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In Memoriam: Derek Walcott and his Caribbean Odyssey

Excursive though his writing is, re-connecting the West Indies to Africa, England, Central Europe, and the Americas, Derek Walcott considered himself to be “primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer”.

books Updated: Apr 14, 2017 08:28 IST
Ankhi Mukherjee
Derek Walcott

Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott inside the library of Oviedo's University in 2006. Walcott, 87, died on March 17, 2017 at his home in St. Lucia. (Reuters file photo)

Black faces sprinkled with continual dew--

dew on the speckled croton, dew

on the hard leaf of the knotted palm tree,

dew on the elephant ears of the dasheen.

Through Kurtz’s teeth, white skull in elephant grass,

the imperial fiction sings. Sunday

wrinkles downriver from the Heart of Darkness.

The Heart of Darkness is not Africa.

The Heart of Darkness is the core of fire

in the white center of the holocaust.

These lines are from Derek Walcott’s “The Fortunate Traveller,” the eponymous poem of a 1981 volume. The title is adapted from Thomas Nashe’s 1594 novel, The Unfortunate Traveller, which chronicles the misadventures of Jack Wilton, its rogue-hero. The “fortunate” in the title is ironic, referring, as it does, to the globetrotting migrant’s guilt about his complicity in the carnal networks of finance capital (”One flies first-class, one is so fortunate”). As his latter-day journey from Bristol to St. Lucia reverses the slave ship’s trajectory, the poem writes itself through powerful condemnations and revisions of “imperial fiction.” The life-affirming dew on black faces and taro trees is contrasted with the necropolitics of the ivory trade in the Belgian Congo and its crazed imperialists (like Conrad’s Kurtz). The heart of darkness is not Africa but “the white center of the holocaust”: phobic colonial configurations of a “dark” continent are countered here through a shoring of criminal evidence against the “white” north. The temporality of our genocidal modernity is best indicated by a Godless marker, the stanza concludes: “not Anno Domini: after Dachau.”

Excursive though his writing is, re-connecting the West Indies to Africa, England, Central Europe, and the Americas, Walcott’s is a Caribbean Odyssey. Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries, St. Lucia, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. His grandfathers were white and his grandmothers were black. His artistic persona of the “divided child” in Another Life (1973) evokes the Manichean schema of race – black and white – alongside other false and untenable cultural divisions (English and West Indian, classic and creole, art and life). Walcott received what he called a “very good English education” in British West Indies: St Mary’s College in St. Lucia, followed by the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He published 25 Poems at age 18, financed by his mother, the first of 22 volumes of poetry. His oeuvre is also comprised of nine compilations of dramatic works and two collections of essays. Walcott won several awards, including the T. S. Eliot prize and the MacArthur “genius grant.” He was awarded the Nobel in 1992, two years after writing Omeros, his epic poem of migration.

His career was not free of controversies, one of which, a sexual harassment case brought by a student decades earlier, surfaced when Walcott was nominated for the Professor of Poetry post in 2009 at the University of Oxford. His verbal spats with V. S. Naipaul (dubbed “Nightfall” by Walcott) were also less than edifying.

Walcott during a press conference in Caracas in 2007. (AFP)

Walcott spent most of his life in the West Indies, punctuated by spells in the US and Canada, where he worked as a playwright, art critic, or academic: “I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,” Shabine, his alter-ego, claims. The Caribbeanness manifests in the names of flora and fauna - yams, crotons, cassava, cocoa, star-apple, ibis, cattle-egret, frigate bird and tarpon – and in the French-Caribbean assemblages of Creolité or patois. The protagonist of “The Schooner Flight” famously says:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

Walcott sees in this “genetic Babel” (the poet Joseph Brodsky’s term) the possibility of a supersyncretic archipelago. What Naipaul mourns as the loss or lack of history, Walcott celebrates as the true history of the New World: the slave’s amnesia will obliterate “the old linear idea of progress,” just as the fierce tropical climate of the islands will obliterate all traces of the brutal plantocracy. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage had evoked the history of “West Indian futility”: “History is built around achievement and creation and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Walcott’s celebrated essay, “The Muse of History” (1976), written over a decade later, strongly condemns the Naipaul-esque “literature of recrimination.

and despair,” grouping, under the term, both “a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves” and “a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters.” History has been a willing instrument of epistemic violence, so it is set aside for the mnemonic archives of the imagination. In the play, Dream on Monkey Mountain, the anti-hero Makak turns instead to myth and folklore:

These dead, these derelicts,

that alphabet of the emaciated,

they were the stars of my mythology.

Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930 - 17 March, 2017)

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at Wadham College, University of Oxford.

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