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by Bamber Gascoigne

George Lamming (1927-2022)


Barbadian novelist, critic, and social commentator, whose In the Castle of My Skin (1953) is one of the classics of West Indian literature. In many ways it anticipated many of the themes in Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961) and other key texts of contemporary anti-colonial literature. Like Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming used the themes of exile and return in his search of the black West Indian identity.

"The indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians, living by their own lights long before the European adventure, gradually disappear in a blind, wild forest of blood. That mischievous gift, the sugar cane, is introduced, and a fantastic human migration moves to the New World of the Caribbean; deported crooks and criminals, defeated soldiers and Royalist gentlemen fleeing from Europe, slaves from the West Coast of Africa, East Indians, Chinese, Corsicans, and Portuguese. The list is always incomplete, but they all move and meet on an unfamiliar soil, in an unpredictable and infinite range of custom and endeavour, people in the most haphazard combinations, surrounded by memories of splendour and misery, the sad and dying kingdom of Sugar, a future full of promises. And always the sea!" (from The Pleasures of Exile, 1960)

George Lamming was born in Carrington Village, Barbados, of mixed African and English parentage. His mother, Loretta, was unmarried, but after she married, Lamming grew up partly in his native village and in St David's Village, where his stepfather worked. Lamming attended Roebuck Boys' School and Combermere High School on a scholarship. There he showed his skills in cricket; he was a great batsman. Encouraged by his teacher, Frank Collymore, Lamming found the world of books and started to write. As an occupation, writing was in the Caribbean not so honourable as playing cricket.

While studying at Combermere High School, Lamming devoured works by H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, J.W. von Goethe, André Gide, and Jane Austen. The Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén and the French poet Aimé Césaire had a formative influence on him. 

Before moving to England, Lamming worked from 1946 to 1950 as a teacher at El Colegio de Venezuela, a boarding-school for boys in Port of Spain, Trinidad. His writings were published in the Barbadian magazine Bim, edited by his teacher Frank Collymore, and the BBC's "Caribbean Voices" series broadcast his poems and short prose. Upon arriving in London, Lamming briefly earned his living as a factory worker.

Lamming hosted in 1951 a book review program at the BBC's West Indian Service. In England Lamming had the opportunity to meet fellow Commonwealth citizens, and he become very aware of Africa. However, In the Castle of My Skin, dedicated to his mother and Frank Collymore, there is no conscious linkage with African influences. Its introduction was written by the American author Richard Wright at the request of his editor at Harper's. Wright noted paralles between his own life and Lamming's experiences in British-controlled Barbados. "I, too, have been long crying these stern tidings, and when I catch the echo of yet another voice declaiming in alien accents a description of this same reality, I react with pride and excitement, and I want to urge others to react to that voice. One feels not so alone, when, from a distant witness, supporting evicence comes to buttres one's own testimony." ('Introduction' ix) Lamming himself said once in an interview, that the Black writing from the United States was not really a part of his word at all. Reflecting on the role of America in In the Castle of My Skin he said that the United States "existed for us as a dream, a kingdom of material possibilities accessible to all. I have never visited the United States before writing In the Castle of My Skin; but America had often touched our lives with gifts that seemed spectacular at the time, and reminded us that this dream of unique luxury beyond our shores was true." (Of Vagabonds and Fellow Travelers: African Diaspora Literary Culture and the Cultural Cold War by Cedric R. Tolliver, 2019, p. 66)

This partly autobiographical novel about growing up in poverty in the Barbados and Trinidad gained a huge success. In France, Castle was selected by Jean-Paul Sartre for his Les Temps Modernes series. The story moved between allegory and realism and at the same time traced rapid changes of a colonial society on its way to independence. Lamming also employed its shifting point of view in the second novel, The Emigrants (1954). Again the story was partly autobiographical, focusing on a group of West Indian emigrants in Britain, who try find their identity in the hostile environment of the "mother country." In Of Age and Innocence (1958) Lamming created his own Yoknapatawpha or Macondo, the fictional Caribbean island of San Cristobal. Season of Adventure (1960) was also set in San Cristobal, where a middle-class woman explores her mother's background and undergoes self-transformation.

In 1955 Lamming traveled in the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Three years later he received the Somerset Maugham award and in 1962 a Canada Council Fellowship. While in London, he had a liaison with the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), whom he first met in Vancouver in the summer of 1962. Laurence said that he was "the kind of personality that hits you like the spirit of god between the eyes." (Alien Heart: The Life and Work of Margaret Laurence by Lyall Harris Powers, 2003, pp. 485, 519) In the 1950s Lamming traveled in North Africa and the Caribbean, where he returned for a long period. During the next decades, lecture tours and grants took him among others to Australia, India, Tanzania, Denmark, and the United States.

From London Lamming eventually settled in Barbados. In 1967-68 Lamming was a Writer-in-Residence at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. He was, among others, a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania, and taught at the University of Miam's Institute for Caribbean Creative Writing. Before settling permanently  back home in Barbados, Lamming spent more than 50 years as a highly respected writer, lecturer and intellectual at several universities and institutions. He also ghostwrote speeches for Caribbean prime ministers. In 2003 Lamming was made a Fellow of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) and in 2011 he was awarded by the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) the Caribbean Hibiscus Prize.

Lamming was in the mid-1960s a coeditor of Barbados and Guyana independence issues of New World Quaterly, Kingston, with the poet Martin Carter and the Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh. In addition he contributed to the journal Casa de las Américas, published in Havanna. Lamming had met Carter in 1955 in Guyana, when it was in a state of emergency after a constitutional crisis. Carter had been in the colonial prison and was still under a kind of house arrest. When Lamming arranged a party for all the people involved in his radio programmes, the Governor, Sir Patrick Muir Renison, came there too, and Lamming introduced Renison to Carter. 

In the collection of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Lamming examined the Caribbean colonial past, decolonization, and his own identity.  The title of the novel was from a poem by Derek Walcott. Lamming identifies with Caliban, Prospero's slave on a remote island in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Their much examined relationship mirror the opposition between colonizer and colonized. Caliban is not only exiled from his nature but also colonized by language. "For I am a direct descendant of slaves, too near to the actual enterprise to believe that its echoes are over with the reign of emancipation. Moreover, I am a direct descendant of Prospero worshipping in the same temple of endeavour, using his legacy of language - not to curse our meeting - but to push it further, reminding the descendants of both sides that what's done is done, and can only be seen as a soil from which other gifts, or the same gift endowed with different meanings, may grow towards a future which is colonised by our acts in this moment, but which must always remain open." The Caliban symbol has also inspired such Caribbean writers as Jean Rhys, Aimé Césaire, and Sam Selvon.

After Season of Adventure, Lamming did not publish novels for years. Water with Berries (1971) was about the lives of Caribbean exiles in London. Natives of My Person (1972), which some critics have considered Lamming's major work, was an allegorical account a journey of a slave ship toward San Christobal during the early colonial period. In 1974 Lamming edited Cannon Shot and Glass Beads, an anthology of black writing.

In the 1970s Lamming had a close association with the Barbados Workes Union. However, he never joined a political organization, and failed his attempt to join the Communist Party in England in the 1950s. Lamming was sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution. In 2011 the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) granted the Caribbean Hibiscus Prize to Lamming.

"But the history of labour, as told by the forces of labour, is not very prominent in official texts of history," Lamming said. "I do not know whether literary scholars make the connection, but one of the functions of the novel in the Caribbean is to serve as a form of social history." He wrote the foreword to A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 by Walter Rodney, the leader the of Working People's Alliance of Guyana, who was killed in 1980 as the government was preparing to bring him to trial for his political activities. Conversations, a collection of essays, addresses and interviews, came out in 1992.

Lamming's language is compassionate and intense, full of lyrical images. In dialogue he used Creole extensively. Lamming's West Indian immigrants repeatedly face prejudices in their new circumstances in England. Sometimes the rejection is mutual as in the short story 'A Wedding is Spring', in which a sister doesn't accept that her brother marries a white English woman, and plots against the wedding. "It ain't God join my brother wid any hawk-nose English woman," she says. "It his stupid excitement." But also the bride's parents refuse to attend the occasion. When Beresford, the brother, arrives with his friend to the church on a bicycle instead of riding in a limousine, which his sister Flo had canceled, she realizes that she cannot humiliate him before the idle crowd outside the church. The wedding has lost importance to her, it is a trifle compared with his disgrace. The vicar shouts, "Which is the man?" "It don't matter," Flo says. "You ju' go marry my brother."

George Lamming died on June 4, 2022 at his home in Bridgetown. He was 94.

For further reading: The Islands in Between, ed. by Louis James (1968); Kas-kas: Interviews With Three Caribbean Writerrs in Texas, ed. by I. Munro and R. Sander (1972); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); The West Indian Novel by Michael Gilkes (1981); The Novels of George Lamming by Sandra Pouchet Paquet (1982); Critical Perspectives on George Lamming by Antony Boxhill (1986); Anancy in the Great House: Ways of Reading West Indian Fiction by J. Jonas (1990); Caliban in Exile: The Outsider in Caribbean Fiction by M.P. Joseph (1992); Caliban's Curse: George Lamming and the Revisioning of History by Supriya Nair (1996); 'Lamming, George,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Luxury of Nationalist Despair: George Lamming's Fiction as Decolonizing Project by A.J. Simoes da Silva (2000); Caribbean Reasonings - The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonisation, edited by Anthony Bogues (2010); Rich Man in His Castle, Poor Ones Take the Street : Integrating the 'Canonical' Text & Popular culture: a Study of the Novel 'In the Castle of My Skin' by George Lamming by Margaret D. Gill (2013); Beyond Windrush: Rethinking Postwar Anglophone Caribbean Literature, edited by J. Dillon Brown and Leah Reade Rosenberg (2015) 

Selected works:

  • In the Castle of My Skin, 1953 (with an introd. by Richard Wright)
  • The Emigrants, 1954
  • New World: Guyana Independence Issue, 1966 (editor, with Martin Carter)
  • Natives of My Person, 1972
  • Of Age and Innocence, 1958
  • The Pleasures of Exile, 1960
  • Season of Adventure, 1960
  • Water with Berries, 1971
  • Natives of My Person, 1972
  • Cannon Shot and Glass Beads: Modern Black Writing, 1974 (editor)
  • The Most Important People, 1981 (with K. Drayton)
  • Conversations: Essays, Addresses and Interviews, 1953-90, 1992
  • Enterprise of the Indies, 1999 (edited by George Lamming; afterword by Lloyd Best)
  • Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II: Western Education & the Caribbean Intellectual, 2000 (introduction by Rex Nettleford)
  • The Sovereignty of the Imagination, 2004
  • The Sovereignty of the Imagination: Conversations III, 2009

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