July 2010

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HONOUR ROLL: The Far Journey of Wilson

Nearing ninety, one is hardly surprised by life’s servings anymore. If one were born in 1921, as the newly knighted Wilson Harris was, one would have entered a world emerging from the ravages of World War I. In one’s twenties, one would have experienced a second, more devastating episode of global violence, and afterwards known a planet continually engaged in warfare–hot and cold.

One would have seen remarkable advances in technology: enabling gizmos that have irrevocably altered ways of seeing and being, communications devices that have all but shrunk the physical space we inhabit.

If one were Wilson Harris, born in New Amsterdam in that dense, abstract and indefinable space we now call Guyana; if one were Wilson Harris, government surveyor, trekking through rainforest and hinterland, and one decided to become a writer, one could take a deep breath and suck all that mystic air into one’ lungs, and it could fill one with an imperturbable bubble that could be a shield from the ongoing world—a shield and even a lens through which to view it.

And nearing ninety, having followed the calling to write for nigh all of one’s life, one is not overly surprised when the notice comes indicating that the Queen’s Birthday Honours list would like to feature your name as a knight.

“I am very pleased,” Wilson Harris said about the award, “It was a bit of a surprise, but there you are!”

It was a moment that was reduced for him by the absence of his wife, Margaret, who died in January this year. At his moment of celebration, it was a marked vacuum, eliciting a poignant lament.

“She is not here!”

Sir Wilson was asked what he thought his knighthood meant for other Caribbean writers.

“It’s important in the sense that these knighthoods are hardly 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 explained that what he meant by 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.”

That is true of his writing; writing from the dense, abstract and indefinable space that is Guyana, that no physical journey could erase.

Sir Wilson migrated to England in 1959 and published his first novel Palace of the Peacock in 1960. It became part of The Guyana Quartet, which includes The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). He later wrote the Carnival trilogy consisting of Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990).

Since his poetry writing days, he has written several novels, non-fiction and critical essays and has been awarded honorary doctorates by several universities. The University of the West Indies conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1984.

His son, Prof Nigel Harris, is current Vice Chancellor of The UWI.

“My father’s knighthood is a fitting tribute to his unique and extraordinary accomplishments as an author,” he said as he remarked on the inspirational role he played in his life.

St Augustine Campus Principal, Prof Clement Sankat offered congratulations on behalf of the Campus, “I congratulate Sir Theodore Wilson Harris, an eminent writer and son of our Caribbean soil, on his knighthood. This is indeed a phenomenal achievement.”

Indeed, as phenomenal as the man.