'FITTING TRIBUTE': Nigel Harris

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Sir Wilson Harris

By Sateesh Maharaj

uyana-born author Wilson Harris said he was very pleased at being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to Literature. The honour coincides with Her Majesty's birthday celebrations this year.

"I am very pleased," he said during a phone interview. "It was a bit of a surprise, but there you are! But it was not a complete surprise. They wrote to me a few weeks ago and told me that this was coming, but I was told not to say anything until the Queen had confirmed that it was okay. The only thing is that my wife was not there. She is not here. My wife, Margaret, would have been very pleased. She passed away earlier this year, in January."

He says since the news broke of his knighthood "everyone has responded very well. I've received numerous phone calls and letters."

Harris said these titles are rarely given to writers.

"They're hardly given to conventional writers, and a writer like myself is hardly given a knighthood. So I feel that this is an encouragement to other writers in the region to persist in the their work, even if they feel that what they are doing is not popular, because in the long run it may tell on their behalf. It's a question of the reality of the arts. The arts have to be pursued irrespective of what people think. And any Caribbean writer who has been working seriously should continue to do that and leave the rest to be judged by people who appreciate the importance of what they're doing."

He said conventional writing was different to his style of writing in that "conventional writing is straightforward writing."

"My writing is quantum writing. Do you know of the quantum bullet? The quantum bullet, when it's fired, leaves not one hole but two. That's how my writing is."

Son, Nigel Harris, who is also the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies said his father's knighthood "is a fitting tribute to his unique and extraordinary accomplishments as an author."

He said: "The imaginative and creative ways in which he envisioned and depicted the world around us doubtlessly proved to be inspirational for others like me involved in fields of enquiry and discovery well beyond the confines of literary scholarship."

Mark McWatt, Emeritus Professor of West Indian Literature at the Cave Hill campus, Barbados, said he was very happy to learn of the knighthood.

"Of course I was very happy to hear that he had received this belated recognition of his achievements as a writer: He has remained faithful to his original vision and to what I have called "the language of the imagination" as a medium of expression in his novels. This has made his writing difficult for many, but very rewarding for those who persevere, as it has enabled him to come to terms with the landscape—especially the daunting landscapers of the interior of Guyana—with what he has called the "void" of history (for example the undocumented past of Guyana's indigenous peoples), with the mix of races and cultures in the Caribbean and with events such as the Jonestown tragedy (all of which he has written about in the novels). It's a pity this recognition comes so late in his career: he has not been well over the past year or so and in fact was in hospital earlier this year, after his wife Margaret died. I gather that he is no longer able to write novels."

He said perhaps the award suggests that there's still a chance that his life's achievement might receive a more appropriate—and literary—recognition by the Sweedish Academy.

"I remember a period in the 80s and 90s when Wilson Harris scholars were regularly invited to add their signatures to letters to the academy recommending that he be awarded the Nobel Prize."

As for his personal impression of Wilson, McWatt said he first came across the author's novels as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

"For me they were a revelation, because I grew up in the interior of Guyana and had been trying to write about the experience of that landscape myself. I understood at once why he wrote the way he did: it was in order to remain faithful to the experience, including the emotional response to the landscape which was something I had felt myself. I met him when he visited the University of Toronto in 1971 and he was one of the authors I wrote about in my doctoral thesis a few years later. I've met him several times since, both here in the Caribbean and in England. He is a very pleasant person and I've always found his conversation fascinating—on almost any topic. Over the years I've published about a dozen scholarly articles on his fiction and he has commented kindly on my own creative writing. For me he is the most interesting Guyanese writer."

One of Guyana's best known writers, the 89-year-old Harris was born in New Amsterdam in British Guiana and attended Queen's College after which he studied land surveying and began to work as a government surveyor in 1942, rising to senior surveyor in 1955. In this period Harris became intimately acquainted with the Guyanese interior and with the Amerindian presence, his profile on the Peepal Tree Press website said.

Between 1945 and 1961, Harris was a regular contributor of stories, poems and essays to Kyk-over-Al and was part of a group of Guyanese intellectuals that included Martin Carter, Sidney Singh, Ivan Van Sertima and Milton Williams. His first publication was a book of poems, Fetish (1951) under the pseudonym Kona Waruk, followed by the more substantial Eternity to Season (1954) which announced Harris's commitment to a cross-cultural vision in the arts, linking the Homeric to the Guyanese.

Harris's first published novel was Palace of the Peacock (1969), followed by a further 23 novels with The Ghost of Memory (2006) as the most recent. He relocated to the United Kingdom in 1959.

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