Guyanese Literature After Independence
Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
May 28, 2006
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This is not a censure against such a fine literary tradition that continues to entertain, educate and influence us in many ways, a tradition that allowed us a foothold in world literature and continues to sustain some of our more accomplished and recognised writers like Wilson Harris, David Dabydeen, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Jan Lo Shinebourne, Pauline Melville, just to name a few.
Writing by Guyanese during the colonial time was useful apprenticeship – learning the basics (according to Western view), preparing writers to handle universal themes and themes foreign to their own concern, preparing writers to reach various audiences, local and foreign, and generally helping to hone the skills of our writers.
That pervading colonial influence lost some ground with the rise of Guyanese intellectualism and birth of political awareness, both movements feeding off each other, sometimes betrothing each other to produce defining literature. And the imaginative writers at that time were treating those new impulses of self-discovery, identity, and social revolt, the quest for freedom, self-respect and self-rule with a passion. So a Guyanese literature really started in the 1930s and 1940s, and was consolidated and validated through the 1950s and 1960s (see two previous articles in this series).
Poems (of resistance, of succession, and of affinity) by Martin Carter encapsulate that shift more than the work of any other writer of that time. Poems of pride in people, place and country from the pens of A. J. Seymour, Wilson Harris, Ivan VanSertima and of others formed part of the equation of giving validity to a Guyanese identity and sovereignty.
There can be no doubt that after Independence there was a marked increase in publications by Guyanese writers, both from the established and the emerging ones, from the locals and those in the Diaspora.
Self-publishing was a notable feature at that time. Sheik Sadeek was a pioneer in this field, printing his own numerous works and the material of other writers. And throughout the Post-Independence period, writers continue to pay to publish their own work, individually or through organisation like the Roraima Publishers (now defunct), Red Thread and the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists.
Other enabling features could be found in writing workshops sponsored by the National History and Arts Council. That council also encouraged the flourishing of ideas by offering competitions and affording writers a chance to be published in its journal, KAIE. That journal was responsible for launching the career of many writers who have gone on to international recognition.
The commendable work of KAIE in marketing our writers was ably supported by other literary periodicals like NEW WORLD, DAWN, HERITAGE, PLEXUS, EXPRESSION and THE GUYANA ANNUAL. String those periodicals together and find they have kept the flame of our literature alive, in good and bad times, with each succeeding generation of writers benefiting from our recorded literary heritage and building on it in no uncertain manner.
In due time, the liberation of the imagination in our writers was harnessed and streamlined with the formation of organisations like the PEN - Guyana Writers Group, the Annandale Group of Writers, the Pavement Group and the Messenger Group. The Culture Corp of the Guyana National Service also played a role in producing writers imbued with political and nationalistic fervour; much of what was published did not stand the test of time. Mahadai Das was perhaps the Service’s best known poetess.
As time went by, the convergence of writers through those organisations extended the debate/discussion on current issues to include a wide cross-section of society for whom the writers were supplying new words/phrases to address new experiences.
New experiences of this era included restricted press freedom and political paramountcy, racial division and the quest for harmony, class discrimination, ethnic closures, questionable elections and estrangement which were dealt with by writers like Jan Shinebourne, Sasenarine Persaud, Harischandra Khemraj, Grace Nichols, Roy Heath and Narmala Shewcharan, among others.
The indigenous voice was supplying new nuances to mainstream literature as it became ‘A Merry Indian No More’. Seen the encroachment of the forest, its beauty and its destruction, in the poetry of David Campbell, Basil Rodrigues and Edwina Melville.
A glorious manifestation of this Post-Independence period was the emergence of women writing, enriching the literary landscape from a different perspective as women were able to ‘tease out the truth’ in many instances. Our women writers also grabbed world attention. In poetry, Grace Nichols won the Commonwealth Prize, in fiction, Pauline Melville the Whitbread Prize and in drama, Paloma Mohamed the National Drama Association Caribbean Award.
The Guyana Prize for Literature initiated by the late Desmond Hoyte in 1987 was another defining moment in our literary heritage. The aim of this crucial project was to ‘provide a focus for the recognition of the creative writing of Guyanese at home and abroad’ and to ‘stimulate interest in, and provide encouragement for, the development of good creative writing among Guyanese…’
Forty years in life of a nation’s literature is not a very long time but we have achieved much, far too much to do justice to in this short paper.
And when we string these bits and pieces together, we would find, without a doubt, that we have indeed produced a solid core of writing that we can proudly call Guyanese Literature.