Guyana Prize for Literature: ‘Slippery Ochro’, ‘Racing With The Wind’ among 4 novels on shortlist

A scheming, parasitic couple sow fear, distrust and division among residents of Canal Number Two for their own financial gain. A Guyanese-born Canadian is detained and tortured by political thugs during a visit to his former homeland. A son seeking answers to his parents’ deaths at the hands of an arsonist learns the shocking truth about his father. A rookie crime journalist endangers himself and family when he unearths a series of murders and a possible link to the decade-old unsolved murder of his sister’s friend.
These are the ideas that are explored in four novels that have been shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature 2023. The finalists in the fiction category are “Slippery Ochro” by Kennard Ramphal; “Racing With The Rain” by 2022 Guyana Prize winner Kenneth Puddicombe; Rage From The Backwater by Somnauth Narine, and “The Girl In The Pink Pleated Skirt” by Guyana Prize First Fiction Finalist (2022) Michael A. Jordan. Ramphal and Puddicombe reside in Canada; Narine in the US, and Jordan in Guyana.
Here, the authors share with Guyana Times what inspired their fiction novels, and the writing process.

Slippery Ochro

Kennard Ramphal, author of “Slippery Ochro”

The Plot: The quiet lives of the villagers of Canal Number Two, West Bank Demerara, are disrupted by the machinations of two scam artists, ‘Slippery Ochro’ and his wife, Phulmattie. After convincing the peace-loving Mohabir and Dularie to allow them to build a small hut on their land, these Anancy-like characters make life uncomfortable for their hosts.
Kennard Ramphal, author: “The character Slippery Ochro is based on a couple who lived in Canal during my time. The couple did not own any land, but built a small hut on the land of people who allowed them to do so. They did not work, lived on the generosity of others, and were sure to be involved in any court case in the village. They contrived to manipulate others in order to survive, and this would have been accepted by the villagers because they were so forgiving, but the couple’s tragic flaw was that they liked to set strife among members of the community.
“In a sense, Phulmattie, Slippery Ochro’s wife, was a forerunner of the women’s liberation movement. At the time I was living in Canal, women did not sit at the table and drink with the men. Phulmattie defied the local custom, and drank and smoked “even and straight” with the men.
“The characters of Mohabir and his wife Dularie are based on a couple who owned a large tract of land, and were taken advantage of by many villagers because of their generosity.
I admit that I took some poetic license, but the core of the story is based on real people and incidents. My novel, which can be described as historical fiction, reflects what Canal No. 2 was like when I lived there. It is set in a period before the Demerara Harbour Bridge was built, so travelling to Georgetown required taking the ferry, and I have described the journey from Canal to Georgetown as I remember it.
“I endeavoured to describe village life as accurately as possible. For example, the panchayat, comprising of village elders, mediated and decided on civil cases, and their decisions were accepted. The very few who did not accept the decisions of the panchayat were frowned upon by the community.
And, of course, the rum shop scenes are very realistic.
“I have the fondest memories of Canal as an idyllic village. Even characters like Slippery Ochro and his wife, who were recognized for their slyness, were regarded with amusement by many. Life was simple for the residents, who recognized and accepted most of the eccentricities of the people who lived in the village.
“As a boy, I had to listen to the elders in the village whenever they admonished me, or else my parents would punish me if they heard that I disobeyed an elder. The entire village raised me, and that is why I dedicated the book to my parents and all the residents of Canal.

“I was intrigued by the real-life Slippery Ochro’s Anancy-like deceitful strategies.
“At first, I had wanted to write a short story about his exploits, but I felt that he deserved to have a full book written about him. The villagers in Canal feared him and his wife, and many decided to be friends with him to ensure that he and his wife would not be their enemies.
“I started ‘Slippery Ochro’ a few years ago, and then put it aside. Then I resumed in 2022, and published it in 2023.
“I always re-write my novels and short stories a number of times before I share them with my friends. And I re-write them after I get their feedback.
“I want my readers to have a good reading experience when they read my books. I revised and re-wrote Slippery Ochro at least ten times.
“My main challenge was to keep the characters fictional, even though people who lived in Canal during my time will be able to recognize some of them.
“The other challenge was involved in the writing process. There was the temptation to move the action along without describing the characters and settings in detail. However, I also wanted to give the book some depth, but I didn’t want it to be too lengthy. Very few people will want to read a five-hundred-page book. I think that I have achieved a healthy balance between moving the story along, and describing the characters and settings.
Kennard Ramphal has written and co-authored other novels, including: Teacher Ram’s Fascination with Fire (2009); Imprints in Life’s Journeys (2013), Dilchand Joins the Army (2016), Escape to the Canadian Jungle (2018),

Racing With The Rain
The Plot: A fast-moving rain cloud triggers a sudden downpour, and people run for cover. Can one ever really escape the past? Carl Dias returns home and is caught in the machinations of a historical conflict and an entrenched dictatorship. Will he be able to leave?
“The title is a metaphor for the protagonist Carl Dias’s attempt to escape a conflicted relationship with his father, and the turmoil the country experienced during the pre-independence era. The idea for the title was triggered by a childhood experience of a swift moving rain cloud suddenly erupting during brilliant sunshine!”

Kenneth Puddicombe, author of “Racing With The Rain”

Kenneth Puddicombe, author:
“I describe Racing With The Rain (set in Guyana, Cuba, and Canada) as one-third historical, one-third personal, and one-third fictional. It’s set in the turbulent era of the 60s and 70s, and yes, I did attempt to capture the events of those two decades and portray them in a historical-fictional setting while trying to remain objective through the eyes of the main protagonist, Carl Dias, who is from a Portuguese background.
Living in Georgetown during the disturbances, one would inevitably feel the impact of the burning and looting in the commercial district in 1962, and the controversial strikes and the racial conflict the country experienced leading up to independence in 1966.
“I can’t really fix a time period over which Racing With The Rain was written, because ideas for the plot and the actual writing revealed themselves over many years. Chapters were reviewed by several writers’ groups and fellow authors until the final version was arrived at. A great deal of research was done on declassified documents relating to the British and American involvement in influencing the outcome of which party would lead British Guiana to independence. The main challenge was in taking all those ideas and chapters and creating a cohesive story that would appeal to readers.
“During most of the writing of Racing With The Rain, I was still employed, so it was very demanding to be engaged in writing and working full time as a professional accountant, in addition to sharing familial duties and responsibilities with my wife, who was pursuing her own career. My schedule is taken up writing short stories, poetry, and editing and publishing for other writers.
“My novel was published through MiddleRoad Publishers which has now published over twenty-five books and has a growing stable of authors.

Writing as a teen
“I suppose I inherited my love of literature from my father, who owned and ran two book stalls in Stabroek Market back in the 50s and 60s. I used the opportunity to “review” the books he imported, including novels and non-fiction books. Many a weekend was spent engrossed in those books. So, the love of reading and writing started from an early age. I even remember an attempt to write my first novel in my teens!
“I believe I have always been writing, whether engaging in correspondence, reviewing the work of other writers, keeping journals on life experience and travel, writing short stories — it has been a lifelong obsession. Racing With The Rain was my first novel, but it was followed shortly after by my short story collection Down Independence Boulevard And Other Stories (Winner of the Guyana Prize, 2022), then another novel, Junta. I have only recently taken to writing poetry, and have published two collections: Unfathomable and Tropical Scenes.

Accountant to author
“I’m a retired certified public accountant who managed the finance for several companies. My articles and short stories have been published in newspapers and literary magazines. A second novel, Junta, is set in the fictional island of Saint Anglia, where the military stages a coup.
“A first book of poems, Unfathomable and Other Poems, was published in 2020, and followed up with Tropical Scenes in 2023.
“I consider winning the Guyana Prize for Literature (2022 Fiction) for my short story collection Down Independence Boulevard And Other Stories as the highlight of my writing career. What greater honour could there be than your work being recognized and acknowledged by your native land?
“I believe Guyana continues to produce remarkable international literary authors, and just having my work considered would be an honour, if it were to happen.”

Rage of the Backwater
The Plot: Kunal Satrohan, 35, is living in Richmond Hill, Queens, when both his parents are killed in a fire that’s set by a mysterious arsonist.
The only clue is a grainy photo from a security camera.
Kunal returns to Guyana to scatter his father’s ashes at Mahaica, where Kunal believed was his parent’s birthplace.
It’s in Guyana that he learns the truth about his father, and begins to track the elusive arsonist who killed his parents and had caused his father to be wrongly convicted.

Somnauth Narine, author of “Rage of the Backwater”

Somnauth Narine, author: “Rage From the Backwater is my first novel. The genre is realistic fiction/suspense /literary fiction. The germ of the idea originated after a house fire in Richmond Hill, Queens incinerated three members of a Guyanese family. Bits and pieces of events from peoples’ lives in Guyana were woven to create the tapestry of the book. The book is not based on any specific character.
“My novel is set in New York and Guyana. In Guyana, a lot of the action takes place in Mahaica and the Northwest region, in contemporary Guyana, with many current issues taking center stage- development, foreign input, and the influx of the Venezuelan refugees. People who read it and haven’t been in Guyana for many years or have no idea of Guyana would also consider it a travel book.
“I was about ten when I became interested in writing, after reading the book Miguel Street by V.S Naipaul. Reading the novel made me realize that the lives of brown and black West Indian people were worthy to be represented on the printed page, so you can say that Naipaul was my first serious inspiration.
“I started writing seriously around 1976, and concentrated in the short story genre. Many of my stories were read on the local radio by the noted Guyanese folklorist Wordsworth MacAndrew. Mac was the first person who encouraged me to write and to exploit the creolese dialect to paint colourful characters.
“I continued writing short stories through university, and completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I joined IAST as a mechanical engineer (1984-1989).
“I contributed to the early Stretch Out Magazine and the Link Show by writing pieces for the actor Richard Naraine.
“I did some dramatic work in Guyana, and in my last year there (1989) wrote and directed the play Caribbean Driftwood.
“I moved to NY in 1989 and changed my career to teaching and retired from the NYC Dept. of Education in 2023.
“Earlier in NY, I published an anthology of Guyanese short stories, The Call of the Ocean and Other Stories and a children’s story book Anansi and the Alligator’s Diamond. While still based in NY, I wrote many episodes for the local satirical TV show Expressions of Richard Naraine. In New York, I teamed up with my friend from teenage years, the director Mahadeo Shivraj and wrote several movie scripts that were converted to movies: Brown Sugar Too Bitter For Me, Forgotten Promise, Protection Game, and Brown Sugar too Bitter For Me-The oil Dream that was recently shown in Guyana and Canada.
“It was not difficult moving from the short story to the novel at all. The short story is the more difficult genre with many restrictions of plot, but I find that the novel gives you great liberty to explore.
“I write best at nights from 10 p.m. to 4.00 a.m. could be considered my schedule.
“Rage From The Backwater will definitely be turned into a screenplay.
“I don’t write to receive awards or recognition. I get my satisfaction by being engaged in the process of creating; and thankfully, over the years, a few people have enjoyed the fruits of my labour. I have always believed that a writer is someone who writes, period.”

The girl in the pink pleated skirt
The Plot: In 1978, the broken body of 13-year-old Sandra Stephens is found propped up against a fence in an alley in Tucville.
The killing is particularly troubling to fourteen-year-old Daniel McAlister, whose sister was a friend of the murdered girl, and it haunts him into adulthood.
Thirteen years later, Daniel, now a crime reporter, learns of other young girls, murdered and dumped into city canals. He suspects that they, and his sister’s slain friend, are victims of one man, and ventures into unsavory and dangerous areas in Guyana’s capital to unmask him.

Michael A. Jordan, author of The girl in the pink pleated skirt

Based on a real murder
Michael A. Jordan, author: “My novel is based on the murder in 1976 of 13-year-old Sandra Ann Stewart, who was murdered in Tucville, where I once lived. “I saw the photograph on the front page of the Citizen, an evening paper. That image troubled me then, and still does. I know the prime suspect in her murder and I follow that unsolved case to this day.
“I knew a long time ago that I would write about this case someday.
“The story is set between 1978 and early 1992, prior to general elections.
My novel is infused with my experiences as a rookie reporter, when we used typewriters rather than computers, when there was no internet, when your research came from bound files.
“I’m a lot like Daniel McAlister; intrigued by cold cases, and I’m sometimes reckless and foolhardy in tracking them.
“I wrote at least five drafts of my novel before I finally got it right, and I surpassed my expectations.
“This is my second novel. Kamarang, my first, (a supernatural novel based on a little-known Guyanese Indigenous myth) was a finalist in the Guyana Prize For Literature 2022 (First Book of Fiction)
“I am beyond pleased that my novel, one of Guyana’s few crime novels, is a finalist in the Guyana Prize. It’s a fantastic feeling to be among the other excellent writers who are also finalists.
“It would be an even greater honour to be bestowed with Guyana’s most prestigious award.”