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A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP

We learn only now that novelist Wilson Harris (1921-2018) passed, several weeks ago, in Chelmsford, England. With him passes, very nearly,  generations of highly political, English-language Caribbean literature. George Lamming, of Barbados, remains frail but has spent a life on the Left; V.S. Naipaul, raised in Trinidad, is active and as always, on the Right. Wilson Harris was outside the usual political spectrum, but definitely on the side of liberation, that is liberation of the ecosphere, of the earth’s inhabitants at large, and of all the cultures now endangered with extermination.

He was also, in his way, an intimate of C.L.R. James (1901-89), championed by James in regional and British radio and published commentary, as one of those bringing the Caribbean into a very different modernity than the neocolonial yoke planned by the US to follow European domination.

Born in colonial British Guyana, with a father who disappeared into the rain forest, Harris trained to go into the jungles himself, as a surveyor, and there experienced a wide range of things outside the “civilized” domain. Turning first to poetry, then novels, he emigrated, worked for a time in a British car plant, and in 1960 published Palace of the Peacock.

Harris was quickly dubbed the “James Joyce of the Caribbean” because his style seemed to take apart the normal uses of language. These critics did not grasp, presumably could not grasp, that Harris believed his method could open up memories hidden by conquest, race hatreds and false so-called advances of civilization. Language that had been used against the lowly, jungle dwellers, peasants or proletarians, could be turned around for other uses. But not easily, and not with didactic methods. “Freedom,” he told a reporter in 2006, “needs to be explored in depths beyond conventional linearities.”

Following regional uprisings during the 1930s-40s, independence movements from swept from island to island in the next generations, led by eclectic revolutionaries and nationalists, but guided in part by a literary exploration/explosion. C.L.R. James had published one of the very first English language novels, Minty Alley (1936), but by the 1950s-60s, literature flourished even if many of the authors themselves took jobs in colleges abroad, Canada to the US and UK.

By the time Harris’ final novel appeared, in 1996, neocolonialism had triumphed almost everywhere, and the burst of literary creativity had slowed to a trickle. Western readers loved to read Naipaul’s curses of Caribbean backwardness and foolishness in societies devoted to tourism and sometimes the drug traffic.

Still, Harris’ gigantic achievements, “The Guayana Quartet” of novels followed by another series, “The Carnival trilogy,“ some collected essays and at last, Jonestown, remain high marks and not only of Caribbean literature. I was personally fortunate to exchange notes with Harris, almost forty years ago, beginning with his contribution to C.L.R. James: His Life and Work, and the occasional phone call as well. Like George Lamming, more intimately close to James, Harris is a giant destined to be long remembered.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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