Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

Synopsis

Nobody's Nation offers an illuminating look at the St. Lucian, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, Derek Walcott, and grounds his work firmly in the context of West Indian history. Paul Breslin argues that Walcott's poems and plays are bound up with an effort to re-imagine West Indian society since its emergence from colonial rule, its ill-fated attempt at political unity, and its subsequent dispersal into tiny nation-states.

According to Breslin, Walcott's work is centrally concerned with the West Indies' imputed absence from history and lack of cohesive national identity or cultural tradition. Walcott sees this lack not as impoverishment but as an open space for creation. In his poems and plays, West Indian history becomes a realm of necessity, something to be confronted, contested, and remade through literature. What is most vexed and inspired in Walcott's work can be traced to this quixotic struggle.
Linking extensive archival research and new interviews with Walcott himself to detailed critical readings of major works, Nobody's Nation will take its place as the definitive study of the poet.

Excerpt

My title comes from “The Schooner Flight,” by consensus (and the poet's own reckoning) one of Walcott's finest poems. The sailor-poet Shabine, in a much-quoted passage, says, “I have English, Dutch, and nigger in me, / And either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.” By refusing to choose between these alternatives, Shabine implicitly sees himself as both extremes at once: precisely by his inchoate lack of identity, he is representative of a people and carries its latent nationhood by synecdoche within himself. “Nobody” might seem a harsh self-dismissal, echoing colonialists like James Anthony Froude, who claimed that “there are no people” in the West Indies “in the true sense of the word, with a character and a purpose of their own,” or disaffected West Indians like V. S. Naipaul, who has described “mimic men of the New World” playing at real life. And yet sometimes the evasion of defined identity can be a deliberate strategy. Odysseus, a character with whom Walcott has more than once implicitly identified himself, escapes the Cyclops by giving his name as “No man.” When he blinds Polyphemus, the giant cries out that “no man” has injured him; his neighbors, unwilling to give chase to a nonentity, go on about their business. Odysseus, in this episode, is a little bit like Ralph Ellison's invisible man. In Ellison's novel, invisibility, though it results from a refusal on the part of white people to acknowledge the black person's existence, becomes a strategic . . .

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