Preserving Our Literary Heritage
December 10, 2006
The Guyanese writers’ fraternity has lost a few family members during the month of December; writers whose works have made us proud, writers whose works have given greater definition to Guyanese Literature, writers whose works have given us immense joy and direction and elucidation. For all of this significance, we cannot but celebrate their lives.
R. Lal Singh died on December 1, 1970. Born in 1905 in Morawhana, a little known Amerindian village in the North West District of Guyana, he went on to do his bit in the fight for the independence of the world’s largest democracy, India. He was technical adviser to the filming of W. H. Hudson’s ‘GREEN MANSIONS’, one of the first novels written on Guyana. His own book, GIFT OF THE FOREST, based on Amerindian Village Life achieved remarkable success in the USA where it was filmed. Singh wrote a number of books of prose and poetry including an autobiography of his years growing up among the Makushi Indians of Guyana. Wherever he went, he made significant contribution – in his ancestral home, India, in his adopted home, USA, and in the land of his birth. R. Lal Singh lived an active life, travelling frequently in company with his wife, CELEBRATING THE RICHNESS OF LIFE (title of one of his books of poems) yet he longed for escape, ‘o, how I long for the quiet and peace/far from the maddening rush and din/sometimes to give this restless soul release/where I can roam and sing or read a book’.
On December 9, 2004, Bertie Chancellor made his last walk on earth. He was born in the tramcar era, but was unable to fully enjoy the ride down Crown Street into Third Street, down Middle into Bentick, ending at the terminus in Water Street. Circumstances forced him to walk, a commission that became his hobby, a hobby with which he eventually fell in love, walking every which where he went. Walking to collect and sort ideas, walking to stay fit and walking to save a bit or two for he was born into humble circumstance. Apart from giving over forty years of service to local radio, he was a playwright, poet, short story writer and artist whose writings found prominent positions in recent issues of ‘THE GUYANA ANNUAL’. His more popular verse, ‘Push Button World’, a favourite at Upscale (Guyana) Restaurant open ‘mic’ poetry session is as follows: ‘A magical world will soon be here/push a button and zoom you’re there/push a button, have a hearty meal/this push button jazz’s a good deal!/I hear in this new and wonderful life/you can push a button and get a wife/tis only one thing you’ll have to bear/you can’t push a button and make her disappear!’
On December 13, 1997, Martin Carter died amidst political turmoil in Guyana. Although his writings reflected the social and political history this country, Carter’s poetry is universally relevant so much so that some were translated into Spanish, Dutch and Hindi. And that was the true measure of the man as revealed in an interview with Professor Frank Birbalsingh, where Carter said, ‘the word “and” is very important to my way of thinking, that is to say, something and something, not something and then something else’, referring to his poem, ‘Conjunction’, with opening line ‘very sudden is the sought conjunction’. Twice he was honoured by the government of the day: in 1970 he received the Cacique Crown of Honour and in 1994 the Order of Roraima. In 1989, his locally published book, ‘Selected Poems’, won the Guyana Prize for Literature in the category of best book of poetry. All but two of his books were published locally. The writer of books is now the study of at least three books namely, ‘YOU ARE INVOLVED - The Art of Martin Carter’ edited by Stewart Brown, ‘WEB OF OCTOBER – Rereading Martin Carter’ by Rupert Roopnaraine and ‘MARTIN CATER: UNIVERSITY OF HUNGER, collected poems and selected prose’ edited by Gemma Robinson.
On December 23, 1997, Henry Josiah passed away while exhorting us ‘to rediscover ourselves, to sometimes dig up the ground our forebears have covered and take a long and loving look at our roots’. In 1994, his first and only collection of stories, ‘Tales of Makonaima’s Children’, was published by Roraima Publishers, a local company. Journalist, magazine publisher, radio commentator, playwright/actor, children’s book editor/producer, Josiah was an inveterate word merchant, gaining respect wherever he went. In 1966, ‘Makonaima and Pia’, won a children’s story contest. Reprinted in illustrated book form, that story earned a ‘Book of the Day’ award at the 1967 ‘Man and His World’ international exposition in Montreal and was included in a UNESCO travelling book exhibition ‘Best of the Best’. In 2002, the Henry Josiah Writing Short Story for Children was launched by the publishers of ‘THE GUYANA ANNUAL’.
On December 25, 1989, A. J. Seymour passed on, hoping (through his many invaluable volumes of autobiography) that some academic at the university will continue his scholarship in Guyanese literature for ‘tomorrow belongs to the people’. His poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, Chinese and Hindi. In Australia, one of his poems is taught in Braille. At least ten were put to music and placed into the national repertoire. A bibliography of his writing compiled by the National Library was 100 pages long! That was in 1974, over thirty years ago! Poet, literary critic, radio programmer/broadcaster, anthologist, ‘nativist publisher’ and cultural historian, Seymour was honoured by his country with the Golden Arrow of Achievement in 1970. In 1993, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree by the University of the West Indies.
Guyana and the Caribbean owe him a great debt of gratitude for his pioneering work in the field of literature, well defined by Ian McDonald who said, ‘he began when everything was still to be done…the work done at the beginning is the least seen but the most important part’!
Those five writers have gone on but their works will remain with us in and out of season – for all seasons.