The six novels and collections of essays by George Lamming, who died at the age of 94, did much to shape Caribbean literary culture. He also contributed as an educator and intellectual activist, mentoring a host of young writers and scholars in the Caribbean and beyond.
Intensely aware of the impact of colonialism on the lives of individuals and the evolving process of social, political and economic reconstruction in the region, Lamming was inspired by the idea of a unified Caribbean.
The West Indies Federation (1958-1962) aimed to unite various islands into a single political unit, but failed. While accepting this outcome, Lamming remained committed to the ideal of a regional community rooted in shared cultural and political aspirations.
His first and most famous novel, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), drawing on his education in Barbados, was published in Britain after he left Trinidad in 1950.
It is an autobiographical novel that recreates the author’s childhood and adolescence between the ages of 9 and 16 against the backdrop of the major social unrest of June 1937 that presaged the movement towards independence from colonial rule.
While the idea for the novel had germinated before his arrival in London, it was there that he began to set it up. As he wrote in his introduction to his 1983 edition: “I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and my adolescence. It was also the world of an entire Caribbean society.
The novel’s reception placed it at the center of black intellectual and cultural life in post-war Europe. It was reviewed in the Observer and the Times, and VS Pritchett devoted an entire New Statesman page to it. In 1954, a long excerpt was published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s French magazine Les Temps Modernes, and the novel was published in the United States with an admiring introduction by Richard Wright.
Three other novels followed in quick succession: The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960). There was also a pioneering collection of personal essays on cultural politics and intellectual history, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), which anticipated many contemporary postcolonial formulations around the psychic trauma engendered by colonialism.
As Lamming observed, his novels tell a Caribbean story that began with a colonial childhood, followed by emigration to Britain, return to the Caribbean, agitation for independence, nationalist aspirations and the collapse of the first independent republic. He experimented with form and displayed great intellectual power and emotional range in these novels – or dramatic poems, as he liked to call them.
Lamming worked for the BBC’s Overseas Radio Service, broadcasting on its Caribbean Voices programme, and in 1955 traveled to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship, then to West Africa and the Caribbean . He participated in the first international congress of black writers and artists in Paris in 1956, alongside writers and intellectuals such as Jacques Stephen Alexis, Aimé Césaire, Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Jean Price-Mars and Wright.
In 1957 he received the Somerset Maugham Prize for In the Castle of My Skin, and many honors and awards followed. His last two novels, Water With Berries (1971) and Natives of My Person (1972), were political allegories, offering dense and highly sophisticated engagement with narratives of European imperialism.
Lamming was born in humble circumstances on the island of Barbados to a single mother. She later married and, although he made frequent visits to the village of St David, where his stepfather worked, he was brought up mainly in Carrington Village, east of Bridgetown, the capital. He affectionately called it a tough neighborhood, the village of Creighton from In the Castle of My Skin. His political and aesthetic sensibilities were formed there, and his sympathies remained with the struggles of the poor and working classes of the Caribbean.
From Roebuck Boys’ School he won a scholarship to Combermere High School, where he was tutored by Frank Collymore, the editor of Bim, a journal dedicated to publishing and promoting Caribbean writers.
In 1946 Lamming left Barbados for Trinidad, where he taught at a college for Venezuelan students in Port of Spain. The contact there with the radical left and the Guild of Readers and Writers made it more political. When he left for London, it was on the same ship as the Trinidadian novelist Sam Selvon, and he quickly established himself as a visionary writer, part of the West Indian generation which included Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, VS Naipaul, John Hearne and Kamau Brathwaite.
In the 1970s, Lamming traveled to Africa, India, and Australia, and crisscrossed the United States to undertake teaching assignments, readings, and lectures. Then, in 1980, he returned to Barbados and took up permanent residence at the Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba on the Atlantic coast, a place of stunning beauty, with a rocky shoreline and crashing waves. There, Lamming enjoyed regular shore walks, swimming, and some seclusion. He received occasional visitors and had time to read, reflect and write.
He was a reservoir of information on personalities and events in the Caribbean and talked about them at length among friends. He was courteous, kind, and generous to his friends and to the many scholars and writers who sought him out.
On the public platform however, his voice remained strong and vigorous and politically defiant. He could be severe in his assessments of Caribbean societies, but never gave up his certainty about the creative potential of the region, and experimented with new fictional forms on themes that had always fascinated him: the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the debates between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the degree of humanity of the conquered peoples of the Americas, the Haitian ceremony of souls and the Vichy regime in Martinique, among others.
He edited anthologies of Caribbean writing and re-engaged in political activism.
This phase of Lamming’s vigorous intellectual life is recorded in essay volumes, Conversations (1992), Coming, Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II (1995) and The Sovereignty of the Imagination (2004), and in his edited volumes of literary works and cultural history, Enterprise of the Indies Vols I & II (1999).
He felt no particular urge to return to the novel, so he continued to experiment with new forms of fiction privately, teaching at American universities, and lecturing widely.
All of his major works were reprinted in the United States in the 1990s, and Lamming enjoyed the resurgence of interest in his fiction and cultural analysis, establishing a role for the writer as a public intellectual in everyday life. of the Caribbean.
He is survived by his son, Gordon, and daughter, Natasha, from his marriage to Trinidadian painter Nina Squires, which ended in divorce.