Written by Karen Rollins

My St Lucia: Writer John Robert Lee

Photo by Stephen Paul

Photo by Stephen Paul

John Robert Lee is a Saint Lucian writer who has published several collections of poetry along with short stories and reviews, and is currently co-editing a book on St Lucian culture.

Yello spoke to John about his life, how being from St Lucia influences his work and what advice he has for budding Caribbean writers.

What does it mean to you to be St Lucian?

St Lucia is my home, I am committed to her welfare and positive development. The varied culture of St Lucia gives her a unique place in the Caribbean, and I value this highly, even as I recognise that we are part of the wider family of the world. But it’s a question I continue to ask myself, one not easy to answer, since generational changes and perspectives feed into our views of national identity. I have always preferred the term ‘Saint Lucian’ to ‘Looshan.’

How does being St Lucian shape what you write and how you write it?

The landscape, the rich culture, the languages, the history, even the geographical location as an island, surrounded by sea and fairly varied in topography – all provide inspiration and images for me in my writing. I have written mainly about St Lucia. I love the sea and beaches but have chosen to live in the hill country, preferring the rural to the city.

Our rich cultural and artistic patrimony, the achievements of our writers and artists, especially the late Sir Derek Walcott and Sir Dunstan St. Omer, Dame Sesenne Descartes, the composer Charles Cadet,  folk and contemporary singers, my own generation of writers, painters and musicians all provide the shaping influences on my work.

How I write is a matter of developing my poetic eye, ear and voice, hearing the languages around me, working at getting the images of sound and sight correct. The parallels here with a painter are strong.

Tell us about your journey as a writer so far.

I began writing in the late sixties and learned much while at the University of the West Indies in the early seventies. I published my first pamphlet of work in 1975 and since then I’ve continued writing and publishing books, articles, and journalism including broadcasting both on radio and television. I’ve also taught classes in short fiction.

What advice would you give budding Caribbean writers?

Read, read, read – not only Caribbean writers, but all kinds of writers. Read works about writing and writers and if you are serious about writing, then write, write, write. It can be a lonely business so commitment and dedication are essential. Don’t be eager for attention and fame and quick success. Writing is hard work and it’s a craft that will take many years to learn so be willing to learn the craft, through reading and practice, practice, practice.

What role have writers played in developing St Lucia’s culture?

Writers, like traditional and contemporary musicians, artists, media personalities, do have an influence.  They may not be as popular as musicians but they are planting seeds of awareness in the society through their poems, stories, plays, non-fiction. Writers record for us our lives, history and cultures, and as their work gets out, even in dramatised form, through schools, through the media, ideas and images are placed in the sub-consciousness of the people. So readers and listeners are helped to better understand themselves and their societies.

But because we are, in many ways, not a ‘literary’, reading society, it is hard to say in what ways exactly our writers have contributed to developing our nation. Derek Walcott is a great name, but I wonder how many truly know his work? If we possessed better developed creative arts programmes in our schools and on our media, people would have a chance to know our work better, and the influences would be deeper and more substantial.

Photo from Peepal Tree Press

Photo from Peepal Tree Press

Tell us about your latest published work ‘Collected Poems 1975-2015’.

My ‘Collected Poems 1975-2015’ represent 40 years of sustained writing work in poetry. I cover many themes from personal experience, to faith to culture, to international events; I write of life, love, death, failures, aging, Castries, the sea. It’s a record of my own life’s experiences in verse.

Describe St Lucia in one sentence.

‘Much potential, unnecessarily backward in many ways, in need of a greater, confident, substantial sense of who we are as a unique cultural people’.

What makes St Lucia different to the other Caribbean islands?

I guess our ‘Creole’ culture, our bilingual situation which is shared with islands like Dominica and Martinique and others; a unique physical beauty remarked on throughout our history and our arts and literary traditions have made us stand out, even when compared to the larger, more developed islands.

What are your hopes for St Lucia in the future?

In many ways, like much of the Caribbean, we seem to have lost our way in many areas, especially in the realm of moral and ethical standards; our work ethics need to be restored and raised; we’re too careless a people who need to be more responsible; violence of all kinds is now rampant as elsewhere; our education system and social services need review and revitalisation.

I see much social decline around us. We need visible indicators of a mature society like more parks, improved libraries, galleries and museums, bookshops, venues for creative activity. Our villages and communities ought to be kept cleaner and more attractive.

I think we need a higher quality of leadership and example in all areas of social life. So my hopes would be to see significant changes for the better all over.

What is your philosophy in life?

I’m a practicing Christian, very involved in church life, so my philosophy is essentially Biblical Christian, God-centred, seeking to be a human being aware of God my Creator and obligations to fellow men and women. Knowing my faults and failures, I try always to make room for other persons’ failings, but that doesn’t mean I won’t speak out where necessary, and where important spiritual and human principles are at stake.


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