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A giant of the Caribbean

Published: 
Saturday, March 18, 2017
In this November 1992 photograph, citizens line the streets of St Lucia to welcome home Sir Derek Walcott, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature that year. Walcott died yesterday at the age of 87.

In a body of work spanning more than six decades, celebrated poet, playwright and painter Derek Alton Walcott, who died on Friday at age 87, captured the rich, unique, and complicated culture of the Caribbean in the post-colonial era.

A literary giant whose works vividly expressed the joys, pains and energy of life in this corner of the world, Mr Walcott held a commanding position as the poet laureate of the West Indies.

There was never a doubt about his dedication to the region. Throughout his career, apart from brief academic and theatrical stints abroad, Mr Walcott lived and worked in the Caribbean, never giving in to the lure of greener pastures in Europe or North America.

St Lucia was the place of his birth and it was there, at his home in Cap Estate, that he drew his last breath. In fact, for the most part his writing was inspired by the lush, verdant terrain of his homeland.

However, T&T was his second home as well as the launching pad for many of his most important works. He settled here in the mid-1950s after completing his studies at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, forerunner of the University of the West Indies.

Two of Mr Walcott’s early plays, The Sea at Dauphin and Ione, premiered in T&T in 1954. Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Mr Walcott’s masterful retelling of a Trinidadian folk tale in which Lucifer tries to steal the souls of three brothers, was produced here in 1958.

The T&T Guardian was very much a part of Mr Walcott’s life. He was an art critic for this newspaper from 1960 to 1968 and many of his essays and poems were reproduced in the pages of this publication. The late Raoul Pantin, a junior reporter with the Trinidad Guardian as it was known at that time, remembered him as a “vague and distant newsroom presence, an aloof man who wrote long esoteric articles.”

His passing, just as the T&T Guardian prepares to celebrate a century, adds a touch of poignancy to the commemorations that will be launched shortly.

It was also in T&T that Mr Walcott founded his repertory company, the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which in the late 1960s became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW).

Mr Walcott served as founder director of the TTW from 1959 to 1971, and was deeply involved in productions over the years which featured local legends of dance and theatre such as Beryl McBurnie, Errol Jones and Stanley Marshall.

Currently headed by Albert Laveau, the TTW remains an important performance space, well known for productions that run the gamut from local works to adaptations of Shakespearean plays.

Sadly the TTW is on the verge of becoming homeless as the colonial-style house on Jerningham Avenue, Belmont, from which it has operated since 2004, is up for sale at an asking price of $2.3 million.

It would be a fitting honour to the life and work of Mr Walcott if that property was purchased for the TTW and preserved as a performance and arts space in his memory.

Part of Mr Walcott’s rich legacy is the epic poem Omeros for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. His reimagining of the Odyssey, which explores ancient themes of displacement and exile in a modern Caribbean setting, caught the attention of the Nobel Committee and earned recognition in the very same year that the world marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean.

It is fitting that the title of that award-winning work is the modern Greek word for Homer. Indeed, Mr Walcott was the of this modern era.

The Caribbean mourns his passing.