By David Austin
David Austin lives in Montreal and is the editor of the recently published book: ‘You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of CLR James.’ He recently spoke at an event celebrating Jan Carew’s 90th birthday sponsored by the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He shared the platform with Eusi Kwayana.
Jan Carew, who celebrated his 90th birthday on September 24, has lived an extraordinary and itinerant life, or many overlapping lives, and seemingly many lifetimes. He begins in Guyana, but in many ways his life defies space and time. He is the quintessential diasporic persona, a happy wanderer whose presence helped to shape seminal moments in the lives of people of African and Caribbean descent.
Jan reported for the London Observer on the Cuban Missile Crisis from Havana; joined the Laurence Olivier Company in the 1950s and acted in several plays while simultaneously working for the BBC. He also studied dentistry at Charles University in Czechoslovakia and travelled to and wrote about Russia and people of African descent.
Jan worked alongside Claudia Jones and other notable Black and Caribbean figures as they attempted to humanize Britain, to liberate the decaying empire from itself and its legacy of colonialism and racism in the 1950s. He wrote several books of fiction, including Moscow is Not My Mecca, Black Midas, The Wild Coast and The Last Barbarian and several generations of West Indians were weaned on his children’s stories. He served as director of culture in Guyana in 1962 and an advisor to the Publicity Secretariat and editor of African Review in Ghana (1965-1966) and was detained when President Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup.
During his sojourn in Canada (1966-1969), Jan became the centre of a burgeoning literary scene, writing and mounting plays, including Behind God’s Back which, adapted from a short story by Austin Clarke, aired on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television in 1969. He started Cotopaxi, a literary journal that included poets and future University of the West Indies professor Cliff Lashley, Canadian poet Milton Acorn, and Jamaican Rudolph Murray, future editor of Black Images, arguably Canada’s first national Black arts and culture magazine. Still in Canada, he was active, and a voice of reason within, the Black Power movement, and later joined forces with Indigenous peoples in Canada’s Red Power movement.
Since 1969, Jan has lived and taught in the US where he was part of the burgeoning Black Studies movement in American universities, educating two generations of students at Northwestern, Rutgers, Princeton, Lincoln, and Louisville.
Here we only touch some of what Jan has done, an important undertaking as, despite his remarkable life, this true polymath (he is also an accomplished painter) has yet to receive the serious attention his work warrants. But this litany of achievements does not explain who he is. Anyone who has encountered Jan is first impressed by his graceful presence, his calm but impassioned demeanour, and his now soft with age, but always compelling voice.
I first met Jan in the early 1990s as one of several students who brought him to Montreal to discuss the history and legacy of Christopher Columbus, or as poet Mutabaruka appropriately called him, “Christopher cum-bus-us.” Jan’s gift as a storyteller left an imprint on us. But more than that, he took our work seriously, as seriously, perhaps even more seriously, than we took ourselves. He quietly offered words of encouragement, and proudly circulated our work, including our writing, throughout his various networks.
While he is better known for his novels, children’s stories, and poetry, his non-fiction writing is equally significant, whether the subject be about the mythology surrounding Christopher Columbus, the experiences of Blacks in Russia, the Grenada Revolution, or the relationship between Malcolm X and his Grenadian mother who once lived in Montreal. His prose is always poetic, and convincing, so compelling that for a moment – just for moment – we forget that he is often writing about episodes of tortured physical and psychological pain and indescribable horror.
Jan’s example taught me that how you write is as significant as the story you tell; that language and words are powerful weapons; and that the act and art of writing are indelibly tied to the ideas they express.
To be 90 years old is to have lived and borne witness to many things, and Jan has lived, seen, and chronicled. His presence reminds us of the importance of exercising our potential, of experiencing life to the fullest, and of dreaming. As an artist, he reminds us that our limitations are often the result of the boundaries that we place on ourselves, negating our “horizons of possibilities” by failing to see what can be in the face of what is. The world is full of possibilities, he reminds us, and at times the impossible is both possible, and necessary.
Like Jan, writer and social theorist A. Sivanandan is a somewhat unheralded voice of freedom. Sivanandan eloquently described his old friend in the following way:
“A renaissance man in the most deathly of times. A black renaissance man in the whitest of times. A griot tracing us back to the ghosts in our blood. And a presence, a persona – tall, elegant, majestic – to go with it all.”
Sivanandan’s words bring to mind Walter Rodney’s remarks about CLR James: “as he has grown older… James has become a model of the possibilities of retaining one’s intellectual and ideological integrity over a protracted period of time… I’ve always said to myself that I hoped at his age, if I’m still around, I still have some credibility as a progressive, that people wouldn’t look at me and say, ‘This used to be a revolutionary.’” Here Jan’s name could easily be substituted for James.
In celebrating Jan Carew’s 90th, we celebrate the best in ourselves, and the worldly possibilities of new futures, in the present. Merci Jan, muchas gracias.