Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
IT IS still in its youthful stages - the Guyanese novel. But it has already made a name for itself, winning international recognition and chalking up a number of awards.
In this day and age, when nothing is new under the sun, Wilson Harris is labelled as an ‘original’ novelist. Jan Carew’s `BLACK MIDAS’ was translated into Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and German. E. R. Braithwaite’s first novel, `TO SIR WITH LOVE’, which is on syllabi of learning institutions, has been made into an ever popular movie of the same name. Roy Heath’s `THE SHADOW BRIDE’ was short listed for the Booker Prize. Fred D’Aguiar’s `THE LONGEST MEMORY’ won the Whitbread First Novel Award. Pauline Melville’s `VENTRILOQUIST’S TALE’ also won the Whitbread Prize. David Dabydeen was honoured with the Raja Rao Award. Sasenarine Persaud received the K. M. Hunter Foundation Emerging Artist Award for his fiction. Churaumanie Bissundyal is two books away from completing `The Kassaku Pentalogy’ of five novels. Mike Phillips won the Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction. And Roopnandan Singh’s `ROLE PLAY’ short listed for the Guyana Prize for Literature was recently translated in French.
Looking good on paper now! But the establishment of such a tradition took many decades to get off the ground. It can be credited to Edgar Mittelholzer who, for more than 11 years, bombarded the English publishers before his first novel, `CORENTYNE THUNDER’, was published in 1941. He published 23 novels running from the early 1940s to the late 1960s and succeeded in becoming the first professional novelist, living off his writing, coming out of Guyana and the Anglophone-Caribbean.
This novel writing convention gained support with the surfacing of other writers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jan Carew published two novels, `BLACK MIDAS’ and `THE WILD COAST’ in 1958. In 1959, Christopher Nicole published `OFF WHITE’ while Braithwaite published his now famous, `TO SIR WITH LOVE’. In 1960, Wilson Harris, an already established poet and short fiction writer, surfaced as a novelist with the publication of `PALACE OF THE PEACOCK’. In that same year, Peter Kempadoo published `GUIANA BOY’ which was recently reissued as `GUYANA BOY’.
Interestingly, of the five writers mentioned in the last two paragraphs, four were born in Berbice, Guyana, while Jan Carew who was born elsewhere grew up in New Amsterdam, Berbice.
Two writers born in Georgetown later joined the novelists from Berbice. In 1963, O. R. Dathorne published `DUMPLINGS IN MY SOUP’ while Denis Williams came out with `OTHER LEOPARDS’.
After Guyana gained independence in 1966, the rank of Guyanese novelists increased by leaps and bounds even as the first wave of writers were continually adding to the bookshelf. In fact, the first wave of novelists, except Denis Williams, now deceased, and Mittelholzer while he was alive, formed a backdrop on the landscape of Guyanese Literature.
About four novelists surfaced in the 1970s. Arnold Apple in 1973 published `SON OF GUYANA’. In 1974, Sheik Sadeek self-published `SONG OF THE SUGAR CANES’ and `BUNDARIE BOY’, both books as manuscripts won the Cheddi Jagan Gold Medal for Literature; the former in 1959 and the latter in 1961. In 1975, Roy Heath surfaced with `A MAN COME HOME’. And in 1978, Frederick Cranmore published a little know novel, `THE WEST INDIAN’.
It was only in the 1980s that women novelists came on the scene. The reasons for this late advent are numerous and well documented. `FRANGIPANI HOUSE’ by Beryl Gilroy came out in 1986. `TIMEPIECE’ by Jan Lowe Shinebourne published in 1986 won the Best First Book of Fiction in the inaugural year of the Guyana Prize for Literature.
Shinebourne’s `THE LAST ENGLISH PLANTATION’ came out in 1988. Joan Cambridge’s `CLARISE CUMBERBATCH WANTS TO GO HOME’ was also published in 1988.
The male novelists in that decade were Cyril Dabydeen with `DARK SWIRL’ and `THE WIZARD SWAMI’, Arnold Itwaru with `SHANTI’, and Sasenarine Persaud with `DEAR DEATH’.
Quite a few novelists, both male and female, surfaced at the turn of the century including Jack Bayley, Betty Lewis (both deceased) Sharon Maas, Narmala Shewcharan, Denise Harris, Brenda Do-Harris, Pauline Melville, Ryhaan Shah, David Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar, Bernard Heydorn, Roopnandan Singh, Gokarran Sukhdeo, Harischandra Khemraj, Churaumanie Bissundyal, N. D. Williams, Moses Nagamootoo, and Andrew Jefferson-Miles, among others.
Of this contemporary crop, on the female side, Maas is the most prolific with three novels to her credit, and on the other side, David Dabydeen has so far published five. Six of those writers in this period have won the Guyana Prize for Literature.
Of the first wave, Harris, Heath and Nicole are still active novelists with Nicole, to date, producing more than 80 novels.
This brief outline of our novel heritage must take into account four novels that were published in the late 19th century and early 20th, just before the advent of the first wave of Guyanese novelists. In 1877, Edward Jenkins published `LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO’ and in 1899, James Rodway `IN GUIANA WILDS’. In 1904, W. H. Hudson published `GREEN MANSIONS’ (which was later made into a film) and in 1917, A. R. F. Webber `THOSE THAT BE IN BONDAGE’.
In summation of our young yet distinguished novel heritage, it would be useful to quote A. J. Seymour, ‘the unconscious heroine … is always’ Guyana especially now, in the year 2006, that the country is celebrating its 40th Independence Anniversary.
* Seymour, Arthur. THE MAKING OF GUYANESE LITERATURE, Guyana 1978
* Balkaran, Lal. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF GUYANA & GUYANESE WRITERS, Canada 2004
* Gilkes, Michael. THE WEST INDIAN NOVEL, 1981