Grace Nichols was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1950 and grew up in a small country village on the Guyanese coast. She moved to the city with her family when she was eight, an experience central to her first novel, Whole of a Morning Sky (1986), set in 1960s Guyana in the middle of the country's struggle for independence.
She worked as a teacher and journalist and, as part of a Diploma in Communications at the University of Guyana, spent time in some of the most remote areas of Guyana, a period that influenced her writings and initiated a strong interest in Guyanese folk tales, Amerindian myths and the South American civilisations of the Aztec and Inca. She has lived in the UK since 1977.
Her first poetry collection, I is a Long-Memoried Woman, was published in 1983. The book won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and a subsequent film adaptation of the book was awarded a gold medal at the International Film and Television Festival of New York. The book was also dramatised for radio by the BBC. Subsequent poetry collections include The Fat Black Woman's Poems (1984), Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989), and Sunris (1996). She also writes books for children, inspired predominantly by Guyanese folklore and Amerindian legends, including Come on into My Tropical Garden (1988) and Give Yourself a Hug (1994). Her most recent book for children is The Poet Cat (2000).
She lives in England with her partner, the poet John Agard.
Children, Fiction, Poetry
Trust You, Wriggly Hodder & Stoughton, 1981
Baby Fish and other Stories Published privately, 1983
I is a Long-Memoried Woman Caribbean Cultural International, 1983
Leslyn in London Hodder & Stoughton, 1984
The Fat Black Woman's Poems Virago, 1984
A Dangerous Knowing: Four Black Women Poets (Barbara Burford, Gabriela Pearse, Grace Nichols, Jackie Kay) Sheba, 1985
The Discovery Macmillan, 1986
Whole of a Morning Sky Virago, 1986
Black Poetry (editor) Blackie, 1988
Come on into My Tropical Garden A. & C. Black, 1988
Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman Virago, 1989
Poetry Jump Up (editor) Penguin, 1990
Can I Buy a Slice of Sky?: Poems from Black, Asian and American Indian Cultures (editor) Blackie, 1991
No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock: A Collection of Caribbean Nursery Rhymes (with John Agard) Viking, 1991
Quartet of Poems (contributor) Addison Wesley Longman, 1993
A Caribbean Dozen: Poems from Caribbean Poets (editor with John Agard) Walker Books, 1994
Give Yourself a Hug A. & C. Black, 1994
Penguin Modern Poets Volume 8 (Jackie Kay, Merle Collins and Grace Nichols) Penguin, 1996
Sunris Virago, 1996
Asana and the Animals: A Book of Pet Poems Walker Books, 1997
We Couldn't Provide Fish Thumbs (contributor) Pan, 1997
The Poet Cat Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2000
From Mouth to Mouth (editor with John Agard; illustrated by Annabel Wright) Walker Books, 2004
Paint Me A Poem: New Poems Inspired by Art in the Tate A. & C. Black, 2004
1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize I is a Long-Memoried Woman
1986 Arts Council Writers' Award
1996 Guyana Poetry Prize Sunris
2000 Cholmondeley Award
Grace Nichols came to Britain from Guyana at the age of 17 and she has carried the warmth of her Caribbean sensibility through many a cold English winter. Her poems celebrate sensuality and generosity and attack petty mean-spiritedness. One of her most characteristic poems is 'Skanking Englishman Between Trains': 'he was alive / was full-o-jive / said he had a lovely / Jamaican wife'.
Her first collection, I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, was an ambitious mythic story of an Afro-Caribbean woman through all the stages of historic exploitation. In The Fat Black Woman's Poems (1984), perhaps her most popular book, a new element emerges. The fat black woman is a funny, relaxed and a fleshly challenge to all that is thin and mean in western society:
'This is my birthright
Says the fat black woman
Giving a fat black chuckle
Showing her fat black toes.'
In Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989), the voice is similar to the fat black woman's but this time it is Nichols' own voice spinning a homespun philosophy of ease: 'wherever I hang me knickers that's my home'.
Her latest collection, Sunris (1996), celebrates carnival in the long title poem. This is a wide-ranging poem which brings out the mythic and elemental aspects of carnival, makes links to Africa and the Aztec kingdoms, and pulses with the sounds and colours of the spectacle. Deeply Caribbean in sensibility, she writes sensitively of other traditions, especially Africa and India. Her reaction to the hurricane of 1987 ('Hurricane Hits England') is interesting: hurricanes are Caribbean not English, so its appearance here is welcomed: 'Ah sweet mystery / Come to break the frozen lake in me'. Recently she has written much for children, mostly fiction, but the poems in Give Yourself a Hug (1994) have all the colour and zest of her adult work:
'No matter the fray
No matter the rip
No matter the stain
No matter the split
With a bit of lipstick
Could even look chic.'
Her latest children's collection, Poet Cat (2000) is a satisfying saunter through the feline world and the book builds strongly towards a mythic conclusion:
'My cat is all concentrated tiger.
I can only imagine the thousands
Of millions of years
It must have taken to perfect her.'
© Peter Forbes
For an in-depth critical review see Grace Nichols by Sarah Lawson Welsh (Northcote House, 2003: Writers and their Work Series).