Today, March 17, 2017, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott passed away at the age of 87. In his memory, we share this 5-Minute Memoir about him from the May/June 2015 Writer’s Digest: “The Nobel Laureate Next” by Jody Callahan.
When I moved next door to the 1992 Nobel Literature Prize laureate Derek Walcott on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, I daydreamed of being asked to his home for literary discussions. Perhaps my husband (the new general manager of the island’s brewery) and I would be invited for a welcome-to-the-neighborhood drink. The Walcotts would be delighted to learn that I was a writer; they would insist that I share some of my work.
Here I could never decide whether I would recite some words from memory or happen to have a newly composed poem in my handbag, something that I had written hastily but that Mr. Walcott would find to be honest and good. We would drink lime squash as he contemplated my work. Mr. Walcott would then give one incredibly helpful suggestion on how I could make the piece better. His instruction would be insightful, but it would also be easy to accomplish; the rewrite would take no more than 15 minutes. I should add that, in this fantasy, I pictured Mr. Walcott to be wearing what I expected all male Nobel laureates to wear: a dark brown suit, a tie and meticulously buffed dress shoes. I would be seated, legs crossed sideways, in a long linen dress and gold gladiator heels, revealing that not only was I learned, but that I had elegant style as well.
I admit I patrolled the border between our houses more often than a normal neighbor should. In fact, one day in the first month of living on the island, I had been standing for too long pretending to admire our line of coconut trees when Sigrid, Mr. Walcott’s partner, came over to introduce herself.
“I thought you were a mannequin,” she said. “I was asking myself, ‘Why have the new people put a mannequin in their yard?’” I reminded myself to appear more lifelike when stalking from my yard.
I had been reading Mr. Walcott’s works again, had been excited to revisit them, but in the middle of White Egrets, became intimidated. Nothing I wrote would ever be as good. I stopped writing. It wasn’t until I saw Mr. Walcott for the first time a few weeks later that I started writing again. It took me a moment to realize that it was him, so convinced had I been that a Nobel laureate would be dressed in a suit. This gray-haired man wore a brightly colored shirt, shorts and leather sandals—much more practical garb for sitting outside in the tropical heat. I had forgotten that he was human first, in the same way I had forgotten he was a writer before he was a Nobel laureate. He puts one word down at a time, too.
We did end up having contact with our neighbors, but it was usually more pedestrian than literary. A pack of stray dogs had torn into the Walcott trash, dragging it to block our front gate; a main water pipe burst in their driveway, flooding our yard. Which alarm company did we use? Could our gardener please stop throwing dead palm branches over the fence? How was our yippy dog? What should we do about the fishermen cutting through our properties?
Sometimes, though, when I sat on my patio under a heavy coating of sunscreen and a straw hat, I’d look out to the Caribbean Sea for inspiration and imagine that next door, a few feet away, Mr. Walcott could be doing that exact same thing.
Jody Callahan has lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam and on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. She has recently moved back to her home state of Massachusetts.
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