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Callaloo 28.1 (2005) 8-24

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Derek Walcott's "Reversible World"

Centers, Peripheries, and the Scale of Nature

A few paragraphs of this address are borrowed from my book, Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott, but it was otherwise composed for the occasion.

This is the text of the Derek Walcott lecture for Laureates Week, St. Lucia, delivered in Castries on December 22, 2003. When Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, he became the second St. Lucian to be so honored, joining the late Sir Arthur Lewis, who won the prize in economics in 1979. Because the two laureates, born 15 years apart, shared a January 23 birthday, St. Lucia decided to honor the occasion annually during the week in which that date falls. The Laureates Week program is sponsored by the Governor General, Dame Pearlette Louisy, with the assistance of the National Cultural Centre. The speaker was introduced by Deirdre Williams, librarian at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College; the audience included the Governor General, Prime Minister Kenneth Anthony, and Derek Walcott himself. I have removed the opening protocol remarks and lightly edited the text for publication here.

I am deeply honored to have been invited to give the Derek Walcott Lecture for Laureate Week, 2003. The honor is also a challenge, for you have asked a foreigner to speak to you about one of your own, a man who, after many years in Trinidad and the United States, still could say, in his 1985 Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch: "I've never felt that I belong anywhere else but in St. Lucia" (Hamner 79).

Last year's address was given by a St. Lucian-born scholar, Dr. Antonia MacDonald-Smythe, of St. George's University, Grenada. Her theme, as many of you may remember, was the celebration of "provincialism" in St. Lucian art. She sought to "reclaim the term and invest it with positive characteristics." To be a provincial in her sense affirms "good old-fashioned national pride," not "prejudice and intolerance." It affirms, also, the "almost spiritual connection between the landscape and the people who inhabit it." Nonetheless, she maintains, the provincial does not exclude the global or cosmopolitan. Rather, the provincial redefines the cosmopolitan by seeing it from a different vantage point: "Walcott's sustained exposure to World History and Literature gave him an understanding of the world as merely a collection of provinces." And so "the microcosm of St. Lucian life is replicated in the wider international world."

Today, I shall return to Dr. MacDonald-Smythe's insights about the relations of the provincial and the cosmopolitan, not to dispute them, but to look at them from a different perspective. It cannot help being different, because I came to Derek Walcott's [End Page 8] writings from different beginnings: I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, known in my country as "the Second City," as opposed to the first, New York. From a New York point of view, Chicago is one of the provinces; from almost any other U.S. perspective, with the possible exception of Los Angeles, it is the Big City. To be a Chicagoan is to occupy a curious middle position on my nation's map of peripheries and centers. And to be an American is to be a citizen, however disaffected at times, of the present empire, whose economic and military power has potential for benevolence or wanton harm. The greatness of Walcott's poetry was as immediately plain from my U.S. perspective as it is from yours, although I quickly recognized that considerable study of Caribbean history, literature, and language would be necessary before I could hope to write intelligently about it. Even after years of research and travel, I still read through eyes that opened to different landscapes and ears long accustomed to other varieties of English, with a mind formed by life-long North American residence, most of it in cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York. Today I shall try to tell you what his achievement looks like through my North...


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