George Lamming 1927-
(Full name George William Lamming) Barbadian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Lamming's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, and 66.
Lamming is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Caribbean writers. His works about the decolonization and reconstruction of the West Indies following the end of British colonial rule are commended for their nationalistic spirit and poetic prose style. Lamming's writing focuses on finding new political and social identity and the long-lasting effects of early colonialism on the minds and actions of the Caribbean people. His use of allegory and metaphor give deeper political meaning to stories of people newly freed from the oppression of colonial rule. Lamming's writing style is experimental, often containing circular plot structures and abrupt shifts in narrative. Through his direct confrontation of old colonial rule and his inventive writing style, Lamming has become a groundbreaking writer who has paved the way for younger Caribbean authors.
Lamming was born in Barbados in 1927, and has witnessed and participated in much of the social and political upheaval that has taken place in the West Indies during his lifetime. Throughout the 1930s, rapid population growth, widespread economic depression, and the shift from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial one profoundly altered traditional Barbadian village life. Trade unions became an effective political force and organized labor led the drive for political reform, ultimately resulting in the Barbadian independence movement. All of these factors had an impact on Lamming's life and are reflected in his works. As a child, Lamming attended Roebuck Boys School and earned a rare scholarship to Combermere High School. In 1946, he left Barbados and traveled to Trinidad, where he worked at El Collegio de Venezuela as a teacher. During this time, he met several important Trinidadian writers including Clifford Sealy and Cecil Herbert and published poetry in literary magazines. In 1950, Lamming moved to England where he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and as a journalist while pursuing his own literary career. He quickly established himself as a writer and an intellectual. His first two novels, In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and The Emigrants (1954), were successful and well received. In 1955, Lamming visited the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship, serving as a writer-in-residence at the University of Texas. In 1956, he was a participant in the first international Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. In 1957, In the Castle of My Skin received the Somerset Maugham Award for Literature. Lamming returned to the Caribbean and became involved in various political causes, including the movement for Barbadian independence, which was achieved in 1966. He published two novels, Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960), and a book of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), in rapid succession. In 1962, he received a Canada Council Fellowship; in 1967 he was a writer-in-residence at the Mona, Jamaica, campus of the University of the West Indies. After a twelve-year hiatus, he published two more novels, Natives of My Person (1972) and Water with Berries (1972). In 1975, Lamming was a writer-in-residence at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Nairobi. In 1976, he was awarded a British Commonwealth Foundation grant, a traveling fellowship that took him to major universities in India and Australia. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and the University of North Carolina. He has also acted as the director of the fiction workshop at the University of Miami's Summer Institute for Caribbean Creative Writing. Lamming remains associated with educational and cultural projects of the Barbados Workers' Union and the Barbados Labour College while dividing his time between England, the Caribbean, and the United States.
Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, is generally regarded as an important novel of decolonization and a national classic of West Indian literature. Set on the fictional island of San Cristobal, the story follows a male protagonist, identified only as G., from childhood to adolescence. The story concludes with G., at the age of eighteen, preparing to leave San Cristobal to pursue his education abroad. Drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences, Lamming relates the story of G.'s growth into manhood amid the political and social upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s. In Lamming's second novel, The Emigrants, he explores the massive post-World War II migration of West Indians to Great Britain. His story focuses on a group of emigrants who travel by ship from the Caribbean to England, a place they have been taught to believe is culturally superior to their native islands. Once settled in their new environment, the emigrants discover a lack of welcome, disillusionment, and a feeling of alienation; they subsequently long for home. Lamming's next novel, Of Age and Innocence, features characters who return to San Cristobal after living in England. Two of the protagonists, Mark and Isaac, react differently to being reunited with their homeland. Mark has difficulty readjusting to life in San Cristobal and is confused, whereas Isaac becomes obsessively involved with overthrowing colonization and establishing a new political and social structure. Of Age and Innocence shows race and age relations on the island and the long-lasting effects of colonialism. In his fourth novel, Lamming furthers his writing of rebellion and social change, as well as adding a cry for West Indians to reclaim their African roots in order to restructure their society. Lamming's next work, The Pleasures of Exile, is a collection of essays that gives further evidence of his nationalistic sympathies. The essays challenge both the values and beliefs that colonizers have imposed on the native populations, and the assumption that European colonization is superior and brings civilization to indigenous cultures. In 1972, Lamming published two novels almost simultaneously: Water with Berries and Natives of My Person. In Water with Berries, Lamming uses plot elements from Shakespeare's The Tempest as the basis for a profound examination of the colonial experience. In the novel, three artists, Derek, Roger, and Teeton, leave the West Indies and travel to England for enlightenment and opportunity. Like the exiles in The Emigrants, their quest for fulfillment ends in failure, disillusionment, death, and imprisonment. The false affection for colonization gives the exiles a misplaced trust that leads to their downfall. Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past.
While In the Castle of My Skin was considered an immediate Caribbean classic and was highly praised, Lamming's succeeding novels have met with mixed reviews. Most critics find Lamming's novels to be important postcolonial literature, but some have difficulty with Lamming's writing style. The use of multiple characters and abrupt shifts in narrative have been derided by some as a sign that Lamming's works lack form and cohesiveness. However, others have praised this and see these shifts as a form of allegory for the confusion and upheaval in the lives of the West Indians. Generally, reviewers agree that Lamming is most successful with autobiographical themes, citing In the Castle of My Skin as an example. Lamming continues to be lauded as one of the most important literary voices of the postcolonial West Indies.