Caribbean: Bloggers React to Walcott's Withdrawal

Derek Walcott, photo by Bert Nienhuis

Derek Walcott, photo by Bert Nienhuis

St. Lucian-born Derek Walcott is truly a West Indian man. He has been embraced by literature lovers of countless other regional territories who identify with his writing and see the nuances of the Caribbean come alive in his work. This is especially true of Jamaica, where he studied at the University of the West Indies, and Trinidad and Tobago, where he worked for many years, even founding the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which produced many of his early plays. Which was why his Nobel Prize win for Literature in 1992 seemed like a regional victory – and why his recent withdrawal from the tight race for the coveted position of Oxford Professor of Poetry has left a bad taste in many bloggers’ mouths.

A smear campaign, targeting Walcott's alleged sexual harassment against students of two prestigious universities at which he taught during the 1980s and 90s, seemed designed to keep the academic appointment out of his reach – Repeating Islands notes that:

Some writers have turned a bit against Ruth Padel, who has disassociated herself from Walcott’s anonymous detractors but stands to gain most from his withdrawal.

Padel has since won the post.

Repeating Islands goes on to quote writer Shirley Dent, who quips, “If anybody thinks this is a fine day for feminism they need to be disabused of that misapprehension sharpish.” The post continues:

Even one of Walcott’s alleged victims, American Writer Nicole Kelby, is deploring the outcome and calling for Walcott to reinstate his candidacy. Writing for the Sunday Times, Kelby, whose allegations against Walcott date from 1996 and were used as part of the smear campaign, says Oxford should scrap this weekend’s planned election rather than allow it to be dictated by underhand tactics.

Those “underhand tactics” seem to be disturbing bloggers the most. Jamaican litblogger Geoffrey Philp says:

Walcott's greatness lies in the unrivaled body of work that he has created for the past fifty years. Nobel laureates, Oxford professorships and other awards are ‘loosely worn garments,’ and throughout this minor ordeal, Walcott has demonstrated the kind of dignity that I have always associated with his verse.

Trinidad and Tobago's Islandista is slightly more torn:

On the one hand, as true independent-minded islandistas, far be it from us to defend sexual harassment. It is low and dirty and it is at its heart not about sexual attraction but about asserting power over the victim.

On the other hand, does Walcott’s alleged inappropriate behaviour have anything to do with him being honoured for his poetic talent? As Kelby indicated, if we were to exclude writers (and artists on the whole) from being honoured because of their inappropriate sexual behaviour, there would hardly be anyone left to honour.

Artists, moreso than other people, tend to be sexually aggressive, exploratory and even inappropriate. While we don’t condone it, we should be able to seperate it from their art.

She also questions Padel's agenda:

If she feels so scooped out inside, why doesn’t she withdraw from the contest? A group of Oxford academics issued a letter yesterday calling for herself and the other candidate, Indian academic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra to do just that, as that is the only way that today’s election can be called off.

But tellingly, neither Padel nor Mehrohtra have pulled out so the farce goes on and the cloud of suspicion darkens.

Finally, Repeating Islands, the blog which has been following developments most closely, takes great interest in an article by the London Times, concluding:

The curious piece—described in the title as a ‘profile'—makes the case for considering Walcott ‘the modern world’s greatest living poet.’ It also, however, offers a space for supporters of Walcott who believe the smear campaign against the St. Lucian poet was a conspiracy involving Ruth Padel and her backers.

It is all—to quote another poet—curiouser and curiouser.


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