“Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation” – on Walcott, Identity, and Representation

As with the deaths of so many significant people, I learned of Derek Walcott’s passing on a social media news feed yesterday morning. This time, it was Twitter. Derek Walcott, St Lucian poet and Nobel laureate, has died in his home at the age of 87.

Walcott’s work came into my life during high school. I was one of a mere handful of brown kids: the only non-white girl in my year. Being mixed-race in a less-than-diverse community, every space I occupied was defined by my otherness, but none of that mattered to me when studying literature. I loved Shakespeare, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll. I could recite large passages of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from memory, composed limericks for fun, and rewrote classics from minor characters’ perspectives. I loved to write, but so rarely found characters or authors I could relate to. I remember being five and poring over an adaptation of a Persian folk tale, the illustrated Lemon Princess being the closest likeness to myself I’d ever seen. At ten, I found a children’s story set on a fictional Polynesian island, and the similarities to Caribbean culture were tenuous, but I clutched at them in delight. It was not until my GCSE English class began work on a specific anthology of poems written by immigrants and people of colour that I was exposed to the notion that people of colour from non-Western countries could be included as authors in capital-L Literature. That revelation began with Walcott’s poem Love After Love. 

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 In that class, something significant slotted into place. Suddenly the literature I was immersed in had points of reference I could relate to: in Walcott’s writing I recognised the dialect, the geography, the lyricism of my Caribbean ancestors – even references to the Savannah I have so often walked around. Walcott’s poetry encapsulates the grandeur and complexity of the Caribbean, the dignity and grace so deeply embedded into the archipelago; it weighs the ambiguity and complexity of identity that comes with colonisation. My mother was born one year after Trinidad’s independence, and frequently comments on the similarities between the Caribbean culture she was born into and the British culture in which she raised her children.

Despite my English accent, Northern Irish surname, and Canadian citizenship, anyone who knows me knows how proudly I wear my Trinidadian heritage. It is an unrequited love. The island calls me beti and doudou only from a distance. My grandmother insists that the way I knead roti dough is hereditary, that it swells on the tawa just like my great-grandmother’s used to. My aunties frequently mistake me for my mother’s 20-something likeness, and I grew up listening to a cassette tape of Sparrow’s greatest hits – but on returning to the island it reminds me, as Walcott writes in The Star-Apple Kingdom, “I have no nation now but the imagination”.

Since moving to Toronto, I am orbited by two questions: Where is my accent from? and What’s my background? Because, you know, I look like I could be from anywhere. The latter has followed me since birth, and I imagine will be a lifelong companion. We are lucky, here, to live in one of the most diverse cities in the world. When I tell my Toronto-born friends how my family used to drive to the next city over just to be able to buy spices at the West Indian grocer’s, they are incredulous. They are amazed that until I came to Glendon and met Asha, I knew no Trinidadian diaspora that weren’t somehow related to me. And yet for people of colour, particularly those of us who do not fit comfortably into an ethnicity category when filling out paperwork, we are so lacking representation in media: the existing literature is often overlooked, POC characters are cast to white actors, and we exist in a middle ground.

Poetry is the great love of my life. It is what I turn to for solace, for escape, for inspiration. In the years that followed that pivotal high school English class, I’ve devoured the works of incredible poets of colour from Maya Angelou and Alice Walker to Khalil Gibran and Ben Okri; Rumi, Warsan Shire, John Agard. Yet to the teacher who first introduced me to Walcott I will always owe something profound. His work was the hinge and threshold of my own awareness of what people like me are capable of. That identity and history are forever intertwined. That no-one can take my identity from me, even if they cannot see it. That quiet revolution was how I learned the desperate importance of representation – something I will advocate for the rest of my life.

 

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