One of the first thing it is important to know about Derek Walcott, is that he was a child prodigy. A child prodigy is someone who begins at a very young age to exhibit extraordinary ability at a particular skill.
At a very young age, Walcott displayed unusual talent as a writer and painter. Indeed, he published his first book of poems in 1984 at the age of 18. The standard of the poem is attested by the fact many of them appear in a recent collection entitled, ‘The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1984-2013’.
Derek Walcott had a twin brother, Roderick, who is a well-known St. Lucian Playwright. Their parents were Warwick and Alix Walcott, both from the light-skinned St. Lucia middle class.
Alix was a teacher and seamstress. Warwick died soon after the birth of the twins. Derek’s mixed parentage (English, Dutch and African) made him a ‘shabine’, the patios word for ‘red nigger’.
One of the things which caused him great pain during his life was the fact that in the 1960s, when the Black Power movement became prominent in the U.S and the Caribbean, being a “red nigger” sometimes made him appear a person of the wrong colour.
For many persons failed to recognise him as a fit candidate for “going back to Africa”.
After graduating from the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in Jamaica, which later became what we now know as the University of the West Indies (UWI), Walcott settled in Trinidad and became of the Caribbean’s foremost poet, playwright and literacy critic.
Being highly desirous of contributing to the development of drama in the Caribbean, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, for which he was Chief Director and Playwright.
Walcott’s value as a dramatist is proven by the fact that many of his more than thirty plays have become subjects for study from the CXC to university level.
Derek Walcott was so determined to be a truly Caribbean writer, that while most other Caribbean literary masters left to ply their trade in the metropolitan countries, he opted to remain in the Caribbean. However, he left in 1981 to take up position as Professor of Literature and Creative Writing in Boston University in the U.S. in order to help his daughter through university.
Like most Caribbean writers and intellectuals, one of Walcott’s main concerns is the poverty that is endemic to the Caribbean. He saw our poverty as another of the harsh legacies of slavery and colonialism.
In one of his poems, he describes it as an “incurable sore”. In his poem, ‘The schooner’s Flight’, the poverty is shown in Shabine words, that one early morning, he passed by his “dry neighbour sweeping she yard”.
In Homecoming: Anse La Raye’, Walcott writes of an experience he had in St. Lucia, where he was taken for a tourist by some St. Lucian children, who approached him begging for money.
These beggars were potbellied and had reddish hair, which showed that they suffered from malnutrition. Indeed, in his poems, more than once Walcott has referred to the Caribbean as “slums of empire”.
Poverty is endemic to the Caribbean because the colonisers had left, and “all those bastards had left us” were “words”. Because of “the cunning bitterness of the rich”, they had left us “mandates” (independence constitutions), and no money.
In his biographical poem, ‘Another Life’, he tells us how as an adolescent, he was moved to tears by the plight of the poor. His preoccupation with Caribbean poverty reminds us of the writings of the eminent, Trinidadian historian and statesman, Dr. Eric Williams, and many of the songs of Bob Marley, who also understood some of the destructive effects of destitution.
It also reminds us of the struggle against poverty of labour leaders like Eric Gairy and Tubal Uriah Butler. This poverty is still very much with us, and in fact is proving to be incurable. For Walcott, this is because history is “unhealing”. Indeed, for decades Caribbean people have had to migrate overseas in search of a better life.
Walcott’s intense preoccupation with poverty in the Caribbean indicates how closely he was aligned to our dreams and hopes and aspirations.
In 1992, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘Osmeros’, another of his long poems. In his acceptance speech, Walcott said; “I was writing as if for the island people from whom I came. In a sense, I saw it as a long thank you note.” This contrasted markedly with the Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul, who when he won the Nobel Prize ten years later, refused to recognise that he was created in the West Indies. Instead he gave thanks to his “adopted home”, England and India, the home of his ancestors”.
When in 1992, a reporter observed to Walcott that a small island like St. Lucia, in recent times, had also been the home of Sir Arthur Lewis, another Nobel Prize winner for Economics, and asked what was special about St. Lucia, Walcott jokingly responded, that maybe it was the food.