George Lamming (1927–2022) internationally recognised and respected novelist, essayist, poet
George Lamming, the Barbadian novelist, has died only five days short of his 95th birthday.
A towering figure in Caribbean letters and fierce proponent of regional unity, his work was part and parcel of other writers from the colonial and postcolonial world eyeing both the metropole and their developing homelands.
Mr Lamming’s death was lamented across the English-speaking countries of the region, as they are left to mourn a writer fearless in both his desire for the region’s independence – and independence of thought.
No stranger to Bermuda, Mr Lamming befriended writer and activist Margaret Carter in the early 1990s and wrote the introduction to the Bermuda Writer’s Collective’s 1992 short story collection, An Isle So Long Unknown.
When Dame Sandra Mason, Barbados’s president, opened the first session of the new republic’s parliament on February 4, she said: “Fifty-five years after [independent Barbados] was initiated, we can make boast that our sovereignty … is now truly our own.”
Dame Sandra then quoted from Mr Lamming’s 1966 collection, The West Indian People, saying: “We are reminded of the words of renowned Barbadian writer, George Lamming, who said, “The architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding has hardly gone up.”
On Saturday, Mia Amor Mottley, the prime minister, wrote on Twitter that she had planned to visit Mr Lamming on his birthday (June 8) and said that his first novel The Castle Of My Skin, written in 1953, ought to be required reading for every Caribbean child.
Ms Mottley continued: “Sadly, it seems now that almost weekly, we are forced to say goodbye to one of our national icons.
“Today, it is our internationally recognised and respected novelist, essayist and poet, George Lamming who, without doubt, stood for decades at the apex of our island’s pantheon of writers.
“Indeed, he must be considered one of the most famous writers this region has produced. … I declare that he has left us all too soon. Unfortunately, we will now have to switch to a national celebration via an official funeral for a man who has given so much to his country, his people, his region and the world.
“George Lamming was the quintessential Bajan, born in as traditional a district as you can get – Carrington Village, on the outskirts of Bridgetown.
“And his education was as authentically Bajan as one could possibly acquire – Roebuck Boys’ School and Combermere [the 325-year old institution which has produced the core of the country’s elite, including Sir Frank Worrell and Rihanna].
“Perhaps even more critical to the literary giant he grew into, was the fortune he had of being schooled at the feet of yet another Barbadian great, Frank Collymore.
“But, as Bajan as he was, he still distinguished himself as a world scholar: teaching first at a boarding school in Trinidad, before emigrating to England, where he became a broadcaster with the BBC’s Colonial Service.
“This was followed by positions that included, writer-in-residence and lecturer in the creative arts at the Mona, Jamaica, campus of the University of the West Indies, visiting professor at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University, and a lecturer in Denmark and Australia.”
Rickey Singh, the Guyanese/Bajan columnist, cited Mr Lamming’s “deep and personal understanding of the complex historical, cultural and political landscape of the region”, and said he was a “fearless voice against external pressures aimed at undermining national and regional unity and political sovereignty”.
Mr Singh thanked Lamming again for assisting him in his principled protest of the journalist’s deportation from Barbados for criticising the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.
He added: “George’s influence on academia and political thought has been profound. It was my good fortune to listen to him deliver various public lectures across the campuses of the University of the West Indies.
“Particularly memorable, was an event at the Cave Hill [Barbados] campus in 2004, where, in his unique baritone, for a breathtaking two hours, he masterfully wove together a review of four decades of his literary work.
“George was a man of tremendous courage, singular in his undaunted pursuit of truth and justice … George commanded respect for his unflinching forthrightness whenever the occasion arose, of speaking truth to power – especially when it came to the preservation and dignity of the call to leadership of the Caribbean Community member states.”
George Lamming was also recognised as an important thinker on political and cultural independence. He was named a Companion of the Order of Barbados in 1988, the City College of New York’s Langston Hughes Award in 1998.
The citation for his Order of the Caricom in 2008 said he was honoured for “55 years of extraordinary engagement with the responsibility of illuminating Caribbean identities, healing the wounds of erasure and fragmentation, envisioning possibilities, transcending inherited limitations”.
Caricom applauded his “intellectual energy, constancy of vision, and an unswerving dedication to the ideals of freedom and sovereignty”.
George William Lamming was born in 1927. Before emigrating to England in 1950 to work for the British Broadcasting Company’s Colonial Service, he was a schoolteacher at a boarding school in Trinidad & Tobago.
In the Castle of My Skin quickly became one of the most important Caribbean novels of all time, and was followed by The Emigrants (1954}, Of Age and Innocence (1958), Season of Adventure (1960), Water with Berries (1971) Natives of My Person (1972), and Cannon Shot and Glass Beads (1980).
In 1955, on the strength of Castle and The Emigrants, he earned a Guggenheim Award to study and lecture in the United States in 1955 and the Somerset Maugham Award of the British Society of Authors union in 1957.
Mr Lamming also wrote the nonfiction works, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II – Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual (1995), Sovereignty of the Imagination: Conversations III – Language and the Politics of Ethnicity (2009) and Caribbean Reasonings – The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonisation (2010).
His work is celebrated through a lecture series every June at the George Lamming Pedagogical Centre, in the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination.
His personal literary collection is housed at the Sidney Martin Library, at UWI, Cave Hill.
During the 1960s, he and several other writers collaborated on a radio series, New World of the Caribbean, which looked at the region’s place in the world.
This year, In the Castle of My Skin was included in the “Big Jubilee Read”, a list of 70 books from the Commonwealth, created by BBC Arts and The Reading Agency to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee Year – without a hint of irony.
The list was compiled by librarians, booksellers and literature experts based on readers’ recommendations from 31 countries.
It is one of five Caribbean novels representing the first decade of the Queen’s reign.
Ever the proponent of a pan-Caribbean nation, in 2014, Mr Lamming told a Barbados Cultural Foundation oral history project that his Castle describes a childhood “beyond a Barbados theme”, shaped by a “colonial imperial formation” that was common to the English-speaking Caribbean.
He added that the formation was “determined that it will turn you into this particular project” – a facsimile of an English gentleman or woman.
After embracing life in Britain, by the 1990s, he would grow disillusioned with life there and returned to Barbados.
He wrote in The Guardian in 2002: “For some 20 years, between 1960 and 1980, I undertook various assignments that involved travel to west and east Africa, India and Australia, and, more recently, as a writer-in-residence at various campuses in the US.
“Moreover, I didn’t have very beneficial relations with my London publishers, who kept my work in print without making any effort to distribute it. London’s parks and gardens started to lose their charm.
“The English had become more nervous, coarse and hysterical in their response to strangers. The defeat of the miners and the triumph of [Margaret] Thatcher’s rigorous brand of conservatism made me feel that men like Harold MacMillan and Edward Boyd were much more decent types than we would have given them credit for.
“I felt a gradual disengagement from the domestic politics of the United Kingdom, and the third generation of black British had created a world and language, rich and admirably rebellious, that was no longer within my immediate grasp.”
For An Isle So Long Unknown, Mr Lamming wrote: “The function of a national literature is to return the society to itself; to illuminate for public scrutiny those intimate areas of thought and feeling which habit and the fear of powerful conventions have forced us to conceal´.
In 2002, Mr Lamming wrote of Bermudian educator and novelist Angela Barry’s Endangered Species and Other Stories: “Displays an astonishing virtuosity … bringing together of the multiple narratives that define the Atlantic adventure from Bermuda to Gambia/Senegal and South London is a new and audacious rendering of colonial encounters.”
In an extensive interview with The Royal Gazette in 1994, only nine months before the 1995 referendum on independence, Mr Lamming said Bermudians should be guided by practical concerns – not nationalism – if and when they weigh independence.
“The problem that most of the post-colonial societies are facing is the price of being on one’s own. In the past, they had a certain amount of political and economic protection as the dependencies of major powers.
“But as new arrangements, like the European Union take shape, all of those previous allowances are being abandoned and most [small states] are being called upon to enter world markets in a fiercely competitive manner.
“The interdependence of countries that characterises today’s world does not allow for the exercise of sovereignty. In other words, you can be independent without exercising sovereignty. Bermudians must realise this.”
Mr Lamming was in Bermuda to conduct a three-week creative writing seminar at the Bermuda College and a reading of his prose at the National Gallery.
He urged Bermudians to look at the experiences of Caribbean Commonwealth countries, which have exchanged a measure of the freedoms they had won with independence for interdependence as a regional bloc.
He said the massive blocs that have been created with such ventures as the EU and Nafta made it almost imperative for the world’s smaller states to form their own alliances.
“It seems to make much more sense to take on the world collectively,” he said. “That’s why you see a desire in the Caribbean to speed up the regional movement and have a single unit represent each of these independent territories.”
As the Caribbean experience indicates, Mr Lamming said, there is no room for nationalist sentiment in the global marketplace.
And he claimed that true independence is a state of mind, “I think people are independent before they institutionalise it, ” he said, adding that a formal declaration of sovereignty often fulfilled a strong psychological need in society.
He noted that many Barbadians who were against independence in 1965 would not want to go back to the old system of governance today. “Colonialism can retard both culturally and socially,” Mr Lamming said. “I think it can also generate a lot of nationalist feeling.”