Activist state

George Lamming, giant of modern West Indian writing, has died

George Lamming, a giant of postcolonial literature whose novels, essays and speeches influenced readers and peers in his native Barbados and around the world, has died aged 94.

His death this month was confirmed by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who said: “Wherever George Lamming went he embodied that voice and that spirit that screamed Barbados and the Caribbean. No cause of death was given.

Along with contemporaries such as Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite and John Hearne, Lamming was part of a generation of post-World War II West Indian writers who came of age as British rule in their region was questionable and spent at least part of his twenties in England. But unlike Naipaul, who settled in London and sometimes wrote dismissively about his origins, Lamming returned home and became a moral, political and intellectual force for a newly independent country seeking to tell its own story.

“There is a kind of English that is used, for example, in official situations, in the context of the civil service, in the context of parliament, in the context of school, etc.,” he said. he writes one day. “But there was always, in a given territory, another type of English, the English of the popular language, the language which the mass of the population uses.”

Lamming had a broad and connective view which he says drew in part from Trinidadian historian-activist CLR James. Its vocation was to respond to the crimes of history, to unearth and preserve its native culture, and to forge a “collective sense” of the future.

In novels such as “In the Castle of My Skin” and “Season of Adventure” and in the non-fiction “The Pleasures of Exile”, Lamming explored the complicated legacy of the Caribbean – as a destination for kidnapped slaves and shipped from Africa, as a colonial proving ground for England and as an uneasy neighbor to the United States, practitioners of “the deceptive magic of the milk and honey dream”.

Lamming received his greatest recognition for “In the Castle of My Skin,” its title taken from a poem by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Published in 1953, the novel is a semi-autobiographical account set in a West Indian village uprooted by colonialism and profiteering.

“In the Castle of My Skin” was structured in part as a coming-of-age story about a boy who begins to drift away from his peers when he is admitted to a more exclusive high school. But it is also a eulogy – for the homeless villagers, for the cut trees, the land sold and the buildings razed, for the dismantling of the way of life.

“The Village, one might say, is the central character,” Lamming wrote in an introduction to a 1983 reissue of the novel. “The Village sings, the Village dances, and since speech is their only help, all the resources of a vital oral folk tradition are summoned to bear witness to the essential humanity that rebukes the misery of their situation.”

Lamming’s novels “The Emigrants” and “Season of Adventure” were inspired by his years in England and his disenchantment with the British culture he had been conditioned to emulate. He lived for more than a decade in London, but considered it a cold and alienated place, where no one wondered after each other and where you could feel entirely alone even living near hundreds of others. .

“I became West Indian in England,” he said in a 2013 interview for the Barbados National Cultural Foundation.

Lamming revisited and reinvented not only his personal history, but the distant past, which he saw as a battle for the decolonization of the mind. “Natives of My Person” was an imaginary journey on a slave ship whose captain no longer believes in his mission. In a novel he was working on late in life, he imagined Christopher Columbus being arrested by natives in the West Indies, “undressed” and with his hands and legs chained”. Columbus pleads: “My mistakes were not made with the intent to do harm.”

He was also heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and the slave Caliban, whom Lamming saw as a symbol of the colonial voice waiting to be heard. His novel ‘Water With Berries’ is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s play and ‘The Pleasures of Exile’ explores in depth the overthrow of Prospero’s authority over Caliban.

“The old blackmail of language simply won’t work anymore,” he wrote. “For the language of modern politics is no longer Prospero’s exclusive vocabulary. It is also that of Caliban; and since there is no absolute from which a moral prescription can come, Caliban is free to choose the meaning of that moment.

Lamming’s admirers ranged from Richard Wright, who wrote the introduction to the American edition of “In the Castle of My Skin,” to Jean-Paul Sartre to Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Lamming spent much of the second half of his life in Barbados, but also taught at Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2008, he was awarded the Order of the Caribbean Community for his “intellectual energy, constancy of vision, and unwavering devotion to the ideals of freedom and sovereignty”. Six years later, Lamming received the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award for his “deeply political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism”.

Lamming was born near the capital, Bridgetown, in what he called a “bad village”, where black was identified with “cheap labour” and white symbolized power. At school, he feared being asked where he lived, and when he returned home with more affluent classmates, he sometimes saw his mother and wondered if he should recognize her.

“When I hear people talk about class, I didn’t find it in Marx. I lived it, from the age of 10,” he wrote later.

Like the protagonist of “In the Castle of My Skin”, he was accepted into an elite high school and was encouraged by a teacher to write poetry. Lamming found a job teaching at a boys’ school in Trinidad before following a similar path to many contemporaries and emigrating to England in 1950, traveling on the same boat across the ocean as the Trinidadian author. Sam Selvon. In London he wrote poetry and stories and worked in BBC programming.

Meanwhile, as Lamming began “Castle of My Skin”, Barbados was breaking away from the British. Demands for democratization had grown since the 1930s and by the time Lamming went overseas, the franchise had been extended beyond wealthy men to include women and the lower classes. A regional federation in the 1950s gave way to the independence of Barbados, Trinidad and other Caribbean countries in the following decades.

“The numerical superiority of the black masses could forge a political authority of its own making and provide an alternative direction to society,” Lamming later wrote. “In the desolate and frozen heart of London, at 23, I tried to piece together the world of my childhood and adolescence. It was also the world of a whole Caribbean reality.