Nobel laureate accused of sexual harassment

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The Independent Online
Derek Walcott, the West Indian poet and Nobel prizewinner, is being sued in the United States for more than half a million dollars for sexual harassment.

Mr Walcott, 66, who comes from St Lucia, has been accused by a student to whom he taught creative writing at Boston University of threatening to fail her unless she went to bed with him.

Nicole Niemi, a former television reporter who is in her mid-thirties, says she left the university's playwriting course after the incident and returned to her home in St Paul, Minnesota. She is seeking compensation for emotional distress, to cover her university expenses and her legal fees, as well as punitive damages.

Mr Walcott has been asked to return to Boston from his native St Lucia to provide sworn testimony before court officials on 6 June. But he said yesterday: "I am not returning to Boston until fall next year. I am on sabbatical."

He refused to comment on the allegations. "I am not answering any questions on the case," he said.

It is not the first time that the poet has faced such accusations. Only hours after he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1992, a woman accused him of being an "academic sexual predator" while he taught at Harvard. The former student said that he had asked her for sex and gave her a final low grade after she refused.

Mr Walcott, who was later admonished, said that remarks he had made stemmed from his "deliberately personal and intense" teaching style, which he said was necessary to teach the passionate subject of poetry.

Ms Niemi's lawyer, Fred Wilensky, said that she had been very shaken by her experience. "That is why she dropped out; she was propositioned and told the play she wrote for the course would not be produced." Mr Wilensky said he was not confident Mr Walcott would appear on 6 June because his lawyers had indicated that he would not turn up "unless I tell them what we have from other women".

Mr Walcott's lawyers refused to comment last week.

Three times married, Derek Walcott is best known for the poem Omeros - a celebrated epic of rhyming hexameters which relocates the stories of Homer to the Caribbean. He has also written more than 80 plays, most of which show a common concern with classical mythology and colonialism.

When the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel prize it praised him as West Indian culture's great poet. He also won the W H Smith Literary Award for Omeros. Born in St Lucia in 1930, Mr Walcott is regarded as a hero in the Caribbean.

If Ms Niemi wins her case, her pursuit of damages could wipe out Mr Walcott's remaining Nobel prize money. He won pounds 700,000 in 1992, but the Swedish kroner, in which he was paid, was devalued, and he had to pay 40 per cent tax on the prize in the United States.