(a Guyana Prize for Literature winner, 1994) Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
October 1, 2006
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Foremost on that list, is the outstanding book, `A WORLD OF POETRY FOR CXC’, edited by Mark McWatt and Hazel Simmons-McDonald which was published in 1994 and revised and re-issued in 2005. It is obvious from the re-issue what an impact that book made on its target users. This anthology is of special interest to Guyanese for it includes the work of six Guyanese writers. Belatedly or not, it reveals that good writing will eventually gravitate to the top forum.
From his base as Professor of West Indian Literature at Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies, McWatt was able to collaborate with Stewart Brown (another outstanding authority on Caribbean literature) to edit `THE OXFORD BOOK OF CARIBBEAN VERSE’, 2005, a 400-page compilation of literary enlightenment and entertainment. The scope of the book’s coverage of Caribbean verse is so extensive that it befuddles the mind, yet its offering captivates the senses.
From his base in academia, McWatt edits (along with others) the imposing and informative `JOURNAL OF WEST INDIAN LITERATURE’. This twice-yearly journal of scholarly research papers captures the complexities of a West Indian literature and promotes the essence of such a body of literature. The journal deconstructs the literature in such a way, puts it in perspective in order to encourage more scholarship and more creative writing.
From his base as a successful writer of prose and poetry, he offers to others publishing opportunity and further exposure of their work through the annual periodical, `POUI’, of which he’s joint-editor. `POUI’ is a useful outlet for emerging and established writers throughout the region. McWatt is mindful of every aspect of West Indian literature, adding to it, enhancing it and promoting it. But more than any else, he seeks other avenues to impart his practical experience as a writer, continuing and expanding on the work he’s doing through workshops he conducts as Chief Examiner for teachers of English at the Caribbean Council of Examinations (CXC).
From his base in Barbados, he has brought glory to Guyana through his first book of fiction, `SUSPENDED SENTENCES’. That book extended the fame and fortune of McWatt when it gained three international literary awards. In 2005, `SUSPENDED SENTENCES’ won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Canada and the Caribbean in Best First Book category and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Overall Best First Book. In 2006, `SUSPENDED SENTENCES’ won The Casa de Las Americas (Literary Prize) offered by Cuba.
But for all that international attention, Mark Andrew McWatt was born in Guyana in September of 1947. He grew up in the interior of the country where his father was a government district officer. McWatt attended one of the top secondary schools in the city. That school, St. Stanislaus, featured prominently in `SUSPENDED SENTENCES’ where back in 1966, each of a group of Guyanese sixth-formers is ‘sentenced’ to write a short story that reflects their newly independent country. Years later, Mark McWatt, one of the group members, is handed the papers of his old school friend, Victor Nunes, who has disappeared, feared drowned, in the interior. The papers contain some of the stories written before the project collapsed. As a tribute to Victor, McWatt decides to collect the rest of the stories from his friends.…the group of stories works like Chaucerian tales to slowly reveal their teller as well as to chart the history and future of Guyanese fiction’ (Peepal Tree Press website).
McWatt read English for his B. A. and M. A. at the University of Toronto. He got his Ph. D. from the University of Leeds, UK.
His first collection of poems, `INTERIORS’, published in 1991, speaks of his formative years in that area of Guyana. His second book of poems, `THE LANGUAGE OF EL DORADO’, published in 1994, explores ‘aspects of the relationship between language, landscape and the history of human settlement in Guyana’. That book, according to its preface, was dedicated to Wilson Harris who has ‘explored these ideas in much greater depth’. `THE LANGUAGE OF EL DORADO’ won the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1994 in the Best Book of Poetry category.
McWatt is now part of the University of the West Indies for a number of years where he served in various positions including lecturer, reader, public orator, head of department, dean of faculty and professor.
Dr. Ian McDonald describes the essential McWatt thus: “Here is a creative writer of growing stature, a distinguished scholar and an inspiring teacher, who has all the attributes to be a shaper of our Caribbean literary and educational future’.
Born in Guyana, grounded in the West Indies, Mark McWatt is highly regarded in the Caribbean, the UK and Canada as an academic, lecturer, researcher, critic and writer.