Encouraging range of talent among Guyana Prize winners
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
June 5, 2005
The winners of the 2004 Guyana Prize for Literature were announced and the Awards presented at the Presentation Ceremony held at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel on the evening of May 23, 2005. The prizes were handed over by the President of Guyana Bharrat Jagdeo following the delivery of the Judges' Report and the announcement of the winners by Chairman of the 2004 Jury Victor Ramraj. This was followed by the delivery of the Acceptance Speech and readings by the Guyana Prize authors. A new addition to the proceedings was the presentation of official certificates to the writers who made it to the shortlist.
For the first time in the history of the Prize, two awards were made for fiction on the very strong recommendation of the Jury who felt that both novelists should be recognized for the particular strengths of their entries. However, while the excellence of the field was thus acknowledged in the major fiction category, no prize was awarded for the best first book of fiction since it was felt the entries in that category did not quite reach the required standard of excellence. The situation was different in the competition for the Best First Book of Poetry in which the judges found it hard to reach unanimous agreement. They were united in the decision that two of the First Books were good enough to deserve being short-listed and to compete for the major poetry prize, but had to settle for a compromise in the selection of the First Book shortlist. This was an indication that the different judges found merit in a number of the books by first-time entrants.
While the deliberation over poetry was the only area of significant disagreement among the members of the Jury, it suggested an encouraging range of talent among new Guyanese poets. There was therefore an encouraging growth demonstrated in verse that was not to be found in drama. In the Best Drama category, the Jury singled out only one of the plays entered for the shortlist because the others fell a bit short in knowledge of the stage and use of theatrical material. Being the only item on the shortlist, that one work was therefore the automatic winner.
The 2004 co-winners for the Best Book of Fiction were David Dabydeen for Our Lady of Demerara published by Dido Press, and Fred D'Aguiar for Bethany Bettany published by Chatto and Windus. The judges commented: "Our decision to go with co-winners is perhaps best summed up in the observation that what one offers in scope, the other offers in intensity. We were assured that the Prize Committee would try to find the funds to give two full awards rather than split the monetary award."
Dabydeen's Our Lady of Demerara, his fifth novel, is an endlessly intriguing work that operates on many levels and heads off in many directions as it constructs Guyana's complex realities in the past and in today's post-colonial and post-modern world. This is not an easy read, demanding close attention from readers but amply rewarding them. A murder-mystery like Denise Harris's novel, it veers off into mythic and philosophical explorations, echoing, again, like Denise's Harris's, the novels of Wilson Harris. Dabydeen employs a large canvas tracing his protagonist's ascent into spirituality out of his personal and cultural destitution and chaos in the UK, Ireland, India, and the hinterlands of Guyana. There are many impressive aspects of Our Lady of Demerara, in particular Dabydeen's versatility in style demonstrated in the conscious change in form from the intensely sensual of the first part to the cerebral of the second as the protagonist sheds his sensuality and gravitates towards the spiritual life. Here is evidence that this author is both poet (who has written prize-winning volumes of poetry) and scholar (who has researched black British authors of the 18th century).
D'Aguiar' s Bethany Bettany, employs multiple perspectives that in the author's skilled hands come together seamlessly. This poetic novel is likely to be ranked among the most intense Caribbean evocations of a young child's traumas in a world of adult cruelty. The author takes risks and challenges himself with daring forms - and succeeds. Another poet who is evolving into a novelist, D'Aguiar uses language with poetic mastery and provides us with sharp and sensitive explorations of the child's psyche that seem deeply personal. The protagonist, a young child, deposited by her mother on the doorstep of her father's family who believe she is responsible for his demise, describes her lot:
"Sometimes an aunt or uncle tells me a particular beating is for my own good, and more than all the previous ones it will definitely knock sense into my wood head. One aunt (I refuse to name her) even makes me look up the word punishment in the dictionary before she dishes out her dose of it. The dictionary, next to the Bible on the mantle in the living room, explains everything" (51).
Her mother insists that she be called Bethany while her father calls her "Bettany," adopting the Guyanese pronunciation, hence the title of the novel, which alerts us to its exploration of the personal against the backdrop of colonial and independence politics, and of the archetypal colonial situation of 'in-betweenity' that has led such writers as Salman Rushdie and Ngugi wa Thiongo to see themselves respectively as a "translated man" and a "duplex man." D'Aguiar's title, I think, is a most effective way of conveying this duality
The 2004 winner in the open poetry category was Ian McDonald for Between Silence and Silence published by Peepal Tree. About this book the judges remarked: "McDonald's volume is a skilfully conceived and executed collection of poems, profound in their astute poetic and philosophical analyses of individuals confronting the process of change and need for adaptation in personal and public situations. The speaker in his poems is someone who has arrived at a climacteric period in his life and is looking back and assessing what he has been through while keeping an eye on what is ahead for him. But he evidently sees himself as having more yesterdays than tomorrows. He moves easily between the personal experiences of husband and father and such socio-political reaffirmation of the importance of cricket in emancipating our psyche that since CLR James's Beyond a Boundary is etched in our consciousness:
"He pound the ball, look at that, aha!
Like he vex, he slash, he pull, he hook,
He blast a way through the cover, man,
He hoist the ball like cannon ball...
Something hurt he bad, you could see,
As he heself alone could end we slavery"
This is from "Massa Day Done." The language itself - so indisputably and proprietarily Guyanese - points up the liberation celebrated by the speaker. In most of McDonald's poems, the speaker has a mellow, contemplative, at times philosophical voice. But mellow as he is, there is passion and fire in him when he takes to task self-flagellating writers, warning us: "God save you, should you cross the path/ of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath." The judges saw McDonald's collection as a remarkable group of poems that cautions us about the ephemeral nature of life and the importance of valuing our short span between silence and silence.
The 2004 winner for the Best First Book of Poetry was Berkley Semple for Lamplight Teller: Selected Poems. The Jury commented: "This is another first publication that impressed the judges enough for them to rank it as a legitimate contender for the open poetry prize. These are engagingly strong, muscular poems about the Caribbean Diaspora that interrogate the meaning of home and the challenges of living abroad. The poems range from a study of nostalgia for home (as in "Winter in the City and Thoughts of Home") without itself becoming mawkish to reminiscences of a deceased brother, echoing Nyland's poems, but always emphasizing the present and future rather than meditatively contemplating the past or what the speaker has lost:
"...I cannot imagine
My brother dead, but that we had gone
Walking and he advances far ahead
To inform someone that I was coming"
There is an energetic tone and an erudite style to these poems that often use disparate images for startling and dramatic effect: "a hearse beired his body like Beowulf's grief" and "The cycloptic lighthouse/ Revolves its single eye over the village" ("Fishermen's Lore" 32-33). The judges all agreed that Semple's first volume has established him as a prominent younger Guyanese poet.
For the 2004 Best Drama category, the Jury Chairman, Dr Ramraj announced: "There were three drama entries. The judges considered two of them - Ruel Johnson's The Last Plantation and Richard Rupnarain's screenplay Death of the Ole Higue as promising but felt that they need to be revisited and revised if they are to make the shortlist. They are marred by long stretches of longueur where the action and the dialogue lack focus. We won't be surprised to see these plays on subsequent shortlists once they are revised effectively. The third, Paloma Mohamed's Nancystory was the clear, unanimous winner of this year's drama prize. The judges assessed it as an almost perfect, tightly-knit play that with dramatic effectiveness makes its point about Guyanese heritage, modern Guyanese life, and school-age self-discovery. It offers rich psychological insights into contemporary students' behaviour in various situations with which they are confronted in and out of school in an evolving Guyanese society. Apropos of my earlier comments on the relevance of literature, Mohamed's play offers this bit of dialogue in an early scene where one student complains about having lessons on Anansi folk tales:
"Give me maths any day... At least everything is black and white. One and one make two. The answer either wrong or right. But that Ms. Richards [the literature teacher], she like to make people think too much... Too much about their own life..."
But for all its perceptions, Nancystory is never didactic, allowing its lesson to develop through dramatic narrative and characterization rather than though the homiletic, the preachy. Sustained dramatic action, fine delineation of characters, variety and vigour of voices and tones, effortless evocation of the feel and flow of nation language, keen observation of the everyday behaviour which she gives a dramatic turn that is artful but she makes seem deceptively easy to do. Nancystory is a classroom drama that we expect would soon be enriching and popular fare in classrooms as well as on the public stage.
Other additional features at the Awards Ceremony last month included the playing of the winners' fanfare by renowned musician and conductor of the Police Band, Senior Superintendent Cecil Bovell and the singing of the National Anthem to start off the proceedings by soloist, member of the National Dance Company and University of Guyana student Shevonne Semple. A major part of the event was the Guyana Prize for Literature Book Exhibition mounted by the University Library. It featured the Prize-winning Works from 1987 to 2002 with short biographical sketches of the authors of the short-listed works for the 2004 competition. This valuable exhibition was moved into Georgetown from Le Meridien and then to the library on UG's Turkeyen campus and also the Tain campus in Berbice.