Distinguished Guyanese novelist, painter, anti-colonialism activist and Pan Africanist, Jan Carew, is dead.
He passed away at his Louisville home last week at age 92.
Best known for his seminal novel, Black Midas, published in 1958, Carew’s body of work includes novels, poetry, screenplays, essays and children’s books. He spent most of his writing life exploring the possible spaces that cultural nomads inhabit, having also lived in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Latin America.
York University Professor Emeritus, Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, said Carew was a very fluent storyteller.
“He had a remarkable facility for narrating stories,” said Birbalsingh who was a York University English professor for 33 years. “He was very skillful at capturing audiences.”
Birbalsingh said that Carew stood out as a West Indian writer who was heavily involved in politics.
“Jan did not hide his political sentiments,” he said. “He was a strong supporter of the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan and the People’s Progressive Party. He was quite fearless when it came to politics.”
After graduating from Berbice High School, Carew served in the Coast Artillery Regiment during World War II and was a customs officer before migrating to Trinidad & Tobago where he spent a year working with the Price Controls Office.
Carew studied in the United States, Czechoslovakia and Paris, taught third world literature and creative writing at Princeton University and race relations at the University of London, and was a visiting professor at various American universities. Considered the founding father of Britain’s Black Power Movement, he was also a broadcaster, writer and editor at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
He was recognized for his literary brilliance with several honours, including the London Daily Mirror Award for Best Play in 1964, the Casa de Las Americas Award for poetry and the Association of Caribbean Studies Walter Rodney Memorial Award.
In June 2003, Carew was presented with the Caribbean Canadian Literary Expo (CCLE) Lifetime Creative Literature Award in Toronto.
“Jan is the grand old man of letters,” said then Barbados Consul General and Dean of the CARICOM Consul Corps, Kay McConney, who was instrumental in organizing the exposition. “He’s a patriarch in the literary arts not just by age and experience but also by the extremely meaningful contribution he has made in Caribbean literature and third world studies.”
Close friend and award-winning author Austin Clarke made the presentation to Carew. They combined to produce the first ever West Indian play – Behind God’s Back – screened on Canadian television in the 1960s when Carew resided in this city for six years.
“Jan told me that we could make more money now that we were both living in Toronto,” said Clarke. “I could see the logic in that, but the brilliance of his logic was demonstrated soon afterwards. One day he asked me if I had any short stories that he could turn into a play. I had never thought of that…Back then, no West Indian had a play on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) but Jan was successful in getting them to accept a 90-minute TV drama which was unheard of in those days.”
Clarke said the CBC paid him $350 for the rights to the story while Carew received $3,500.
A decade ago, the Institute of Race Relations in London dedicated a book – The Gentle Revolutionary: Essays in Honour of Jan Carew – to his ground-breaking work in England. The book includes articles, essays and tributes from individuals influenced by Carew’s contribution to global movements.
Survived by his wife, Dr. Joy Gleason Carew, who is an associate professor of Pan-African Studies and associate director of the International Centre at the University of Louisville and his three children, Carew will be cremated and his remains interred with his wife’s family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“He touched many lives, both directly and indirectly, and while he is gone from us in a physical sense, I know he’ll remain in our collective hearts and minds,” said his wife, who is the granddaughter of Winston-Salem State University founder, Simon Green Atkins.