JOHANN Wolfgang von Goethe pointed out that “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” Once this is applied to the situation in Guyana – particularly the literary Guyana of A.J. Seymour and Martin Carter – to Guyana today, we get a pretty grim impression of our country. Add to this the absence of the National Drama Festival of Guyana and the situation becomes even more dire. Take into consideration that no students are being funded to pursue their graduate/postgraduate education in the literary arts and we have a stagnation of literature that is ripe with the stench of government apathy and a cultural blindness of the kind that no one could have ever predicted.
Yet, the situation gets even worse. The Guyana Prize for Literature has been discontinued. The only national award that is given to writers has been discontinued. Awards and recognition, financial and otherwise, once given to writers – poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, and playwrights – has removed. It seems as if he/she is no longer acknowledged by the government as a living being, a creator who contributes to the cultural mosaic of the country.
It is mind-boggling that the literary arts in Guyana has come to this state. It is infuriating that the administration which is up for reelection next year believes that the writers, along with other artists, that they distance themselves from, will even contemplate voting again for a body that has done so very little for the arts. Would a farmer support the man who cuts off his water supply? Would a vegan buy from a butcher? Why then should any artist cast another vote for this current administration, given that our previous votes led to the absence of the National Drama Festival, the disappearance of the Guyana Prize for Literature, and a dearth of graduate/postgraduate scholarships for students in the arts? It is a vital question, and it is one that needs to carefully studied and responded to by every party that is going to be contesting in next year’s national elections.
Regarding the news of the discontinuation of the Guyana Prize for Literature – a prize that started under the administration of Desmond Hoyte and has been important in recognizing several of the most important figures in Guyanese literature, and, consequently, Caribbean and World Literatures – all I can say that it is a shame, a disgrace, and a tragedy that the Prize has been removed, and that it is doubly shameful that government did not make an official announcement on the matter. Al Creighton, in his column in the ‘Stabroek News’ made the pronouncement, which has, thus far, remain unchallenged, and, therefore, one must concede that this is the method that has been chosen to allow for the dissemination of the news. Cowardice has never been respected by artists, and the way in which important cultural news and decisions regarding culture are only brought to the people after-the-fact reeks of cowardice and of a refusal to publicly admit to or acknowledge the decisions that are being made. I mean, the backlash that might come from an official government proclamation that the Guyana Prize has been discontinued would be too much, and I think that they know this. I do not think that the administration wants to face the ire of the many people who used their hard-earned cash (bearing in mind that writers are usually never wealthy people), of thousands of dollars to print the manuscripts of their work that were turned in the last time the Guyana Prize held a call for submissions, only for it to now be revealed that those manuscripts, after all these years, would not be acknowledged or returned or refunded or read? It is a slap in the face to all of those writers who submitted. Not only has there been a financial loss, but there has also been a severe spiritual beatdown that the government has inflicted upon those writers. It is disrespect and pain of the highest level, to have all of those writers put their blood, sweat, and tears into their work, only to hear now after all these years of silence that there was no chance of their work being successful. Again, I reiterate that the treatment of the Guyana Prize and, subsequently, all of the writers in this country has been a shameful incident that we will remember in the days to come.
Perhaps this administration has no problem with cutting off one of the few strands of the literary legacy that this country has. Perhaps the administration has no problem ending a decades-old prize that has rewarded writers like Martin Carter, Sir Wilson Harris, David Dabydeen, Beryl Gilroy, Roy Heath, John Agard, Mark McWatt, Pauline Melville, and so many other distinguished voices in Guyanese literature. Perhaps the administration is content with the silencing of the literary arts in this country – and that is a sin that they will have to reckon with when the time comes, and it surely will come.