The Casa de Las Americas Literary Prize


IN A previous column on the 21st International Book Fair in Cuba, it was noted that “increasingly, writers of the Caribbean, including a fair number from Guyana, have being making an impact on the literary scene of Cuba, mainly through the Casa de las Americas Literary Prize and studies conducted by the organisation’s Centre for Caribbean Studies, El Centro de Estudios del Caribe de Casa de las Américas.” Much of the research on Caribbean and Guyanese literature conducted by this Centre is published and distributed by the organisation, little of which is filtered down to Guyana.
Be that as it may, there is more information available with reference to Guyanese writers who have won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Literary Prize.
The Casa de Las Americas Literary Prize was initiated in 1960 “to draw attention to the most significant literary production in Latin America” in the fields of poetry, short story, novel, essay, theatre and ‘testimony’.
In 1976, the Organisation opened the competition to writers of the Caribbean. The first writer from the Caribbean to have won the prize was a Guyanese. His name is N. D. Williams, and he won the award with his novel, ‘Ikael Torass’.  His other works include ‘The Crying of Rain Birds’ (stories) and ‘Julie Mango’ (stories).
‘The Crying of Rain Birds’ was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1992. ‘Ikael Torass’ was Williams’ first novel, and “draws on his experiences in Jamaica and explores the role of the university and education as an agent of social division, and the revolt on campus and in the wider society against those repressive forces. It contains an insightful and sympathetic portrayal of the Rastafarian role as an inspiration for the nativist revolt.” (Peepal Tree Press Website)
Five years later, Guyana was again able to make a mark on the ‘Casa’ award, this time with a collection of stories, a slim volume with a long title, ‘Grass-root People: Thirteen Stories on one Theme’.
This 1981 winning entry was written by Harry Narain. I was fortunate/unfortunate to behold the author’s copy for a few short minutes, in which time I devoted my attention to the feel, scent and look of the book instead of its contents.
That was a long time ago. Since then, I have not seen another copy of the book. And I haven’t seen the author since (He’s migrated.) That book was published by Casa de las Americas.
One year later, in 1982, John Agard won the Prize with his collection of poems, ‘Man to Pan’.  Agard is a prolific writer and consummate performer of poetry; he also writes and performs for children, visiting hundreds of schools. He has a long list of awards to his name, including winning the Guyana Prize for Literature on two occasions with his collections of poems, ‘Weblines’ and ‘From the Devil’s Pulpit’.
Then in 2002, for the first time, a Guyanese woman writer won the ‘Casa’ Prize.  Oonya Kempadoo was that gifted writer. The name of the novel was ‘Tide Running’.
‘Tide Running’ is a ménage â trios, and is Kempadoo’s second novel. ‘Tide Running’ is about two brothers, Ossi and Cliff Dunstan, “poor young men who have grown up in impoverished Plymouth on the island of Tobago, and their intensifying relationship with a wealthy couple who have taken up residence on the island in the opulent home of a friend.”
And Guyana’s most recent winner of the Casa de las Americas Literary Prize was Mark McWatt, who, in 2006, won with his collection of stories, ‘Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement’. This is a highly-decorated collection of short fictions, also winning the Guyana Prize for Literature, and the Commonwealth Fiction Prize.
‘Suspended Sentences’ is set in a 1966 Guyana, where “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, 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.” (Peepal Tree Press Website)
Who’s the next Guyanese writer to win the Casa de las Americas Literary Prize? It could be you!

What’s Happening
•    ‘Literature on Television’, comprising of ‘Oral Tradition’ and ‘Between the Lines’, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the rebroadcast of some signal features including copyright, cultural industries, literary criticism, reading for pleasure, writers workshops, editing, and preparing manuscripts for publication (and literary prizes). Both programmes are aired on NCN; ‘Oral Tradition’ is on Wednesdays at 2035 hours and ‘Between the Lines’ – first Sunday each month at 2100 hours.
•    Please contact me for more information on the activities to mark World Book & Copyright Day.

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