Nobel laureate Sir Derek Alton Walcott, a poet and playwright, died on Friday at his home in his native island of St. Lucia, after a prolonged illness. He was 87.
Sir Derek received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1992 after being shortlisted for the honour for many years. In selecting him, the Swedish academy cited the great ” luminosity” of his writings, including the 1990 Omeros, an epic poem which it praised as “majestic.”
“In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet,” said the Academy in awarding Sir Derek the prize.
He was the second St. Lucian to have won the Nobel Prize, following Sir Arthur Lewis who won the award for economics in 1979.
Queen Elizabeth II made Walcott an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1972, and in 2016, a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Lucia.
Although he was best known for his poetry, he was also a prolific playwright, penning some 40 plays, including Dream on Monkey Mountain and The Last Carnival.
Sir Derek, who was of African, Dutch and English ancestry, said his writing reflected the “very rich and complicated experience” of life in the Caribbean. He himself proudly celebrated his role as a Caribbean writer.
“I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer,” he once said during a 1985 interview published in The Paris Review. “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.”
Sir Derek was born in St. Lucia’s capital of Castries in 1930 to a Methodist schoolteacher mother and a civil servant father, an aspiring artist who died when Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were babies. His mother, Alix, instilled the love of language in her children, often reciting Shakespeare and reading aloud other classics of English literature.
In his autobiographical essay What the Twilight Says, he wrote: “Both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began.”
Early on, he struggled with questions of race and his passion for British poetry, describing it as a “wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape.” But he overcame that inner struggle, writing: “Once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black.”
He left St. Lucia to immerse himself in literature at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. In the 1950s, he studied in New York and was one of the founders of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in Port-of-Spain which produced many of his plays.
Sir Derek taught literature and writing at Boston University for more than 20 years and was a Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex from 2010-13.