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Sunday, March 26, 2006
Wilson Theodore Harris b. 1921

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by Petamber Persaud
WILSON Harris is the recipient of five honorary doctorates. In 1968, he obtained an Arts Council Grant, and in 1971, he was a Commonwealth Fellow in Caribbean Literature at Leeds University, UK. He held the revered position of writer-in-residence at many universities around the world including places like Australia, New York, Texas, Toronto and Cuba. In 1987, he won the inaugural Guyana Prize for Literature in the fiction category, and in 2002, he was awarded the Guyana Prize Special Award. In 2003, the University of Warwick staged a conference in honour of Harris.

In 1968, Wilson Harris was a delegate to the National Identity Conference in Brisbane, and in the same year, he was a delegate to UNESCO symposium on Caribbean Literature held in Cuba. In 1970, he was part of the Convention of Caribbean Writers and Artists held in Guyana planning for what turned out to be the Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta). During that visit to Guyana, he delivered a number of talks in the Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lecture Series. (Both Harris and Mittelholzer were born in New Amsterdam, Berbice, Guyana. Mittelholzer wrote 23 novels. Harris has the same number to his credit and is still writing.)

Harris’ short stories appeared first in KYK-OVER-AL as early as the 1940s. About the same time some were aired on ‘Caribbean Voices’. His stories were anthologised in prominent collections including West Indian Stories, West Indian Narrative and Caribbean Rhythm.

Some of his poems were collected in three volumes; `FETISH’ (1951) `ETERNITY TO SEASON’ (1952), and `THE WELL AND THE LAND’ (1952).

He has written numerous essays on topics including ‘The Enigma of Values’, ‘Fossil and Psyche’, ‘Greatness and Bitterness’ and ‘The Making of a Book’.

Wilson Harris has written and published some twenty three novels since his first, `PALACE OF THE PEACOCK’, appeared in 1960. His most recent novel, `THE MASK OF THE BEGGAR’ (2003), gives a possible starting point that led Harris on the road of his remarkable literary achievement.

When Wilson was only eight, he started reading, `THE ODYSSEY’, with the help of his mother, Millicent. The Ulysses of that book became one of the motifs Harris employed in his writing.

Novelist, poet, short fiction writer and essayist, Wilson Theodore Harris was born on March 24, 1921. He was the eldest of two children. When he was only two years of age, his father died and when he was six, his step-father seemed to have deserted the family. The family, headed by the mother, who was an active member of Smyth Congregational, made a number of house moves, twice in East Street and twice in Lime Street, before settling.

Along with chalking up his first read book, young Wilson was part of an informal literary circle comprising Sheila King and Malcolm King, discussing mainly Shakespeare, Milton, and Camus.

During his high school days, he was a member of another literary group, Club 25. This group, limited to twenty five members only, operated from Progressive High School headed at the time by Leslie C. Davis. It included the likes of Allan Young, W. G. Stoll, E. O. Q. Potter, Maurice Charles and Jan Carew. One of the club’s events was a debate on the moot, ‘Poets and Scoffers’, judged by A. J. Seymour.

Later, when he moved into the world of work, Harris became part of a number of social and literary groups. One such gathering was labelled the ‘Anira Group’ operating out of the home of Martin Carter’s mother. It included Martin and his brother, Keith, Sydney Singh, and others. That group eventually moved to Carter’s home with additional members like Jan Carew, Slade Hopkinson and Milton Vishnu Williams.

Harris was also a part of a group that met at the home of Cheddi Jagan, many attracted to his vast library and his political vision for Guyana.

Another formal body of which Harris was a member was the Carnegie Library Discussion Circle. In 1956, when George Lamming visited Guyana to organise public readings, it was Harris who read Carter’s poems because Carter was under house arrest.

So Harris was well grounded in literary matters before his sojourn in the wilderness of Guyana and was conversant in such matters during his years as a surveyor, exploring the ‘womb of space’. So much emphasis is being placed on the influence of the jungle on his work that his steady growth in literature in the ‘civilised’ Georgetown environs is overlooked.

Of all those comments, however, one is quite useful in the reading of Harris. Jan Carew said that Harris’ kind of writing came out of ‘someone accustomed to talking to himself in the Guyana bush for seventeen years’. So persons accustomed to talking to themselves and thinking aloud would easily get a handle on Harris’ seemingly difficult writings.

It would be useful here to emphasise that Harris attended Queen’s College, one of the top schools at the time.

All (of his city associations) helped to harness the jungle within covers of books.

When he was 17, he left school to train as a land surveyor, an occupation he stayed with until he migrated to England in 1959 where he now lives and is still writing.

Wilson Harris is the father of Denise Harris, one of three Guyanese writers to father a Guyanese woman novelist.

* Interview with Sheila King, March 2006, Georgetown, Guyana

* An Interview with Jan Carew (by Birbalsingh). PASSION & EXILE by Frank Birbalsingh

* Memoir by Wilson Harris. KYK-OVER-AL 49/50

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