By Kiana Wilburg
He’s controversial. He’s confrontational. But love him or hate him, Ruel Johnson has, at the relatively young age of 33, established himself as a writer of some acclaim. Writer and columnist Ian Mc Donald called him “the best young writer in the Caribbean”, after he won the Guyana Prize for Fist Fiction (Ariadne and Other Stories).
He’s now topped that with his recent Guyana Prize award for Best Book of Fiction (Collected Fictions).
Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing this “literary genius,” at the Oasis Café on Carmichael Street, Georgetown.
Kaieteur News: How long have you been involved in “serious writing”?
Ruel Johnson: I’d say about 14 years now. I started serious writing when I was about 18 years as well. This was when I dropped out of the University of Guyana. I then applied for the very first Cropper Foundation Workshop held in Trinidad and Tobago. The Workshop was aimed at helping writers improve their literary skills. I got a space there on the basis of one of the very first stories I ever did. Actually half of it because they only wanted a certain amount of pages and that I believe was the crucial turning point for me to move from just being interested in writing and actually being dedicated to it and considering it as a craft and a career.
KN: When did you write your first poem?
RJ: I wrote my first poem I think when I was about 17 or 18 years old. But I am interested in poetry, drama, and short fiction and currently I am working on a play as well as two screen plays simultaneously. I have an interest as well in journalism. Basically, once it has to do with writing I am an interested in it.
KN: At what age did you realize that you were inclined to English Language and Literature?
RJ: There is no age set there for me. There were several stages in my life where I just showed that I was gradually moving towards a certain direction. For example; when I was in fourth form, I remember I was tasked with writing a story and I recall that I had this particular zeal in the way I was going to approach this story. I was told to write a story about success, and what I did was, I named the character success but the person was actually a failure in life. I also remember during my high school years at President’s College, I had a session in class about the analysis of some poetry and I remember the teacher and I actually ended up engaging each other in a separate discussion on the analysis about the poems and I guess that was something I instinctively got.
KN: After realizing your passion for the literary arts, did it inspire you to pursue writing as a career?
RJ: Yes and no. After I finished high school I took a year off and then headed for the University of Guyana (UG) where I only spent a year. However, before I started UG, I worked at Scotia Bank for a month. I was terrible at it. I did not even survive the probation process and that is fine with me. But when I attended UG, I was not inclined towards the International Relations programme because it was not challenging enough for me and it was not in keeping with what I wanted to do. Ideally, I would have liked to do a creative writing programme but there is none. Currently, there is none which is an irony considering that they run the Guyana Prize for Literature and it is the largest single government sponsored prize in the entire Caribbean and that has to be rectified sometime in the future.
KN: Were you ever discouraged from being a writer?
RJ: Yes. The discouragement came after I started taking my writing seriously. To be clear, any way you write from, writing is seen as a career in which unless you make it big, people think it is a non career but you have to start at some point in order to make it. Sometimes people would say ‘yes, you could write but, why not do something more practical? Something which could sustain you in the future blah blah blah…’but writing something new every time presents a challenge for me and that is what I love, being able to write something that can impact someone’s life or even a political situation. I love writing in such a refined way that I can make my reader’s mind work.
In addition, Writing takes time. After I won the first Guyana prize in 2003, I started a family soon after. And while the prize was nice as it lasted for a little while, reality hit home –which were the responsibilities of a family. And when you have to work and provide for a family, the writing at that time had to take the back seat. People asked me why I didn’t produce something soon after the prize. Well, truth is, it took five years, technically, to produce Volume 1 of collected fictions which got me my second award and initially I was supposed to finish it in 2008. But after 2008 the discouragement with writing didn’t come with the burdens of family, writing etc and the fact that I got divorced in 2008. It came from the political space in which we write in, and as a journalist, if you try to speak out, even if the criticism is constructive, you find that your income is attacked subtly and you find yourself being blatantly marginalized.
The environment that we have isn’t set to discourage you from writing but it is set to stop you from writing. And that is my primary hurdle.
KN: Do you believe that the government is doing enough in terms of writing workshops?
RJ: I think the government has had a passive-aggressive relationship with the Guyana Prize and I don’t think the current government is too enamored of writing. There have been several calls for workshops from the Guyana Prize and the government has not provided funding for that. This year there were workshops, two of which I conducted but it is not enough. And unless their hand is forced, the government of Guyana will not commit to writing workshops.
KN: What is next for you after winning the Prize?
RJ: Well, I am looking to create a writing space where I can work with young writers and whichever other stakeholders are willing to work along with me so that this can be achieved I’d be happy with that.
KN: Are there particular authors who have influenced your writing?
RJ: One thing that is a constant source of inspiration for my writing is the people around me and the place in which I live and even the people I interact with. However, one of the writers that influence my writing is Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine novelist. And one of the things that I have learnt from him is that this book which I have written doesn’t capture the essentials of the world but what is important is that you continue to strive to do so and I think that is one of the beauties and frustrations of being a writer. I think that outlook is something that humbles me. Moreover, Martin Carter also influences my work as well.
KN: How do you feel winning the Guyana Prize for the second time? Do you feel vindicated since the Dabydeen issue?
RJ: I don’t feel vindicated at all. I mean, I entered the prize to win and I did. That speaks for itself. I am not going to throw that fact in anyone’s face. However, a lot of work needs to be done, especially with the Guyana Prize for Literature. Writers are supposed to unsettle things and we need to be given the space to do that. Also, more encouragement needs to be given to our young writers. There are a lot of great young writers but enough is not being done to help them to expand their potential. With the right guidance, a lot of the writers, some of which I know, can win the Guyana Prize.
KN: What is your view of a Publishing House for Guyana?
RJ: There are a lot of challenges in this regard. However, the biggest challenge of all is what I call, “the economy of scale,” the issue of finding a market to actually benefit from publishing your books and to do that it is expensive. However I have solutions to these challenges. But that is another article by itself.
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