Ian McDonald was born in Trinidad in 1933. After attending school in Port of Spain he went to university in Cambridge to read History. He was a gifted tennis player and captained both the Cambridge and the West Indies Davis cup team. He first went to Guyana in 1955 and has lived there ever since.
Born into a white West Indian family of power and privilege, Ian McDonald has led a very different life. Initially working with Bookers Ltd (owners of Guyana's sugar estates), he continued working with the nationalised Guyana Sugar Corporation, and was for many years its Administrative Director. This post he maintained with the utmost technocratic skill and humanity throughout the darkest days of PNC party paramountcy, presidential dictatorship and economic collapse. Throughout these years and into the difficult years of reconstruction of the 1990s, McDonald contributed in incalculable ways to the survival of culture and human values in Guyana. Through a weekly newspaper column which kept just the right side of PNC displeasure but upheld the values that its actions were destroying in Guyanese society, working with A.J. Seymour to revive Kyk-over-Al, maintaining a crucial friendship with Martin Carter through his most difficult years and supporting numerous developing writers. In more recent years he has a key figure in Guyana's Cultural Commission, working to preserve what is still being lost through emigration and neglect.
Ian McDonald's own writing career began in the 1950s with the publication in journals such as New World and Bim of much anthologised poems such as 'Jaffo the Calypsonian' and 'The Stick Fighters' (1956-57). His first collection appeared in cyclostyled form in Georgetown sometime in the early 1970s; a selection appeared in Poetry: Introduction 3, 1975 and Selected Poems in Georgetown, 1983.
He wrote a play, Tramping Man which was performed in Guyana in 1969, broadcast by GBS in 1972 and published in A Time and a Season ed. Errol Hill, 1976. It is about a Dionysian carnivalesque figure, a spirit of unquenchable freedom who is seen by the state to challenge its power with fatal results for the innocent when the state responds in the usual authoritarian way.
In 1969, McDonald's novel, The Hummingbird Tree was published to great acclaim. It has been in almost continuous print ever since, and more recently made into a BBC film. It deals with the involvement of a young white child on a sugar estate with two Indian children from the village. It is written with great integrity and ends with the shamed movement away of the white child, still in his parents' orbit, a path which McDonald's own life and writings reversed.
The humanity of Ian McDonald's writing is nowhere better illustrated than in his Mercy Ward (1988), poems derived from his experiences of visiting the terminally sick in hospital ward where the poor are left to die. His embrace of the landscapes and peoplescapes of Guyana is further revealed in his next collection, Essequibo (1992). Jaffo the Calysonian, Peepal Tree, 1994, collects together much of McDonald's earlier poetry, whilst From Silence to Silence (2002) is his most personal collection yet, full of the kind of awareness of mortality which gives meaning to both life and art.
Ian McDonald was recently awarded a richly deserved Honorary Ph D by the University of the West Indies.
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