Meditation in Memory of Landeg White

Posted on June 17, 2018 in News

By Jeanne Marie Penvenne for the LASO (Lusophone Africa Studies Organization) Newsletter

Landeg White produced a strikingly diverse and impressive body of work over a lifetime that took him to Trinidad, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Britain, Goa and Portugal. His experiences in all these places cumulatively shaped his capacity to see, listen, understand and interpret. Where does one begin with this complex man and his diverse and impressive legacy? His personal site, opens with a sketch that captures him beautifully. Martin White, Landeg and Alice Costley White’s older son, built the site and maintains it to the present. It includes Landeg’s many books and essays, tributes to his passing, and news of recent and future book launches.

There you will find Hugh Macmillan’s insightful, scholarly reflection on Landeg and his life’s work first published in the Guardian. A greatly enhanced version, to be published in Social Dynamics, deftly captures autobiographical cameos, hidden in plain sight, throughout Landeg’s volumes of poetry. It ends with the closing lines of Landeg’s poem Self-Praises (for my African age-mates) from Living in the Delta: New and collected poems (Parthian, 2015). They should feature in every consideration of Landeg’s legacy:

As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet I found my niche,
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where
they will.

Self-Praise clashed seriously with the cultural norms of his upbringing, but he became well versed in the genre. This fifty-two line self-praise was explicitly for Landeg’s African age-mates, so the lines immediately preceding the closing are also essential:

(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got
drunk with?

Indeed, Landeg White drank deeply from all that life offered him, and his cohorts in Malawi and Zambia were a stunning lot. A day might often stretch into a long evening of drink and conversation with “African age-mates,” students, colleagues, and friends.

The LASO readership will be more familiar with Landeg’s contributions as a literary critic and historian focused on Southern Africa than with his volumes of poetry, novels and works of translation, but it really is whole cloth. The inspiration he found in the landscapes, people, songs, performances and verse was always intertwined. Landeg observed with a poet’s eye, listened with an oral historian’s ear and appreciated the large and little things of each day. He was so perceptive and imaginative. His historical research found its way into his poetry and novels. He crafted praise poetry and song into history. People and places he knew and visited made their way into everything. Whether in songs recorded in 20th century Zambezia or centuries-old lyric poems, Landeg recognized richness, embraced it and harnessed its kaleidoscopic energy to fuel his many works.

The products of his partnership with Leroy Vail clearly shaped the field of Southern African history: Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique: A Study of Quelimane District (Minnesota, 1980); The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (California, 1989), Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History (Virginia, 1991). Each brought the strengths of history performed into conversation with archival research and an expertly explored paper trail. The depth and sophistication of the performance narratives, in particular, were new to the region’s historical writing. Also strikingly different was Landeg’s first historical monograph, Magomero: Portrait of an African Village (Cambridge: 1987). It was broadly and immediately recognized as an innovative classic. His Bridging the Zambesi; A Colonial Folly (Macmillan, 1993) received less attention, but revealed Landeg’s characteristic sense of irony and attention to individuals, intrigue and indeed “folly.”

His poetry was always his sanctuary, and his reputation grew steadily, culminating in Living in the Delta and his latest revision of Travellers Palm (Kondwani, 2017). Landeg also experimented with historical fiction, publishing Livingstone’s Funeral (Cinnamon, 2010) and Ultimatum (Cinnamon, 2017). The latter very much draws on his years living in Southeast Africa and his historical research. Both novels contain wonderful ironies, playful twists on history and, like Magomero, bring everyday life to life.

From the mid-1990s Landeg developed a sustained engagement with Portugal’s 16th century poet Luiz Vaz de Camões that greatly enhanced his audience. He brought out a prize winning English translation of The Lusíads (Oxford, 1997), followed by The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões (Princeton, 2008). Camões: Made in Goa – Selected Lyric Poems Written in India (Under the Peepal Tree, 2017) features lyric poems Camões wrote during the generation he spent in Goa. Camões time in Goa, Landeg argued, shaped his sense of Portugal and being Portuguese, and his appreciation of the impact of the 16th century voyages on the more inter-connected world. Finally, Landeg and Hélio Osvaldo Alves sorted out the poems Camões wrote from those attributed to him, but probably not his, and retrieved as much as possible about the poets whose work was miss-attributed. The Poets Who Weren’t Camões, will be soon launched in Portugal.

In my last visit with Landeg and Alice in May 2017, Landeg’s enthusiasm for his sustained engagement with Camões was palpable. In Translating Camões: A Personal Record, he wrote: “The experience of living in close contact over several years with such a rare spirit has been enormously enriching, and I hope something of this comes across [in my more ambitious recent volumes of poetry].” Over a lifetime Landeg White became imaginatively and fruitfully entangled with the spirits, relationships, performances, and landscapes surrounding him and creatively worked those entanglements into truly fine cloth. Peace to you beloved friend.