How James Joyce’s works informed a generation of Caribbean writers

Aimé Césaire, George Lamming, Maryse Condé, Paule Marshall, Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison were all influenced by Joyce

Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Rebecca O’Neill-Doran from Bray, Co Wicklow, at the launch of a series of poetry cards on Dublin’s Dart trains in 1989. File hotograph: Matt Kavanagh

James Joyce is undoubtedly a giant of Irish and European literature, and yet he proved an influential voice for several Caribbean writers, who were seeking to establish what A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s Stephen Dedalus called “the uncreated conscience of my race”.

Although Joyce appears never to have visited the Caribbean, it is possible that he was familiar with at least one major Caribbean poet during his lifetime: Martinique-born Aimé Césaire. Césaire lived in Paris around the same time as Joyce and both frequented the bookshop run by Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (which published the first edition of Ulysses in 1922), in the late 1930s. Both writers also published work in French literary magazine Volontés.

Césaire’s masterpiece, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to a Native Land), is a long-form poem that, like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, is experimental, and meditates on themes that Joyce also returned to throughout his career, such as the pull of home and the effects of colonialism. Césaire, however, places particular emphasis on slavery and racism throughout this work.

Joyce’s influence can be more explicitly seen in the next generation of Caribbean writers, whose work emerged during a boom period in the 1950s that saw increasing foreign interest in works from the region.


In 1953, George Lamming, who passed away last month at the age of 94, published In the Castle of My Skin, a coming-of-age novel set in his native Barbados. Immediately British reviews compared the book to Joyce’s work, with the Times Literary Supplement wryly suggesting, “one is tempted to rename this book The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Barbadian. Indeed, while Lamming, like Césaire, dwells on themes specific to the Caribbean, such as labour riots in Barbados during the 1930s and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, there is nevertheless a notable similarity in outlook with Joyce’s Portrait.

A central scene in Castle sees the novel’s protagonist, G, reflect on Barbados’s British education system, mirroring Stephen’s conversation with an English priest, during which he thinks “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine”. Like Stephen at the end of Portrait, G has begun to write by Castle’s end and will also leave his island, because, in Trinidad, he says, “where no one knows me, I may be able to strike identity with the other person”. Just as Stephen mirrors Joyce’s own exile in Paris, G’s story aligns closely with Lamming’s, as he taught in Trinidad before moving to the UK in 1950.

For Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, Joyce was a key early inspiration. Walcott encountered Joyce’s work while at school and commented more generally on the importance of Irish literature to him in an interview with the Paris Review:

“When the Irish brothers came to teach at the college in St Lucia, I had been reading a lot of Irish literature: I read Joyce, naturally I knew Yeats, and so on. I’ve always felt some kind of intimacy with the Irish poets because one realised that they were colonials with the same kind of problems that existed in the Caribbean.”

Walcott’s 1990 epic poem Omeros is partly modelled on Homer’s Odyssey, and as such also recalls the Homeric structure of Ulysses

In his poem Volcano, Walcott, who was also a close friend of Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, writes of the desire to become “the greatest reader in the world” of his literary masters. The poem cements Joyce’s standing in Walcott’s own literary pantheon through the striking opening image: “Joyce was afraid of thunder,/ but lions roared at his funeral.” For Walcott, the Dubliner is not out of place in “this beach house on the cliffs” in “the glow of the volcano” (a reference to St Lucia’s active volcano, Soufrière), his works resonating across the Atlantic in a setting Joyce himself may not even have imagined.

Walcott, however, did travel to Ireland, at least once physically in 1989, but also in his poetry. The 1990 epic poem Omeros is partly modelled on Homer’s Odyssey (Omeros is the Greek name for Homer), and as such also recalls the Homeric structure of Ulysses. In Book Five of Omeros, the narrator makes an imaginative journey to Ireland, seeking out “our age’s Omeros”, the “gaunt/ cane-twirling flaneur” Joyce. Before leaving, he takes a memento in the form of a stone from the Martello tower where Ulysses begins. (Interestingly, Heaney admits to possessing a similar keepsake in his poem Shelf Life: “This bit hammered off Joyce’s Martello/ Tower”.)

Joyce was also important for several Caribbean women writers, whose work gained more prominence from the 1980s onwards. Like Joyce and Césaire before her, Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé lived for a time in Paris, and Joyce can clearly be seen in her 1989 novel Traversée de la Mangrove (Crossing the Mangrove). In direct allusion to Stephen Dedalus’s assertion that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, one character describes history as his nightmare.

Stephen’s declaration had earlier been adapted by Paule Marshall, an American writer of Bajan descent, who often returned to the Caribbean in her narratives. The protagonist of her 1969 work The Chosen Place, the Timeless People remarks: “West Indian history... I had to leave it off. It is a nightmare, as that Irishman said, and we haven’t awakened from it yet.” Joyce’s rejection of the authority of historical narratives appealed to both writers, who sought to challenge colonial and patriarchal power structures in their work.

Joyce continues to resonate in the region today, as seen with Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, who, while more overtly influenced by Yeats, wrote of her connections to Ireland (her great grandfather was Irish) in 2018′s Redemption Ground, describing her Irish neighbour as “a travelling salesman who belonged in the pages of Ulysses”.

Although Joyce’s prominence in the Caribbean is partly due to colonially influenced education systems, his writing is a touchstone for several key figures, not only for its attitudes towards history and imperialism but also for its formal and stylistic innovations. Joyce’s work has a vibrant life outside of Irish, European, and Anglo-American literary contexts, and attention to its afterlives in the Caribbean can only enrich our readings of the original.

Ellen Howley is an assistant professor at DCU’s School of English and works primarily on Irish and Caribbean poetry