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close this bookThe Courier N 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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View the documentDerek Walcott, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature

Derek Walcott, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature

"He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles of this grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?

That the cross he carried was not only the anchor's hut that of his race, for a village black and poor" (from 'Omeros' by Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott )

Although Derek Walcott-with typical modesty-was reported to have been 'shocked and surprised' when he heard that he had won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, the news was perhaps less of a surprise to his colleagues in the literary world. The 63-year old poet and playwright is widely recognised as one of the greatest living writers in the English language and he already has a number of prestigious awards to his name. But the fact that the Nobel success was not entirely unexpected does nothing to diminish the widespread sense of pride and pleasure felt throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

For it is clear that Derek Walcott is a Caribbean whose attachment to the region transcends his feelings for any particular island state. He was born and raised in St Lucia, went to university in Jamaica and has lived much of his life in Trinidad where he set up and managed a theatre workshop. But above all, it is in his works that the spirit of the Caribbean- where African and European cultures have clashed and coalesced for centuries-shines through. His manipulation of language is masterful, creating images which are so perceptive that they catch the reader's breath.

Walcott's loyalty to the Caribbean is matched, according to the Swedish Academy's citation which accompanied the announcement of the prize, by his loyalty 'to the English language and to his African origin'.

Writing has always been a vocation for Derek Walcott. He had a literary and artistic family background and published his first book, entitled 25 Poems, when he was only 18 years old. He went on to achieve international fame with works such as In a Green Night (1962), The Gulf (1970) and his highly acclaimed Omeros (1990). In this last work, which is an epic poem based loosely on Homer's Odyssey, the author recounts the voyage of two fisherman back to their African 'roots'. (The above passage refers to a shin injury from a rusting anchor sustained by one of the fishermen, Philoctete).

The new Nobel laureate also has had a distinguished academic career in the United States, having taught at Columbia, Yale and Harvard before taking up a Chair in English Literature at Boston University. It was here that The Courier caught up with him and discovered that he also has an aptitude for teaching-not always an attribute of great thinkers and writers. He clearly enjoys the dynamic interaction of performance, criticism and analysis as plays written and directed by his students are put through their paces on the purpose built theatre set.

Despite Derek Walcott's academic duties, he manages to spend a considerable amount of time in the Caribbean where he is also heavily involved in developing theatre ventures. The extent to which he is admired and respected in his 'home' patch is illustrated by the fact that St Lucia recently held a week of celebrations in his honour.

This is the first time that the Nobel prize has been awarded to a West Indian writer and, as the winner himself says, it shows that the literature of the region has now been recognised internationally. For the new generation of writers from the Caribbean, Derek Walcott's success and commitment must surely provide the best possible inspiration. S.H.