As the Nobel Laureate Festival continues, the organising committee and the Cultural Development Foundation hosted the most anticipated event of it all: The Nobel Laureate Lecture on Tuesday, January 24th. The lecture “Our Homer: Derek Walcott” was given by world-renowned writer and featured lecturer, Professor Jamaica Kincaid at the National Cultural Centre. With the aid of The bookYard, the Walcott family, Folk Research Centre and sponsors FLOW and Bank of Saint Lucia, the atmosphere created by CDF and the Nobel Laureate Committee was stylish, comfortable and inviting, complete with a book and souvenir lounge. In attendance were Saint Lucian literati, Walcott scholars, literature students and bibliophiles.
A brief but thorough introduction of Jamaica Kincaid was given in a video presentation. Originally known as Elaine Potter Richardson, this Antiguan-born writer fit plenty of West Indian stereotypes, but excelled in her career nonetheless. She began writing for magazines in New York after dropping out of the Franconia College, and eventually became a staff writer for “The New Yorker”. Although she worked there for over twenty years, it was not the centrepiece of her career. Novels “Annie John”, “Lucy”, “The Autobiography of My Mother”, “A Small Place”, “My Brother” and her other fictional works won many coveted, literary awards. Jamaica Kincaid is now a Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at the Harvard University.
Derek Walcott has been a mentor to Jamaica Kincaid and a crucial contributor to her work. She introduced her presentation as a love letter to Walcott because “he and his writing are repositories of the Caribbean journey.” Kincaid opened by quoting from the poem “The Iliad” by the Ancient Greek poet, Homer, whom Walcott is constantly compared to because of his own poem “Omeros”. However, her main support references were drenched in Walcott’s poetry, her experiences with him and Christopher Columbus’ voyage journal. Her aim was to portray the Caribbean as “The Star Apple Kingdom” like Walcott had so referred to it in his collection of the same name. By reading from Columbus’ accounts of his first encounter with West Indian people, Kincaid illustrated the experience of first impressions and how that single event influenced all of West Indian culture until the present moment. Columbus described the Amerindians as “marvelous”, only because he could not accurately describe his fascination with them. Their clothing, fashion, weaponry, communication and curiosity were different from that of the Europeans and he had many ideas about their possible value to them. In turn the friendliness of the Amerindians did not let them fathom being attacked by these visitors and Kincaid emphasised the line from Columbus’ account “they took the swords by the edge and cut themselves” highlighting the ignorance of the people, and using it as a metaphor throughout the lecture.
The reference to us, the Caribbean, being “The Star Apple Kingdom” implied that the fruit (bwi in creole) only belongs to the West Indies just like the catalytic moment between Columbus and the indigenous people. Kincaid released information about the fruit relating to her research in its botany and explained that it is one of the few fruits that originate from the Caribbean. Mangoes, coconuts and breadfruit, which are always associated with the islands, all came from different places.
Jamaica Kincaid’s lecture was informative and intriguing to much of the audience. Expectedly it was well researched and she expressed vast knowledge of Walcott’s work. Her anecdotes about a list of books assigned to her by Walcott, having to write out “Paradise Lost” as punishment and other humorous ones, kept the lecture entertaining. But only during the segment allotted to questions did I realise how much she had inspired the rest of the audience. The inquiries ranged from the lecture to her personal life to her seemingly defiant literature. Other questions were quite bold, but that’s something only “Lucians” would do; even the Walcott scholars that I spoke to were amazed at just how daring they were!
The lecture ended with a presentation of a plaque to Kincaid from CDF and a touching vote of thanks from The Soup’s Mendalise Breen. In all, the Nobel Laureate Festival Committee and Cultural Development Foundation did a wonderful job in creating this beautiful, inspiring experience.