For books’ sake: Petamber Persaud

Guyanese literary activist Petamber Persaud puts his faith in the power of words

Petamber Persaud. Photograph by Dwayne Hackett

In 1992, the Guyana Chronicle published a letter by Petamber Persaud, calling for the establishment of a publishing house for Caribbean writers. Thus began an extraordinarily steadfast campaign to promote Guyanese and West Indian literature, and reading in Guyana.

Fourteen years later, Persaud is not quite sure how he came to write that letter. Perhaps it had something to do with his job as a taxi-driver, making the rounds of Georgetown and observing first-hand the violence that followed the elections that returned democracy to Guyana in October of that year.

“I feel strongly about reading. If you can read and comprehend, you are able to express yourself, and you can resolve many conflicts. In fiction, you can see writers resolving societal problems,” he says.

Today, Persaud’s weekly television programme Oral Tradition, broadcast on the state-owned NCN station, his biweekly programme Between the Lines, and his weekly column in the Chronicle make him one of the best-known literary advocates in Guyana, a nation with a strong literary tradition, but many of whose contemporary writers live abroad in the great Guyanese diaspora.

In some ways, Persaud is an unlikely person to have ended up in this role. He was born in 1955 in Campbelville — a rural village, but immediately bordering Georgetown — to cane-cutter Narine and rice-cutter Deokalie. Today, the punt trenches, cane fields, and rice fields that formed Persaud’s childhood playground are divided into Sophia, the city’s largest squatting area, and Lamaha Gardens, an upscale neighbourhood. His mother Deokalie worked in the rice fields, but she saw power in books, and her son Kumar — as he was known at home — was never deprived of money for transport to the National Library in downtown Georgetown. Sometimes he would walk the distance with his elder brother, Sasenarine (now a novelist and poet, based in Canada), and after the Saturday ritual at the library, they would take the money, hit the cinemas, and cool down with a snow cone for the walk back home.

Persaud never really knew how his parents got his name changed to “Anthony” in order for him to attend St Winifred’s Roman Catholic School. And it was only when the time came for him to write common entrance exams and his birth certificate surfaced that he discovered his name was really Petamber.

The head of his private high school — Guyana Progressive College — was Kenneth Persaud. “He was a great influence on my life. He made English and English literature so beautiful that you could not help but learn it. We had to listen to the BBC every morning and then read the newspaper and learn the pronunciation, the enunciation.

”Then he left school and couldn’t find a job. His dream was to become a journalist. Instead he found himself working as a waiter at the high-society Georgetown Club, then as a taxi driver, cruising the city’s red-light district for late night fares and the possibility of a big tip. But his love of books never faded. When he met his future wife Dianne, his first gifts to her were two rare books by the Guyanese writer Edgar Mittelholzer.

Persaud’s fateful 1992 letter in the Chronicle was followed by dozens more, as his one-man campaign built up steam. Finally, in 2002, Oral Tradition went on the air, “stimulating interest in and maintaining focus on the local literary landscape”. Persaud interviewed writers, talked about their books, lobbied for publishing opportunities and writing workshops, and slowly built an audience. “It brings home the authors to the people,” he says. “People like to know that this is a real person.”

The costs were covered sometimes by corporate Guyana, sometimes by his friends, and many times by himself. “Once I pulled the programme off the air for a month because of health reasons. That is when I came to appreciate the impact I’m making. Persons were trying to find out what happened.”

Oral Tradition has made Petamber an unofficial liaison for local writers, with many requests for advice on organising readings and dramatic productions. And his Chronicle column, featuring biographies of Guyanese writers, is enormously popular. Through long hours of research at the National Library, and sometimes very hesitant individual sources, he brings home to Guyanese all there is to know about local writers, both living and dead. And three times in a row he has been appointed the editor of the Guyana Christmas Annual, a long-established literary magazine for mostly emerging writers.

But Persaud’s ultimate goal still lies ahead: the recognition of an official “Day of Guyanese Literature” on the national calendar. And one suspects he won’t ever rest until all Guyanese, young and old, have a better appreciation of their country’s rich literary heritage. No ambition could be bigger — or more worthwhile.