Interview with George Lamming.
Lamming has written six novels and one book of essays: In the Castle of my Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), Season of Adventure (1960), The Pleasures of Exile (essays, 1960), Water with Berries (1971) and Natives of my Person (1972).
Prior to taping this interview, I spoke with Mr. Lamming about his current plans. He informed me that he lives in Barbados for six months of the year and spends the other six months lecturing in the United States of America and regionally in the Caribbean. He told me that he is presently working on some essays and fiction, a long work.
I discussed the creative activities in the region and he indicated that poetry writing is very strong, especially in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Jamaica. He noted that most of the good poetry and a lot of the literary criticism are being done by women.
On the question of readership, he lamented that because of its small size and the fact that few publishing houses exist, works of literature are still very much dependent on foreign publication and distribution.
Goddard: I am speaking to George Lamming, one of the foremost and most outstanding writers from the Caribbean. Mr. Lamming, welcome to Montreal.
I was very impressed with your presentation to the Garvey Institute. In reading your novels, you have dwelled a lot on the advocacy of historical determinism for people. Do you find that this is being accomplished in the Caribbean?
Lamming: I think that it is literature you're thinking about, first of all. History as a force has been very, very strong in the Caribbean imagination. This is true of the prose writers as well as of the poets. I think that it has something to do with the nearness of events; that we are still very near some of the most critical events. We are still living, in many ways, the legacy of some of the most critical moments in Caribbean history, and I think that has something to do with it.
It's there in a sense, too, in the African. I think you will find that in all of the, am, am, literatures, what I would call alternative voices. That is, the voices that are making a statement that does not belong to the central, main European tradition tend to be shaped by that kind of strong sense of history.
Latin American writers are involved in a very concrete movement that you might call politics. Ah, whether it is Marques or Carpentier, that we don't deal very much in the exploration of an individual consciousness. It takes second place to the movement of a society as a totality.
This is to be found in Achebe. This is to be found in Marques, that you get a sense of Marques writing of all Columbia and all Latin America, not just about that particular general or that particular family. It is very strong in Carpentier in The Lost Steps and The Kingdom of the World.
I think it has something to do with historical predicament. Something that I've mentioned today, that the consciousness attains that sense of having been defined by others, and breaking that, breaking that historical relation to the other. This has also affected the shape of the narrative. Then, the narrative does not fit too easily into what would have been, ah, the conventional forms of the narrative in Europe or areas of North America. I think that, sometimes I think that it is possible also to see the continuing influence of, what I would call, plantation society. That there is a sense in which Marques is writing out of a sense of a kind of plantation society of Columbia.
And, I was going to say that you don't see in North America. That is not true. In the South, Faulkner is very much a product of the imagination, is very much a product of the conditions of plantation society. I mean there is a, you could put Faulkner, Marques, Lamming, Cesaire; there is a comparative study to be made of that particular load of imagination.
Goddard: That is quite interesting. How would you respond to John Hearne's view of the plantation society, that it is not necessarily an evil but that it contributed significantly to the development of the Caribbean, and hence there is a place for the role of the master as well as the slave within the Caribbean society.
Lamming: I think, you see, Hearne has a Roman concept of order and he writes out of that. He has a very peculiar kind of loyalty, a kind of indigenous, the landed classes, you know, the pen people and so on. I think Jamaica is the only place that has produced that in the English Caribbean. We don't, that kind of agricultural middle class thing, we've never had in Barbados. All the land was owned by white people and so on. Hearne's are a kind of brown.
There is a class there in Jamaica you don't really have in Barbados or in Trinidad. There is a very interesting essay on Hearne, by a man called Roberto Marques, comparing him to Faulkner in the sense, Hearne is in a way doing a eulogy on the people he admired, but also recognized were not able to cope with the demand of the transitions taking place in the society.
Why he said that about the plantation, he had his own problems for not being able to go further because Hearne has never identified with the force coming from down below. He observes it and, ah, he thinks it contains more menace than curative. But that is class, very much class.
Goddard: Mervyn Morris in The Islands Between and Miss Blackman again this morning referred to the merge between poetry and prose in your writing. I know at one time you kind of dispelled Mervyn Morris's remarks, and that you believe that in your own right, you are a fiction writer apart from this poetic influence that people seem to think is very important to your writing. How would you respond to those critics who constantly say that you are not a fiction writer but a poet writing prose?
Lamming: Yeah! I think I'd say the distinction, I mean it's not a sound distinction because it's, if you are using fiction in all its senses, I mean then, I'm nothing else but a fiction writer. I mean poetry is also fiction in verse. (Laughs). Fiction covers all statements of the imagination, so that, one is a writer. I think that there is a sense in which I'm not. If you are going to say a novelist I'm not a novelist in what would have been the conventional, immediately recognized sense. And in a way, some of the books, books like Natives of my Person and Water with Berries are really conceived, as the novel, as dramatic poems.
I don't mean just the language, really. What is happening is it is really a dramatic poem in the form of a prose narrative. But that is not just only about language. It is actually the shape and the ordering of the experience. The normal causality connected ordering and so on. I think there may be some truth in that.
Goddard: You have a profound sense of history. Was this a major part of your educational training, history, the subject of history?
Lamming: Not the, ah, I don't know about the subject. I think that came, that came, from earlier reading. Ah, I know Margot Blackman say this morning. I mean one of the things that really blew my mind was the thing, as a boy, I remember reading H.G. Wells. I know that today it would be regarded very much as a popular kind of general history, but to me then, I was a boy of about sixteen, or something like that, where you were in a place where history was, I don't know, a by-product of an English thing and so on.
And here was a man talking about civilization that was outside that particular curriculum and so on. Although today, long before today, it wasn't clear to me then, that Wells was also speaking first and foremost of a European. What was really clear and very strange was that he didn't sound like an Englishman talking about history. You know that particular kind of rage, I think, that had an effect on me.
Then the, I think, the Trinidad experience is very important. We were very aware long before Williams came to politics. When I went to Trinidad, Williams arrived then or little after, working with commission They were people who used to meet. He planted a sense of, ah, history as an absolute necessity for understanding region. He then was not any Trinidad and Tobago thing. His whole thing was region.
The first time I ever heard of Cesaire, Guillec, was from Williams who you know was saying, you really have to get hold of them and read them because without knowing them, you can't speak of knowing the region. Williams was very important to certain people moving around at that time, not as a politician. This was long before I went to London. Nobody thought of, ah, the politics.
And then I came up in that school of reading in which, by the time I got to London, I was never very keen on English novels as such. The people I read and tried to understand really, were the French, you see.
In the fifties, I would say, my fiction reading was Malraux, Sartre, Camus. And it was very much tied in with an urgency of defining and taking up positions about their society within France. And what that would have come out of, they had gone through the trauma of defeat, occupation and the recognition that the French bourgeoisie had really sold France to the Germans. The big question really was, which would you be on in the remaking of France? Would you go with De Gaulle? Would you go with the communists? Decisions had to be taken on that issue, by what they would call, men of letters. Williams's thing was very crucial coming after the earlier Collymore thing and the Wells, and so on. And then you learn in English society.
Goddard: A final question, Mr. Lamming. In Water with Berries and Natives of my Person, there are several dramatic passages. What is the significance of the dramatic passages to the novels, since it is a less than unique form within novelistic writing?
Lamming: Well! Could you identify the passage?
Goddard: Well, for example, I have Natives of my Person here, and Chapter 25, I think it is. It is entirely in dramatic form ...
Lamming: ... Oh yes! Ah hah!
Goddard: ... This is the final section.
Lamming: ... Ah hah! Well, I think that is old. I mean in a way that happens in In the Castle of my Skin and in The Emigrants, though probably not in an extreme way. But in The Emigrants, the men take over the narrative on the deck. And In the Castle of my Skin, there is very little narrative intervention when the boys are speaking. It has to do with the way in which I look at what I call the dramatic poem. That is how I perceive the form which the experience dictates.
Goddard: Thank you very much. Mr. Lamming.
Lamming: Okay. Good.
This interview was taped in Montreal on Saturday, April 7, 1990.
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