- Examining Colonialism and Exile in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), and The Pleasures of Exile (1960)
Colonialism has permeated the minds of Caribbean writers from the period of formal Empire to the present state of post-independence. The generation of Caribbean writers whose work emerged onto the literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s came of age during the last stages of colonialism. On the heels of independence, the writers of the 1950s and 1960s set out to combat colonialism through the written word. In order to tell their stories, they first had to find publishers and audiences. Accomplishing this task meant leaving one’s native land for the burgeoning cultural metropolis of London. This talented generation of writers set sail for England and thus initiated one of the most prevalent literary themes of the era, the experience of exile. Without question, the 1950s and 1960s era in Caribbean literary production represented the literary terrain of the male novelist. Kamau Brathwaite, Jan Carew, John Hearne, Wilson Harris, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul, V.S. Reid, and Samuel Selvon are among the most widely recognized canonical figures within the genre of Caribbean literature.
In assessing the 1950s and 1960s era in Caribbean literary production, George Lamming’s writing is particularly well suited to represent the major literary themes of the era: colonialism and exile. George Lamming was born in Carrington Village, Barbados in 1927. Many of the details of his life and times, from his experiences growing up in an island village in the 1930s and 1940s to his experience sailing to England in 1950, have been recorded in the pages of his major literary works. Caribbean literary scholars and critics recognize George Lamming as a Caribbean writer who possesses an “acute social consciousness that is vitally concerned with politics and society” (Paquet, The Novels 1). Lamming’s ability to capture the social consciousness of Caribbean society within a particular moment in history can be attributed to what Lamming defines as his “peasant sensibility” which he considers to be the most basic feature of the West Indian background (Pleasures of Exile 225). Michael Gilkes contends that Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin “is one of the earliest novels of any substance to convey, with real assurance, the life of ordinary village folk within a genuinely realized, native landscape: a ‘peasant novel’ (it is Lamming’s term)” (123).
As a coming of age novel, In the Castle of My Skin exemplifies much of the thematic content of Caribbean fiction within the 1950s and 1960s era in its treatment of race, class, gender, colonialism, and exile. It is not merely a novel that chronicles the experiences of a child coming of age in the Caribbean, but may also be viewed as a novel capturing an important historical moment in a society that in many ways is also coming of age. Significantly, the novel serves to represent the social and political climate of the Caribbean’s contentious move toward independence from colonial domination and to set the stage for the next phase of the colonial experience captured in Lamming’s second novel, The Emigrants (1954).
The Emigrants continues where In the Castle of My Skin leaves off by explicitly addressing exile on a much larger scale, in terms of the mass emigration that took place after World War II. The Emigrants gives voice to multiple aspects of the exilic experience from the emigrants’ hopes of a “better break” in England to the feelings of intense alienation and disconnection in London. Thus, Lamming’s first two works of fiction serve to establish his commitment to defining and to exploring two of the most critically important themes of the 1950s and 1960s era in Caribbean writing: colonialism and exile.
In fact, all of Lamming’s novels to date, including In the Castle of My Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), A Season of Adventure (1970), Water With Berries (1971), and Natives of My Person (1972), seek to illuminate a particular phase of the colonial experience. Not only does Lamming explore colonialism and exile...