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Open Letter to the President of Guyana: Call for Review of Guyana Prize 

 

Excellency, President of Guyana:

I am requesting (1) a review of the recent Guyana Prize for Literature awards (March 1, 2024), (2) a suspension of the prize pending such a review, and (3) a possible overhaul of the structure of the prize administration to make it more transparent and with little wriggle room for seeming manipulation.

Pending a review of the March 1, 2024, awards (for the 2023 prize) and the outcome of such a review (perhaps, similar to the Decision Review System (DRS) in cricket), I am, with deep regret, declining the 3rd place award for best overall book of poetry.

 

As you are likely aware, the Guyana Prize (and related literary activities) has been dogged by political tincture, controversy, and irregularities almost since its inception in 1987 under a former regime. A number of Guyanese over the following decades, including prize winners—one, now apparently employed by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, which now oversees the prize—have noted various irregularities, not excluding nepotism and the carousel of winners and judges (and administrators) cycling through roles. There have been prior calls for an investigation into the prize, including by another winner of the prize. This has never happened—at least, not publicly, to my knowledge.

Shortlisted repeatedly, yet shut out from winning the Guyana Prize, I made a rare public comment and post in 2014 on the 2013 awards. I noted, then, among other things, the comment of the chief judge:  “You’re probably wondering why we’ve lingered so long on this question of publishing. Well, the answer is that it speaks to the politics of the Guyana Prize itself.” Despite our difference of opinion, this was a remarkable and extraordinary—if not commendably courageous—statement by the chair of the judges that year. This statement seems to call out and suggest political tincture in the Guyana Prize.

Perhaps, it is pertinent to note that I have never been a member of any political party in my life in any of the 3 countries in which I hold citizenship: Guyana, Canada, and the U.S. I have advocated (even placed my well-being at risk) for the return of democracy to Guyana in 1992; and again in 2020, advocated to prevent the rigging of the 2020 Guyana elections. 

But back to the prize: An internet search confirms the barrage of criticism the prize has attracted over the years—so much so that the prize—for whatever reason—was discontinued by the previous government. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was the one sensible, non-corrupt act of the previous regime.   

 

The current iteration of the prize, restarted by your government, seemed to offer change. Indeed, there was apparent change in the widening focus on domestic writers, but apparently not from some of the irregularities and lack of transparency of the past.

 

There are questions:

  1. Why was my Toronto publisher, which globally is the second largest literary publisher of writers from Guyana and the region, not informed of this change and of the resuscitation of the prize in 2022?

  2. Was this a deliberate effort to ensure that my book, Monsoon on the Fingers of God (2018)—and other books by other Guyanese writers by my publisher—which would have been eligible for the 2022 prize (awarded in 2023), were not entered (and indeed Monsoon on the Fingers of God wasn’t—in fact, it wasn’t until after the announcement of the winners, that we realized that it was eligible for the prize), or was this just an oversight?

  3. Why, despite rolling in oil-royalties, does the prize not have a dedicated webpage or website, with clear and transparent rules (more on this below), deadlines, eligibility etc.?—in my view a national embarrassment.

 

All of the above notwithstanding, we come to this year’s awards on March 1, 2024, for the 2023 prize, for which my book, Mattress Makers (2023) was entered. On February 18, a shortlist was announced in the press. There were 2 shortlisted books for best first book of poetry; and 2 shortlisted books for best overall book of poetry, one of which was my book, Mattress Makers.

 

To my shock and surprise, on the evening on February 27th (Tuesday) just 3 days before the awards, I received notice from the Guyana Prize, including communication from Al Creighton (consultant to the Prize), that Mattress Makers was awarded 3rd prize for overall best book of poetry—yes, 3rd prize when there were only 2 shortlisted books for best overall book of poetry!

  1. How could this be? I asked for clarification. The response I received from the Guyana Prize consultant the next day (February 28, 2024) seemed a concoction of rules made up on the fly. Indeed, these rules were never published, have never been published, in this iteration of the restarted prize—making the prize and the rules and outcome seem open to manipulation. Further, the examples offered by way of explanation seemed to come straight out of the playbook of the old, controversial irregularities and seemingly corrupted version of the old iteration of the Guyana Prize that was discontinued by the previous government and restarted by yours. The prize consultant, who responded, was involved with the previous old, controversial and irregular iteration of the prize almost since its inception.

  2. Was/is this consultant the de facto administrator of this new iteration of the prize, which was ostensibly a change from the old version of the prize?

 

I sent off another letter to the Guyana Prize, to the apparently de facto administrator (consultant) of the prize, and to others on March 2. The response I received, among other things, sought to discredit two statements I made, namely that (1) the chief judge was not (in the chief judge’s own words) an expert on Caribbean poetry and (2) there were only 2 books on the shortlist for best overall book of poetry. I responded by quoting directly from the video recording of the award ceremony (including the times/places in the video: at 32:22 and 42:50: https://www.facebook.com/ncnguyana/videos/1500642484126847/ ) pointing out that the prize consultant was mistaken; that, in the actual words of the chief judge, the chief judge noted not being an expert on Caribbean poetry, and that (2) the chief judge reiterated during the award ceremony that for the overall best book of poetry there were “just two” books shortlisted (Mattress Makers and Not quite Without a Moon); as if to emphasize this, the chief judge held up 2 fingers (unmistakable in the video), yet Mattress Makers was awarded, or relegated, to a 3rd prize for best overall book of poetry. The irregularity, here, and apparent bias against Mattress Makers seems clear.

 

And this, Excellency, is the primary reason prompting my call for a review/investigation of the 2023 Guyana Prize (especially for poetry) and a suspension of the prize pending such a review.

        

I am also requesting answers to other questions:

  1. Why—in a country where people of Indian ancestry comprise the largest ethnic group—has there been no Indian administrator of the prize in the 30 years of its existence?

  2. Why is there no dedicated website or page (costs only about 200 USD—the prize payouts, expense of bringing judges to Guyana, staging book exhibitions etc. are worth far more than this), where all rules, eligibility, deadlines etc. are clearly available to all, domestically and globally?

  3. Was the 2023 prize (awarded March 1, 2024) run by one person or a prize committee?

  4. If there was such a prize committee administering the prize, who were/are these persons?

  5. Did these persons see, and agree on the rules of the prize quoted by the prize consultant? If so, when did this occur, at what meeting of the committee (day, time) were these rules approved?

  6. Who made the seemingly on-the-fly rules regarding the best overall book of poetry? Were these rules made by the prize consultant? And/or were these brought over from the old, apparently corrupted prize?

  7. Were any of the shortlisted writers in the poetry awards known personally to any of the judges of the poetry awards?

  8. If so, did they recuse themselves from the judging?

 

Given the decades-long controversies and taint surrounding the Guyana Prize for Literature, perhaps, the time has come for the moth-balling of this prize, and for a new iteration of literary awards named after our distinguished (deceased) writers such as Martin Carter (i.e. the Martin Carter Poetry Prize(s)) and Edgar Mittelholzer (i.e. the Edgar Mittelholzer Fiction Prize(s)) etc.; and for a (re)constitution of the prize committee administering these prizes consisting of 3 or 5 or 7 members that better reflect the ethnic composition of the Guyana population and its writers. 

Sasenarine Persaud

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