The six novels and the collections of essays by George Lamming, who has died aged 94, did much to shape Caribbean literary culture. He also contributed to it as an educator and activist intellectual, mentoring a host of young writers and scholars in the Caribbean and beyond.
Intensely aware of the impact of colonialism on individual lives and the evolutionary process of social, political and economic reconstruction in the region, Lamming was inspired by the idea of a unified Caribbean.
The West Indies Federation (1958-62) had aimed to bring together various islands into a single political unit, but failed. While accepting this outcome, Lamming remained committed to the ideal of a regional community rooted in shared cultural and political aspirations.
His first and most famous novel, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), drawing on his upbringing in Barbados, was published in Britain after he had gone there from Trinidad in 1950.
It is an autobiographical novel that recreates the author’s life between the ages of nine and 16 against the backdrop of major labour unrest in June 1937 that presaged the movement toward independence from colonial rule.
While the idea for the novel had been germinating before his arrival in London, it was there that he began putting it together. As he wrote in his introduction to its 1983 edition: “I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and early adolescence. It was also the world of a whole Caribbean society.”
The novel’s reception put him at the centre of black intellectual and cultural life in postwar Europe. It was reviewed in the Observer and the Times, and VS Pritchett devoted a full page of the New Statesman to it. In 1954 a lengthy extract was published in the French magazine Les Temps Modernes by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the novel was published in the US with an admiring introduction by Richard Wright.
Three more novels followed in quick succession: The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960). There was also a pioneering collection of personal essays on cultural politics and intellectual history, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), that anticipated many contemporary postcolonial formulations around the psychic trauma engendered by colonialism.
As Lamming observed, his novels told a Caribbean story that began with a colonial childhood, followed by emigration to Britain, return to the Caribbean, agitation for independence, nationalist aspirations, and the collapse of the first independent republic. He experimented with form, and displayed great intellectual power and emotional range in these novels – or dramatic poems, as he liked to call them.
Lamming worked for the BBC’s overseas radio service, broadcasting on its programme Caribbean Voices, and in 1955 travelled to the US on a Guggenheim scholarship, and then on to West Africa and the Caribbean. He was a participant in the first international congress of black writers and artists in Paris in 1956, alongside writers and intellectuals including Jacques Stephen Alexis, Aimé Césaire, Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Jean Price-Mars and Wright.
In 1957, he received the Somerset Maugham award for In the Castle of My Skin, and numerous honours and awards followed. His last two novels, Water With Berries (1971) and Natives of My Person (1972), were political allegories, providing a dense and highly sophisticated engagement with narratives of European imperialism.
Lamming was born into humble circumstances on the island of Barbados to an unmarried mother. She later married, and though he paid frequent visits to St David’s Village, where his stepfather worked, he was raised primarily in Carrington Village, to the east of Bridgetown, the capital. He referred to it fondly as a rough neighbourhood, the Creighton Village of In the Castle of My Skin. His political and aesthetic sensibilities were formed there, and his sympathies remained with the struggles of the poor and working classes of the Caribbean.
From Roebuck boys’ school he won a scholarship to Combermere high school, where he was mentored by Frank Collymore, the editor of Bim, a journal devoted to publishing and promoting Caribbean writers.
In 1946, Lamming left Barbados for Trinidad, where he taught at a college for Venezuelan students in Port of Spain. Contact there with the radical left and the Readers and Writers Guild made him more political. When he left for London, it was on the same ship as the Trinidadian novelist Sam Selvon, and he soon established himself as a visionary writer, part of the generation of West Indians that included Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, VS Naipaul, John Hearne and Kamau Brathwaite.
In the 1970s Lamming travelled in Africa, India and Australia, and criss-crossed the US undertaking teaching assignments, readings and lectures. Then, in 1980 he returned to Barbados and established a permanent residence at the Atlantis hotel in Bathsheba, on the Atlantic coast, a place of astonishing beauty, with a rocky shoreline and crashing surf. There Lamming enjoyed regular walks on the shore, swimming – and a degree of seclusion. He received occasional visitors and had time for reading, reflection and writing.
He was a storehouse of information about personalities and events in the Caribbean and talked expansively about these when among friends. He was courteous, kind and generous to his friends and to the many scholars and writers who sought him out.
On the public platform however, his voice remained strong and vigorous and politically challenging. He could be harsh in his assessments of Caribbean societies, but never surrendered his certainty about the creative potential of the region, and experimented with new fictional forms for themes that had always fascinated him: the voyages of Columbus, the debates between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the degree of humanity of the conquered peoples of the Americas, the Haitian ceremony of souls, and the Vichy regime in Martinique, among others.
He edited anthologies of Caribbean writing, and committed himself anew to political activism.
This phase of Lamming’s vigorous intellectual life is recorded in volumes of essays, Conversations (1992), Coming, Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II (1995) and The Sovereignty of the Imagination (2004), and in his edited volumes of Caribbean literary and cultural history, Enterprise of the Indies Vols I & II (1999).
He felt no particular urgency about returning to the novel, so he continued to experiment with new fictional forms in private, to teach at universities in the US and to lecture widely.
All his major works were republished in the US in the 90s, and Lamming enjoyed the renewed interest in his fiction and cultural analysis, establishing a role for the writer as public intellectual in everyday Caribbean life.
He is survived by his son, Gordon, and daughter, Natasha, from his marriage to the Trinidadian painter Nina Squires, which ended in divorce.