Sir Wilson Harris: Guyana’s Literary Master

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Sir Wilson Harris was not a conventional writer, but one who charted his own course to greatness. Here, he poses with his medal after receiving a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II during the Royal Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on October 13, 2010 in London, England. The Guyanese writer was honored for his contribution to literature. (Source: WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe)

By Albert Baldeo

“His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up, and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!” – William Shakespeare

“At the point where the Caribbean meets South America on its North Atlantic seaboard lies an almost unknown, but incredibly wonderful land of unspoilt beauty, where the virgin rainforest leads to the Amazon Basin. Where the jungle is still unexplored, rivers uncharted and mountains yet to be climbed” – Guyana-tourism.com, a pristine wonderland Harris so often portrayed in his literary gems

Sir Wilson Harris, who recently died at the age of 96, was an iconic figure among the writers of the Caribbean and Central America.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature on more than one occasion, with some of his original manuscripts stored in the Harry Ramsen Collection at the University of Texas in Austin, Harris ranks right up there with the best. A major, noteworthy achievement is that he gave the large indigenous Amerindian population of Guyana, consisting of nine major ethnic groups so often marginalized, including the Akawaios, Arawaks, Arekunas, Caribs, Makushis, Patamonas, Wapishanas, Warraus and the Wai-Wais, historic and literary acknowledgement.

All Guyanese and Caribbean people are proud of the achievements of Sir Wilson Harris, fellow Queens College alumni even more so. Born in Guyana in 1921, he attended the elite Queen’s College, Georgetown, Guyana from 1932 to 1937. Whereas Q.C. nurtured his genius, it was his work experience that gave him wings. Before he became the world famous writer, his oyster for gathering the settings and landscape for his works came from his interaction with the majestic hinterland of Guyana, which he experienced as a surveyor.

I had the privilege of seeing Guyana’s hinterland as a Magistrate, where I often traveled by speed boat, canoe, ferry or small aircraft when I performed my duties as the youngest Magistrate appointed in Guyana’s history at the age of 25. Indeed, Captain George Grandsoult, whose body was never found in Guyana’s interior after his plane crashed, had just flown me in the week before the same plane dropped out of the sky. Everyone else was afraid of the hinterland, so I was tasked to hold court in these remote, but scenic towns.

At the prestigious Queens College, we also studied the magnum opus of another Guyanese giant, Jan Carew’s “Black Midas,” which dealt with the changing fortunes of a Guyanese pork knocker-and life itself. Carew became a professor at Northwestern University and Princeton University. These experiences helped me analyze Harris’ work in context.

Harris was born in the small community of New Amsterdam, in British Guiana, now Guyana after independence. For him to be admitted to the elite Q.C. school during such colonial times was an achievement by itself. The diverse races were all mixed in him, making him the quintessential West Indian, a man for all seasons. His father, an insurance broker, died when he was two, and his stepfather disappeared, believed drowned, in the rainforests in 1929.

From 1945 to 1959 he worked as a land surveyor, mainly in the majestic and beautiful hinterland of Guyana, where he interacted often with the indigenous people who lived there, and researched their way of life. This unique experience influenced the imagery of his writing, and equipped him with the mystique and mythology of Guyana’s indigenous peoples, and living in Guyana in the early 1960s. During this period, he shared ideas and visions with other notable Guyanese figures such as Martin Carter, A.J. Seymour, Ivan Van Sertima and Sidney King (Eusi Kwayana), icons in their own right.

Harris went on to establish an international reputation as a leading figure in postcolonial literature. One thing that set Harris apart was his originality, and his knowledge of physics, anthropology, mythology, alchemy and the pioneers of the unconscious, including Carl Jung. He also cautioned against the trap of victimhood in postcolonial fiction, which could lead the oppressed to become as prejudiced as their former oppressors, a confluence of thought, vision and philosophy he shares with Nelson Mandela.

These early tragedies and challenges shaped his life and produced genuine themes in his work told from an original perspective. Other childhood memories influenced the themes of his work. He could relate genuine interactions with imagery, and did not have to think hard and long to capture his audience.

He found inspiration, refuge and development from his experience with his native country’s sprawling savannahs and rain forests, majestic rivers, exotic landfalls and virgin terrain, all bounded together in natural formation, which imbued him with a deep, mystical perception, and put him in a class apart from other writers. It gave him a vision as broad and as deep as the Essequibo River, as turbulent as the world famous Kaieteur Falls, and as indigenous as the interior civilizations, which was transformed into majestic works of poetry, novels and essays that have enriched the literary landscape. His expeditions charting the great rivers of the Guyanese interior and their effects on the coastlands gave instant value to geography, but the greatest benefit crystallized in his work where he inculcated the finer aspects of his writings.

England became the beneficiary of Guyana’s loss when he migrated to England in 1959, after he found it impossible to stay in Guyana and write, because there were no publishers in the West Indies. But Sir Wilson was removed only by distance, not in philosophy and works. He finished his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, which was published soon after his arrival in 1960. His prolific and complex mind yielded a quartet of novels with consummate ease. The Guyana Quartet, which incorporates The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). He later wrote The Carnival in 1985, The Infinite Rehearsal in 1987 and The Four Banks of the River of Space in 1990, a triumvirate of novels. His gifted craft yielded a prolific number of works.

It was fitting that this Guyanese legend should write about Jonestown (1996), which tells of the massacre of one thousand followers ordered by cult leader Jim Jones in his native Guyana. It was not a factual account of Jim Jones’s community in the Guyanese jungle or its galling end in mass suicide and murder, but an investigation of the roots of evil and power within human personalities and civilizations, yet encompassing the possibilities of redemption.

The Dark Jester was published in 2001. The closest he came to an autobiography was The Mask of the Beggar, which came out in 2003. His most recent book, written at a time when he was looking toward the sunset of his life in 2006, is appropriately entitled The Ghost of Memory.

In recognition of his tremendous work, Sir Wilson Harris was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities, including the University of the West Indies (1984) and the University of Liège (2001). He has twice won the Guyana Prize for Literature.

A proud moment came in June 2010, when he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honors. He won a Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in 2014. His concern for humanity, especially the marginalized he empathized with, led him to highlight the suppression people inflict on each other, greed and disdain, in his works. He vividly conveyed in prose and poetry the haunting silence of the indigenous Amerindian cultures, Kyk-Over-Al, and the mystique of the rainforests.

Guyana should dedicate a library showcasing his works in his honor.

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Albert Baldeo is a community advocate and President of the Baldeo Foundation and Liberty Justice Center. He can be contacted at the Baldeo Foundation: AlBaldeo@aol.com or (718) 529-2300.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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