Revamping the Guyana Prize

By Ryhaan Shah

There is a national discussion going on about the fate and future of the Guyana Prize for Literature. I have been paying some attention, since I am a past winner. I won the Best First Book Prize in 2007 for my novel “A Silent Life”, published by Peepal Tree Press, UK.
The book was submitted by the publisher as per the rules, even though I shared – and still share – the public perception that the Prize appears to be controlled by cronies who alternate as judges and winners, thus keeping the Prize and monies awarded within a favoured clique.
The perceived corruption of the Prize must be taken in context of the pervasive corruption that infects just about every state institution. It is the culture; the way things are done. The perception includes views that the Prize is used to reward friends, placate foes, and snub those considered persona non grata for political or other reasons.
I have since had two more novels published by a different British publisher, who was unaware of the Guyana Prize. I never told them about it either. I had no interest in having my work judged by a Prize committee whose integrity was questionable.
Since the current administrative body is tainted by allegations of corruption, any move to revamp the Prize must include changes that would include new management and staff. I would recommend that the new administration be located within the Education Ministry, or even be established as a separate body. It must be governed by strict rules as to the qualifications for works submitted, adhering to deadlines and the selection of the judging panel. These, in turn, must reflect international standards of judging and publishing, including such basics as to what constitutes a novel (or novella) by way of length, i.e., the number of words; and a collection of poetry.
The shortlisted books must be available to the public. The media should be encouraged to publish reviews and to interview the authors, and public opinion should be polled and included as a percentage of the final points awarded to each work.
Suspicions of favouritism do exist in other countries when there are multiple-time winners or alternating judges and winners. However, since the shortlisted books are always available to the public, they are open to scrutiny; and this transparency works to dispel doubts of possible corruption in the selection and judging processes.
Manuscripts should not be accepted as a standard for a national prize. Literary agents and publishers can be accessed online. I found an agent through online research, and she found me a publisher for my second and third novels. Also available is the route of self-publishing or vanity publishing, wherein you pay to be published, though this can often be expensive. Note, however, that such publications are not accepted as entries to most literary competitions, or for academic study.
Martin Carter did self-publish, but he was exceptional and fully deserved his Guyana Prize award. However, there is no one of his calibre writing in Guyana today. In fact, there has been a generational shift downward in the literacy level. The poor grammar in newspaper reports, and the mispronunciations and mangled language on broadcast news and programmes are a sad indictment of the education system. It is failing our children.
I fully support scrapping the Prize and having the funds used to establish annual school-based competitions that would encourage reading and writing in order that the fluency of language and the skill required to produce good writing are regained. This is not impossible.
The writings of Martin Carter and Wilson Harris can stand with the best in the world, and the Caribbean region has literary Nobel Laureates in V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott. The work of our best should be the measure for any national prize.
Foundational remedial work must be done, and with two recent NGSA top performers saying they wish to become writers, the interest is there. Nalia Rahaman who topped the country wants to be the next J.K. Rowling; and failing that, she would settle for being president of the country. That she feels it would be more fulfilling to be a writer than President of Guyana might arise from a youthful assessment of our political leadership; and it might not be far off the mark.
We should not disappoint the ambitions of our children. With reading and writing encouraged at school level, perhaps in a generation or two there will be a crowd of good writers, each truly deserving of winning a Guyana Prize.