Guyana: Literary Controversy

Writer Ruel Johnson has expressed concern at what he considers to be possible case of nepotism at Caribbean Press, a publishing company owned by the government of Guyana:

When I saw the recent launch of young Ashley Anthony’s book Mysterious Association and the Virtu Gems [sic] I declined to publicly point out the irony of Minister Frank Anthony’s – Ashley’s father – woeful record of creating the sort of space for other young aspiring Guyanese authors to write and publish their work.

I have nothing against precociously intelligent children – I happen to be the proud father of one.  I intend to use whatever humble resources I possess at my disposal to ensure that he not only gets the best education I can afford, but also that his natural talents find proper outlet; I am sure that Minister has the same outlook with his children.

The Caribbean Press was founded in 2009 after a commitment was made by then President of Guyana Bharrat Jagdeo at Carifesta X, which was hosted by Guyana. The press was intended to create an avenue for writers throughout the Anglo-phone Caribbean to get published. The first big project from the Caribbean Press was the reissuing of a selection of Guyanese classics.

Johnson's problem was with the way the book was published:

Ashley Anthony’s book has the publication label “Caribbean Press” on it.  As far as I know, the Caribbean Press is a publication mechanism established about three years ago, in the wake of the 2008 commitment by former President Jagdeo to give US $100,000 a year to establish a publishing house.  The original intent was clearly to find an outlet for the publication of writers resident in Guyana (and, secondarily, the wider Caribbean); after a couple months of silence, it was announced that the Press would start off by publishing a series of out of print books called the Guyana Classics series.  The publication of contemporary local writers was postponed after the full run of some 36 “classic” titles, upon which new writers would be considered for publication.

He also considered the situation to be indicative of the corruption in other sectors of society:

This is a clear-cut case of nepotism, and one that has been shamefully thrown in the face not of local writers alone, but that of the general public.  In addition, it is a brazen and unapologetic act of corruption: taxpayers dollars go to fund the literary efforts of the daughter of a minister of government, who then profits from that investment from the sale of her books, at thirteen years old.  This in a country where the government was only recently involved in a scandal where it refused to recognize the copyright of authors who’ve produced textbooks that are used in the school curriculum.

Jeremy Poynting, publisher of Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom replied to Johnson's note about this issue:

It does reinforce the point I made much earlier that the best model for state support for the arts and publishing was a hands-off one with an independent funding body. Peepal Tree has no voice in or connection with the organisation of the Caribbean Press. We facilitated the Guyanese Classics series by handling the technical side of production and arranging the printing. We thought this a worthwhile exercise to get new editions of Guyanese books into schools and libraries. We also licensed copies of some of our own Caribbean Classics series for non-sale, limited distribution to schools, for which we were paid covering costs, from which authors and estates will be paid royalties.

After a follow-up note  was eventually published in the Stabroek Newspaper, Johnson received a response from the authorities. Johnson recounted:

A few hours after having sent off my second letter on the Ashley Anthony/Caribbean Press fiasco, I received a telephone call from a Ministry of Culture official inquiring about my home address.  After having given it, a short time after I received another call for more detail about directions to get to the address I had freely given.  Having signed for the envelope, courtesy of Culture Permanent Secretary Alfred King, I opened it to extract, as I had predicted, a lawyer’s letter from Park Avenue, New York firm Cozen O’Connor, threatening legal action under “Section 4 et al” of what I presume to be the Laws of Guyana, and not New York State.  Chapter 6:03 (Defamation Act) Section 4 (Slander affecting official, professional or business reputation), states:

‘In any action for slander in respect of words calculated to disparage the plaintiff in any office, profession, calling, trade or business held or carried on by him at the time of the publication, it shall not be necessary to allege or prove special damage, whether or not the words are spoken of the plaintiff in the way of his office, profession, calling, trade or business.’

The writer and blogger said that he wasn't intimidated and saw the possible legal action against him as a way to hold Minister Anthony accountable:

…should he see it fit to make good his threat of litigation, he should be prepared to have his management of cultural policy in Guyana – from CARIFESTA to the Caribbean Press – held under a microscope, inclusive of his awarding of contracts, emoluments paid to consultants, and the selection of contingents for overseas events in which the Ministry has taken part.

Mr. Anthony should also be ready to provide the date in which the policy governing the Caribbean Press shifted from publications of historical or literary value – as judged by an advisory committee, including Dr. Ian McDonald – to one in which a thirteen year old with little or no history of exemplary writing can have her father [allegedly] pay what I presume to be fair market value for the use of the Press’ brand and whatever other unnamed resources.  I personally have not found any such announcement of a policy shift, including when the Minister handed over more of the ‘Guyana Classics’ series to CARICOM last week, or during the press conference of the book launching in which the mention of the Caribbean Press as publisher was conspicuously absent.

Professor David Dabydeen, a member of the Caribbean Press board, weighed in on the issue in the Stabroek Newspaper, stating that the Caribbean Press is “peer-reviewed press, and primarily concerned with literary quality” and that Minister Anthony had in fact voluntary paid for the printing and shipping of his daughter's book himself.

In a follow-up article, Ruel Johnson replied to Professor Dabydeen's response:

The Minister has made the claim, subsequent to my interrogation, that he paid for the production of the book – David Dabydeen specifies printing and shipping costs. Yet, as your mention of the licensing of copies of some of your titles suggests, there are other intangible costs associated with the production of books. The Caribbean Press’ entire existence (infrastructure, services and branding) having been established entirely and exclusively with taxpayer dollars, how is it that the Minister can claim to have paid for the production of his daughter's work yet only mention printing and shipping costs. If there is a zero dollar value related to the use of the name, Caribbean Press, then I should be able to use the name on my book cover and not be sued for any damages.

In this response to Dabydeen, Johnson summarized a few key points in the comments section of Dabydeen's letter:

* Printing and shipping do no constitute the entire costs of a publication. I may pay to have my sneakers produced by the same sweatshop Nike uses, but I cannot simply put the Nike logo on my footwear without the proper paid licensing by NIke. The government of Guyana may want to build a hotel, but branding it with Marriott involves generous licensing fees.

* The book being published in the first place is premised on David Dabydeen's sole opinion that it is of literary and historical merit – yet he claims that the Press is peer-reviewed. A proper publication process involves an editorial board, not a sole editor who shepherds a selection through to print. I challenge Dabydeen to point any such reputable publicly or privately funded mechanism in the UK, from the Scottish Arts Trust to the Royal Society of Literature (of which he is a fellow) that is as devoid of a system of transparent and accountability as is the Caribbean Press.

* The basis fact of Ms. Anthony's parentage is irrelevant to the literary quality of her work – but Dabydeen offers no evidence that submissions from the children of carpenters, joiners, canecutters, office personnel, or minibus drivers were invited to compare with the work of the Minister's daughter. Would he have us believe that she is the only child with literary ambitions or talent in Guyana?

On Facebook, Stone Blind wrote (in the comments section of Johnson's post) that this situation reminded him of another promise made during Carifesta X:

This whole issue, triggers my memory of an issue in which just before the recent carifesta, the local musicians threatened to boycott Carifesta because of the issue of copyrights. The royal and loyal minister of culture immediately put out a statement in which he ardently promised that the issue of modern and effective copyright legislation would be addressed as soon as Carifesta was over. To date nothing further has issued from the minister's honourable mouth on the issue and it appears that once again the creative and music production community must wait and burn as their rulers fiddle!!

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