Hillel Italy, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — George Lamming, a giant of post-colonial literature whose novels, essays and speeches influenced readers and peers in his native Barbados and around the world, has died at the age of 94.
His death this month was confirmed by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who said: “Wherever George Lamming went, he embodied that voice and spirit that screamed for Barbados and the Caribbean.” The cause of death was not specified.
Along with contemporaries such as Nobel laureate W. S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, and John Hearn, Lamming was one of a generation of post-war West Indian writers who came of age when British rule in their region was challenged and spent, at least part of their 20s in England. But unlike Naipaul, who settled in London and wrote at times with disdain about his origins, Lamming returned home and became the moral, political and intellectual force of a newly independent country, eager to tell its own story.
“There is a variety of English that is used, say, in official situations, in the context of public service, in the context of parliament, in the context of the school, and so on,” he once wrote. “But there has always existed in any given territory another kind of English, the English of the vernacular, the language used by the mass of the population.”
Lamming had a broad, coherent vision, which he says was partly inspired by Trinidadian activist historian C. L. R. James. His vocation was to uncover the crimes of history, uncover and preserve his native culture and form a “collective sense” of the future.
In novels such as In the Castle of My Skin and Season of Adventure, and in the nonfiction Pleasures of Exile, Lamming explored the complex heritage of the Caribbean—as a destination for enslaved people abducted and shipped out of Africa, as a colonial testing ground for England and as the restless neighbor of the United States, practicing “the deceitful dream magic of milk and honey.”
Lamming is best known for “In the Castle of My Skin”, the title of which is taken from an early poem by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. The novel, published in 1953, is a semi-autobiographical narrative set in a Caribbean village uprooted by colonialism and profit making.
In the Castle of My Skin is partly structured as a coming-of-age story for a boy who begins to drift away from his peers when he is accepted into a more prestigious high school. But it is also a panegyric for homeless villagers, cut down trees, sold land and demolished buildings, a ruined way of life.
“The village is, one might say, the central character,” Lamming wrote in the preface to the 1983 reprint of the novel. “The village sings, the village dances, and since the word is their only salvation, all the resources of a living oral folk tradition are invoked to bear witness to the true humanity that rebukes them in their miserable predicament.”
Lamming’s novels The Emigrants and A Season of Adventure are based on his years in England and his disillusionment with British culture, which he was trained to emulate. He lived in London for more than ten years, but thought of it as a cold and aloof place where no one asks each other and you can feel completely alone, even living next to hundreds of others.
“I became a West Indian in England,” he said in a 2013 interview with the National Cultural Foundation of Barbados.
Lamming revisited and reinvented not only his personal history, but also the distant past, which he saw as a battle to decolonize the mind. “The Natives of My Person” was an imaginary journey on a slave ship whose captain no longer believes in their mission. In the novel he was working on towards the end of his life, he presented Christopher Columbus, arrested by the natives in the West Indies, “stripped naked” and his hands and feet were in chains. Columbus pleads, “My mistakes were not made with the intent to do evil.”
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, while The Pleasures of Exile explores in detail the fall of Prospero’s power over Caliban.
“The old language blackmail just doesn’t work anymore,” he wrote. “For the language of modern politics is no longer the exclusive vocabulary of Prospero. This is also Caliban; and since there is no absolute from which a moral prescription can proceed, Caliban is free to choose the meaning of this moment.
Lamming’s fans ranged from Richard Wright, who wrote the preface to the US edition of In the Castle of My Skin, to Jean-Paul Sartre and the Kenyan writer 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 “intellectual energy, constancy of mind and unwavering commitment to the ideals of liberty and sovereignty”. Six years later, Lamming received the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award for his “profoundly political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism”.
Lamming was born near the capital city of Bridgetown, in what he called a “bad village”, where black was identified with “cheap labor” and white symbolized power. At school, he was afraid of being asked where he lived, and on walks home with more affluent classmates, he sometimes saw his mother and worried if he should acknowledge her.
“When I hear people discussing class, I don’t find it in Marx. I’ve lived it since I was 10,” he later wrote.
Like the protagonist of In the Castle of My Skin, he was accepted into an elite high school and was encouraged by one teacher to write poetry. Lamming took a job as a teacher at a boys’ school in Trinidad before following the same path as many of his contemporaries and emigrating to England in 1950, traveling on the same boat across the ocean as Trinidadian author Sam Selvon. In London he wrote poetry and short stories and worked as a programmer for the BBC.
Meanwhile, as Lamming launched “Castle of My Skin”, Barbados pulled away from the British. Demands for democratization had been on the rise since the 1930s, and by the time Lamming went abroad, voting rights had been extended beyond wealthy men to women and the lower classes. Regional federation in the 1950s gave way to the independence of Barbados, Trinidad, and other Caribbean nations in subsequent decades.
“The numerical superiority of the black masses could create the political authority of their own production and provide an alternative direction for society,” Lamming later wrote. “In the desolate, frozen heart of London, at the age of 23, I tried to recreate the world of my childhood and early adolescence. It was also the world of a whole Caribbean reality.”
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