Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
AS A NATION grows, periodic assessments of every aspect of that development are necessary. It’s unfortunate that the literature that mirrors that society is omitted from the reckoning. It’s unfortunate the literature that acts as a barometer of a nation’s progress is not taken into account. Perhaps that’s why the work of anthologists is so vital – they are bookkeepers of the nation’s invaluable literary heritage. Anthologists are makers and shapers of a literature and could be held responsible for whatever label – good or bad – is pasted on that body of work.
A country is identified by its literature. And so far, Guyana has benefited enormously from her anthologists and their anthologies.
An anthology for the purpose of this article is a collection of stories or poems or a combination of both genres by various writers. It would be useful also to be mindful that an anthology, in original Greek language, meant a collection of flowers. Consequently, an anthology ought to be and do a number of things. An anthology ought to bring out the best, bring attention to the best, have a fair representation of the literary landscape, and provide writers with a wider audience. Additionally, an anthology ought to be able to form a link between the writer and the reader; it ought to be some sort of record of the achievement of the people and so serve to build a sense of national pride.
Quite a constraint for a book; enough reasons why many anthologies begin with apologies.
Our Guyanese anthologies are no different from the rest suffering from lack of space which leads to omission of longer materials and a true representation of prolific writers covering different periods; inadequate funding; lack of access to certain works leading to oversight; and subjection to an anthologist’s personal preferences and prejudice.
The story of our first anthology, `GUIANESE POETRY’, edited by N. E. Cameron in 1931, is quite enlightening. While at the University of Cambridge, Cameron was embarrassed to find that he was unable to give an account of the literature of his country. Returning home, he researched our literature covering a period of one hundred years, resulting in the country’s first major landmark of its poetry.
The first anthology of writings by East Indians was `AN ANTHOLOGY OF LOCAL INDIAN VERSE’ edited by C. E. J. Ramcharitar-Lalla in 1934. However, most of the twenty one poems in that collection were steeped in Victorian influence as seen in a poem by W. W. Persaud, ‘reluctant be to throw aside the reins of England, as thy guide’.
With that collection, Guyana was able to boast of a second anthology in a short space of time.
The first anthology of stories may be `STORIES FROM GUYANA’ which was printed in the late 1960s or early 1970s. This collection of children stories were written by Rajkumari Singh, Sheila King, Doris Harper-Wills, Cecile Nobrega, Evadne D’Oliveira and others. Many of these stories were later reprinted in `THE LURE OF THE MERMAID AND OTHER CHILDREN STORIES’ edited by Janet Jagan in 2002.
The first anthology of prose and poetry was `MY LOVELY NATIVE LAND’ edited by Arthur and Elma Seymour in 1971. This collection may be the first to be published abroad - Longman Caribbean Publishers.
The first anthology of women writers was `GUYANA DRUMS’, published in 1972 with poems by Syble Douglas, Pat Cameron, Sheila King, Evadne D’Oliveira, Mitzie Townshend and Shana Yardan.
The country’s greatest anthologist was A. J. Seymour who was responsible for about a third of the country’s anthologies. His first anthology was `FOURTEEN GUIANESE POEMS FOR CHILDREN’, published in 1953 in a story book fashion that you could read in one of his autobiographies. One year later, he followed that up with `THE KYKOVERAL ANTHOLOGY OF GUIANESE POETRY’, devoting a whole issue of the literary journal he started editing in 1945.
In 1961, Seymour produced `THEMES OF SONG’, a collection of forty five poems, requested by the then Minister of Education, Honourable Balram Singh Rai to mark the conclusion of National History and Culture Week 1960. This collection holds the distinction of been a national bestseller with the sale of 5000 copies!
As mentioned before, anthologies mark certain periods in the history of a country. After the country gained its independence from Britain in 1966, Guyana was able to boast some eight anthologies in the next ten years.
In 1968, Donald Trotman produced `VOICES OF GUYANA’. About this period `STORIES FROM GUYANA’ surfaced.
In 1971, Arthur Seymour teamed up with his wife, Elma, to produce, `MY LOVELY NATIVE LAND’.
`GUYANA DRUMS’ came out in 1972. Then in 1973, Elma Seymour edited `SUN IS A SHAPELY FIRE’. In 1974, the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO), youth arm of the PPP, published `FOR THE FIGHTING FRONT’ to mark its 8th Festival Congress.
To mark our tenth anniversary of Independence, the National History and Arts Council produced, `INDEPENDENCE TEN, GUYANESE WRITING 1966-1976’.
In December 1976, the National History and Arts Council produced `TWENTY FOUR STORIES’ to mark the successful staging of one of its creative writing courses. This author graduated from that session with a short story entitled, ‘After the Storm’.
After the 1980s, other anthologists surfaced with the most prolific been Roopnandan Singh who edited and published in 1997, `SKY DANCE’ an Anthology of Poems by Guyanese of Indian Ancestry, followed by `ETERNAL QUEST’ in 2000, `JUST A NUMBER’ in 2001, `CRAB-MAN’ in 2003 and others.
In 1986, Laxhmi Kallicharan produced `HRAADANJALI’ Kampta Karran in 1991 produced `AN INTRODUCTION TO THE POETRY OF THE EAST INDIAN DIASPORA 1901-1991’.
`THEY CAME IN SHIPS’, An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry, selected by Lloyd Searwar, Ian McDonald, Laxhmie Kallicharan, and Joel Benjamin was published in 1988 to mark 150th anniversary of the arrival of East Indians from India to Guyana.
And the list goes on. But to round off this article, mention must be made of anthologies edited by Guyanese in the Diaspora like those by O. R. Dathorne, Frank Birbalsingh, Victor Ramraj, John Agard and Grace Nichols.
As Guyana celebrates its 40th independence anniversary, we could look back with pride to the wonderful literary heritage shaped by our anthologies of prose and poetry.