“Born in Barbados, he was among the last of a generation of writers who traced the Caribbean’s transition to independence.” Clay Risen renders tribute to the late George Lamming in this article. Read full text at The New York Times. [Many thanks to Michael O’Neal (Slavery, Smallholding and Tourism) for bringing this item to our attention. Also see our previous post Official-funeral-for-literary-giant-george-lamming/]
George Lamming, a novelist and essayist from Barbados who was among the last of a generation of Caribbean writers whose work traced their region’s transition from colonialism to independence, died on June 4 at his home in Bridgetown, his country’s capital. He was 94.
The death was confirmed by his daughter, Natasha Lamming-Lee. She did not provide a cause.
Mr. Lamming’s early work, like that of his contemporaries V.S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon, was filtered through his experience as a young man in London, where he published his first novel, “In the Castle of My Skin,” in 1953. He was part of what came to be known as the Windrush generation, the hundreds of thousands of Caribbean people who migrated to Britain after the government ruled, in 1948, that they were British citizens.
For Mr. Lamming and others, the rapid collapse of the British Empire was a moment of soul-searching and measure-taking: What did it mean to be Barbadian? Could a former colonial subject, let alone an entire society, craft an identity independent of its colonizer? And what was the place of art in that vision?
“I think that they were seeking the right to speak for themselves and their societies and their landscapes, to describe the world which had made them with a precision and care of the insider,” Richard Drayton, a historian at King’s College, London, and a friend of Mr. Lamming’s, said in a phone interview. “For its own sake, not for the entertainment of an English public.”
“In the Castle of My Skin” was a critical success, winning the Somerset Maugham Award and earning Mr. Lamming a Guggenheim fellowship. A loosely autobiographical tale about a boy growing up in Barbados amid labor and social unrest, it also drew on Mr. Lamming’s extensive readings in existentialist thought. The French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir both championed the book, as did the Black American writer Richard Wright, who had moved to Paris in 1946. The novel, full of dense imagery and metaphor, blends techniques and styles from poetry, memoir and theater, a mélange typical of Mr. Lamming’s fiction. [. . .]
Mr. Lamming used the money from his awards to travel to Ghana and the United States, as well as back to the Caribbean; those journeys put him in touch with the African diaspora and bolstered his sense of political commitment, an aspect of his work that set him apart from Walcott, Naipaul and many others in his cohort. He attended the landmark Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956, and he became close friends with the Marxist literary critic C.L.R. James.
“He’s very different from the others in that he placed himself in what one might term a sort of Afro-global diaspora tradition,” the writer Caryl Phillips said in a phone interview.
At the same time, Mr. Lamming was also steeped in British literature — Thomas Hardy was one of his favorite poets — and he was fascinated with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in particular the relationship between the shipwrecked sorcerer Prospero and his slave Caliban, which was, he felt, a metaphor for the relationship between colonizer and colonized.
Throughout his work, Mr. Lamming sought to complicate that relationship. It was a hierarchy, he conceded, but also a dynamic, in which the colonized can overcome his or her double consciousness, or experience of alienation, to make space for his or her own identity and freedom. “The double consciousness must be seen as a strategy, and not as a prison,” he said in a 2002 interview with the magazine Small Axe. “He’s in my consciousness as I am in his. And I have the power to place meanings on him that is no less than his placing meanings on me.”
Achieving that vision takes political struggle, and as his career progressed Mr. Lamming dedicated more of his energy to activism. He wrote the last of his six novels, “Natives of My Person,” in 1972; his subsequent published work was all nonfiction, in the form of essays, speeches and manifestoes.
He worried that in the wake of colonialism, Caribbean society was recreating the same class structures, and even finding new imperial metropoles to submit to, above all the United States. He traveled widely, supporting left-wing governments and organizing activists around the Caribbean.
To support himself, he began an academic career in the late 1960s, teaching and serving as writer in residence at Brown University, the University of Texas, Duke University, the University of the West Indies and other institutions.
To him, fiction, essays and activism were all part of the same endeavor. “I haven’t changed very much in that sense of almost seeing what I do and myself as a kind of evangelist,” he told Small Axe. “I’m a preacher of some kind; I am a man bringing a message of some kind.”
George William Lamming was born on June 8, 1927, in Carrington, a village located on a former sugar plantation outside Bridgetown. His parents were unmarried, and he knew his father only from a distance. His mother, Loretta Devonish, was a homemaker who later married Clyde Medford, a police officer. [. . .]
In 1946 he moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he taught in a boarding school for wealthy Venezuelans. It was a culturally and politically vibrant place; he met the American singer, actor and left-wing activist Paul Robeson, who was there on tour, and he began his first encounters with Marxism and continental philosophy.
[. . .] Mr. Lamming returned to Barbados in 1980 and eventually moved into a hotel on the rural eastern side of the island. It became his base of operations, where he met with political activists and wrote his speeches and essays. And though he remained focused on Caribbean politics, he was also prescient about a global resurgence of white supremacy in the 21st century, long before it became obvious.
“The white world is closing ranks,” he said in a 1998 speech at the City College of New York. “The Cold War is over, and a new racial hierarchy is emerging.”
For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/17/books/george-lamming-dead.html
[Photo above by George Douglas/Getty Images: The Barbadian writer George Lamming in London in 1951. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of Caribbean people who migrated to Britain after the government ruled, in 1948, that they were British citizens.]
3 thoughts on “George Lamming, Who Chronicled the End of Colonialism, Dies at 94”
What a strange expérience. !
The passing of George, (4 days before his 95th birthday) gave me the urge to reread his youthful masterpiece, but after the upheaval of our moving 4 years ago, I was mysteriously unable to find my original, autographed copy of
IN THE CASTLE OF MY SKIN.
Had I packed it away so carefully that it was no longer either in the distinguished company of my collection of Caribbean literature, nor in my precious collection of books written by close friends ?
How mysterious !
So eventually, I decided that it was urgent that I buy a new copy.
And so I reread it. Over half a century later.
Having just finished reading this Penguin reprint of IN THE CASTLE OF MY SKIN, I am overcome by the realisation that it has been such a strange, moving, and yes, disturbing experience.
Re-discovering both the novel , AND the George, (MY George) that I knew in 1968 .
The overall atmosphere is what I expected. Like rereading the Bible, the Odyssey, Don Quijote, The Tempest, decades after my first immersion in their beauty…
It is so familiar that you think you know it by heart.
And yet each chapter is a discovery, a revelation, an exploration of a planet, emerging from the swirling, from the unfathomable mystery that makes you constantly wonder what will the next page bring. ???
Had I really read it half a century ago ?
Endophasia ? An inner voice speaks to me.
You left us, bereft us,
Good news messenger.
Wisps whirl, swells swirl.
Water crashes on pebbles
hidden under leaves or sandcastles.
Disenslaved redemption or exile forever ?
Impenetrable, convoluted, slimy empires
Change colour like slimy chameleons. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go
Tempests ever swoop and blow
Colour blindness never comes
Since humanity is imperfect.
Some castles sail away
And the rest is silence.