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George Lamming, renowned Caribbean novelist, dies at 94

Barbadian author George Lamming in 1951, the year after he moved to London to launch his literary career. (George Douglas/Getty Images)
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George Lamming, a Barbadian author who placed the legacy of colonialism at the center of his lyrical novels and essays, acquiring a reputation as one of the finest Caribbean writers of his generation, died June 4 at a retirement center in Bridgetown, his country’s capital. He was 94.

His death was announced by Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados. “Wherever George Lamming went,” she said in a statement, “he epitomized that voice and spirit that screamed Barbados and the Caribbean.” Mr. Lamming’s daughter, Natasha Lamming-Lee, said he had been ailing but did not cite a cause.

Along with novelists and poets such as Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul, Andrew Salkey and Derek Walcott, Mr. Lamming helped define a new West Indian literature in the middle decades of the 20th century, exploring issues of history, politics, language and freedom at a time when colonial rule was giving way to independence.

Raised on a former sugar plantation outside Bridgetown, he wrote books that highlighted the experience of people who were marginalized because of their race, language, gender or income, and spread a message of liberation and inclusion in his essays and speeches. “I’m a preacher of some kind,” he said in a 2002 interview with the journal Small Axe. “I am a man bringing a message.”

Like Naipaul and many other Caribbean writers of their generation, Mr. Lamming launched his literary career in London, where he wrote his semiautobiographical first novel, “In the Castle of My Skin” (1953), at age 23. He later examined the experience of migration in “The Emigrants” (1954), a grim, fragmentary novel about West Indian expats in England, and in his essay collection “The Pleasures of Exile” (1960), which a New York Times reviewer described as “a neo-Gothic piece with ideas arcing like flying buttresses.”

“My subject,” Mr. Lamming wrote in the latter, “is the migration of the West Indian writer, as colonial and exile, from his native kingdom, once inhabited by Caliban, to the tempestuous island of Prospero’s and his language.”

Mr. Lamming returned to the Caribbean for novels such as “Of Age and Innocence” (1958) and “Season of Adventure” (1960), which were set on the fictional island of San Cristobal, where African, Indian and Chinese ethnic groups struggled to overcome mutual suspicions while uniting against the White establishment.

It was difficult, he noted, to forge a new identity after years of colonialism. “I had always lived in the shadow of a meaning which others had placed on my presence in the world,” an independence leader observes in “Age and Innocence,” “and I had played no part at all in making that meaning, like a chair which is wholly at the mercy of the idea guiding the hand of the man who builds it.”

Mr. Lamming had delved into issues of race and ethnicity ever since the publication of his first and best-known novel. Named after verses by Walcott, “In the Castle of My Skin” toggled between the third- and first-person while chronicling the upbringing of a young man called G, who joins his friends in fishing, diving for coins thrown by tourists at the beach and wondering how the king’s face winds up on pennies.

He also witnesses a labor riot, develops a budding awareness of racial inequality (“No black boy wanted to be white, but it was also true that no black boy liked the idea of being black”) and travels to Trinidad to work as a schoolteacher, just as Mr. Lamming did after high school.

“I tried to reconstruct the world of my childhood and early adolescence,” Mr. Lamming wrote in the introduction to the novel’s 1983 edition. “It was also the world of a whole Caribbean society.”

The book won the Somerset Maugham Award for young writers in Britain and was praised by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and American novelist Richard Wright, who wrote the introduction to the U.S. edition.

Critics were also impressed: “Mr. Lamming is a poet by instinct rather than a novelist, a man with an individual and almost private approach to the English language,” Orville Prescott of the Times wrote. “His prose is poetic, sensuous, imaginative, adorned with fanciful figures of speech and surprising twists of language.”

In part, Mr. Lamming’s prose style was shaped by his belief in acquiring “a spiritual possession of the landscape in which you live.” For him, that meant developing an understanding of “the rhythm of the wind … the smell of the sea … the texture of the stone and rock.”

“These are not objects outside of you,” Caribbean Beat magazine quoted him as saying. “They are part of your consciousness.”

George William Lamming was born in Carrington Village on June 8, 1927. His parents were unmarried, and he scarcely knew his father. His mother was a homemaker who later married a police officer.

Mr. Lamming grew up during a period of social upheaval, foreshadowing Barbados’s independence from Britain in 1966, and said he and his peers experienced a form of colonial cruelty that was more psychological than physical. “It was a terror of the mind; a daily exercise in self-mutilation,” he wrote in a 2002 essay. “Black versus black in a battle for self-improvement.”

After winning a scholarship to prestigious Combermere high school, he studied under literary editor Frank Collymore, who welcomed him into his home library and encouraged Mr. Lamming’s interest in writing poetry and prose, publishing some of his early work in the Caribbean magazine BIM.

Mr. Lamming later worked at a boarding school in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, teaching English to Hispanic students, before moving to England in 1950, sailing on the same ship as Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon. “If I had not gone to England,” he told The Washington Post in 1999, “I would have written, but you wouldn’t have heard of me.”

After working at a factory in London, Mr. Lamming landed a job at the BBC Colonial Service, where he was an announcer for shows including “Caribbean Voices,” an influential platform for writers from the West Indies. He also became active in the city’s literary community, encountering Dylan Thomas and other poets at the Mandrake Club in Soho.

His conversations with English writers were more about business than literature or politics, he recalled: “One very fine short-story writer, forever in purple corduroy, advised me never to visit a publisher’s office to talk business without a little weapon in my pocket. He gave examples of his success in such encounters.”

Mr. Lamming was soon traveling abroad, visiting the United States on a Guggenheim grant and speaking in 1956 at the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, where he impressed an audience that included James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon.

“Lamming is tall, raw-boned, untidy, and intense,” Baldwin wrote in an essay about the event, “and one of his real distinctions is his refusal to be intimidated by the fact that he is a genuine writer.”

With his booming, gravelly voice and crown of graying hair, Mr. Lamming acquired a wide array of admirers, including Canadian novelist and short-story writer Margaret Laurence. They had a brief affair, according to her biographer James King, and she moved to London with her children in an unsuccessful bid to settle down with Mr. Lamming. (His one marriage, to artist Nina Ghent, had previously ended in divorce.)

By 1967 Mr. Lamming had launched a career in academia, lecturing and working as a writer-in-residence at schools including Brown, Duke, Penn, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He returned to Barbados in 1980 and lived for many years at the Atlantis hotel, near the fishing village of Bathsheba, where he said his writing was invigorated by daily swims in the ocean.

Mr. Lamming received the Order of the Caribbean Community in 2008 and a lifetime achievement honor from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in 2014.

In addition to his daughter, Lamming-Lee of Silver Spring, Md., survivors include his longtime companion, Esther Phillips; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. His son, Gordon, died last year.

Mr. Lamming’s final novels included “Water With Berries” (1971), a political allegory centered on a West Indian revolutionary living in London, and “Natives of My Person” (1972), about 16th-century explorers and the origins of colonialism. Late in life, he was working on a book about Christopher Columbus, imagining that the explorer was arrested and put on trial by an Indigenous community in the West Indies.

He spent years working on the project, but in a 2002 interview with Caribbean Beat, he declined to say when it might be published: “The point is with these things, you never finish.”