Sam Selvon at 100 (1923-2023)
The April 2023 Bocas Lit Fest celebrated 100 years since the birth of insightful Caribbean writer Samuel Dickinson Selvon. This is text I wrote for a series of Bocas Lit Fest posters on the life and works of Selvon, whose most well-known work is The Lonely Londoners. Selvon was a Caribbean innovator in creative use of Trinidad language to structure and enliven literatures in English. He was a novelist, poet, dramatist, scriptwriter, and literature lecturer.
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Early life in Trinidad
Samuel Dickson Selvon was born at Mt. Moriah Road in San Fernando in 1923, the sixth of seven children. Writing later of his boyhood, he remembered “stealing mangoes from other people’s gardens, and Carnival, and pitching marbles in the dusty road, or breaking biche from school to go and fly kites. And all this with children of my own age whose colours ranged from deepest black to soap powder white, of all nationalities and creeds.”
Selvon’s father Bertwyn, a Tamil Indian migrant from Madras, ran a dry goods store. The family was middle-class, Presbyterian, and self-sufficient. They had roots in India and Scotland. Selvon’s paternal grandfather was an interpreter who migrated from Madras, while his maternal grandfather was a Scotsman who had come to Trinidad to manage the San Quentin coconut estate in Cedros.
While Selvon’s mother Daisy could speak Hindi, her children were shaped by urban, creole, and western influences. Selvon’s biggest teenage influences were his experiences at Naparima College and the popular American movies that packed local cinemas.
At secondary school, algebra remained “a mystery” to him, but he shone in English composition. He credited his teachers for laying the groundwork of his future writing career: “I never dreamt that from writing an essay on a Trip to the Moon I would move on to become a novelist and short story writer.”
Selvon had the unusual childhood ambition to be a philosopher, but without money for university he left school at age 15 to work.
During World War II, in his early 20s, he was a wireless operator with the Royal Naval Reserve: “I never fought, but I worked on all the ships escorting convoys and inspecting incoming and outgoing vessels… with men from all over the Caribbean who had joined the Navy.”
It was an English lieutenant in the Navy who encouraged him to write. After the war, he worked at the Trinidad Guardian newspaper (from 1945 to 1950), and encountered the work of other budding writers. He started writing short stories himself, the best of which were later collected in Foreday Morning (1989). The Sunday Guardian weekly, the Barbadian literary journal BIM, and the BBC’s Caribbean Voices radio programme all regularly featured his stories and poems.
But Selvon feared losing his writer’s spirit in the easygoing yet limiting space of Trinidad. He wrote to Anglo-Irish Henry Swanzy, producer of Caribbean Voices in London: “I told him I wanted to come: I had to get away from the island life before it was too late. I had sold him a short story, and I told him to keep the money there for me.”
And so Selvon made the daring, risky leap to emigrate to London in 1950. By sheer coincidence, he and the Barbadian writer George Lamming travelled to England on the same boat:
“We did not know about each other’s plans until we met on the ship the morning we sailed.”
“Times was brown” in Merrie England
Life in blitzed, postwar London presented many challenges, chief of which was finding the income to survive. In a personal essay, Selvon confessed, “I had no firm idea in my mind at this stage of becoming a professional writer. The most important thing was to get a job. All the money I had was £15, which I still had to collect from the BBC for a short story I had submitted from Trinidad.”
Selvon first headed for the Balmoral Hostel, a hangout for many recent Caribbean migrants. Like them, Selvon missed home terribly, as his poem “Rain” reveals:
I miss the drought
The sun’s friendly warmth,
And slouch along wet streets
with strange, hunched figures,
Rain falling in my heart.
“I have had my ups and downs, I have had to live in cramped-up rooms, and many times do odd manual jobs to keep going when I didn’t have money,” Selvon wrote about those early years. Those jobs included sweeping floors and working in factories. He eventually obtained a steady job as a clerk at the Indian High Commission in London, which enabled him to write in his spare time.
Meanwhile, in the cultural crossroads of London, he was meeting West Indians from all over the region, and students from India, Africa, and Asia. It was an unforgettable experience which made him realise that “in London itself… West Indians are united in a way they could never be at home.”
Selvon wrote his first novel, A Brighter Sun (1952), about Tiger, an illiterate Indian youth from a Chaguanas sugar estate who at 15 finds himself in an arranged marriage with a teenage wife, a cow, and $200 with which to start a new life. When the manuscript was accepted for publication, he was elated. With its positive reviews and sales, he resigned from his Indian High Commission job to write full time.
In 1954, visiting the United States, he honed his writing skills at the McDowell Colony for Writers in New Hampshire, where the seed of the idea for The Lonely Londoners came to him. Before that took shape, however, he was already writing his second novel set in Trinidad, An Island is a World (1955), a philosophical novel about two brothers in search of themselves. Through their characters, Selvon examined the rootlessness, disillusion, and search for identity and meaning common to so many societies fractured by colonial distortions.
In 1955, the New York-based John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Foundation awarded Selvon a fellowship to study fiction, recognising his talent and promise. Thirteen years later, in 1968, they would invest in his professional development with a second fellowship.
The Lonely Londoners
Selvon’s next project emerged from his own experience of precarious survival as an immigrant in London. He saw the struggles of many West Indians on the fringes of British society, often hustling to get by, invisible and unacknowledged. Indeed, he’d been one of them. He wrote about these migrants with compassion, comedy, insight, and wit. The result was his celebrated novel The Lonely Londoners (1956).
This was the book that truly established Selvon as a sensitive, talented novelist. The story was entertaining and original, written from the point of view of the immigrant, which was new to most white British readers. Selvon deftly handled the episodic plot using his own anecdotal style that drew from conversational rhythms. And he created colourful, endearing characters who were often far from perfect, but who were not ethnic stereotypes by any means: they were unique, memorable, and multidimensional.
Selvon also used an innovative approach to narration by harnessing Trinidad speech and tone to turn the Queen’s English on its head. Instead of using the Caribbean vernacular solely for dialogue, he skilfully deployed it for narration as well, defying the formal tradition of Standard British English for all literatures written in English.
This was groundbreaking in the 1950s. It liberated many writers from the Caribbean and beyond, who could now see the possibilities for using their own forms of English to express themselves more naturally and creatively.
Another achievement of The Lonely Londoners was its timely portrayal of white prejudice against immigrants of colour, woven into the entertaining framework of the story. Selvon was a leading chronicler of the plight of the Windrush generation — hundreds of thousands of Caribbean migrants to Britain between 1948 and 1971 who came to fill a labour shortage and faced much hardship and discrimination.
Among Selvon’s archive at the Alma Jordan Library at UWI, St. Augustine, is an old hate letter Selvon had tucked away, perhaps as a reminder of the racist side of some Britons. One line in it reads: “It might be better for you [West Indians] to remember that THIS IS OUR COUNTRY … We all say, GET OUT, GO HOME.”
Inequitable treatment of immigrants still lingers, as shown by the 2018 Windrush scandal in which British people of Caribbean descent were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and — in at least 83 cases — wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office. The Lonely Londoners is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s.
Selvon’s novel suggested new ways of perceiving the post-imperial capital to make space for diverse immigrant voices. This was a significant triumph of the deceptively simple little book, as it helped to broaden notions of British identity at the time.
From Ways of Sunlight to the Canadian Prairies
Selvon’s 28 years in Britain, from 1950 to 1978, were a critical force in shaping his writing. It gave him the distance and perspective to better analyse his Caribbean roots, while also testing him with experiences that would become fodder for a refreshing, accessible, and creative style of storytelling.
After his success with The Lonely Londoners, Selvon turned his attention to Ways of Sunlight (1957), a witty, sensitive short story collection set in Trinidad and London. The stories include “Johnson and the Cascadura” (an interracial love story), “Wartime Activities” (about pimping, life, and love in wartime Trinidad), and “Obeah in the Grove” (about corrupt English landlords and obeah justice). A popular favourite from this collection is the comic “Brackley and the Bed”, which Selvon delighted in reading at literary gatherings.
During his almost three decades in the UK, Selvon wrote nine notable novels with Caribbean-related or immigrant themes. Novels after 1956 included Turn Again Tiger (1959), The Housing Lark (1965), Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972), and Moses Ascending (1975), a satirical sequel to The Lonely Londoners.
Selvon also scripted several BBC television plays adapted from earlier novels, and co-wrote the screenplay with Horace Ové for the groundbreaking 1976 film Pressure.
In 1975, Selvon accepted a two-year post as Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland, where his humility, helpfulness, and critical literary advice made him a hugely popular figure among students and staff.
Scottish writer Carl McDougall, who became Selvon’s friend, described him as “one of the most generous men I have ever met,” saying: “He must have spent hours discussing other people’s work … with warmth, sensitivity, and humour.”
In 1978, Selvon moved to Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in 1981, later commenting to a friend: “In 28 years, I never wanted to take out British citizenship.” He taught creative writing at the University of Victoria and later worked as writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary. In addition to his teaching and speaking engagements, he wrote the novel Moses Migrating (1983), and also adapted several of his earlier works into collections of radio plays broadcast by the BBC.
Meanwhile, despite his temporary teaching appointments and academic fellowships, Selvon always retained a practical, down-to-earth quality. During one period when he was short of cash, shortly after his University of Victoria contract had ended, his friend and Canadian author Ken McGoogan recalled Selvon had no qualms about getting a job as a janitor at the University of Calgary, working from 11 pm to 7 am washing floors and cleaning blackboards.
Despite living for most of his life in the UK and Canada, Selvon always identified himself as a Caribbean expatriate, and took every opportunity to refresh his links with Trinidad, visiting when he could, and serving as writer in residence at all three UWI campuses at different times. He believed in the idea of a multicultural Caribbean consciousness that included people from all the islands. And he saw himself as a citizen of the world.
In December 1993, Selvon returned to Trinidad to start work on an account of his own life. But illness struck: first one heart attack, and then another. He died on 16 April, 1994, at Piarco International Airport. The death certificate said the cause of death was respiratory failure due to chronic lung disease.
Sam Selvon is celebrated for the sophisticated sense of irony and subversion in many of his comedic masterpieces. His linguistic innovations extended the possibilities of “nation language” in literatures written in English. Writer Caryl Phillips credits Selvon as a pioneer in the tradition of Black writing, as well as a key figure in the literary reimaging of Britain after World War II.
Selvon’s works have influenced several generations of writers, and not only in the Caribbean. Some see his books as the precursors to novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Hanif Kureishi, Some Kind of Black (1996) by Diran Adebayo, and White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith. In addition to his two Guggenheim Fellowships, Selvon’s awards included honorary degrees from the University of the West Indies (1985) and Warwick University (1989), and a posthumous Trinidad and Tobago national award, the Chaconia Medal Gold (1994).
Writing in 1996, Professor Kenneth Ramchand — both a scholar of Selvon’s work and his close friend — said “Selvon took up the tempered language of the dark ones, the sunken in the land, and tuned and hammered it into an instrument to express the soul of a people who had come out of the pains of enslavement and indentureship, where cane is bitter, and who were now passing through ‘cold slicing winds, falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land,’ the seasons, and cities of exile.”
One of Selvon’s own poems offers a reflection on the transience of life that hearkens back to his youthful interest in philosophy:
I have said too much already, but too much
Is not enough. I die quickly, passing
Like smoke spun in the wind, a pu_
Of man. Down by the restless sea
I find my company…