Writers and Company

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott on voice, place and finding home

In this interview from 2006, Eleanor Wachtel speaks with poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, who died in March at the age of 87.
Nobel Prize–winning poet Derek Walcott spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in 2006. (Susan P. Alonso)

Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott died in March at the age of 87. Growing up on the small island of St Lucia in the Caribbean, Walcott knew he wanted to be a poet from a young age. Part English, part Dutch and part black — the grandson of two white men and two black women — his poetry reflects many different cultures and traditions, often making links between the Caribbean and Europe. His 2004 collection, The Prodigal, chronicles a journey across the European continent, while the memory of St. Lucia remains at the forefront of his mind. 

In this interview with Eleanor Wachtel at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in 2006, Walcott discusses the profundity of place and the responsibility of a writer. 

All stories in a place are important

The propaganda is to only examine one part of you. In the Caribbean, particularly, that is the African part. Because what is emphasized in the Caribbean, by Africans, is the African experience. It's unfair to think of a Caribbean experience without emphasizing, for instance, the Indian part of Trinidad. The Indian experience is a valid part of the Trinidad experience. The great thing about Trinidad is that there are so many races there. The Chinese experience is also true, and the Lebanese experience is also true. You have that multiplicity of experience that comprises the whole world in terms of all the races that are there. The Chinese, the African and the European — they are all there. So the division of the Caribbean experience into being emphatically only African is absurd. 

What writers should not do

The thing a writer has to avoid is being the "voice" of his people and pretending he can speak for them. There are certain functions that a writer has to do. In a time of crisis it is great to have heroic poems, as it was in the Irish Revolution. It's great to have great songs, because people need something to sing when they are marching. That's ok, but it should be on the side. It's not the ultimate thing.

Experience defines a location

A long time ago I thought, as a writer in the Caribbean, "I don't ever want to have to write 'It was great in Paris.'" Because I don't think, proportionately speaking, that one's experience in a city as opposed to, say, a village in St. Lucia, is superior to the other. It seems to be saying that the cathedrals and museums, the great streets, and so on, are superior to a village in St. Lucia architecturally or in terms of what the idea of geographic or historical beauty is. But it can't be made as a comparison. That may be true if you go on a technical basis of things, but in terms of the emotional experience of recognition and feeling, then I think that's what The Prodigal also means: that you could go back to Paris, but you're not home. But it's that claiming that I'm talking about.

Derek Walcott's comments have been edited and condensed

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Jutland" composed by Dario Eskenazi, performed by Andy Narell.