Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Although Selvon attracted critical attention incommensurate with his contribution to West Indian prose fiction and poetry, his work is gaining in stature, especially among those who are specialists in Commonwealth literature. Part of the explanation for this early oversight must be that Selvon was beginning to write when there was still a critical disposition against Commonwealth writers, and British and American writing was the focus of attention; further, Selvon’s style—one that clearly reflects his own personality—is gentle, unprepossessing, and engaging rather than dramatic, convoluted, or opaque, which was in vogue in certain critical circles in the 1960’s. A Brighter Sun, however, has now gone through reprintings and has gained in readership and renown.

Selvon has since been the focus of much informed criticism, and his special strengths are being acknowledged. His work has been praised because it depicts so vividly the sociology of Trinidad at a time of critical change in the years between colonial dependency and national independence, when West Indians were adapting to the dictates of life in the metropolitan culture rather than the peripheral one. He depicted the lives and struggles, the aspirations and failures of this large expatriate group with particularly poignant—if at times comic—sympathy. He showed the effects of voluntary as well as involuntary ghettoization based on race and ethnicity and also showed the residual commitment to beauty and idealism of the expatriate islanders in the face of adversity and bias. (In his later novels about Caribbean life, the optimism was somewhat muted.)

In Turn Again Tiger (1958), a sequel to A Brighter Sun, Tiger and Urmilla return to the sugarcane district and rent out their new Barataria house only to encounter several disappointments and disillusionments. From this harrowing experience, Tiger emerges undefeated and confirmed in his philosophy: “We finish one job, and we got to get ready to start another.” This is the basic message of A Brighter Sun, and it doubtless represented Selvon’s own outlook.