On the surface, when one looks at Jan Carew’s nomadic life over his 90-plus years, he seems to effortlessly glide in and out of diverse societies as he moves around the globe. Pushed by a wanderlust that even he cannot fully explain, he is buffeted by endless opportune connections. At various times, we see him living in London or on the Continent, in Ghana, Jamaica, Canada, or the US. It was no accident that his last collection of stories was called The Guyanese Wanderer.
This facility to adapt is in large part, he contends, because of his poly-cultural heritage and upbringing. But also, as he writes in his famous essay, “The Caribbean Writer and Exile,” this global wandering is a product of being a Caribbean writer in countries still struggling with the vestiges of colonialism. “The Caribbean writer today is balanced between limbo and nothingness, exile abroad and homelessness at home, between the people on the one hand and the creole and colonizer on the other. Exile can be voluntary or imposed by the stress of circumstances, it can be a punishment or it can be a pleasure. … The colonizing zeal of the European made the indigenous people exiles in their own countries…. The Caribbean writer, by going abroad, is in fact searching for the end to exile” (“Caribbean Writer”). This theme can be applied to many others of his generation. Also in London at the time were George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon and V.S. Naipaul.
Carew lived in London for nearly 20 years in the early part of his literary career, in the 1950s and 1960s. But, throughout, he always maintained aspects of his village and Caribbean perspective, as he would then explore the confusions and wondrous possibilities of a larger world. In a 1988 essay, “The Third World: Its Façade and Landscapes Within,” Carew explored these relationships between his home-derived worldview and interactions with people and places elsewhere. He wrote, “I realized that my village in the sun was an important point of reference for understanding the planet earth I lived on. The more widely I travelled, the more forcibly it struck me that Agricola with all its mysteries – its deceptive façade of poverty, squalor and apparent hopelessness – was a microcosm of the world; and growing up there, I have made the acquaintance of its secret sorrows and beheld the vision of its hidden but stubborn hope . . . .” (“Third World,” 119).
As much as Carew lived most of his life outside the Caribbean, he was also very conscious of developments back home. And, periodically, he returned to the Caribbean with an intention of resettling there, “Each time, I felt a certain strong urge to rediscover my homeland” (Episodes, p. 165). But, local politics or other opportunities elsewhere continued to disrupt these plans. The late 1950s-1960s period was a particularly contentious time. There was the heated debate over the notion of a West Indian Federation, for one. People in this region, like other colonial properties in this post-World War Two era, were both pushing their anti-colonial agendas and calling for their right to form new kinds of alliances. In 1959, he wrote a piece, “What is a West Indian?” for the West Indian Gazette, circulated in both the UK and in the Caribbean. This clearly presaged the observations he would make in his later essay, “The Caribbean Writer and Exile” — that of the push-pull of rooted-ness and rootlessness. He wrote, “The question ‘what is a West Indian?’ is one that concerns every thinking person in the British Caribbean today. For, we are standing at a cultural crossroads and the direction we take will affect our future, our identity….It is very popular for West Indian politicians to tell us about a West Indian culture, but I have heard none of them come near to defining for the mass of people what this culture is . . . . Some people evade answering this question by saying that we are part of a Western civilization . . . . [Rather] culture . . . . is the product of a man’s creative labour in a place, in a society where he has lived, and over thousands of generations, where he has put his particular stamp on an environment. To admit there is a West Indian culture is to concede that the foundations of this culture were laid by slaves, and later that some of the builders of these superstructures were bond labourers…The West Indian will only cease to be a [faceless cipher] when through a creative representation of the smell of his earth and the dreams of his people, he can discover a true image of himself “ (Episodes, 126-127).
With Cheddi Jagan’s electoral victory in the early 1960s, Carew returned Guyana to take up the position of Director of Culture in the Jagan Government, but, the internecine racial divide proved to be too painful for him, “When I first joined them in 1949, Eusi [Kwayana] and Cheddi were committed to forming a government of national unity in which the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese would share power on an equal basis. By 1960, you could feel the depth of animosity that Blacks had towards the Indo-Guyanese government and vice versa” (Episodes, p 169). Given opportunity to work in Jamaica, instead, he relocated there. But, again, Jamaican politics made this untenable for a long run, and, after reporting on the Cuban Missile Crisis, he moved back to London.