Guyanese writer Jan Carew passed away at his home in Louisville, Kentucky on December 5th. He was 92. One of the most prominent West Indian writers of his generation, Carew was a poet, playwright, novelist and scholar. He was best known for his 1958 novel “Black Midas” and his 1964 polemic “Moscow Is Not My Mecca”. In addition to his literary work, Carew was a noted political (he was a staunch Pan-Africanist) and environmental activist. Carew is survived by his wife Dr. Joy Gleason Carew, two daughters and a son.
Demerara Waves noted that Carew's daughter Shantoba described her father's career as a mission:
He had a unique perspective on what it is to have a mission in life because every decade he seemed to have a new career but the goal is always the same to have done something in life.
Black Left Unity shared a old profile of Carew written by his friend and fellow activist Eusi Kwayana:
Many Caribbean writers and in English thinkers have overcome the undignified foster mothering of their mother-deprived subjected populations and have sparked stream of thought and consciousness in the world's thinking. Carew stands out as the one who restlessly fought in the English language to restore the personality of ancient American civilisations and their descendants. Grenada also left a picture of the communications network which the indigenous people enjoyed even after Columbus, of their long boat journeys, their conferences, and federations in the interest of the sovereignty.
Marvin X. Jackmon remembered meeting both Jan Carew and Barbardian writer Austin Clarke:
We shall always remember the great Guyanese writer Jan Carew! I met him while in Toronto, Canada, 1967, having gone their as a draft resister to the war in Vietnam. I first met Austin Clarke, the Barbadian novelist, then he introduced me to Jan Carew. The three of us met several times during the six months of my Canadian exile. We had lively discussions because Jan and Austin were at opposite ideological poles, maybe I was in the middle, although I would say I was closer to Jan's position as a revolutionary. Since both these men were my elders, I would do a lot of listening, for Austin had published novels and so had Jan, plus Jan had been around the world, one of his novels was Moscow is not My Mecca, about the experiences of a black man in the Communist camp.
Jackmon remembers Carew telling him how hard it was to be an activist:
He talked about the ineluctable energy needed to maintain revolutionary consciousness, to transform oneself from the oppressed man to the brother man. Jan Carew, thank you for the wisdom you shared with me during that special time in my life as a young writer/activist.
Professor Norman Girvan linked to a tribute by Ourstorian from the beginning of the year:
Okay, at the risk of giving the false impression it is exhaustive, here is a list of labels that also help to delineate the portrait of the man—poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, painter, historian, critic, journalist, educator, editor, publisher, cook. I threw that last one in because anyone who knows Jan appreciates his skills in the kitchen. It is yet another attribute that is part of the Carew mystique and charm. Undoubtedly, such talents and abilities make for an extraordinary individual by any measure. Yet it is Jan’s personal characteristics and qualities—his warmth, humility, generosity and courage—that have made him a man who is respected, admired, and beloved by all.
Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul's biographer, shared Naipaul's impression of Carew in the sixties:
“A mulatto from Guiana, a tall and handsome man with pretensions to be a writer.”
Carew's memories of Naipaul from that same period were more generous:
We would do broadcasts at the BBC and then go to a pub nearby. Vidia was a very good companion, very witty. Cruel wit. Some West Indians used to work at the back of the kitchen at the BBC cafeteria. He called them ‘the blackroom boys’. He had an underlying sense of compassion for the less well-off West Indians in London, which later he was accused of not having. People of my generation spoke about race in a way that was full of jokes; there was no animus, we would joke about each other’s background – race and class. Vidia didn’t hold himself apart.
In an interview from July 2011, Carew reflected on his life as an writer and intellectual:
Looking at what’s happened in the last three decades, it seems that the world has changed, but when one thinks seriously about it, one realizes that it is we who have changed. Importantly, we, Caribbean people, have come to appreciate the value of shaping our own destinies, which sometimes means going against tradition, but also can mean taking the opportunity to refashion models to suit our purpose.
Leonard Dabybeen, who like Carew, grew up in Berbice, Guyana, wrote a poem in his honor:
From the mud-banks
of our coastal belt
through washing waves
of our sea shores
his voice echoed
with the wind
earthy and musical
resonant and breath-taking
we sit under coconut tree
reading page after page
and now we take
one last look
at his name
to bow farewell
but never to leave
his work alone.