When I met Walcott, the Nobel laureate

Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate for literature for his metaphorical poetry that decried the harsh legacy of colonialism even as it intricately wove itself in the imagery of his native Caribbean isles, passed away, aged 87, in his beloved home of Gros Islet on the island of Saint Lucia.

On April 28, 2006, as I sat on a couch outside the grand suite of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Montreal, Canada, on a cold spring evening, I was quite nervous – not so much about the opulence of the surroundings, but that I was about to meet, greet and interview (for this newspaper) Derek Walcott – ‘the poetic voice of the Caribbean.’

Nervous lather

Who would not be at least a little bit nervous about interrogating a whole Nobel Laureate? Walcott was not just a global figure whose literary works are taught as university text in Harvard. He counted Wole Soyinka, a fellow Nobel, a close friend. And he was mentored by one of Russia’s greatest poets of the 20th century, Josef Brodsky.

Just as I worked myself into a right nervous lather – wondering if the Grand Suite had a mini-bar – a booming voice roared ‘come in, Tony,’ and in I went, into suite 1407, a large and comfortable place with a lush grey carpet, wall to wall, the Montreal evening sun coming in through floor-to-roof windows. UQAM – read the acronym on a building opposite.

Walcott, 76, was holding a glass of mineral water in his hand on which the sun scintillated in tandem with the twinkle in his eye. He resembled the proverbial kind uncle from a storybook you read as a child. “It is an honour to be interviewed by a great journalist from East Africa!” he exclaimed.

Risque joke

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I was taken aback for an instance; then realised the old man was pulling my leg, putting me at ease. Perhaps he had caught the nervous whiff of the neophyte intimidated by that title – Nobellaureate – and was putting this journalist at ease through the literal gimmick of ironic role reversal.

And it would be like no interview I had ever done. Walcott was a curious figure in the sense that he wanted to know more about you, your world, whatever, anything but talk about himself... at first.

‘How is Wole Soyinka doing?’ I asked, by way of an ice-breaker, as he put ice cubes into his glass. ‘Great.’ Walcott told me. ‘I recently met him in Spain, agitating for some political party. They are holding their elections soon.’

(Those elections were actually held a year later to the date, with the late Umaru Yar’dua beating the current incumbent Muhammadu Buhari by a landslide every observer agreed was rigged). ‘So what do you do with your Sunday afternoons when not interviewing Nobel Prize winners? Hunt gay lions?’ He then burst into a gale of laughter, in which I joined in.

‘I first met Soyinka in Las Vegas and he was very helpful, connecting me to some work.’

‘What work in Vegas?’ I risked a risque joke. ‘A cross-dresser in a Trump casino? Dancing Derek?’

Again the gale of laughter.

In-spite of his suit and statesman-like demeanor, Derek definitely had the touch of the eccentric if far-from-derelict poet about him. For example, he does not use the Internet.

The Internet is an interruption to work, is it not?’ he asked, and looking at him, I could tell he truly believed it. ‘Someone ought to get rid of it,’ he muttered.

Walcott also had a fear of flying, but because of the nature of his work, and his global reputation, had no choice in the matter. ‘You cannot go sailing everywhere in the world, can you?’

‘Not unless you are a pirate of the Caribbean,’ I agreed.

‘When I won the Nobel Prize (in 1992),’ he continued, ‘I had a crash course in flying – within six weeks, I had been to Jamaica, Trinidad, Norway, New York, Berlin and Paris. But I would really like ‘my people’ (in Saint Lucia) to separate me from the fact of the Nobel Prize. But how? My face is on the postage stamp!’

He shrugged in a resigned way, then asked me to help myself to a drink from the mini-bar as he got his latest offering, a book-length poem called ‘The Prodigal’ from his bag. I inquired what it was about.

‘It is about the final home-coming,’ Walcott said. ‘It is the Biblical legend, the story of a life wasted in its profoundest sense. It is a metaphor of opening arms and closing arms, of a ship coming home to harbour; and the harbour is Saint Lucia.

The island receives the figure, so, yes, it is also about death, blending with travelling and coming home.’ It could be said that Derek Walcott’s ship, then, has sailed over the sunset-sprayed horizon of Saint Lucia. That the great intellect and warm man I met in Montreal, over a decade ago, has finally gone home.

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