The Guyana Prize: Promoting good literature Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
May 1, 2005

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The Guyana Prize for Literature was created to promote good literature in the Caribbean in general and Guyana in particular, to encourage the growth of the literature and to celebrate and reward the best of it. Questions have been asked about the extent to which any of this has been achieved since the establishment of the prize, and whether it has done anything to cause the development of writing in Guyana. But the real value of its contribution is yet to be thoroughly investigated and satisfactorily measured.

It is not difficult to see that as a developmental factor the Guyana Prize has a long way to go, and that there is much more for it to do if it is to improve the quality and enlarge the community of capable writers within Guyana. However, at the same time there has been a visible expansion of the literature both inside and outside of the country. The recent three-day promotion series by the Peepal Tree Press was only the most recent in the several launchings of new Guyanese books that have been lately published. While Peepal Tree publishes Guyanese writers from their headquarters in England, many new and unestablished local poets and fiction writers have had their work appear in print through the anthologies published in Georgetown by Roopnandan Singh and the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists. The Guyana Annual, under its new name, has been resuscitated to provide another outlet for some of these same local writers. The literary readings at Castellani House were only the latest in the long series of such events that have certainly increased in frequency.

Many of these have been in some way associated with the Guyana Prize, whose impact on Guyanese literature has been evident at the levels of the international, the local, the established and the new. Three of the books newly launched by Peepal Tree are on the Guyana Prize shortlist for 2004, while another was a prize winner in 2002. Yet another of them was a new work by an author who won it in 1994. Arguably, the prize still needs to find ways of doing more where it probably matters most, viz, improvement at the local level, but it is significant to note some of the ways in which it has rewarded and celebrated the best Guyanese writing and contributed to the growth of the new.

Through the award of the prize, recognition has been given to some of the best works of Guyanese literature, which is important to the idea of celebrating and highlighting work that can enhance the national image. Some of the most famous and most outstanding of the writers have won the prize, thus associating it with some of the best books in the literature. Symbolically, the very first acceptance speech at the Guyana Prize Awards Presentation was delivered by Wilson Harris, the great icon of Guyanese fiction, a writer who is among the world leaders, prominent enough to have merited Nobel Prize nomination. His winning book in the 1987 Guyana Prize was the novel Carnival.

In 1989 the nation's greatest poet, Martin Carter won with his Selected Poems, recognized as one of the important poetic volumes in the Caribbean and maintained on the CAPE (Advanced level) Literature syllabus. In the same year the Best Fiction Prize was won by another of Guyana's foremost writers, Roy Heath, with The Shadow Bride. Leading poet John Agard, who was commissioned in Britain to read his work in the country's schools and was appointed a BBC 'Poet in residence,' claimed the Prize for Poetry on two occasions. He achieved it with From the Devil's Pulpit in 1998 and Weblines in 2000. Also in 1998 one of the country's most celebrated fiction writers, Pauline Melville, produced the Best Book in The Ventriloquist's Tale. Melville, whose first book was a short story collection called Shape-shifter, was already a Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Whitbread Prize.

While a few other Guyana Prize Winners are now world-rated, they were not yet at the pinnacle when they first entered their work in the prize, and their rise to the top was assisted in some way by it. For example, when Fred D'Aguiar won the first Guyana Prize for Poetry in 1987 he had not published before, and Mama Dot was not only his first volume of poetry, but his very first book of any sort. He is now celebrated as a novelist and one of the leaders in Britain, but he also started his career in that discipline when his first novel, The Longest Memory, won the Guyana Prize Best First Book of Fiction in 1994.

Another of the top international writers, David Dabydeen, had already won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1986 when he first entered the Guyana Prize with another book of poetry in 1989. But he launched his career as a novelist when he entered again and won the prize with his first novel, The Intended, in 1992. From there his recognition advanced as a world-rater and one of the foremost writers in Britain. Other major awards followed, including the Quiller Couch and the Roger Rao Prizes, in addition to being shortlisted for a few others, among them, the Impac-Dublin, the richest of all the prizes for a single book.

There are others who did not start their careers with the Guyana Prize, but it was associated with their first book. Michael Gilkes was already established in theatre and had won the Guyana Prize for Drama in 1992 and published individual poems, but won the prize in 2002 with his first book of Poetry, Joanstown. Similarly, Stanley Greaves was already one of Guyana's greatest achievers in another field, the fine arts, and had published individual poems when he won the Best First Book Prize with Horizons in 2002.

Harold Bascom was shortlisted in 1987 for his first prose work, Apata, and was already a leading local dramatist, but certainly enhanced his credentials and reputation with two Guyana Prizes for Drama in 1994 and 1996. Paloma Mohamed's case is similar in that she was already established in the theatre and other disciplines, but advanced significantly as a writer after her first Prize for Drama in 1998. A second followed in 2000 from which she moved to publish a book of plays in 2004.

Then there were those local writers who were discovered and rocketed to prominence on winning the Guyana Prize. The most outstanding case was that of prose writer Harischandra Khemraj of D'Edward village, previously unknown, whose very first novel, Cosmic Dance, beat a field of some of the best known names in Guyanese literature to win the 1994 Prize for Fiction. Rooplall Monar established his place as a leader among local writers when he won a Special Prize in 1987 with his first published works, Koker (poetry) and Backdam People (prose). Others, who have since become very well known, such as Janice Lowe Shinebourne and Marc Matthews, won the Best First Book with Timepiece and Guyana My Altar, both in 1987.

Perhaps the most satisfying of all those achievements for local writers was the award of the Prize for the Best First Book of Fiction to Ruel Johnson in 2002. This is probably the achievement that the prize can hold up as its best claim to a role in the development of local writing. Johnson had been learning his craft among others like himself in the Janus Young Writers Guild and the AGWA, engaging in fierce debates about Guyanese writing and the failures of the Guyana Prize.

Although critical of the prize, he was very conscious and must have been inspired by the prospect of winning it. But more than inspiration, he had the talent necessary for the achievement. He also made the shortlist in poetry with The Enormous Night, and created a number of firsts. He was shortlisted for both fiction and poetry with unpublished manuscripts in the same year, was the first to win fiction with a manuscript, and was the youngest to win any of the prizes.

Then, having won the prize, he went on to publish the book, Ariadne and Other Stories, thus adding to the local publication of fiction and the increase of new Guyanese literature. At the other end of the generation scale, was Dennis Craig, a mature, experienced writer who won the First Book Poetry Prize in 1998 with an unpublished manuscript, Near the Seashore. The prize's contribution here is that, having won it, Craig, who was a known poet for many decades, then went on to publish a book of his poems for the first time, making another addition to new books of Guyanese literature.

In addition to all that, the Guyana Prize had given a Special Award to Roopnandan Singh, whose novel had been shortlisted, and who had committed himself to the development of local writing through the AGWA and the many collections and novels that he edited and published.

The 2004 shortlist has been announced and the prize is to be awarded on May 23. It is not yet known if any further discoveries will have been made.