George Lamming, famous Caribbean novelist, dies at 94
Alongside novelists and poets such as Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, VS Naipaul, Andrew Salkey and Derek Walcott, Mr. Lamming helped define a new Caribbean literature in the mid-twentieth century, exploring questions of history , politics, language and freedom at a time when colonial rule was giving way to independence.
Raised on a former sugar cane plantation outside of Bridgetown, he has written books highlighting the experiences of people marginalized because of their race, language, gender or income, and has broadcast a message of liberation and inclusion in his essays and speeches. “I’m kind of a preacher,” he said in a 2002 interview with the Small Ax newspaper. “I am a man with a message.”
Like Naipaul and many other Caribbean writers of their generation, Mr. Lamming launched his literary career in London, where he wrote his first semi-autobiographical novel, “In the Castle of My Skin” (1953), at the age of 23 years old. He then reviewed the experience. of migration in “The Emigrants” (1954), a dark and sketchy novel about West Indian expatriates in England, and in his collection of essays “The Pleasures of Exile” (1960), which a New York Times reviewer described as “a neo-Gothic piece with arc-shaped ideas like flying buttresses.”
“My subject,” wrote Mr. Lamming in the latter, “is the migration of the West Indian writer, as a colonial and an exile, from his native kingdom, once inhabited by Caliban, to the tumultuous island of Prospero and its language.”
Mr. Lamming returned to the Caribbean for novels such as “Of Age and Innocence” (1958) and “Season of Adventure” (1960), which were set on the fictional island of San Cristobal, where ethnic African groups, Indians and Chinese were fighting. to overcome mutual suspicion while uniting against the white establishment.
It was difficult, he noted, to forge a new identity after years of colonialism. “I had always lived in the shadow of a meaning that others had given to my presence in the world”, observes an independentist leader in “Age and Innocence”, “and I had played no role in the making in this sense, like a chair that is entirely at the mercy of the idea guiding the hand of the man who builds it.
Mr. Lamming had delved into issues of race and ethnicity since the publication of his first and best-known novel. Named after verses by Walcott, “In the Castle of My Skin” shifted between third and first person while chronicling the upbringing of a young man named G, who joins his friends in fishing, diving for the coins thrown by tourists at the beach wondering how the king’s face ends up on pennies.
He also witnesses a workers’ riot, develops a dawning awareness of racial inequality (“No black boy wanted to be white, but it was also true that no black boy liked the idea of being noir”) and went to Trinidad to work as a teacher. , just like Mr. Lamming did after high school.
“I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and adolescence,” Mr. Lamming wrote in the introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel. “It was also the world of an entire Caribbean society.”
The book won the Somerset Maugham Award for young writers in Britain and was praised by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and American novelist Richard Wright, who wrote the introduction of the American edition.
Critics were also impressed: “Mr. Lamming is a poet by instinct rather than a novelist, a man with an individual and almost private approach to the English language,” wrote Orville Prescott of The Times. “His prose is poetic, sensual, imaginative, adorned with whimsical figures of speech and surprising twists of language.”
In part, Mr. Lamming’s prose style was shaped by his belief in gaining “spiritual possession of the landscape in which you live.” For him, this meant developing an understanding of the “rhythm of the wind…the smell of the sea…the texture of stone and rock”.
“They are not objects outside of you,” Caribbean Beat magazine quoted him as saying. “They are part of your consciousness.”
George William Lamming was born in Carrington Village on June 8, 1927. His parents were unmarried and he barely knew his father. Her mother was a housewife who later married a policeman.
Mr Lamming grew up during a time of social upheaval, prefiguring Barbados’ independence from Britain in 1966, and said he and his peers suffered a more psychological form of colonial cruelty than physical. “It was a terror of the mind; a daily exercise in self-harm,” he wrote in a 2002 essay. “Black against black in a battle for self-improvement.”
After winning a scholarship to the prestigious Combermere High School, he studied under the literary editor Frank Collymore, who welcomed him into his personal library and encouraged Mr. Lamming’s interest in writing poetry and of prose, publishing some of his early work in the Caribbean magazine BIM.
Mr Lamming then worked at a boarding school in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, teaching English to Hispanic students, before moving to England in 1950, sailing on the same ship as Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon. “If I hadn’t gone to England,” he told the Washington Post in 1999, “I would have written, but you wouldn’t have heard of me.”
After working in a factory in London, Mr Lamming landed a job with the BBC Colonial Service, where he was a presenter for shows such as “Caribbean Voices”, an influential platform for West Indian writers. He also became active in the city’s literary community, meeting Dylan Thomas and other poets at the Mandrake Club in Soho.
His conversations with English writers were more about business than literature or politics, he recalls: “A very good short-story writer, always in purple velvet, advised me never to visit an editor’s office to talk business without a small gun in my pocket. He gave examples of his success in such encounters.
Mr. Lamming was soon traveling abroad, visiting the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship and speaking in 1956 at the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, where he impressed an audience that included James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon.
“Lamming is big, boned, messy, and intense,” Baldwin wrote in an essay on the event, “and one of his real distinctions is his refusal to be bullied into being a real writer. “
With his booming, gravelly voice and crown of graying hair, Mr. Lamming won a wide range of admirers, including Canadian novelist and short-story writer Margaret Laurence. They had a brief affair, according to her biographer James King, and she moved to London with her children in an unsuccessful attempt to settle down with Mr Lamming. (His only marriage, to artist Nina Ghent, had previously ended in divorce.)
By 1967, Mr. Lamming had launched a career in academia, lecturing and working as a writer-in-residence at schools including Brown, Duke, Penn, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. . He returned to Barbados in 1980 and lived for many years at the Atlantis Hotel near the fishing village of Bathsheba, where he said his writing was invigorated by daily swims in the ocean.
Mr. Lamming received the Order of the Caribbean Community in 2008 and a Lifetime Achievement Honor from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in 2014.
In addition to his daughter, Lamming-Lee of Silver Spring, Md., survivors include his longtime companion, Esther Phillips; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. Her son, Gordon, died last year.
Mr Lamming’s later novels include ‘Water With Berries’ (1971), a political allegory centered on a West Indian revolutionary living in London, and ‘Natives of My Person’ (1972), about 16th century explorers and the origins of the colonialism. Towards the end of his life, he was working on a book about Christopher Columbus, imagining that the explorer had been arrested and tried by an indigenous community in the West Indies.
He spent years working on the project, but in a 2002 interview with Caribbean Beat he declined to say when it might be released: “The thing is, with these things, you never end.”