The poems of Jan Carew which have just been published are testimony to a passionate engagement with the struggle for human liberation which transcends his life and times, says ANDY CROFT
IN THE early 1960s, the new university in Georgetown, Guyana, asked the Guyanese writer Jan Carew (1920-2012), then living in London, to help them stock their library.
With a cheque for £16,000 to spend but with no idea where to start, Carew contacted comrades in the Communist Party who helped him select the books and ship them out to Guyana.
It’s a tantalising story, told almost as an aside in Carew’s posthumously published Episodes From My Life (Peepal Tree, £19.99).
Following his earlier memoir Potaro Dreams, it’s an account of Carew’s wanderings from Guyana to Europe and in Africa and the US.
An extraordinary book about an extraordinary life, it’s moving, funny and vividly written and full of fascinating pen portraits of people like Malcolm X, Andrew Salkey, Jomo Kenyatta, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson and Cheddi Jagan. Born in a village in Guyana, Carew was educated in the US, then at Charles University in Prague and the Sorbonne in Paris. A prolific author of fiction, history, essays, children’s books, plays and poetry, his books include Black Midas and The Wild Coast, Rape of Paradise, Ghosts in our Blood, The Guyanese Wanderer and Grenada: The Hour Will Strike Again. In the 1950s, he was a regular broadcaster on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices series and in the 1960s edited The Magnet, London’s first Black newspaper.
He acted with Laurence Olivier and with Wole Soyinka, visited Moscow as a guest of the Union of Soviet Writers and was active in the campaign to free Paul Robeson. Sammy Davis Jr appeared in one of his television plays. Carew reported from inside Cuba for the Observer during the Cuban missile crisis, was working in Ghana at the time of the 1966 coup and lived in revolutionary Grenada.
He was the personal adviser to several heads of government, including Cheddi Jagan, Kwame Nkrumah and Michael Manley. Later he pioneered the teaching of Black studies in US higher education.
When the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchov visited Harlem to meet Fidel Castro, Carew was there: “I remember a BBC team trying in vain to find someone in the huge crowd who would make an anti-Cuban statement. “One nameless brother in the crowd had been asked in front of the cameras, ‘Did you know that Fidel Castro nationalised one hundred million dollars of American property?’ “‘That don’t bother me none,’ the nameless man replied. ‘I don’t own no property... If them Cuban Cats took a hundred million from The Man, that don’t bother me none. “The Man done ripped-off ten thousand times more than that from my folks...’”
In 1950 in Georgetown, Carew published his only book of poems, Streets of Eternity. But he was a prolific poet. Return to Streets of Eternity (Smokestack, £9.50), edited by Chris Searle and Carew’s widow Joy Gleason Carew, brings together for the first time poems written during a lifetime of passionate engagement in anti-colonial, civil rights, black power and liberation movements.
It’s a wonderful book, the record of half a century of revolutionary struggle in the “third world” seen through the eyes of a writer who shared the triumphs and the defeats of his time in Cuba, Guyana, Angola, Ghana, Sharpeville, Soweto and Grenada: “They say that Soufriere’s sleeping now/And Bishop’s lying in a nameless grave/But can volcanic fires die?/You can betray the revolution/for a moment/But you can never extinguish its fire.”
The book includes many previously unpublished tributes to 20th-century revolutionary leaders like Agostinho Neto, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Maurice Bishop and Claudia Jones and to radical writers like Martin Carter, Walter Rodney, Dennis Brutus, Andrew Salkey, Alejo Carpentier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The book’s editors have reproduced some of Carew’s news reports from Cuba (What the Cuban Revolution Means to Me), Ghana (Coup in Ghana: Season of Violent Change, and from the West Indian Gazette (What is a West Indian?) But, above all, it’s a book about Africa and the African diaspora, about exile and home and about liberation and imperialism: “Wanted Dead or alive for a murder and a multitude of crimes A creature, armed, desperate, dangerous a creature wearing a humanoid disguise Usually carries a calling card touting freedom, democracy, free enterprise... Two thousand million are dying in twilight vales of starvation Where its surrogates Princes, Prelates, Pimp-Presidents, Buccaneers of profit are looting labour and life. Wanted Dead or alive for Murder, Ethnocide, Mayhem, Racism and the rape of continents, islands skies and seas Imperialism a creature armed, desperate, dangerous.”