paper, or a sort of `bracketed' rhyme scheme - but I often hear echoes of someone else, the ghost of some metrical ancestor, in much of my poetry.
I have more of a sense of `creation' when it comes to my fiction. The stories are there, but there are so many modes that I feel I can tell them in. I have no uniform concept when it comes to writing short stories and I try as much as possible to fuse form and function within them. I can have a seemingly meandering, wordy, pseudo-autobiographical story filled with personal jokes, almost hidden metaphors and allusions (a la Spring in Fialta or The Aleph), as the title story of the anthology, Ariadne, is; or I can indulge myself with the single-question one-pager, like another story in the anthology, Salvation.
SN: What would you say motivated your creativity?
JOHNSON: As far back as Primary Four, I felt that I had this urge to write. I think that the urge to communicate stories is a curse (some people use the euphemism `gift') that just floats around there and attacks you. What shapes your output depends on your individual experiences. In my case, I would say, initially, my social solitude growing up as a teenager at President's College, my personal sense of being an observer, and the relationship that fuelled the writing of `The Enormous Night'. Now, of course, I have other sources; my present girlfriend, my self-education, the society I live in slipping into Avernus.
SN: 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.
SN: Do you agree with one letter writer on the Prize, who said that "before he [the local writer] can win prizes, he must reestablish his role as a member of the society"?
JOHNSON: A pronouncement on that statement is hard to make. I believe whatever the writer, Mr. Rampertab, was trying to say should be drawn out from him at some other forum. Maybe if he reads this article he can clarify via another letter. I believe a writer's duty is towards Truth, an essentially human Truth, and he can only fulfill that duty if he engages with the society in which he resides, his environment. If that is what Mr. Rampertab means then I agree with him.
SN: How much do you think a nation depends on literature?
JOHNSON: I believe that a nation - that perhaps arbitrarily defined plot of earth the essence of which is at this time constantly besieged by the forces of globalisation - 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.
SN: Where do you see yourself five years?
JOHNSON: Hic jacet.
Deryck Bernard, the accidental author
(This is the second in a series of interviews by Kim Lucas with the nominees for the Guyana Prize for Literature.)
Deryck Bernard is an accomplished musician and singer, a Member of Parliament, an academic, a geographer and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Guyana. He wears several hats and now has one more for his head since last month he managed to make it on to the shortlist for the Guyana Prize for Literature.
Although he has written, academically, for several years, `Going Home and Other Tales', published in 2001 in London by Macmillan, is the former Minister of Government's first attempt at fiction writing. Arts critic Al Creighton says the book, "is a well-constructed collection, which deals engagingly with childhood in colonial Guyana." The prose is described as "very clean, un-showy and assured", a style Bernard lends to his admiration for writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham.
Stabroek News recently caught up with the professor at the Turkeyen campus.
The first thing I asked the Dean was how he started his career as a writer?
BERNARD: I don't have a writing career. I am a university lecturer and I write books and articles about geography and education and boring things like that. Since I left school, I had no writing experience in anything to do with fiction and poetry...But I do write music and the words for music and as far as I was concerned, I had no talent for fiction.
I only started writing because I was bored. I was on sabbatical leave from university, doing some consultancy work in Birmingham, Alabama and there weren't too many Guyanese around, so I had nothing to do in my spare time. The company had given me a laptop computer...and when I was bored in the evenings, I would write out some stories...This was in 1998.
But I used to write at school and some of the people I wrote with, people who were my colleagues in school, have gone on to become quite famous. People like Brian Chan...was a classmate of mine at school and he obviously was a great poet and a great writer. In fact we had a magazine that used to be published between the Sixth formers of QC, Bishops [High School] and Saints [Stanislaus]. And Brian Chan, John Mitchell were the QC people and Rosamond Duke from Bishops and from Saints Stanislaus was John Agard, who also went on to be a famous writer.
But in the company of those people, I was sure I had no talent and, therefore, I didn't embarrass myself...I wrote for that magazine, which was published in the late 60s and I had some poems which were published in that and in a QC magazine.
SN: So you started out writing mainly poetry?
BERNARD: Well, poems about all kinds of things, including a very rude poem about a market girl, which quite scandalised my mother. But I gave it up after I left school.
SN: What do you think are your chances of winning the Prize? You are going up against Ruel Johnson and Andrew Jefferson-Miles for the award of First Book of Fiction.
BERNARD: I don't know what the chances are. I am so pleased, first of all, that the book was published in the first place, because to have my first set of stories published by Macmillan in what is, in fact, a very prestigious series (people like Jan Carew and Alwyn Bully who are famous writers to begin with)...to have my book listed among them, was a pleasure. And then to have judges and critics put it on the shortlist, that is all I need. If I win the Prize, that would be icing on the cake. So I am not spending too much energy worrying about whether I win the Prize or not, because I feel quite happy that I have been given some kind of recognition that I can write. And a lot of very knowledgeable and experienced people, including many great writers, who have read the book, have called me to say they thought it has some merit. So I am quite happy. I am not approaching the Guyana Prize announcement with any trepidation. If I win, fine; and if I don't, I still feel that I have done more than I expected with just a few short stories that I did in my spare time.
SN: How would you view the work of local and overseas writers since the establishment of the Prize and, do you agree that local writers don't usually win because of mediocrity?
BERNARD: There are two points to bear in mind. First of all, I think the argument about local as opposed to foreign Guyanese is very unnecessary...I regard the Guyanese community, local or abroad, as part of the Guyana family. And the people who write as Guyanese abroad are most invariably writing on Guyana themes, Guyana perceptions, Guyana reflections, the Guyana sensitivity to life, the Guyana view. The real truth is that not a lot of Guyanese write for a serious audience. Not enough people write.
And secondly, it is very difficult to get published. The point about the world of literature, whether it is fiction or academic writing (which is what I do for a living) is that you have to face criticisms; you have to send your work to somebody and they are going to tell you that it is bad, and it is full of flaws and you have to revise it. You have to go through that critical process. But I think the disadvantage that local writers face is that they don't get a chance to go through that process. There isn't a publishing industry anymore that helps with that process. But if you think of the history of literature in Guyana we are such a small country and Guyana has had so many world-famous authors. When you travel abroad and tell people you are from Guyana, they either know Guyana because of its cricketers or they know Guyana because of its writers. Everyone knows about [Edgar] Mittleholzer and [Jan] Carew and Wilson Harris. Guyana is not famous because of its politicians, it is famous because of its great writers. There is something in Guyana that helps people to narrate, that helps people to articulate. And what we need is support...
I was lucky that I already had a relationship with a British publisher and therefore I knew someone to send my manuscript to...I can imagine if a young writer sends his script to a publishing house and gets no response, it could be very, very discouraging indeed.
We need to have, first of all, publishing. But we also need to get criticism. People need to read your work, comment on it and help you refine it. I think once that begins to happen, you are going to see improvement in the quality of literature.
SN: What are some of the other constraints you face as a writer?
BERNARD: The first problem you have is time to write. In many cultures, people can become writers and sit down at a table or desk with their typewriter or a pen and write for a living. In Third World countries, very often, if you try to do that you would starve.
In Africa, it is slightly different, in that a lot of the writers (I don't understand how they do it) but a lot of the famous early writers like [Chinua] Achebe and so on, were full-time people - were full-time teachers, university lecturers, public servants - and where they found the energy to write, I don't know. So that is the first problem, getting time to write. In most parts of the world...in the civilised world, writing is a full-time occupation.
The second thing is that publishers are not just people who send the book to the printers. The publishers will have critical experts who would advise you, help you through the process of finishing your work. Publishers will have someone who will read your work, and in many societies, the publishers give you an advance. They give you some money to help you to eat and pay your rent whilst you finish off what you are doing. We don't have that.
The third disadvantage that we face is that Guyana is not a reading society. The culture of reading has declined and therefore a writer who is trying to communicate his/her ideas or vision or imagination, has a difficulty knowing who he is writing to. Because if you are writing to the friends who don't read books, who spend all their life with tapes/Walkmans stuck in the ears and [with] the TV on in full blast, then you don't have an audience.
People don't buy books anymore. People don't read books anymore. It is a shrinking public.
The Guyanese who live abroad read books and secondly there is an audience who is interested in what Caribbean people/Guyanese people have to say. So you have a problem...You would probably find that most people outside of the Caribbean would have read Wilson Harris or Mittleholzer. The average Guyanese child wouldn't know who Mittleholzer or Harris is. But we need to recognise that there is a next stage from the Guyana Prize, which says we have, as a country, to put resources into making our people conscious of our literature. It is one of the most valuable things that we have.
SN: But don't you think that it is the role of the writer living here to ensure that this is done and not just sit and say well "we need to put this or that in place", but to actually help to mobilise these things properly?
BERNARD: Well, in every art form in which I participate, I hear that argument; but the truth is, very often people who are writers, or singers, or painters, are not usually the most organised people. God has given us the gift of singing or writing, but if you put those people to do other things, they are completely hopeless. There needs to be institutional support, that is why in literature, you have people who write and you have the editors and the publishers, who might not themselves be good writers, but who provide institutional support so that the person with the ideas could get a book out.
Some of the world's greatest writers can't punctuate their book. Some of the world's greatest musicians are the most disorganised people...No one has ever believed me that they have to accept the fact that artistic people are crazy (he laughs). So you very often find that artists need some publisher, some government, or state or funding institution or organisation to help them....But the other point that we need to bear in mind is that if a person discovers the gift of writing, he or she will write. But for the country to benefit you need that institutional support.
And that brings me to the point again of how a country is branded. We can be recognised because of our creative (side), but we don't recognise the value of that, in terms of what you have to invest in the artistic flowering of a country. It pays off, but we don't recognise that.
Since you say "Caribbean", they say "Calypso", they say "Steel pan". If you say "Jamaica", they say "Reggae" and it really doesn't matter who is the Prime Minister of Jamaica...But the world knows about Bob Marley. That is how you brand your country and there are economic benefits in people recognising your country. So we need that institutional support.
SN: Would you describe your technique as original and if so what would you say is responsible for your creativity?
BERNARD: I haven't tried consciously to copy any particular writer, but I tend towards a very spare and direct style. My writing is very economical and with the writers (both the novelist and short story people) that I admire...I like Hemingway's short stories, Somerset Maugham short stories, and those are people with a very spare style, who paint a very quick picture, who give you images like this to get to the point and, therefore, I couldn't write in the kind of flowery style, with elaborate descriptions other people use. I noticed in Mr Creighton's review, he criticised my stories for not having satisfying endings. And again that is, in a sense, a reflection of my personality. I like to get the picture across quickly and directly...
SN: What can you tell the readers about `Going Home and Other Tales'?
BERNARD: The stories fall into three categories. They are stories which have to do with reflections of childhood in Guyana in the 50s and 60s and therefore there are certain stories which narrate life from the perspective of a child.
Then there are stories which are reflections built around personalities that I recollect (they are not biographical). There is, for example, one called `Big Joe', which is about a famous character I knew in Kitty...There are stories which are more parables, they are more moral tales. `Going Home', itself, is a story about the whole pork-knocker experience...people leaving home, going into the bush...what kinds of horrors they encounter.
I have been told, and I agree, that there are two common trends that run through the stories. First of all, religion plays a lot of parts...The (characters) usually have a moral or religious view that comes out in the story and, I think that is a reflection of my own childhood experiences.
SN: Are you religious?
BERNARD: Yes and no, because I grew up in a religious environment. But I am a believing person and not a religious person. In fact, you will see from the short stories that the book is contemptuous of religion, as opposed to belief...or superficial religiosity, if you like. The religious people don't usually come off very well in the book, because the characters usually find hypocrisy there to highlight. So that is a trend and I did not do it consciously, but the critics told me that they see it there and I agree with them.
The other trend is a consciousness of the colour issues which are not as important now as they used to be when I was a young person. There are many references to the shades of blackness - Red people as opposed to Black people; Brown people, as opposed to Red people, which to many young people now sounds very rare. But in my childhood, people who were browner than others felt superior and behaved like that. People who were blacker than others felt inferior....I remember as a child, [a neighbour's] mother used to tell her she (the child) doesn't have to study at school, because "she done got she colour and she hair". That was something that was quite common in the '50s and '60s. That was part of (the book) That was not something I consciously did...
Andrew Jefferson-Miles... still dreams of Guyana
This is the third in a series of interviews by Kim Lucas with nominees for the Guyana Prize for Literature.
"An ambitious and challengingly experimental novel.. compellingly thought-provoking" - these were the sentiments expressed on Andrew Jefferson-Miles' first novel, `The Timehrian'.
Published in the United Kingdom last year by Peepal Tree, it has been short-listed for the 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature in the same category as Deryck Bernard's `Going Home & Other Tales' and Ruel Johnson's `Ariadne and Other Stories'. Who will win the award for `Best First Fiction'? The announcements will be made early in February.
The Guyanese-born Jefferson-Miles, also a poet and a visual artist, is a member of The Royal Society of Literature in London and has lectured at several universities around the world. He is a researcher at the University of North London and is currently a visiting professor in the US.
Although he doesn't admit as much, the plot of `The Timehrian' leaves one with the distinct impression that Jefferson-Miles venerates Wilson Harris' `Palace of the Peacock'.
In our continuing series on candidates for the prize, Stabroek News managed to reach the author in Orlando, Florida and via email he shared some of his thoughts with us.
SN: Is this your first nomination for such an accolade?
Jefferson-Miles: Yes, Kim, `The Timehrian' is my first novel and it is also my first full publication. As well as for the Guyana Prize, `The Timehrian' has been short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in London. That prize is awarded to a novel with a strong sense of place, and certainly there is a heightened sense of Guyana, the country, in my book. It is both a strange and happy coincidence that the remit of two such diverse prizes should join together so in the one book.
SN: Would you describe yourself as fortunate by making the shortlist?
Jefferson-Miles: An artist feels genuine gratitude when he can encounter a careful and appreciative reading; more so when such a reading engages the critical sensibility. There is an illustrious roll call of Guyanese authors, both at home and abroad, who stimulate admiration and debate in the academies of Europe and North America. It is a wonderful thing to find oneself in such company.
SN: What can you tell your readers about The Timehrian?
Jefferson-Miles: The title, The Timehrian, comes from the word `Timehri', which people associate with the site of [Guyana's international airport], and also, with Amerindian painting. The word has an Arawak root, covering the meanings: marked with the hand, painted with the hand, and painted with God's hands. The older generation will recall the mural at Timehri airport, painted by Aubrey Williams. In the book, Leon-Battista Mondaal (the fictional writer of `The Timehrian') is the Timehrian's `painted-with-all-colours' name.
The fictional survivor of a freak tidal wave off the Atlantic in 1984 that inundates the East Corentyne Coast villages of Manchester, Liverpool, and Lancaster and carries away the lives of 2000 souls into the sea, Leon-Battista enters a kind of ark in order to survive. It is not a straightforward biblical ark but altogether a much more dangerous, indeterminate thing. He enters a providential ark of DEFERRED rescue. That is to say, Leon-Battista is not rescued straight away. His rescue is brought forward 18 years in the future to 2002, as well as, hooked back 18 years in the past to Independence Year, 1966. He must make a quantum tunnel between both exit points in order to emerge. In doing so, he catches the threads, the breaths, the progenitor of the country.
`The Angel's Mouthpiece' is the title of the first half of the book and is a fictional visualisation of the Christmas Eve Masquerade that used to be performed in the East Coast villages when my grandmother was a child in the 1920s; and indeed, my grandmother told me about it and that gave me one of my clues about the novel. `Alamivacar's Exit from the Night Bush' is the second part where Alamivacar is an Amerindian God of art, who comes for Leon-Battista in the night bush. Comes to mediate his rescue; a rescue sourced obscurely through the door of Independence Day, May 1966. Thus, there are many kinds of vessels that harbour survival, that make unwritten covenant.
Leon-Battista, does an uncanny thing. He has to recover a memory of Guyana, and to do so he goes up-country and lies down in a little house at 74a Government Housing Scheme, Wismar, Demerara. Now this used to be my grandmother's address when I was born. I lived in that house as a child for my first six years. My grandmother went on to build another house at Wisroc and became a kind of community figure. People used to call her Mother Miller. So there is the contour in the book, of lying down to dream Guyana anew in my grandmother's tiny house, and being an infant and sitting on the doorstep and staring into the wide blue heaven. A conductivity exists between the dream of Guyana and the wide open heavens. The sky - the skyscape - is an aspect of the Guyanese imagination that has been less-well explored in fiction than the more readily appreciated landscapes of rainforest, interior, riverways, water catchments, and coastal villages. I wanted to visualize something of the seemingly uniform but equally powerful skyscape and the bearing it has on the imagination.
My own life and art have been guided by dreams of astonishing clarity that conduct an ongoing conversation with my art, on the SUBJECT of my art. The notable events of my past are almost all dreams - not people, not events, but dreams. They are how I remember my personal past; the landmarks in my past.
As one's `conversation' with the world of dream increases in acuity, so too does the range and scope of one's art; for dream is a mediation with the world and its hidden connectivity. It is an art that goes beyond mere intuition, for it arrives at the counter-intuitive within which is arrayed much that is to marvel at.
SN: Who is Andrew Jefferson-Miles and what are some of your other works? (Here, the author also touches on the debate about local writers versus expatriates who often win the Prize.)
Jefferson-Miles: It is not helpful to generalise. Every individual experience is particular and does not compare.
For instance, I left Guyana at the age of 9. My family left with me. I went to English schools and English universities; although my experience, I am discovering, is not at all as one might have anticipated. Out of my own pocket, I studied in Europe, in France, and Switzerland. The Jung Institute in Zurich was first to invite me to lecture (on mythology). My recent doctorate, in Creative & Critical Writing, is from the University of East Anglia in England. In the year 2000, on the strength of my first two publications, I was admitted as a member of The Royal Society of Literature in London. The past three years have seen me invited as visiting Professor of Creative Writing to American universities; and I am currently in the States, again at invitation. So little in my own life is as I would have predicted. That which we intended to embrace often proves a chimera. That which we once considered inattentively takes us to its heart and in turn provokes in us a change of heart.
My own experience is that Guyanese writers abroad speak with immense pride about their country and their fellow artists. They speak as if the artists were all in one big room and we are just turning around to point to this one or that one.
SN: How much do you think a nation depends on its literature?
Jefferson-Miles: A nation's literature enables it to think about itself in its own particular way without having to borrow or take out loans for the words and expressions of other nations. In Latin America, upon the geographical backbone of the continent, in Guatemala, Peru, Chile, poets are the culture's heroes. People elect them to the highest offices of state.
There is the belief that such people can be trusted. History shows that such trust is on the whole well founded.
A poet's words are won hard in the teeth of scorn, neglect, and ridicule. If people take a poet's words to heart, it is because such words prevail in a doubtful climate. In order to be taken to heart, such words have had to `keep their word'. I would like to see Guyana trust its poetic heart; trust its great imaginative gift; find its joy in that gift, for it is exactly in her imaginative life that Guyana proves herself foremost of almost any other people on the globe.
Stanley Greaves brings his craftsmanship to poetry
This is the fourth in a series of interviews by Kim Lucas with nominees for the Guyana Prize for Literature.
He is an accomplished painter, sculptor and musician. And today, while making his home in Barbados, Guyanese-born Stanley Greaves has turned his mind to poetry.
Greaves' first full collection of verse, `Horizons', published in the United Kingdom by Peepal Tree last year, is one of two works nominated for the award of `Best First Book of Poetry' in the run-up to the 2002 Guyana Prize For Literature. The other was Ruel Johnson's `The Enormous Night'.
In an online interview with Stabroek News, Greaves explained that he had been writing poems since he was a teenager. His work today is described as "well-ordered" and as "powerfully metaphoric poetry deeply rooted in a painterly imagination".
SN: Your only competition is Ruel Johnson. How confident are you about winning?
Greaves: I was never confident about winning. The idea of actually having a book of poems published was more on my mind.
SN: Since you are not confident about winning, would you say that being short-listed for the Prize, is in itself, an accomplishment for you?
Greaves: Yes, being short-listed is a kind of achievement.
SN: What can you tell your readers about `Horizons'?
Greaves: Most of the poems began with a line which, itself, was the result of something experienced visually or thought about. This can happen anytime, anywhere. One must be prepared. There are very few occasions on which I set out to write a poem. There is a condition of conscious overall crafting or "word-smithing" that is not present in poems that "arrive".
SN: You are described as a "maker of things". How difficult was it to create `Horizons', which has made the shortlist for `Best First Book of Poetry'?
Greaves: I am described as a "maker of things"...it is a self-description, based on activities I have been involved in since childhood to which others have been added. As I receive ideas or formulate concepts, there is the need to find the proper format for expressing them. This has created an ongoing interest in forms of things of which the writing of verse is one. In the visual arts - printmaking, sculpture, pottery - are activities that complement work done in painting. In a sense it was not difficult to create `Horizons'. The major problem was selecting a representative selection from the body of work I have been putting together for years.
SN: How do you view the work of local and overseas writers since the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature?
Greaves: It is interesting to see how writers deal with the themes they set themselves and how their efforts relate to the world of literature.
SN: Do you agree that local writers do not usually win because of mediocre work?
Greaves: This is not something I can answer seeing that I cannot access work that is submitted. The judges are in the best position to comment on this.
SN: Can you describe your technique as original?
Greaves: This has never been a consideration of mine. I would state that the technical aspect of writing, or any other activity, is to be seriously developed and practised if anything worthwhile is to be achieved. A statement of intent is not enough.
SN: What or who would you say motivated your creativity?
Greaves: Creativity is something you are born with and subsequently developed by one's own efforts, supported by the work or example of others.
SN: While you lived in Guyana, did you face any limitations as a writer and, if so, what are they and how were you able to overcome them?
Greaves: I faced the same limitations as others, which was the problem of getting work published. This, however, was not something on which I focused. I was too busy writing. There was a time when the group mentioned in my dedication (Martin Carter, Bill Carr, Michael Aarons, and Raymond Mandal) met weekly to read and discuss each other's writing.
SN: You mentioned discussing poetry with the likes of Martin Carter, Bill Carr and Michael Aarons. How much are you influenced by their style, especially Carter's?
Greaves: I have never been particularly influenced by the style of anyone, although I was attracted to the English Metaphysical Poets and did find the French Symbolists, Jean Rimbaud, in particular, of great interest, followed by the highly imaginative work of Jorge Borges of Argentina and Cesar Vallejo of Peru. In spite of the limitations of reading translations, the thing that attracted me was the manner in which form and content must work together. Just following a particular style is meaningless. The work of Martin Carter - his imagery, metaphysical content and scrupulousness in word usage - satisfies what I need to find in poetry. Within the group mentioned (Carter, Carr, Mandal, Aarons) all kinds of issues related to life and the pursuit of the arts were discussed, along with reading each other's poems.
SN: Based on your experience, is there scope for writers living in Guyana?
Greaves: Writers will live and work anywhere. If by "scope" you mean reaching a reading public, then the problem of publication arises. It is difficult if not impossible for creative artists to earn a living through marketing their work in a small population.
SN: One letter writer on the Prize said, "before he [the local writer] can win prizes, he must re-establish his role as a member of the society." Do you agree with this view and why or why not?
Greaves: I don't quite understand the statement quoted. The `local writer' is already a member of the society. If he or she is being asked to "re-establish" their role in society, one must ask what was the nature of the role that was lost that needs re-establishing. The true reason for writing is certainly not the winning of prizes.
SN: How much do you think a nation depends on its literature?
Greaves: This depends on the character of the culture of the nation. Writing, reading and listening to poetry was an important activity of dynastic China. In countries of Islamic culture these activities are still important. In the 19th serious century poets in Europe also enjoyed a high profile. Pushkin, whose father was black, was revered as the voice of Russia.
SN: You said your writing started as a teenager. What motivated you back then?
Greaves: As a child, I enjoyed reading and my interest in creating things naturally led me to writing. I did try writing short stories, but soon realised that what I wanted to say did not fit that format. I preferred the condensed imagery of poetry.
SN: Who is Stanley Greaves?
Greaves: Who am I? This is a question which I have been asking myself daily.
SN: When I asked, `Who is Stanley Greaves?' I meant, where were you born, where did you grow up, how old are you? Are you married with children? Who were your mentors growing up?
Greaves: I was born in 1934 and lived in Georgetown. I attended Sacred Heart School and St. Stanislaus College and I also taught at both institutions. My major activity is in the visual arts and I was a member of Burrowes' Working People's Art Class, where I received the most important part of my education in art. I did study art in the UK and USA but found that I learnt more by visiting museums.
My mentors were E.R. Burrowes in art, Hylton Lewis the art of teaching and Martin Carter in his approach to morality in life and in work. My ongoing mentor has always been the love of reading, particularly in the history of ideas, scientific discoveries and the history of cultures and civilisations.
SN: What is next for Stanley Greaves?
Greaves: What is next for me is to carry on with my activities.
Dr Michael Gilkes - self-professed Mudhead
(This is the fifth in a series of interviews by Kim Lucas with the nominees for the Guyana Prize for Literature.)
Ten years ago Dr. Michael Gilkes won the Guyana Prize in the Drama category. Can he do it again this time with a collection of poems called 'Joanstown'?
Gilkes, described as a leading authority on Wilson Harris, is competing against Fred D'Aguiar and Sasenarine Persaud for the award of `Best Book of Poetry'. The announcements will be made on February 9.
He returned to Guyana a year ago and has worked extensively in the theatre and in film. Speaking on 'Joanstown', Prize Administrator Al Creighton wrote: "When one gets past the Walcott influence in Gilkes' work, 'Joanstown' is a most accomplished collection; a lyric sensibility of a logical order. It powerfully conveys a sense of place in its detailed portrayal of Georgetown, and is a compelling evocation of a life-long love of the city and of Joan Gilkes. He plays on her name as he does with the notion of 'Georgetown' and the infamous Jonestown for which Guyana has come to be known."
With his wit alive and kicking, Dr. Gilkes gave an interview to Stabroek News, which ended on a pleasantly surprising note.
Stabroek News: Your work was nominated in the same category as Fred D'Aguiar's `Bloodlines' and Sasenarine Persaud's `The Hungry Sailor' - both experienced writers in the area of poetry. How confident are you about winning?
Gilkes: In my view, the Guyana Prize is the most prestigious literary award in the region. But the point isn't really about winning. No, I really mean that. It's about your work being judged by your peers as good enough to be considered for the Prize. Of course, winning any award is a great feeling; but winning the Guyana Prize must kick that feeling up another notch, as Emeril would say.
SN: Your poem, `Joanstown', undoubtedly plays on a part of Guyana's history for which it is known. What more can you tell your readers about it?
Gilkes: The title of my collection is `Joanstown and Other Poems'. It's not one long poem. Yes, the name is a pun on the tragic Jonestown affair for which Guyana has, unfortunately, become famous, or infamous. But the collection celebrates and remembers that other Guyana, an earlier time when Georgetown was the "garden city" of the Caribbean. The time of my childhood, growing up in Georgetown, and my marriage to Joan McDavid. Woman and town are interwoven in the title, as they have been in my life.
SN: How much does your knowledge of theatre influence the shaping of the poem?
Gilkes: My life-long work in theatre and now in film, like my teaching, has shaped everything I do. Theatre, film and teaching are community-orientated. One works within a group, a small community drawn from the wider community, to produce work reflecting the community-at-large. Poetry, by contrast, is a private activity. Yet it emerges out of one's experience of community life from which it derives its substance and imagery. There are many theatre-related images in the poetry: scenarios that suggested themselves as I wrote.
SN: How much of Walcott's style has influenced your writing?
Gilkes: Derek Walcott's Caribbean-grown genius has changed the direction and shape of world poetry in English. That's how important I believe his poetry is. He's the Caribbean's Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, WB Yeats all rolled into one. How can one not be influenced by his work? But there are themes and ideas that are universally true and common to all of us. Growing up in a fantastically rich gene pool under a colonial cloud, first love, the discovery of poetry and the arts as "another life". There's a hinterland to Walcott that we all share, and his shadow may be huge, but it's a benign shadow.
SN: Do you agree that local writers do not usually win because of "mediocre" work?
Gilkes: Have local writers continued to have less success than overseas writers? If that has been the case in the past, I'm not sure that it's true any more, though I don't really know the facts. The competition is open to all Guyanese writers at home and abroad. For all I know, there may be more Guyanese writers abroad than there are at home. So there will be more entries from abroad. In any case, the standard of writing submitted (as in all competitions) will vary from poor to excellent in either category. I don't think it's a question of mediocre work in local writers. There is surely mediocre work among writers abroad. The judges have to decide on the merits of each of the works submitted, and I must assume that the standard used is the same for both local writers and those living abroad. Certain concessions are made, quite properly, to local writers, but that has to do with the practical difficulty of publication, format and so on. Not the quality of their work.
SN: What, or who would you say motivated your creativity?
Gilkes: Two things come to mind. Malaria and my English teachers. I had tertiary malaria as a boy, and that meant being home ill in bed with fever and ague on most weekends. That's how the malaria cycle worked. I was fine during the week. My father bought all kinds of books for me to read while I was marooned in bed, and I became an omnivorous reader. I was lucky with my English teachers. All through my school life I had creative English teachers. Forbes Burnham (Guyana's first Executive President) was my first form class teacher. It was he who first made me aware of the excitement and joy of language and writing, which I have never lost. He had a genuine love of the arts which he communicated to his students. Yes, my teachers gave me a great start. The experience I gained in theatre arts was also crucial. Creativity, I believe, is centred in language and the performing arts.
SN: Based on your experience, is there scope for writers living in Guyana?
Gilkes: Creative writers will write wherever they find themselves: that is the nature of their creative urge. It's the same for all creative artists whatever their discipline. But you asked about the scope for local writers. What's needed, I think, especially in a depressed economy like ours, is encouragement in a practical form.
Writing workshops with visiting artists, writing seminars, attendance at conferences on creative writing, meeting and exchanging ideas with established writers, the opportunity to browse in well-stocked libraries and bookshops.
These are some of the things that locally based writers have less access to than their foreign-based counterparts. Money spent in making these things possible would offer tangible practical help and encouragement and would help local writers in the development of their ideas and techniques. But they will keep on writing and improving their talents anyway. For a creative writer, writing is a virus for which there is no known cure.
SN: How much do you think a nation depends on its literature?
Gilkes: The trouble is most nations tend to regard their literature, their writers and artists, as an "extra", something useful at festivals and "cultural events"; something to be put on show, hosted by the tourist boards. The Minister of Culture in one of the Caribbean islands once referred to a conference on literature his government was hosting as `a literacy conference'. We still think of creative writing as impractical. Literacy yes. Literature, we're not so sure about. The first time Derek Walcott visited Guyana (the U.G. students were staging one of his plays, myself directing) the Immigration officer asked him what he did for a living. "I write poetry" Derek replied. "Yes. O.K." the officer went on, "but what work you does do?" The writer tends to be seen as an interesting irrelevancy, like a sixth finger.
Fortunately, Guyana has always had a fairly healthy attitude to literature and the arts.
The inauguration of Carifesta in 1972 and since then the Guyana prize in spite of a poor GDP and difficult political and domestic problems are evidence of that. But we can't afford to be complacent or neglectful. We need to promote the creative arts in our schools, not merely teach "reading" and "writing". Literacy is the necessary first step towards developing a literature. And let our artists and writers know that they are valued. A nation is judged, finally, not on its GDP or its banking systems: it is judged on the quality and depth of its artistic and cultural life. And of course on its literature.
SN: What is next for Michael Gilkes?
Gilkes: Finding the funds to complete my Guyana film project "The Music of El Dorado".
SN: Who is Michael Gilkes?
Gilkes: I'm a Guyanese, a "mudhead" who has had a hell of a lot of luck. I've had the good fortune to have been born, grown up and lived all of my youth in Guyana. Travel abroad and in the greater Caribbean, university study, life in metropolitan countries as a teacher and dramaturgy have all served to expand my horizons and open up my experience of the world.
But in the end it is my heterogeneous, mudheadedness that makes me who I am: a neither proud nor ashamed Guyanese.