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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Preserving our literary heritage

The saga of Guyanese Short Story

By Petamber Persaud

THE short story is a parent of the novel but, in our case, it was the child that overtook the parent in paving the way for the birth of a Guyanese literature and later concretised that identity on the world stage. On the other hand, the parent of the child was slow to reach maturity.

To throw some light on this paradox, it will be useful to know that the literature of the colony of British Guiana was tied to the British literary tradition, a convention that favoured the novel over the short fiction. Further, we had no indigenous publishing facilities, so we were at the mercy of the British publishing houses. Even so, only few Guyanese (and West Indian) novelists got a break. Examples can be found in the efforts of our own Edgar Mittelholzer, whose manuscripts were rejected on numerous occasions before his first novel came out in 1941, and in the forcing of the hand of V. S. Naipaul (of Trinidad and Tobago) who was advised to establish his career as a novelist before publishing his series of linked short stories, ‘MIGUEL STREET’.

Our written short story convention came out of our oral tradition, a rich tradition started with our first peoples, the indigenous people, supplemented and consolidated by the peoples who came to Guyana from Africa, Madeira, India, China and other parts of the world.

The first evidence of this written short story tradition surfaced in the 1861 edition of ‘THE GUIANA MAGAZINE’, which was published locally. The two stories carried by this magazine dealt with the subjects, cholera and obeah.

The first book of short stories published by a resident Guyanese was titled, ‘SCRIPTOLOGY’, written by Egbert Martin. This book was published in 1885 in Georgetown, Guyana, and is very rare with just one reported copy surviving.

The next collections of short stories by individual authors were ‘TROPIC DEATH’ by Eric Walrond published in 1926 in the USA followed by ‘DREAMS, DEVILS, VAMPIRES’ by J. A. V. Bourne in 1940. The horror tales by Bourne were originally published in the Chronicle Christmas Annual.

Attention must be focused on literary magazines of the time that became openings for burgeoning short story tradition slighted by the British publishing houses. Magazines like the Daily Argosy’s ‘CHRISTMAS TIDE’ which started in 1893 and the Daily Chronicle’s ‘CHRISTMAS ANNUAL’ (1915) nurtured the short story tradition, launching the career of many writers. Some names surfacing in that early period were Edgar Mittelholzer, Vere T. Daly, K. H. Cregan, David Westmaas, H. V. Webber, and Basil Balgobin.

Basil Balgobin is worthy of special note mainly because his contribution to the short story genre and to Guyanese literature was omitted in many previous records of our literature. Balgobin’s stories first appeared in 1946 in both the ‘TIDE’ and the ‘ANNUAL’. Between 1946 and 1961, he published 14 stories in aforementioned magazines and also in the ‘CARIBIA’ and ‘KYKOVERAL’. Balgobin bore the distinction of having two of his short stories broadcast on ‘CARIBBEAN VOICES’. Basil Balgobin was also associated with the British Guiana Dramatic Society as a playwright.

Other magazines and journals like ‘NEW WORLD’, ‘HERITAGE’, ‘DAWN’, ‘PLEXUS’, ‘THE NEW VOICES’, ‘EXPRESSION’ and ‘KAIE’ accommodated the short fiction. Together, all those magazines (and the main newspapers of the day) were responsible for bringing to the fore such practitioners of the short story as Cecil Nobrega, Sheila King, Jacqueline de Weever, Eileen Cox, Doris Harper-Wills, Rajkumari Singh, Janice Shinebourne, Evadne D’Oliveira, Celeste Dolphin, Jan Carew, Wilson Harris, Ian McDonald, Sheik Sadeek, Allan Fenty, Cyril Dabydeen, Rooplall Monar, Henry Josiah, David Makhanlall, S. A. Sattaur….

THE GUYANA ANNUAL which started out as the CHRONICLE CHRISTMAS ANNUAL is the only surviving magazine of the 130 Guyanese magazines ever published, bringing out its 90th anniversary issue in December 2005. This current issue also features the short story in three categories of competition and more than half of the book is devoted to emerging writers. Presently, this literary magazine is the only local opening for the creative outpouring of our writers, a prized opportunity that writers are using to market their material on their way to greater glory.

Although our short story tradition lagged slightly behind the birth of the modern short story, it was only recently that this genre brought us into the international realm as more and more writers jumpstarted their careers with collections of short stories.

In 1981, Harry Narain won the Casa de las Americas prize with a collection of 13 stories, ‘GRASS-ROOT PEOPLE’. Pauline Melville’s first book of 12 stories, ‘SHAPE-SHIFTER’, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. In 2000, Dennis Nichols won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

Locally, many of our writers have won the Guyana Prize for Literature with short story collections namely Rooplall Monar, Raywat Deonandan and Ruel Johnson.

But there are many others labouring with little or no recognition in this particular genre like the prolific Cyril Dabydeen, Jan Carew, Janice Shinebourne, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Denise Harris….

And mention must be made of other (than those already cited) notable collections along the way, 1885 – 1985, written by Celeste Dolphin (1953), Rajkumari Singh (1960), Bertram Charles, Hugh Wharton (1963), Sheik Sadeek (1970 -1974), Wilson Harris (1971), Jan Carew (1976), John Why (1976), Ramcharran Sawh (1979), Beryl Gilroy (1980) and Rooplall Monar (1985).

The short story has come a long way and can now stand proudly on its own; the parent has reasserted his/her role as head of the fiction writing family.

Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email:

(Guyana Chronicle)

Posted by jebratt :: Sunday, January 15, 2006 :: 1 comments

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