Celebration of George Lamming
-- Caribbean's `premier political' novelist
By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
April 23, 2003

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WRITERS, academics, social commentators and other thinkers from three continents are currently preparing to celebrate the outstanding contribution to Caribbean life of one of this region's most illustrious sons, the novelist, Barbados-born George Lamming.

In September last year, the Learning Resource Centre of the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine Campus) had organised a "testimonial conference" around the central theme, "Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom", to pay tribute to another Caribbean intellectual icon, Lloyd Best, with whom Lamming has worked closely over the years.

Now, the Centre for Caribbean Thought and the Department of Languages and Literatures of the UWI (Mona campus), the Africana Studies Department of Brown University, Small Axe Journal and the Vice Chancellor's Office (Mona) are co-sponsoring a three-day conference, from June 5-7 in Jamaica on "The Sovereignty of the Imagination: The Works of George Lamming".

Lamming, often lionised as the premier political novelist of the English-speaking Caribbean, will deliver the closing address for the event, for which there will be over 20 formal presentations as well as panel discussions involving participation from the Caribbean, Africa, Britain and the USA.

Tony Bogues, speaking on behalf of the Centre for Caribbean Thought, has explained that the conference will be constructed around presentations that will focus on the work of Lamming "as one of the most important 20th century Caribbean novelists and thinkers".

Two of the main speakers will be the celebrated African novelist and intellectual companion of Lamming, Ngugi wa Thionga of Kenya, and the Jamaican novelist and Caribbean thinker, Sylvia Wynter, Professor emeritus at Stanford University.

In Wynter's honour, the first in a planned series on "Caribbean Reasonings" was held last year by the UWI's Centre for Caribbean Thought.

Tributes will be paid at the coming conference to the life and works of the 76-year-old Caribbean literary icon, whose dynamic, eloquent voice against colonialism, slavery and indenture, racism, discrimination and segregation, poverty and social inequalities has inspired peoples across the major language areas of this region.

The event has been planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary this year of Lamming's best known novel, "In the Castle of My Skin", written shortly after his 1950 arrival in England where he spent a number of his writing years.

In her comprehensive study of the six novels of Lamming, Sandra Pouchet Paquet, whose assessment appears in the Heinemann publication series on "Studies in Caribbean Literature", wrote that the partly autobiographical, partly fictional "In the Castle of My Skin" is more than just an account of "sleepy village life" in the author's birth place, Carrington village.

"The novel", contends Paquet, "suggests that the crippling effects of colonial rule are all pervasive and as varied and complex as life itself; the negative effects of it are identified over and over again..."

Although spending many years in England and the USA, writing and lecturing, Lamming has acquired a popular reputation for living among and sharing the experiences of the peoples of a Caribbean region he has long made his home and across which the acclamations are at times even greater than in his native Barbados.

Thirty years ago, in writing a new introduction to "In the Castle of My Skin", Lamming was to observe that the subordinated classes and groups of his novel, were now becoming "the subjects of their own history, engaged in a global war to liberate their villages, rural and urban communities...This is the most fundamental battle of our time, and I am joyfully lucky to have been made by my work, a soldier in their ranks..."

In their "Conversations -- George Lamming" (Essays, Addresses and Interviews, 1953-1990), co-editors Andaiye and Richard Drayton have exposed to readers the discourses made by the novelist and intellectual combatant to a Caribbean audience that help to explain much of his popular relationship with a region to which he returned to live and work since the 1970s.

Writing of the "Public Task of Lamming's Caribbean Speeches" in her foreword to "Conversations", Andaiye noted:

"His performance of the (self-assigned) 'public task of educating feeling' through his speeches, strengthens public debate in the Caribbean; and since his words are heard directly in bottom houses and union halls and are carried in the regional media, they have an impact far outside what a former editor of the Guyana "New World' magazine used to call, despairingly, 'the 100'---meaning that only 100 people in the English-speaking Caribbean read magazines of that kind'...."

It would be foolish to exaggerate, as Andaiye said, the impetus that any one person can give to the currents in a society. But she agrees that it is true that George Lamming's speeches "have given and give real stimulus to the questioning of insufficiently challenged 'truths' and to the opening of the discussion of ideas among the Caribbean people".

In that context, co-editor Richard Drayton also pointed out in his Introduction to "Conversations":

"The Caribbean is a strange place. It is unclear how many of its citizens -- of any class -- read what its writers create; but we invest the writers (after we have been told by 'those who know' that they are good), with a certain authority."

"What is remarkable about George Lamming", added Drayton, "is that he chose to use this to intervene in the political and cultural life of the region -- to warn, to provoke, and to question..."

Long ago honoured by the University of the West Indies and a much sought after guest speaker in the region, Lamming is unique among Caribbean writers for the relationships and frequent discourses, some controversial, he has had with some of the more outstanding political leaders of the Caribbean.

Among them would be Cuba's Fidel Castro, Trinidad and Tobago's Eric Williams, Barbados's Errol Barrow, Jamaica's Michael Manley, and Guyana's Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham.

In "Coming, Coming Home" ('Conversations 11), monographs by Lamming, Professor Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor of the UWI, quotes a most challenging observation by the novelist:

"I do not think there has been anything in human history quite like the meeting of Africa, Asia and Europe in this American archipelago we call the Caribbean" (Lamming).

Nettleford said there may well have been. "But we are forced to ponder seriously on this view coming, as it does, from George Lamming, one of the Caribbean's finest intellects and foremost literary artists whose creative imagination has primed our consciousness to arousals not of anger but of a will 'to be' on terms that faithfully reflect the region's diverse historical experience and textured existential reality..."

Little wonder, therefore, that the primary movers at the Centre for Caribbean Thought at Mona have chosen to organise in his honour the seminar on "The Sovereignty of the Imagination: The Works of George Lamming".

Yet to be also awarded, like Lloyd Best and Derek Walcott, the Caribbean Community's highest honour, Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC), Lamming is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor for Literature at Duke University in North Carolina, USA

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