How did George Lamming manage to write ‘In the Castle of My Skin’ at the age of 23?

Alexander Opicho June 26, 2022
Barbadian George Lamming speaking about his world-renowned novel, 'In The Castle of My Skin.’ Image via a YouTube video posted by NCF Barbados

George Lamming, a novelist known for his book In the Castle of My Skin, died on Saturday, June 4, at the age of 94. He died in Barbados, his country of birth. George Lamming was a black writer gifted with appealing capability. He is an African Caribbean from the Island Country of Barbados. But before I express my grief, my love for his literary capability propels me to admire and salute his nine decades of a life that was well-lived, especially, when I travel down my literary memory lane by musing about his extra-ordinary literary prowess in the authorial excellence displayed by him in his seminal book In the Castle of My Skin.

His first work of prose was written in the middle of the last century when he was only at the age of twenty-three. George Lamming’s literary life is a phenomenon which provokes any curious mind to ask; how did George Lamming manage to write ‘In the Castle of My Skin’, such a spell-binding book that is significantly a milestone in the history of black literature and Africana studies when he was only at the age of twenty-three?

My question is triggered by my personal experience of working for over ten years as a lecturer with a focus on social sciences in different universities in Kenya. My experience is that there is no Kenyan boy or girl at the age of twenty-three today who can write anything near to George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin. I am aware of some East African literary talents of our time in the likes of Scholastica Mukasonga, Clemantine Wamariya, Jennifer Nasumbuga Makumbi and Oduor Okwir as well as some talents of the last century in the likes of Okot P’ Bitek, Shaban Bin Robert and Francis Imbuga. They also began to write and publish in their twenties, but still the literary eventuality of Lamming commands a superlative position in terms of talent, simplicity, mighty of humor, communication of complex political challenges in accessible language and capacity to package local cultural experiences for universal or globalized consumption.

This is also a question that takes us back to reading Rene Wellek’s Literary Theory, especially the chapter on ‘Literature and Human Psychology’ in which Wellek makes some literary inquiry on whether a writer is born or educated. Wellek’s theory on literary psychology would force us to ask that was George Lamming a “borne writer” or an educated writer? Can a literature department in Africa or America manage to train a boy to write a novel that can compete with In the Castle of my Skin at the age of twenty-three?

This question also has some value in synecdoche. This is so because when you make conversations with those who have taken the time to study Caribbean literature you easily come to a well-supported conclusion that Africa and the Caribbean islands are the epicenters of black literature, both in a temporal sense and in a geographical sense. Yes, Africa began seeing its native writers four or fewer centuries ago, starting with Olaudah Equiano to the current conditions of explosion in literary talents in Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Cameron. But still, the last two centuries of Caribbean Literature have had a comparative penchant impact on the study and practice of black literature as well as Africana culture. This is  the perspective of synecdoche giving us a logic of extension emanating from the cultural eventuality of George Lamming justifiably generalizable to the Caribbean islands and hence providing all logic to question the cultural miracle behind excellence in literary civilization as testified through literary efforts by  V. S Naipaul, Derek Walkot, Sam Selvon, Kamau Brathewaite, Water Rodney , Frantz Fanon, and Afua Cooper .

When we think in terms of the current history of Africa’s social-economic relations with the Caribbean islands, we cannot avoid a philosophical position that, even though the death of George Lamming is untimely to most of us who loved him and his literary work, but still it is not a moment of darkness, it is a true moment of unflagging candle that shines on the truth about how George Lamming influenced and inspired intellectual growth among Africa’s social thinkers of the last century,  just in the same measure the Caribbean Islands have successfully influenced formation of anti-colonial consciousness among African political leaderships. For, example George Padmore influenced Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkurumah to give institutional thought to the need for Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of colonial shame. The same case for Walter Rodney when he was working as a lecturer and researcher in Tanzania during the mid-years of the last century. Walter Rodney shaped the intellectual growth of the young  Yoweri Museveni, Sally Kosgei, John Garang, Austin Bukenya and Amukowa Anangwe when they were students at the University of Dar es Salam. 

Beyond classroom activities, Walter Rodney was also a public revolutionary thinker who challenged the ever-dissembling Julius Nyerere to improve the quality of thought in the kind of socialism practiced in Tanzania at that time. And also, no university and any other institution of higher learning in Africa today can forget to appreciate the kind of cultural and intellectual benefit Africa has enjoyed from How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and also, The history and Human statistics of Trans-Atlantic Slavery, two very important books by Walter Rodney. And it is the same accolade that we extend to Derek Walkot, Frantz Fanon and Aime Ceasaire for the respective social-cultural influences they had on Africa. Kenya in particular has benefitted greatly from the Caribbean intellectuals and professionals, especially when we remember that Kamau Braithawaite was an intellectual missionary at the University of Nairobi in 1975, Kenya’s first chief Justice was a Caribbean native, Frantz Fanon had some short stay in Nairobi, and more currently, Bob Collymore from Guyana contributed his prowess in corporate leadership to strengthen corporate excellence at Safaricom, a mega corporation in Kenya.

I know my adult readers from Kenya will always want someone to mention to them how George Lamming influenced Ngugi wa Thiong’o. To me, this is not enough until I mention that George Lamming’s book In the Castle of My Skin is a source of literary influence to very many Kenyans beyond Ngugi wa Thiong’o . Personally, I read this book in 1988. By then it was a set-book for literature students sitting for form five and for six literature examinations. I was not an A’ level student, I was in my upper primary of schooling, but I came from a village that was flooded with A ‘level literature students.

The kind of excitement and adolescent hyper that these A ‘level students displayed when talking publicly about the characters in Lamming’s book In the Castle of My Skin catapulted me to defy the pathetic state of wanting intellect in my level of education to read the book. Above all else and against all odds, I was able  to enjoy the book. I loved and hated the characters in the book. I loved the school boys with passion, but also, I hated the landlord and the school headmaster with passion. I loved the boys for their swiveling boyishness, but I hated the landlord for disturbing the birthday party at the house of a poor tenant. At most, I hated the sugar cane plantation and its system of labour, just the same way I hated the school headmaster for showing ruthless expertise in how to flog until shredding the buttocks of unruly school boys. Since then, I have been reading Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin every year in the month of June. I read it in the moth of June because June is the month of the Caribbean literature. In this year 2022, I had chosen that my June reading list would be James Marlon’s Book of the Night Women and Lamming’s In the Castle of Skin. I usually read two books at once, hence I had read these two books half-way. Unfortunately, on 6th June, I got  an email from James Murua’s Literary blog that George Lamming is dead.

More saddening is that I have not heard any Kenyan media, young people and even members of the academic community talking about the sad passing of George Lamming. I am sure they are not aware of him; this is so given that the current intellectual culture in Kenya is focused on identity and politics, money-making, buying an urban plot, and owning a laptop for developing commercial tendering proposals. It is not easy to come by a Kenyan youth of today displaying admirable depth of intellectual curiosity. I don’t know who to blame. 

Ergo, it is out of this perspective that I want to inform my young readers that George Lamming was born in Carrington Village in  Barbados, on June 8, 1927.  He went to  Roebuck Boys’ School. After that, he won a scholarship to Combermere School. This is where he met his teacher Frank Collymore. Frank Collymore was a man of the arts and also a publisher of the literary journal known as BIM. It is Frank Collymore who inspired Lamming with a passion for reading and writing poetry. Then, Lamming went to Trinidad in 1946. He worked there as a school teacher for four years at a school known as El Collegio de Venezuela in Port of Spain before moving to England to work in a factory for a short time before he became a broadcaster for the BBC Colonial Service.

George Lamming entered world of serious academia in 1967 as a writer-in-residence and lecturer at the Creative Arts Centre and Department of Education at the University of the West Indies. After which, he served as a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at the City University of New York. Alongside this, he was also a faculty member and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania, a distinguished visiting professor at Duke University and a visiting professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts at Brown University and a lecturer at universities in Tanzania, Denmark, and Australia.

Lamming wrote a total of six novels and four non-fiction books; The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), Season of Adventure (1960), and Water with Berries (1971) as well as a collection of essays under the title The Pleasures of Exile. Maybe this life of struggle and hard work is the reason George Lamming was able to write In the Castle of My Skin at the age of twenty-three.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 24, 2022


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