In the air, through thick clouds on the rocking plane to St Lucia, I feel like a late guest at a party. The Nobel Laureate had invited me to see him for the weekend about my writing. I wonder whether he was just in need of an acolyte to buoy him up. Perhaps I’m good at the trope: woman, a worshipper of language, sensitive to rejection.

The invitation followed an interview I did with him when the university at St Augustine honoured him. I was in the audience, craning my neck to see him, eager to hear him read from his latest work, as if he had answers to all things.

Walcott didn’t fuck up the audience or professors as VS Naipaul had done, in this same hall, with his supercilious, truncated, pained answers. He hadn’t, like Naipaul, sneered at questions from students. “I don’t understand”, or said, “Schoolchildren shouldn’t study Literature.” No, he was all theatre, with his solid build, the leathery, slashed skin of a seafarer, the darting green eyes of a sunning iguana. He held back from being intimidating by being alert, alternately jokey and silent.

Amidst knowing literary laughter (and the academics collectively holding their breath when a student got something wrong), he grinningly skirted peccadilloes, turned the audience into his private performance, and said the things he always did: “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself” and, “The Caribbean is full of visual surprise.” He took his time, comfortable with saying nothing we had not heard before.

Afterwards, he patiently signed old books and new copies of his latest volume, unlike Naipaul, whose wife Nadira, in the same venue last year, shrieked, “No old books, only new books”, like a hawker in a bazaar in Bombay.

I sat in the second row and sent a message to his daughter, Anna. Trinidad being a small place, our social circles overlap; our children go to the same school.

“Will your dad grant me a brief interview?”

During a break, Anna said, “Dad wants to see you.”

He gestured towards a chair next to him, still signing books, seeming not to notice that I was sitting at the head table facing an audience and flanked by him and the Dean of the University. I couldn’t look ahead at the audience, nor could I be seen staring at Derek.

I still have those photos of me wearing a baby-blue cotton dress, showing an abundance of cleavage. It wasn’t intentional. Squirming like a trapped insect on the stage, unable to explain my presence there, I touched Derek lightly on his back.

“I’m sorry, I have to go.”

“Go away and have a sandwich while I decide what to do with you,” he said. Off I trotted, obediently.

He still hadn’t learned how to speak to women, despite the damning book in which allegations had been made against him – an extract from which had damaged his reputation in England when he was a candidate for the Oxford professorship of poetry in 2009. In the book, called The Lecherous Professor, published in 1984, Walcott had featured in four pages of a general account of sexual harassment on American campuses. He had allegedly taken a student from his poetry class to coffee and asked her how she made love with her boyfriend. She had reportedly said, “Why should I tell you? It’s none of your business.”

He allegedly persisted. After all, he was the professor and the gatekeeper of poetry. Did he imagine this was his due as man and poet? “Would you make love with me if I asked you?”

“No,” she’d insisted. “No way. You’re married. Don’t you love your wife?”

Walcott, thrice-married, had reportedly replied, “Love has nothing to do with lust.”

There was a complaint to the Dean. How this was settled was not revealed.

I knew I should leave, but I stayed, as I always do, having learned from Burrimummy that patience yields approbation and sat down on the stairs in the Faculty of Literature, watching students go by.

I wasn’t sure why I asked for the interview, let alone why I waited, wondering if it had anything to do with standing by while someone else interviewed Walcott years before, or if I had begun the wrenching process of wondering why I only cared about the people who withheld their approval.

What unsaid thing could I ask him about his Nobel Prize for Literature, (and every literary prize worth having), his magnum opus, Omeros, twenty-four collections of poetry, twenty-two plays, seven books, his watercolours, essays? Faltering, I began walking towards the car park when I heard a tall black girl, with hair in cane rows, say, “How this man rewrite Homer’s Odyssey, for God’s sake?” The boy she was with shrugged, replying, “He reach.” The graceful girl said, “I just want to sit at the feet of that man on a strip of sand while he paints or writes.” They wanted to absorb him as one would absorb sunlight. That’s why he could just sit there without saying a word.

I waited to hear from Anna in my car, parked under the scant shade of a poui tree. I put the car windows down and watched the breeze sweep yellow blossoms across the path to the Faculty of Engineering.

I’d bumped into Derek Walcott in 1992 when the news was full of his triumphant return with the Nobel Prize. I had been threading my way through the Carnival Sunday crowd across the Queen’s Park Savannah at dusk, its chaotic din made worse by dust kicked up by the crowds pounding the earth in time to the music and trucks carrying the steel pans from the competition stands back to the pan yards. The traffic fumes mingled with perfume from the cannonball tree, a vine with rosebud-shaped flowers throwing out the combined scents of lilies, ylang ylang, freesia, jasmines – so extravagant it could have emanated from a maharaja’s wedding chamber.

I nearly tripped and fell over the roots of the cannonball tree, spreading out beneath the cracked pavement, when a large, veiny man’s hand firmly grasped my arm. It was Derek Walcott.

“If you’re not red, you’re dead,” they say on these islands, meaning that men like him outstrip all other men, in appeal, in imagined sexual prowess. Men like him – with that mix of European and African blood – have the reputation of getting any woman they want. A moment with him had been enough to confirm this. He was all charge, all force, deep voice, well built, skin like molasses in milk. I thought of his poem “The Schooner Flight”, where his poetic alter ego, Shabine, claimed it all. (“I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”)

“Derek Walcott?”

My question didn’t warrant an answer.

“Who are you?” he asked. “That is, apart from someone who’s not looking where she’s going.”

“Freelance journalist. The Trinidad Guardian. Congratulations on the Nobel.”

“I once wrote for that paper,” he said.

I knew that. VS Naipaul had written for the paper, too. As had his father.

“Where are you from?”


He laughed. “With that accent? What is it, continental? Indian English?” Across the road, two ghostly shapes among the magnificent seven colonial mansions stood sentry over the Savannah – which some call the most giant roundabout in the world: Whitehall, with coral stone from Barbados, built in the style of a Venetian Palazzo by a cocoa planter in 1904 and home to the prime minister’s office; and next to it, Stollmeyer’s Castle with its turrets modelled on Balmoral Castle. He was waiting to hear what I would say next.

“I’m doing freelance work, covering the Steelband competition in the Savannah for the Government Information Unit.”

He pounced quicker than light with a question: “Information expert? Well then, can you multiply 25,435 by 234?” He’d laughed uproariously and disappeared into the dust. A full twenty-four years ago, this vanishing left me unsettled, longing to hold onto that vast ebullience bubbling from his Himalayan brain, erupting into its full laugh so much like my grandmother’s it gave me a jolt. It was a depressing thought that so much time had passed. Twenty-four years, and, in some ways, nothing had changed for me.

Excerpted with permission from Love the Dark Days, Ira Mathur, Speaking Tiger Books.