Barbadian novelist George Lamming, a leading writer of the Caribbean colonial experience, dies at 94

Barbadian George Lamming speaking about his world-renowned novel, iIn The Castle of My Skin.’ Screenshot taken from a YouTube video posted by NCF Barbados.

Renowned Barbadian novelist George Lamming died on Saturday, June 4, at the age of 94. He will be accorded an official funeral on his native island.

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley said that she had planned to visit the author on his 95th birthday, just four days away. She observed:

Wherever George Lamming went, he epitomised that voice and spirit that screamed Barbados and the Caribbean. And while he has written several novels and received many accolades, none of his works touches the Barbadian psyche like his first — In The Castle of My Skin, written back in 1953, but which today ought still to be required reading for every Caribbean boy and girl.

Barbados will miss George Lamming — his voice, his pen, and of course, his signature hairstyle — but I pray that the consciousness of who we are that he preached in all that he wrote will never fade from our thoughts.

Born in Carrington Village, Barbados, on June 8, 1927, Lamming attended Roebuck Boys’ School and then won a scholarship to the historic Combermere School. His teacher Frank Collymore (the “Barbadian Man of the Arts” and publisher of the literary journal BIM) mentored him, and his passion for reading began; he started to write poetry. He left for Trinidad in 1946, where he was a school teacher for four years at El Collegio de Venezuela in Port of Spain. He then migrated to England, where he worked in a factory for a short time. In 1951, he became a broadcaster for the BBC Colonial Service.

Lamming entered academia in 1967 as a writer-in-residence and lecturer at the Creative Arts Centre and Department of Education at the University of the West Indies. He later served as a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at the City University of New York, and as a faculty member and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania. He was also a distinguished visiting professor at Duke University and a visiting professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts at Brown University. Throughout his life, he also taught or lectured at universities in Tanzania, Denmark, and Australia.

Although he claimed to be a “slow writer,” Lamming wrote a total of six novels and four non-fiction books. His novels included “The Emigrants” (1954), “Of Age and Innocence” (1958), “Season of Adventure” (1960), and “Water with Berries” (1971). Included in his non-fiction works was a collection of essays called “The Pleasures of Exile”, which explores how culture, politics, and individual identity were shaped by colonialism.

Lamming did not just write books, however. During the 1960s, he and several other writers collaborated on a radio series entitled “New World of the Caribbean,” which looked at the region's place in the world. As a teacher and lecturer, his voice was heard (and listened to) across the Caribbean and beyond.

Trinidadian journalist Wesley Gibbings put it simply:

In truth, Lamming was well known and loved across the region. His acclaimed first novel, “In the Castle of My Skin” (1953), written in England at the age of 23, was well known to Caribbean readers, many of whom studied it in high school. In an interview, Lamming described his poignant coming-of-age novel as beyond a “Barbados theme,” describing a childhood and adolescence shaped by a “colonial imperial formation” that took place across the English-speaking Caribbean and was “determined that it will turn you into this particular project.”

Young Jamaican economist Keenan Falconer shared:

One Trinidadian writer observed that Lamming was not afraid to comment on regional politics:

Some writers ran away from politics and expanding their knowledge of the context of development. George Lamming went towards it, even cautioning the young revolutionaries in Grenada. Salute 👑

— Amílcar Sanatan (@AmilcarSanatan) June 4, 2022

Jamaican social commentator and activist Carol Narcisse also paid tribute to Lamming's influence:

A colossus has left us. Ululation. Salute to George Lamming and his generation of Caribbean creators, thought leaders, identity shapers, and truth speakers. Gratitude, respect and thanksgiving.

— Carol Narcisse (@CarolNarcisse) June 5, 2022

She included a link to Lamming's Citation for the Order of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in 2008, which concludes:

In conferring on George William Lamming the Order of the Caribbean Community, CARICOM is honouring fifty-five years of extraordinary engagement with the responsibility of illuminating Caribbean identities, healing the wounds of erasure and fragmentation, envisioning possibilities, transcending inherited limitations. In recognizing this son and ancestor, CARICOM is applauding intellectual energy, constancy of vision, and an unswerving dedication to the ideals of freedom and sovereignty.

That same year, the George Lamming Primary School in Barbados was named after him.

CARICOM Secretary General Carla Barnett shared:

The region has lost a literary icon and one of its most authentic voices. Rest in peace the Hon. George Lamming, OCC#OrderOfTheCaribbeanCommunity #CARICOM

— CARICOM Secretary General (@SG_CARICOM) June 5, 2022

Writers and academics paid tribute to Lamming on social media. In a Facebook post, Guyana-born historian Richard Drayton shared a moving video from 2017, with the message:

I just received the sad news that George Lamming today left us to join the ancestors. George was part of my life from the earliest childhood, and after my parents I can’t think of anyone who made a greater impact on me. His contributions to Barbados, the Caribbean, the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, and the world are measureless. He lived and struggled with such grace and generosity
Rest in power George
The ceremony of souls is never at an end

Trinidadian poet, playwright and cultural activist Eintou Pearl Springer, a former colleague of Lamming, posted a sad video tribute on Facebook and poured a libation for him:

Moments before my presentation this evening, I got the news that my dear friend and mentor George Lamming had transitioned. Thanks to Jouvayfest Caribbean Heritage Month for giving me the time to pour a libation to this giant of literary and revolutionary work in our region.

Interestingly, “In the Castle of My Skin” is included in the “Big Jubilee Read” reading list of 70 books from across the Commonwealth, created by BBC Arts and The Reading Agency to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Year. The list was compiled by librarians, booksellers and literature experts based on readers’ recommendations from 31 countries. It is one of five Caribbean novels representing the first decade of the Queen's reign (1952-1961).

For a writer so acutely aware and sensitive to the multiple layers of colonialism's legacy in the Caribbean that he examined through his writing and teaching, this may seem ironic. However, Lamming was an inspiration to future Caribbean generations in many ways. A young St. Lucian writer tweeted a quote from “The West Indian People” of 1966, an inspiring challenge that still seems relevant:

The architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding has hardly gone up.

- George Lamming 🕊

— Rehani (@RehaniWrites) June 5, 2022

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