Towering figures in Caribbean literature

Barbadian and Guyanese writers celebrate their lifetime achievement awards for outstanding work

Barbadian George Lamming, an illustrious Caribbean novelist, poet and cultural critic, along with celebrated Guyanese writer Sir Wilson Harris last evening received Lifetime Achievement Awards at the 79th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Awards in Cleveland, Ohio, United States. The Anisfield-Wolf Awards recognize books that make important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity.

Lamming was just 23 and living in London when he wrote his first novel In the Castle Of My Skin, which draws on his island childhood of mixed African and English parentage, and reflects on post-colonial and neocolonial questions of identity. The book was a sensation that won the Somerset Maugham Award and was championed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright.

George Lamming
George Lamming

“I am always feeling terrified of being known; not because they really know you, but simply because their claim to knowledge is a concealed attempt to destroy you,” Lamming wrote in this first, autobiographical novel. “That is what knowing means. As soon as they know you they will kill you, and thank God that’s why they can’t kill you. They can never know you . . . . The likenesses will meet and make merry, but they won’t know you. They won’t know the you that’s hidden somewhere in the castle of your skin.”

Lamming was born in Carrington Village, Barbados. He earned a scholarship to Combermere, a distinguished high school where his teacher Frank Collymore welcomed the young Lamming into his home library on weekends, and encouraged his reading and writing. Collymore published some of his student’s earliest work in the literary journal Bim.

Lamming taught in Trinidad from 1946 to 1950, after which he joined the Caribbean Diaspora in London. He worked first in a factory, then as an announcer for the BBC. When In The Castle Of My Skin was published, the reviews were mixed, but a positive piece by V.S. Pritchett proved instrumental to its success.

In 1998, Lamming said: “It’s a great pity it didn’t come out third or fourth rather than first. I don’t really regard it as the best or biggest of the books. I think it may be the most organic of books because it came out of the gut, whereas the others were products of the mature imagination, particularly Natives And Season.”

Lamming wrote five more novels and a collection of essays, The Pleasures Of Exile, which examines Caribbean politics and race. His poetry and short stories were published in various anthologies. Conversations, a volume of essays and interviews, came out in 1992.

Describing himself as “a political novelist”, Lamming is credited –– alongside Wilson Harris, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Garfield Sobers and others –– with making the emergence of a Caribbean identity possible. Lamming depicts the difficulty of cultural identity in this region as a direct result of colonial rule.

Lamming began his academic career in 1967 as a writer-in-residence and lecturer in the Creative Arts Centre at the University of the West Indies. He has taught as a visiting professor at Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania. He has lectured in Denmark, Tanzania and Australia. Lamming has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Langston Hughes Award.

The scholar Anthony Bogues notes that “the tight relationship between politics, knowledge, language and the spaces of freedom in Lamming’s writings makes him one of the most important political novelists in Caribbean literature”.

Sir Theodore Wilson Harris is a celebrated Guyanese writer and a visionary explorer of the interdependence among history, landscape and humanity. Born to an insurance agent and his wife, Harris studied at Queen’s College in Georgetown, Guyana. He became a land surveyor and, in 1955, the government’s senior surveyor. The years in Guyana’s interior were formative, giving Harris a sense of endless forests, the vast Amazon and the Amerindian peoples.

Wilson Harris
Wilson Harris

“The interior of Guyana came alive to me, and seemed like another planet,” he has recalled. He was mesmerized by a landscape that seemed both alive and mysterious, as well as by the traces of pre-Columbian inhabitants.

“The word ‘Guyana’ is based on an Amerindian word that means ‘land of waters’,” Harris told an interviewer in 2013 for Bomb Magazine. “There is magic in this contrast in which the spectre of land moves, the ghost of rock resembles a tide, in rivers that run. Such magic is the dance of place.”

Harris began writing poems and essays as one of a group of Guyanese intellectuals. He published his poetry under a pseudonym and began exploring cross-cultural currents that link the Homeric to the Guyanese.

In 1959, Harris left for England to become a full-time writer. It took him three attempts at a novel –– all of which he destroyed –– before he was satisfied with Palace Of The Peacock, published by Faber & Faber in 1960. The editor who approved it was T.S. Eliot. The story centres on Donne, who is leading a crew upriver to bring back Amerindian labour. A series of tragedies brings about the death of each principal character, which Harris uses to highlight the superficial illusions of opposites that separate the men.

Harris went on to write 24 more novels, all published by Faber & Faber, all written in longhand with pen or pencil on paper. His fiction, dense with symbolism and sensuous imagery, has little in the way of conventional plot or character. Instead, it draws on dream, myth and archetype –– and is often enigmatic. His ear for dialogue is acute.

Professor Mark McWatt of the University of the West Indies notes that “part of the quietly revolutionary art of Wilson Harris’ writings is his ability to read in the landscape and to reproduce in his fiction the human emotions of fear and dread”.

Harris has called his work “quantum fiction,” influenced by the theory of relativity.

“In describing the world you see,” Harris has said, “the language evolves and begins to encompass realities that are not visible.” He is decidedly unconventional: “My writing is quantum writing. Do you know of the quantum bullet? The quantum bullet, when it’s fired, leaves not one hole but two.”

Knighted in 2010 by Queen Elizabeth, Harris has been awarded honorary doctorates by several universities, including the University of the West Indies (1984) and the University of Liege (2001). He has twice won the Guyana Prize For Literature.

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