Literary Prizes of Guyana
Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
August 6, 2006
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It is not as bad as it sounds, and surely, not to be scoffed. Perhaps, the numerous literary awards available now have constrained writers to lean in that direction, all in the development of a volatile literature.
This trend of writing for prizes is not strange. Writers have done stranger things before and will continue to explore other ways of saying the same thing differently. A current trend is that writers are writing back to each other, having a conversation among themselves, in book form, catering less and less for general readership. Quite a few established Guyanese authors are writing back to each other.
But there are many, many writers who stick to the nobler motives of writing which are to elucidate, educate, illuminate, instruct, and to entertain. These writers are not mindful for the prize yet they are not unmindful of rewards.
Whenever it happens that they are rewarded, it is accepted as bonus.
In Guyana, down the ages, the makers and custodians of our literary heritage were ever cognisant of the need to reward good writing despite challenging economic constraints.
Perhaps our first literary awards were those offered by magazines like the Argosy’s CHRISTMAS TIDE, British Guiana Lithographic’s CARIBIA, and Chronicle’s CHRISTMAS ANNUAL as a mean of acquiring material among other good intentions.
Perhaps the first recorded concerted effort to encourage a nationalist thrust in Guyanese literature surfaced in the 1950s as The Cheddi Jagan Gold Medal for Literature. According to Dr. Jagan, ‘the Guyanese writer has a major role to play in the rebuilding of our society…people engaged in the arts must see themselves as part of the development process’.
Established in the 1950s, it functioned into the mid-1960s encouraging the flowering of ideas and placing a premium on the development of the imaginative literature of a people gravitating towards a Guyanese identity, a colony on the threshold of a Guyanese nationhood. Two notable winners of that award were J. W. Chinapen and Sheik Sadeek.
The 50s and 60s were great periods for literature and culture with the annual celebration of the History and Culture Week and the establishment of the National History and Arts Council which not only offered poetry and short story competitions but also published winning entries in its organ, KAIE.
Spin-offs of that era were the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for Poetry and the A. J. Seymour Lyrical Prize.
How the latter award came into existence is a story within a story: Reverend A. L. Luker, poet, artist and musician, donated the monetary prize he won for writing the words for Guyana’s National Anthem to honour Seymour who was even at that time an icon in Guyanese literature. Significantly, during that period, many poems from different writers were put to music, some elevated to the repertoire of national songs.
Since then there were many one-off competitions and at least two substantial poetry prizes. One was The Offering Poetry Book Award initiated by Kampta Karran which was significant in that recognition was given for a collection of poems, a corpus of writing as against the reward given for a single poem.
And the other notable poetry award was The Guyana/Commonwealth Young Poet Competition (for schools) organised by John Warrington and others.
In 1987, Guyana was eventually blessed with an immensely important and substantial literary award; it was, and to date, still is the first and biggest literary prize in the Caribbean.
That award is The Guyana Prize for Literature established by the then President of Guyana, Hugh Desmond Hoyte 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 among Guyanese…’.
But the prize is more than that as seen through the words of Mr. Hoyte when he made the original announcement of the prize on February 23, 1987, saying, ‘the encouragement of good writing has valuable spin-offs in society…it encourages clear thinking and clear expression…if success in solving problems is to be achieved’.
The Prize is evolving (perhaps not as effectively as its critics would want) with its most significant move to date being to entertain manuscripts by resident Guyanese writers.
Apart from The Guyana Prize, there is only one other existing platform in Guyana nurturing and giving recognition to Guyanese writers. That platform is the various poetry, fiction and writing for children competitions offered by The Guyana Annual magazine.
Guyana’s strong literary tradition was sustained by the parts that make up the whole heritage including our writers who have gained international recognition, continued self-publishing by resident writers, timely periodicals and anthologies and of course the prizes.
It is now the duty of our makers of words and the custodians of our literature to extend that tradition beyond imagination.