Wilson Harris

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Wilson Harris
BornTheodore Wilson Harris
(1921-03-24)24 March 1921
New Amsterdam, British Guiana
(now New Amsterdam, Guyana)
Died8 March 2018(2018-03-08) (aged 96)
Chelmsford, England
Alma materQueen's College
Genrefiction, poems, essay
Notable awardsGuyana Prize for Literature, Premio Mondello dei Cinque Continenti, Guyana Prize for Literature (Special Award)
SpouseMargaret (until her death, January 2010)
ChildrenE. Nigel Harris, Alexis Harris, Denise Harris, Michael Harris

Sir Theodore Wilson Harris (24 March 1921 – 8 March 2018) was a Guyanese writer. He initially wrote poetry, but subsequently became a novelist and essayist. His writing style is often said to be abstract and densely metaphorical, and his subject matter wide-ranging. Harris is considered one of the most original and innovative voices in postwar literature in English.[1]


Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam in British Guiana, where his father worked at an insurance company.[2] After studying at Queen's College in the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, he became a government surveyor, before taking up a career as lecturer and writer. The knowledge of the savannas and rain forests he gained during his time as a surveyor formed the setting for many of his books, with the Guyanese landscape dominating his fiction.

Between 1945 and 1961, Harris was a regular contributor of stories, poems and essays to Kyk-over-Al literary magazine and was part of a group of Guyanese intellectuals that included Martin Carter and Ivan Van Sertima.

Harris came to England in 1959 and published his first novel Palace of the Peacock in 1960. This became the first of a quartet of novels, The Guyana Quartet, which includes The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). He subsequently wrote the Carnival trilogy: Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990).

His most recent novels were Jonestown (1996), which tells of the mass-suicide of followers of cult leader Jim Jones, The Dark Jester (2001), a semi-autobiographical novel, The Mask of the Beggar (2003), and The Ghost of Memory (2006).

Harris also wrote non-fiction and critical essays and was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of the West Indies (1984) and the University of Liège (2001). He twice won the Guyana Prize for Literature.

Harris was created a Knight Bachelor in June 2010, in the Queen Elizabeth II Birthday Honours.[3][4] In 2014, Harris won a Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.[5]


Literary critics[who?] have stated that although reading Harris's work is challenging, it is rewarding in many ways. Harris has been admired for his exploration of the themes of conquest and colonization as well as the struggles of colonized peoples. Readers have commented that his novels are an attempt to express truths about the way people experience reality through the lens of the imagination. Harris has been faulted for his novels that have often nonlinear plot lines, and for his preference of internal perceptions over external realities.

Critics have described Harris's abstract, experimental narratives as difficult to read, dense, complex, or opaque.[6] Many readers[who?] have commented that Harris's essays push the boundaries of traditional literary criticism, and that his fiction pushes the limits of the novel genre itself. Harris's writing has been associated with many different literary genres by critics, including: surrealism, magic realism, mysticism and modernism. Over the years, Harris has used many different concepts to define his literary approach, including: cross-culturalism, modern allegory,[7] epic, and Quantum Fiction. One critic described Harris's fictions as informed by "quantum penetration where Existence and non-existence are both real. You can contemplate them as if both are true."

Literary technique[edit]

The technique of Harris has been called experimental and innovative. Harris describes that conventional writing is different from his style of writing in that "conventional writing is straightforward writing" and "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."[8]

The use of nonlinear events and metaphor is a substantive component of his prose. Another technique employed by Harris is the combination of words and concepts in unexpected, jarring ways. Through this technique of combination, Harris displays the underlying, linking root that prevents two categories from ever really existing in opposition. The technique exposes and alters the power of language to lock in fixed beliefs and attitudes, "freeing" words and concepts to associate in new ways.

Harris sees language as the key to social and human transformations. His approach begins with a regard of language as a power to both enslave and free. This quest and understanding underlies his narrative fiction themes about human slavery. Harris cites language as both, a crucial element in the subjugation of slaves and indentures, and the means by which the destructive processes of history could be reversed.[9]

In Palace of the Peacock, Harris seeks to expose the illusion of opposites that create enmities between people. A crew on a river expedition experiences a series of tragedies that ultimately bring about each member's death. Along the way, Harris highlights as prime factor in their demise their inability to reconcile binarisms in the world around them and between each other. With his technique of binary breakdowns, and echoing the African tradition of death not bringing the end to a soul, Harris demonstrates that they find reconciliation only in physical death, pointing out the superficiality of illusions of opposites that separated them.[10]

Harris noted in an interview that "in describing the world you see, the language evolves and begins to encompass realities that are not visible".[11] Harris attributed his innovative literary techniques as a development that was the result of being witness to the physical world behaving as quantum theory. To accommodate his new perceptions, Harris said he realized he was writing "quantum fiction".[12]

His writing has been called ambitiously experimental and his narrative structure is described as "multiple and flexible."[13]

Harris categorized his innovations and literary techniques as quantum fiction.[14][15][16] He uses the definition in The Carnival Trilogy and in the final novel, The Four Banks of the River of Space.


Harris died on 8 March 2018, at his home in Chelmsford, England, of natural causes.[17]



(All published by Faber and Faber)

  • 1960. Palace of the Peacock
  • 1961. The Far Journey of Oudin
  • 1962. The Whole Armour
  • 1963. The Secret Ladder
  • 1964. Heartland
  • 1965. The Eye of the Scarecrow
  • 1966. The Waiting Room
  • 1967. Tumatumari
  • 1968. Ascent to Omai
  • 1969. The Sleepers of Roraima (illustrated by Kay Usborne)
  • 1971. The Age of the Rainmakers (illustrated by Kay Usborne)
  • 1972. Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy
  • 1975. Companions of the Day and Night
  • 1977. Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness/Genesis of the Clowns
  • 1978. The Tree of the Sun
  • 1982. The Angel at the Gate
  • 1985. Carnival
  • 1985. The Guyana Quartet (Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin,The Whole Armour, The Secret Ladder)
  • 1987. The Infinite Rehearsal
  • 1990. The Four Banks of the River of Space
  • 1993. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill
  • 1993. The Carnival Trilogy (Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal, The Four Banks of the River of Space), 1993
  • 1996. Jonestown
  • 2001. The Dark Jester
  • 2003. The Mask of the Beggar
  • 2006. The Ghost of Memory

Short stories[edit]

  • Kanaima, 1964
  • The Sleepers of Roraima, 1970
  • The Age of the Rainmakers, 1971


  • Fetish, 1951
  • The Well and the Land, 1952
  • Eternity to Season, 1954


  • 1967. Tradition, the Writer and Society: Critical Essays. London: New Beacon Books.
  • 1970. History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas. Georgetown: National History and Arts COuncil.
  • 1974. Fossil and Psyche. Austin: University of Texas.
  • 1981. Explorations: A Series of Talks and Articles 1966– 1981. Aarhus: Dangaroo Press.
  • 1983. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport: Greenwood Press.
  • 1992. The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks. Liège: L3.
  • 1999. The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination: Selected Essays of Wilson Harris. London: Routledge.

Prizes and awards[edit]

  • 1987 Guyana Prize for Literature
  • 1992 Premio Mondello dei Cinque Continenti
  • 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature (Special Award)
  • 2008 The Nicolas Guillen Philosophical Literature Prize, Caribbean Philosophical Association
  • 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award


  1. ^ "Sir Wilson Harris". Literature. British Council. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  2. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (16 March 2018). "Wilson Harris, Guyanese Writer of Intricate Novels, Dies at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  3. ^ "No. 59446". The London Gazette (Supplement). 12 June 2010. p. 1.
  4. ^ "Wilson Harris Knighted", Stabroek News, 14 June 2010.
  5. ^ Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
  6. ^ Criticism for Harris Wilson.
  7. ^ Stephen Slemon,"Interview with Wilson Harris", Ariel 19, no. 3 (July 1988): pp. 47–56.
  8. ^ Sateesh Maharaj, "Sir Wilson Harris", Trinidad Express Newspapers, 3 July 2010.
  9. ^ David P. Lichtenstein, Wilson Harris – Experimental Vision – Part One: The Technique of Combination; Brown University, 1999.
  10. ^ David P. Lichtenstein, Wilson Harris – Experimental Vision – Part Two: Combination and Humanity; Brown University, 1999.
  11. ^ Monica Pozzi, "A Conversation with Wilson Harris" Hollands, 10 September 1997; Journal of Caribbean Literature, 2.1 – 3 (Spring 2000).
  12. ^ Jefferson-Miles (2002), p. 180.
  13. ^ Andrew Jefferson-Miles, "Quantum Value in Harris's 'architecture of the tides'", in Hena Maes-Jelinek & Bénédicte Ledent (eds), Theatre of the Arts: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean, Amsterdam – New York: Editions Rodopi, 2002, p. 178; ISBN 90-420-1420-2.
  14. ^ Jefferson-Miles (2002), p. 181.
  15. ^ Fred D'Aguiar, "Wilson Harris" (interview), BOMB 82 magazine, Winter 2003.
  16. ^ Michael Gilkes Interviews Sir Wilson Harris, Kaieteur News; 18 July 2010.
  17. ^ Mitchell, Michael (9 March 2018). "Sir Wilson Harris obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 March 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]