Derek Walcott

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What is a postcolonial perspective on Derek Walcott's work?

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A postcolonial approach tries to understand the literature and culture of former colonized countries in light of their complex histories. In particular, the interactions and relationships between the colonial and indigenous cultures are an important focus of postcolonial theory.

The great Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott is typical of many postcolonial writers in that he feels immersed in both a colonial tradition (specifically, English language and literature) and in the indigenous culture of his native land. As a result, he is critical but not completely dismissive of the English tradition and asserts a place within it. At the same time, he recognizes his debts to indigenous Caribbean culture.

For instance, in the poem "White Magic," he uses a clever pun on the term "white" to explore how the presentation of different cultures in schools teaches us to value some cultures more than others. He identifies several different points of comparison between folktales and mythology of Caribbean and European culture. He notes how we have been trained to think of European literature as "great" and Caribbean literature as inferior, a process that he describes as "magic." This magic confuses us and prevents our ability to see the real connections between the two.

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One of the ways a postcolonial perspective emerges in Derek Walcott’s work is in its investigation of the material and political dimensions of social memory through the use of ritual. The use of ritual becomes an expression of this memory—even while the intergenerational, collective, and re-collective nature of memory as performed through ritual is often at odds with the difficulties of remembering.

Ritual is important to postcolonial literatures because it brings past and present into a singular social act that can transfer memory between individuals and enable a sense of collectivity—a collective history, perhaps, or at least a sense of group identity. Rituals communicate shared values within a group and delineate, through ideas and images, how those groups come into being. Ritual demands that the participant partake in and actively contribute to their culture’s archive. In this way, there is a political dimension of social memory at work in ritual too—rituals can not only preserve social memory, but critique and even transform the existing social order of the present.

In Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, for example, ritual becomes the mode by which the values, spirituality, and identity of sociocultural groups can be imagined. The types of groups imagined in Walcott's play complicate this dynamic in that they are all to some extent exiled and dispossessed of a sense of common humanity (due to the legacies of colonialism). Yet, ritual is able to preserve this sense of humanity through the enactment of cultural memory, which for the (post-) colonial subject is imperative for their own attempts to work through traumas both past and present.

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Derek Walcott is a St. Lucian-born poet, novelist, and literary critic. His work is deeply influenced by both British and West Indian literary traditions. A postcolonial perspective of Walcott's work would highlight the ways in which he creatively draws upon the diverse resources of this dual tradition in order to reveal, explore, and celebrate the unique culture and experiences of a historically oppressed and colonized people.  

Walcott's poetry offers rich and profound re-imaginings of the colonial past. In his epic novel-poem Omeros, for example, Walcott offers a re-telling of the Greek classic The Illiad. In Walcott's version however, the story takes place on a lush, vividly depicted ancient Trinidad. In re-telling The Illiad from this imagined space, Walcott brings the entire history of Western literature to bear upon questions of race, colonial history, culture, and authenticity.

Walcott's works often depict imagined precolonial times and places. These settings are narrative resources that Walcott uses in order to make statements pertaining to postcolonial culture and life. A postcolonial perspective on his work would highlight Walcott's use of setting as a narrative device. Such a perspective might also examine Walcott's treatment of themes such as religion, family, and personal transformation in light of postcolonial politics. 

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