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Guyana Prize for Literature winners announced

Left to Right: Secretary of the Guyana Prize for Literature, Al Creighton; Head of the Jury of Judges, Professor Jane Bryce; President Donald Ramotar, Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Professor Jacob Opadeyi; Awardees- Ruel Johnson, Ian Mc Donald, Cassia Alphonso, Mosa Mathifa Telford and Chaitram Singh.

The Guyana Prize for Literature 2012 was announced in five categories at the awards ceremony held at the Pegasus Hotel Sunday night.

Professor Jane Bryce welcomed the holding of writers’ workshops to help improve the quality of literary works. She shared the view that those workshops appeared to have strengthened local writing and so unpublished manuscripts dominated the shortlists in this year’s awards. At the same time, she cautioned against perfection.

“We need to bear in mind however that we shouldn’t expect perfection of an unpublished manuscript. In making their choices, the judges took off publishable quality to mean a workable manuscript that had potential for publication after going through an editorial process,” she said.

Following are the results:

Best Book of Fiction: Ruel Johnson with Collected Fictions.

Best Book of Poetry: Shared by Cassia Alphonso with her unpublished manuscript, Black Cake Mix and The Comfort of All Things by Ian McDonald

Best Drama: Sauda by Mosa Mathifa Telford

Best First Book of Fiction: The Flour Convoy by Chaitram Singh.

This was the only entry that was shortlisted from among those in this category and it was, therefore, declared the winner.

The First Book of Poetry: No work was considered suitable for a shortlist in this category

Following is the full text of the Judges Report by Chairman of the Jury, Jane Bryce.

Let me begin by expressing appreciation, on behalf of my fellow judges: Brendan de Caires, Louis Regis, Daizal Samad and Lori Shelbourn, to the President and the government of Guyana for the longevity of the Guyana Prize. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, I’m sure you must all be aware how people around the region envy and admire this public commitment to the support of literature. Let me also pay tribute to Dr Al Creighton, whose dedication and high standards sustain the integrity of the Prize while keeping the jury under the strictest surveillance.

One of the criteria for short-listing for the Guyana Prize is that the book chosen should be of publishable quality. We should pause for a moment over what this means. Publishing has changed a great deal since the days when the only way into print was through the fiercely guarded gates of the establishment publishing houses. The effect of such exclusivity on Caribbean writing in English is well known – from the Windrush moment onwards, it has driven successive generations of writers to seek their fortunes overseas. The last time I served as a judge for the Guyana Prize in 1998, there was a sense that writers based in Canada or Britain had the advantage in terms of access to publishing and the market. The advent of digital publishing has changed all that. It’s now easier than ever before to self-publish, and to use the various Internet platforms to publicise and distribute your work. So how has this affected entries to the Guyana Prize?

Of the eight short-listed titles, four were unpublished manuscripts, two were self-publications under the imprint of iUniverse.com, one was published by the Moray Trust and one under the imprint of the Canadian publisher TSAR, the book publishing arm of the Toronto South Asian Review. I want to consider for a moment what this means. Formal publishing has traditionally meant subjecting a manuscript to a rigorous editing process, which went far beyond correcting minor typographical errors and included cutting inappropriate material, rewriting and/or wholesale restructuring, sometimes done by the writer and sometimes by the publisher’s editor. Any book which has been through such a process is obviously at an advantage; this year, this most evidently applies to Lantana strangling Ixora, a collection of poems written by Sasenarine Persaud and published by TSAR. Although publishers do not, as far as I know, rewrite poetry, the fact that a number of the poems had been previously published in journals, and the warm reviews the collection has received, speak to the metropolitan privilege of a writer embedded in a community of publishers, readers and critics.

The other North American imprint, iUniverse, a self-publishing outlet based in Bloomington, Indiana, as well as publication offers what it calls Editorial Evaluation Services. As a writer, you can pay for ‘experienced editorial evaluators’ to ‘review your manuscript…and give you constructive comments on how to better write your book’. Depending on the evaluation, your book can benefit from the services of anyone from ‘a copyeditor or content editor to a development editor or book doctor’. Arguably then, the two shortlisted titles published by iUniverse have been through this process. One is The February 23rd Coup by Chaitram Singh, and the other is the only title shortlisted for Best First Book.

Lastly, let us look at Moray House, publisher of The Comfort of All Things, a collection of poems by Ian McDonald. According to the Author’s Preface, Moray House Trust ‘was founded to honour David de Caires and to encourage the sort of cultural works he assisted. David was a colleague in many projects and a friend…and I like to think he would have approved of his Trust favouring such a publication.’ In his Introduction, David’s son, Brendan de Caires, acknowledges not only the close friendship between his father and McDonald, but his father’s great admiration for McDonald’s journalism. In this sense, then, we can intuit that rather than a rigorous critique, this particular publication was undertaken in the spirit of memorialisation and tribute, both to a personal relationship and to Guyanese culture.

You’re probably wondering why we’ve lingered so long on this question of publishing. Well, the answer is that it speaks to the politics of the Guyana Prize itself. In his Arts on Sunday column in the Sunday Stabroek today, Dr Al Creighton points out that, while the shortlist for this year’s Prize is shorter than usual, the introduction of writing workshops in the last couple of years appears to be strengthening local writing, so that ‘local writers and unpublished manuscripts…dominate the shortlists in this year’s Awards.’ We need to bear in mind, however, that we should not expect perfection of an unpublished manuscript. In making their choices, the judges took ‘of publishable quality’ to mean a workable manuscript that had the potential for publication after going through an editorial process. If in my citations I mention shortcomings as well as the admirable qualities of the entries, it’s in the spirit of publishability. The criterion of publishability also accounts for the absence of any award this year in the category of Best First Book of Poetry. I would ask the entrants in this category, who will of course be disappointed, to learn from more mature poets the value of rewriting, revision and the editing process. I hope I’ve said enough to suggest what needs to be done to make sure this lapse doesn’t happen again next year.

Now I’ll turn to the categories, starting with the two shortlisted titles for

Best Book of Fiction. The first of these is:Collected Fictions by Ruel Johnson, an unpublished manuscript.
 This collection of short fiction displays a variety of techniques and approaches, some of which work better than others: first-person memoir, satire, humour, pathos, bathos, allegory and experimenting with transcription from technological media. The collection treats familiar themes such as racial and political tensions, relationships and displacement and the effects of emigration, with originality of expression and a consciousness of the writing process. It makes good use of interiority, point of view and linguistic register, though overall there are some lapses of judgement. The stories that stand out, like ‘The Last Assassin’, ‘Paternity Test’ and ‘April’, do so all the more against weak pieces like a transcript of an Instant Messaging conversation and another of one end of a phone call, or a misjudged Wilson Harris spoof. ‘Publishable quality’, in this case, recognises the quality of the writing while emphasizing the unevenness of the pieces included.

The second short-listed title in the Best Fiction category brings into focus the question of genre. Literary prizes everywhere tend to reward so-called ‘literary fiction’ at the expense of genre fiction – romance, crime, science fiction and so on.

The February 23rd Coup, a self-published novel by Chaitram Singh, falls into the category of thriller, being a fast-paced fictional account of an attempted coup by a group of disaffected Guyanese soldiers to end the extremist rule of the Kabaka Party. The story is told retrospectively by the son of one of the survivors, based on stories told by the remaining plotters at the funeral of one of them. The fact that the author himself was formerly a commissioned officer in the Guyana Defence Force means that though the dialogue is well realized and convincing, the narrative spends rather too much time on authenticity of detail, like what the characters have for breakfast or how to wear a beret through your epaulette. Despite being very specialized, the pace of the plot, which develops like a script for an action film, and the mixing of politics, warfare and romance, make it an exciting read.
The winner of the Best Book of Fiction award is Ruel Johnson with Collected Fictions.

Best Book of Poetry: the shortlist for this category contains two volumes by established poets and one by a newcomer. That newcomer is Cassia Alphonso with her unpublished manuscript, Black Cake Mix. Inselecting this entry, the judgesacknowledge adistinctive voice and vision which stood out among this year’s submissions. Alphonso’s poetic range includes dramatic monologue, dialogue and first-person narrative, forms and devices through which she dramatises imaginative worlds. She tackles big subjects from an original, but also accessible, perspective, using words carefully to create rhythm and flow and with a sharp eye for social history. She is concerned about the relationship between language, representation and power which means that she seeks to allow things to be themselves. She does not use language to reduce, contain, frame or claim power over others. Rather, Alphonso’s poetry is tangible, material, and sensuously enjoyable.

The Comfort of All Things by Ian McDonald is the collection published by Moray House Trust. As we would expect of McDonald this is a well-written collection, though the quality of the individual poems varies quite significantly. The task the poet has set himself, of writing simply and not in an overly poeticized way, about small things, sounds easy but is in fact a challenge. Such poetry runs the risk of becoming quotidian, prosaic or even cliché, and occasionally some poems in the collection succumb to that risk. At its best, the simplicity is rare and striking, the tone mature, moving and distinctively reflective. Though all the poems are lyrical, the best are those like ‘In the Ice Factory’ ‘The Edge of Night’ and ‘Testimony’, that temper the lyricism with a concrete sense of the everyday. The elegiac tone that marks the whole collection can at times feel repetitive and there are occasions when the lyricism becomes overwrought, as in ‘The Universe Illustrated by Hubble’. This is an unashamedly personal collection, celebrating a life well-lived and the joys of nature, from the sweep of the Essequibo to the details of his wife’s garden. The dominant tone is both meditative and joyful, summed up in the lines: ‘I write this absurdly happy verse/ To tell what it was like once forever.’ Overall, the collection achieves a kind of timelessness and clarity that comes from having put things into a lifelong perspective.

The third entry in this shortlist is the collection, Lantana strangling Ixora by Sasenarine Persaud, published by TSAR. These complex, introspective poems show a formal control which makes them highly compressed and imagistic. Individually they do not yield any obvious ‘meaning’, though as a collection they offer themes, motifs and repetitions that operate as interpretive clues. Flashes of lyricism alternate with occasional deliberate banality, and there is a dominant tone of nostalgia, and an anxiety, even a fear of modernity that renders the voice somewhat reactionary in political terms. More worrying still is the poet’s hypersensitivity to racial slights within Caribbean society, and the intense resentment these evoke in him. This leads to an obsessive harping on the ways that Indian culture has been marginalized and ignored – as evidenced by the central metaphor contained in the title – a theme that appears to be an abiding concern throughout the author’s work and one that detracts from the enjoyment of its poetic qualities.In choosing the winner in this category, the judges decided to share the prize equally between Black Cake Mix and The Comfort of all Things.

In the Drama category we have two unpublished manuscripts.
With Deportee by Harold Bascomwe return to the question of genre: it is a screenplay for a generic crime thriller set in New York and Georgetown, involving deportation, narcotrafficking and corruption. In presentation, it’s professional to the point of slickness, placing it at the Hollywood rather than independent end of the cinematic spectrum . While it uses all the standard tropes and roles of a police procedural, the fact that all the characters are Guyanese and the action largely takes place in Georgetown suggests a missed opportunity to mix up the genre with more gritty, experimental film-making, such as we see, for example, in the Jamaican film, Third World Cop. Personal stories and individual moments of crisis are subordinated to action-building. As a result, rather than using film to say something new and interesting about Guyana, the script opts for the ‘translation’ of Guyana into an American crime-drama framework. Given this limitation, the dialogue is convincing, and scene-management is well-thought through with much realistic detail.

The second drama entry, Sauda byMosa Mathifa Telford, is a play on a thought-provoking subject: a girl who goes off the rails after her mother continually rejects her for the darkness of her skin, as a result of which she falls into prostitution. The dramaturgy here is strong – dialogue, characterization, pace and timing all work – and the way buried secrets are revealed in the course of the action adds suspense and emotional depth. The issues it deals with – women’s sexuality, teenage pregnancy, ingrained racism, prostitution – are urgent and contemporary – though it reduces the complexity of these issues by portraying all the women as victims and the only male character as the voice of reason in the play. Despite this, it is a brave attempt to confront and dramatise the hypocrisy of social double standards, and the judges had no hesitation in awarding it the prize for Best Drama.

Best First Book of Fiction
Though not shortlisted, the judges would like to give high commendation to the unpublished manuscript Halfway Tree by Roy Brummell, a dramatic story of a community in crisis with an exemplary use of Guyanese Creole. Also to Upon my Arrival by Artie Harricharan, an ambitious exploration of a disturbed state of mind.

There was only one shortlisted entry in this category, and I’ll briefly discuss it before I mention the title.This is a novel that dramatizes the political and social upheaval of the 1980s and the resulting tensions within the military in a realistic and convincing way. At the same time, the novel is constrained by its subject matter to focus more on action than on interiority or character development. The appeal of the story is the tightness of the writing and the pacing of the plot, in the tradition of the best pulp-fiction. The judges read the novel with enjoyment of the story and the insight it gives into a mostly hidden aspect of Guyanese life and history. The award for Best First Book of Fiction goes therefore to The Flour Convoy by Chaitram Singh.

Jane Bryce, Georgetown, 15 Sept. 2013

 

THE JUDGES:

Jane Bryce – is Chairman of the Jury; Professor of African Literature and Film, Dept of Language, Linguistics and Literature, UWI, Cave Hill; former Head of the Dept. Fiction Writer – has published prose works and short fiction; Co-Editor of Poui, the Cave Hill Journal of creative writing; has conducted courses in creative writing; a leading scholar on African and Caribbean film, director of film festivals, and of the Barbados Frank Collymore literary award; is a native of Tanzania.

Brendan de Caires – Literary Critic, Reviewer, working in Canada, has worked in Trinidad; was an editor and book reviewer for the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) and for review section of Caribbean Beat; has published literary articles and reviews; a co-founder of Moray House in Georgetown; is a native of Guyana.

Louis Regis– Head, Dept. of Literary, Cultural & Communication Studies, UWI, St Augustine; a specialist in West Indian Literature, Cultural Studies & Cultural History; a leading scholar on the literature and culture, an authority on the political calypso in Trinidad; has researched and published on carnival and calypso, including studies of Black Stalin and Maestro; has been a theatre director; is a native of Trinidad and Tobago.

Daizal Samad – Professor of Literature; a Fiction Writer, has published short fiction; Director of the UG Berbice Campus at Tain; a graduate of UG Dept of English; has worked in Canada and the Middle East; published extensively on literature; is known for wide ranging outreach work in Berbice; was born in Guyana.

Lori Shelbourn – Univ. of Leeds, UK; researched extensively on Wilson Harris for doctoral studies at Leeds and is an authority on Harris; Researcher of West Indian Literature; is a literary editor and writer of literary entries for Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia; directed international conference on Caribbean literature and Culture in the UK; is a native of Britain. #