George Lamming

George Lamming, the Barbadian novelist, died just five days before his 95th birthday.

A towering figure in Caribbean literature and a staunch supporter of regional unity, his work was integral to other writers of the colonial and postcolonial world eyeing both the metropolis and their developing homelands.

Mr Lamming’s death has been mourned across English-speaking countries in the region, as they are left to mourn a writer fearless in both his desire for independence from the region – and independence of thought .

A Bermuda resident, Lamming befriended writer and activist Margaret Carter in the early 1990s and wrote the introduction to the Bermuda Writer’s Collective’s 1992 collection of short stories, An island so long unknown.

When Dame Sandra Mason, President of Barbados, opened the first session of the new republic’s parliament on February 4, she said: “Fifty-five years on [independent Barbados] was initiated, we can boast that our sovereignty… is now truly ours.

Dame Sandra then cited Mr. Lamming’s 1966 collection, The West Indian people, saying: “We remember the words of the famous Barbadian writer, George Lamming, who said: “The architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding barely went 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 his first novel The castle of my skinwritten in 1953, should be required reading for all children in the Caribbean.

Ms Mottley continued: “Unfortunately it now seems like almost every week we have to say goodbye to one of our national icons.

“Today it is our internationally acclaimed and respected novelist, essayist and poet, George Lamming, who for decades has undoubtedly stood at the pinnacle 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 left us too soon. Sadly, it will now have to shift to a national celebration via an official funeral for a man who gave so much to his country, his people, his region and the world.

“George Lamming was the quintessential Bajan, born in as traditional a neighborhood as it gets – Carrington Village, on the outskirts of Bridgetown.

“And his upbringing was as genuinely Bajan as one could 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 became was how lucky he was to be schooled at the feet of 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 in the BBC Colonial Service.

This was followed by positions that included, Writer-in-Residence and Creative Arts Lecturer at Mona, Jamaica, University of the West Indies Campus, Visiting Professor at University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania and Brown University., and lecturer in Denmark and Australia.

Rickey Singh, the Guyanese/Bajan columnist, cited Mr. Lamming’s “deep and personal understanding of the region’s complex historical, cultural and political landscape”, and said he was a “fearless voice against outside pressures aimed at to undermine national and regional unity and political sovereignty”.

Mr Singh again thanked Lamming for helping him with his principled protest against the journalist’s deportation from Barbados for criticizing the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.

He added: “George’s influence on academia and political thought has been profound. I had the chance to listen to him give various public lectures on 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 two breathtaking hours, he masterfully weaved a review of four decades of his literary work.

“George was a man of extraordinary courage, singular in his unwavering pursuit of truth and justice…George commanded respect for his unwavering candor at every opportunity to speak truth to power – especially when it came to the preservation and dignity of the call for leadership of the Member States of the Caribbean Community.

George Lamming has also been recognized as an important thinker on political and cultural independence. He was made a Companion of the Order of Barbados in 1988, the City College of New York Langston Hughes Award in 1998.

His Order of Caricom citation in 2008 said he was honored for “55 years of extraordinary commitment with the responsibility of illuminating Caribbean identities, healing the wounds of erasure and fragmentation, consider possibilities, to transcend inherited limitations”.

Caricom applauded his “intellectual energy, steadfastness in vision and unwavering 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 Colonial Service of the British Broadcasting Company, he was a teacher at a boarding school in Trinidad and 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), Adventure Season (1960), berry water (1971) Natives of my person (1972), and Cannon shot and glass beads (1980).

In 1955, with Castle and the emigrantshe won a Guggenheim Prize for studying and lecturing in the United States in 1955 and the Somerset Maugham Prize from the British Society of Authors Union in 1957.

Mr. Lamming also wrote the works of non-fiction, The pleasures of exile (1960), Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II – Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual (1995), Sovereignty of the Imaginary: Conversations III – Language and the Politics of Ethnicity (2009) and Caribbean Reasonings – The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonization (2010).

His work is celebrated through a series of lectures each June at the George Lamming Pedagogical Center, Errol Barrow Center for Creative Imagination.

His personal literary collection is housed in the Sidney Martin Library, UWI, Cave Hill.

During the 1960s, he and several other writers collaborated on a radio series, Caribbean new worldwhich focused on the place of the region in the world.

This year, In the castle of my skin was included in the ‘Big Jubilee Read’, a list of 70 Commonwealth books, created by BBC Arts and The Reading Agency to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee year – without the slightest irony.

The list was compiled by librarians, booksellers and literature experts based on recommendations from readers in 31 countries.

It is one of five Caribbean novels representing the first decade of the Queen’s reign.

Ever a 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 Barbadian theme”, shaped by a “colonial imperial background” common to the English-speaking Caribbean.

He added that the formation was “determined to turn you into this particular project” – a facsimile of an English gentleman or woman.

After embracing life in Britain, in the 1990s he became disillusioned with life there and moved back to Barbados.

He wrote in The Guardian in 2002: “For about twenty years, between 1960 and 1980, I undertook various missions involving travels in West and East Africa, India and Australia, and, more recently, as as writer-in-residence on various campuses in the United States.

“Furthermore, I didn’t have a very beneficial relationship with my London publishers, who kept my work in press without making any effort to get it out. London’s parks and gardens began to lose their charm.

“The English had become more nervous, rude and hysterical in their response to foreigners. The defeat of the miners and the triumph of [Margaret] Thatcher’s rigorous conservatism made me feel that men like Harold MacMillan and Edward Boyd were far more decent types than we would have given them credit for.

“I felt a gradual disengagement from UK domestic politics, and the third generation of black Britons had created a world and language, rich and admirably rebellious, that was no longer within my immediate reach.”

For An island so long unknown, Mr. Lamming wrote: “The function of a national literature is to restore society to itself; to illuminate from public view those intimate areas of thought and feeling which habit and fear of powerful conventions have forced us to conceal”.

In 2002, Mr. Lamming wrote about Bermudian educator and novelist Angela Barry’s Endangered Species and Other Stories: Rendering Colonial Encounters.

In a long interview with The Royal Gazette in 1994, just nine months before the 1995 independence referendum, Mr Lamming said that Bermudians should be guided by practical concerns – not nationalism – if and when they weigh independence.

“The problem facing most postcolonial societies is the price to pay for being alone. In the past, they enjoyed a certain political and economic protection as dependencies of the great powers.

“But as new arrangements, like the European Union, take shape, all of those previous allocations are dropped and most [small states] are set to enter global markets in a fierce fashion.

“The interdependence of countries that characterizes the world today does not allow the exercise of sovereignty. In other words, you can be independent without exercising sovereignty. Bermudians need to realize this.

Mr. Lamming was in Bermuda to lead a three-week creative writing seminar at 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 traded some of the freedoms they had gained with independence for interdependence as a regional bloc.

He said the massive blocs that have been created with companies such as the EU and NAFTA have made it almost imperative for the world’s smaller states to form their own alliances.

“It makes a lot more sense to take on the world collectively,” he said. “That’s why you see a desire in the Caribbean to accelerate the regional movement and to have a single unit to 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 you institutionalize it,” he said, adding that a formal declaration of sovereignty often responded to a strong psychological need in society.

He noted that many Barbadians who were against independence in 1965 would not want to return 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 sentiment.”