(Extract of an interview with Eric Huntley and Michelle Asantewa, Georgetown, Guyana, 2019. Eric Huntley cofounded with his now deceased wife, Jessica, the Bogle-L’ouverture Press, of which its first publication was ‘Groundings with my brothers’ by Walter Rodney. Asantewa’s first novel is ‘Something buried in the Yard’ and she founded a Way Wive Wordz Publisher.)
PP The media produces a lot of literature every single day. But it is ironic that this very media allows little space, pays little attention to books, literature, literary matters. And it bothers me so let’s take advantage of this space to blow our own trumpets, as it were. Let’s talk about our work, how we got to where we are, our formative days, things that influence us like the books we read, the role of the writer, why we write, and importantly why we publish, etc, etc.
Let’s start with you Michelle: why the media pays so little attention to literary matters?
MA One of the reasons could be that the media has to attend to things more of an immediate and urgent nature while literature suggests something that it is intellectual, something you have to get your head around – I will now have to read and study and think. The media we have access to don’t necessarily promote the appreciation of art and literature.
PP Then we need to educate the media.
EH You have asked a question that I have often pondered on in the sense of the amount of literature produced and say if tomorrow there is no printed matter, would it matter.
The most important purpose of literature is to somehow direct people’s mind to where there are at, from where they came, with the possibility of where they want to go to and in the end, change the situation and make it a better world.
We came from an oral tradition where people’s stories were told by word of mouth. One of the benefits our literature is that it is a printed matter and in a sense permanent whether it helps change the world is another matter.
PP We’ll get to that when we talk about the role of the writer.
We [three] are Guyanese, let’s have some groundings – formative days in Guyana.
MA I was born in Regent Street, so my mum tells me. I lived there until two and a bit, I believe, then we moved to Linden where I have my greatest remembrance.
But my family is from Berbice – the S…, the D…., the B…., every time I mention their names I am calling them ancestrally. Others were from across the river – Uitvlugt and those places. When I left Linden, I went to the UK so I have a small formative time in Guyana. But I do the return journey to Guyana as often as possible.
But I think of myself as from the country – Berbice that’s where my heart and soul feel rooted to because in the summer holidays we use to go to Seafield #42 Village and I still have the memory of smell of the village life, I love the smell mud, the cow dung, the smell of my grandparents, the taste of the metemgee…
PP You’re invoking the ancestors; we’d have to pour them a libation.
MA This is a libation, actually, because they are the ones that bring me back, I feel the vibrations of my ancestors when I come here, and this is like homage to them – I have to go back to that village and inhale [it] even for a minute.
PP Uncle Eric?
EH I was born in Kitty, Pike Street, Kitty. One of the developments in my life was that moved from place to place – we lived in several different places, more or less about half a dozen – Princes Street, Bent Street twice, Regent Street, New Amsterdam, I was in a sense, living like a gypsy.
I lived in London for about sixty years and lived in many places there. This was like a pattern in my life. But the groundings I have had growing up in Guyana including my introduction to politics and the political life of the country all took place here; I got my baptism in every sense of the word while living here so I owe a great deal of gratitude to the teachers who taught me, church, comrades whom I worked with in the People’s Progressive Party – Eusi Kwayana in Buxton, Martin Stevenson, Martin Carter… so that’s the kind of journey I carry with me.
PP A lot has happened since moving from Guyana to the UK, where are we now, Michelle?
MA I have been writing all my life like most people, but for the past twenty years my writing has been focus and conscientious….
PP What do you mean focus and conscientious?
MA Focus and conscientious mean that at some point you tell yourself you can write and start writing. But I was always writing even before the essays for my studies I was writing stories at school every day and telling them to friends in a serial. But I would call myself a writer until much later having been influenced by the likes of Toni Morrison, and a whole lot of African Caribbean writers. Yes, you have stories you want to tell whether you want to or not…my first novel, ‘Something Buried in the Yard’ was part of my PhD and the reason why I did this was because I wanted to explore Kumfa – Guyanese Cumfa, African Guyanese derive practice that I didn’t find in the literature available to me so I had to write it…working from a quotation of Toni Morrison ‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it’. …
Now you come to publishing: publishing is a business. Now who is going to value you and take the risk and publish it…the upshot, I publish it myself…that was the beginning of Way Wive Wordz [Publisher].
PP Uncle Eric, Bogle-L’Ouverture.
EH I suppose every body’s journey is a different journey. I remember my parents whenever they found us playing outside they would tell us to get a book and read. But they were hardly any books around at that time in the 1930s and 40s; you had the slate in fact and not a book.
It so happens one of the first things I did in that area [reading/writing/publishing] is to import books from the States…
PP Wow, that’s great.
EH …working in New Amsterdam as a messenger to the …. Messenger, I began to import pocket books from the States for twenty-five cents each. Then I graduated to publishing a newspaper for the post office workers union when I was working in Buxton. I spent my month’s salary to buy a Gestetner machine from Bookers which was seized by the police and army when they arrived in 1956/57….
But to fast forward the story of books and publishing, it took Jessica and myself until 1969 when Walter Rodney was banned from returning to Jamaica …we took his speeches which we published as ‘Groundings with my brothers’ so that was the beginning… so from importing books, to publishing a journal for the post office workers to printing and publishing ‘Thunder’ – the PPP weekly newspaper to ‘Groundings with my brothers’ was a tremendous leap….
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