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Remembering Derek Walcott, celebrated son of St Lucia and the Caribbean

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Last Friday, the St Lucian-born Derek Alton Walcott left us for the great beyond.He is best known for his achievement of the status of Nobel laureate for Literature in 1992. While this was celebrated in the Caribbean and elsewhere, it must have dawned on many the significance of him being the second St Lucian to have become a Nobel laureate. Before him was Sir Arthur Lewis, who had been awarded the laureate in Economics: this from a country with a population of about 180, 000. It was the unique cultural and historical make-up of the Caribbean that inspired Walcott. He was aware that there was no strong legacy of poetic and dramatic writing in the Caribbean and used his literary and dramatic skills to bring alive the region’s landscape, the sea, animals, and plants. He was also the recipient of many other international awards.

Walcott published his first book of poems at age 18 and went on to become a prolific poet and dramatist and also devoted some of his time to painting, being influenced by St Lucians Harold Simmons and Dunstan St Omer. After studies at the University of the West Indies, he had teaching spells in Jamaica, St Lucia and Grenada. He settled in Trinidad in 1959, but held academic positions at Boston, Columbia and Harvard Universities. When he went to live in Trinidad in 1959, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. I remember as a student in Canada looking at one of his well-known plays, “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” being shown on Canadian TV and as a West Indian being extremely proud. In 1992, at the UWI Open Campus, SVG, we held a panel discussion to honour his elevation as Nobel laureate, so conscious were we of its significance.

In an interview with the Economist magazine he said that he considered the sound of the sea to be part of his body. He was aware too, that no one had so far written about his country and the Caribbean’s landscape. The influence of historical forces and the consequent colonial legacy, as seen in the Caribbean’s culture, were driving forces that inspired him. His use of symbolism, myths, folklore, and Homeric legend, as seen in his poem ‘Omeros’, stood out. In bestowing the honour in 1992, the Nobel Committee recognized that “West Indian culture has found its great poet.” Walcott constantly highlighted the importance of art and culture in the Caribbean and was critical of Caribbean politicians and elites for neglecting the arts. This impacted on me strongly, because I was and am of the view that we have seriously neglected the arts and humanities, even in our approach to education at the University level.

Here is Walcott, “What the leaders in the Caribbean refuse to admit to themselves is that we are powerless. We are powerless people. Or I would say that the real power we have is in our people, in the artists and so on. This may sound very visionary and silly and adolescent, but once the Caribbean accepts the fact that this is where its power lies, then it is possible that what I thought would happen might again begin to be discerned; if we see that the richness we have is in the cultural diversity, the mixture, the fact that we do live together very well, only disturbed by politicians.”

Walcott described Trinidad as the “quintessential tropical city,” whose heartbeat he captured. He saw Trinidad as “a society where Carnival is regarded as a serious matter and revolution as fun. It’s the ambiguity of this view that makes life there interesting.” The international community, thanks to Walcott, was certainly reminded that the Caribbean was more than sea, sun, and sand. The sense of a holistic Caribbean, as pushed by Walcott, was a real counterpoint to Caribbean politicians, who see the Caribbean only in economic terms, as a region to be exploited by foreign capital, purportedly for the benefit of all of us who are assumed to live by bread alone.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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