A review of the literary archives of the Rare Books Collection and Caribbean Research Library at the University of Guyana, Georgetown, Guyana.
In August of this year, I had the pleasure of staying in Georgetown, Guyana. The trip was a combination of the professional and personal (to paraphrase Stuart Hall, we are all ‘placed’, and the heart has its reasons). During my brief stay, I was lucky enough to catch the memorial lecture held in honour of Guyana’s treasured poet, Martin Carter, perhaps best known for his poem “I come from the nigger yard”:
Leaping from the oppressor’s hate
and the scorn of myself
I come to the world with scars upon my soul.
This poem captures the feelings of a particular moment in time, infused with fierce anti-colonial sentiment. The mental work of this period (decolonization) required overcoming the legacy of colonialism which suggested that the histories, stories, and archives of lives lived in the colony were somehow of lesser value than those in the metropole. I found a powerful reminder in the intriguing display table which accompanied the lecture. On display were poetry, stories and histories that had not escaped their home – books on and by Martin Carter, curated by the librarians of the Caribbean Research Library at the University of Guyana (UG).
As scholars conducting research in the historical archives of former colonies, we are often told two things: 1) that most of the colonial-era records of importance are to be found in London; and 2) in the post-independence period, only the records of the dominant, ruling power are held. These statements may be true to a greater or lesser extent, based on the truism that the Archive does not encompass the totality of human experience. However, for those of us interested in the past, literary archives offer an important entry into the social imaginary of a nation. Like historical records, many manuscript and correspondence collections of authors exist outside of the country; however, that does not diminish the important collection of literary archives held in the Rare Books Collection at the University of Guyana (Turkeyen campus). The Rare Books collection is currently uncatalogued.
The highlight of UG’s Rare Books Collection might be the manuscripts/typescripts and accompanying notebooks of the recently knighted Sir Wilson Harris (The Tree of the Sun; Genesis of the Clowns; and Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness), but there are many other gems. For example, for scholars of Guyana, the diaries, papers, and manuscript (The Evolution of the Negro) belonging to polymath Norman E. Cameron (an educator at Queen’s College and the University of Guyana, math teacher, historian, dramatist and poet) is held in this collection. For literary scholars of the Caribbean, there is an entire room dedicated to A.J. Seymour, the founder of the important literary journal Kyk-Over-Al, and mentor to several of Guyana’s writers. This collection includes Seymour’s hand-written notebooks on teaching literature and creative writing, as well as his diaries spanning decades. They are a goldmine (a literary El Dorado) for anyone interested in documenting the pioneering efforts to build a practice of literary criticism across the region. For those interested in early Indo-Caribbean literary efforts, among the papers of Dr. J.B. Singh is the diary of Alice Singh (his wife, and mother of the poet Rajkumari Singh), programs from performances of the British Guiana Dramatic Society, and Drama among the Hindus in Guyana by Rajkumari Singh. The library also holds the poems of educator J.W. Chinapen. While his poems are stylistically of their time, they also speak to the political and spiritual concerns of the Indo-Guyanese community (e.g., poems like “M.K. Gandhi” and “An Offering” ), and capture the struggles of a community in its early move away from a life of labour to the interior possibilities of a life of the mind.
The Caribbean Research Library (CRL) is catalogued, though by card, not computer. The CRL has resources not available elsewhere, such as occasional papers produced by faculty, students’ research, and journals produced by the top high schools, as well as hard to find materials such as the History Gazette produced by UG’s history department, Timehri journal, New World Fortnightly, reproductions of the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture series, and of course, Kyk-Over-Al.
The University of Guyana’s Turkeyen campus is easy to reach, located on the edge of Georgetown (with a clear sign marking the library on campus). To get there, one would take either the East Coast minibus (Route 44, cost is $60-80 GYD); ask the driver/conductor to let you off at UG Road, where you will catch a shared taxi to the university (there are normally taxis waiting in the taxi park). Do not walk up UG road, as there are reports of muggings. You can also take a private taxi (there are quite a few taxi companies). A private taxi from town is about $500 GYD ($2.50 US). The private taxi will usually take the same route as the minibus, along the East Coast Highway to Turkeyen, or the railway embankment road, unless the roads are flooded (Guyana is located below sea level), in which case they might take a back road through Sophia. During the school year there are places to purchase lunch on campus, but if you are visiting during the summer months, there are only snackettes (selling bottled water, kiss cakes, local plantain chips and sour, etc.); you might wish to walk with something more substantial. To enter the library, you will have to pass security, and check your backpack. If you do not have local ID, you will have to get a temporary pass. This is an easy process; I have never experienced any obstacles (one does not need a letter of reference or introduction, although I suppose it would not hurt). The rooms in the library are not air-conditioned, although there are large fans. However, like most official places in Guyana, there is a dress code for respectability (usually no bare shoulders, no shorts, no flip flops). The washrooms for students are in poor condition (cockroaches floating in the bowl, and no toilet seat, toilet paper or soap); but if you ask nicely, you can probably use the staff washroom. There is a photocopier in the library, but it may or may not be working. The staff, however, are very accommodating. If the document is not too fragile, they will usually allow a staff member to accompany you to the nearby photocopy shop on campus. I have been visiting the library at the University of Guyana for several years, and have been extremely grateful for the assistance of the CRL librarians, who often pointed me in directions I had not considered, and facilitated introductions. The head of the Caribbean Research Library is Ms. Syndrene Harris (ph: 222-4931) and the chief University Librarian is Ms. Gwyneth George (ph: 222-5401). Lastly, in Guyana, it is preferable to refer to professionals by their last name (e.g., Ms. George), rather than on a first name basis.
University of Toronto
Image: Parrots in Georgetown at the Guyana Rastafari Council. Photograph by author.