Samuel Dickson Selvon’s contribution to Caribbean letters is manifold. He was a prolific novelist who created some of the most memorable characters in Caribbean writing; he was also a venturesome innovator in the use of folk idioms and folk language of such sophistication and sheer virtuosity that his influence is consistently apparent in the works of many fiction writers who have followed him. Above all, Selvon wrote with a rare combination of empathy and humor that managed, consistently, to capture the qualities of inventiveness and energy that have come to characterize the best of West Indian writing.
Selvon was born of East Indian parents in rural Trinidad, and he experienced the distinctly Trinidadian multicultural ethos through an immersion in the East Indian creole culture, which entailed the intermingling of cultures as disparate as Spanish, Dutch, French, African, and native Caribbean. Described by many, including poet Derek Walcott, as one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Trinidad became a remarkably fecund place for the generation of literature that, by its mere adherence to the project of speaking to a diverse and dynamic populace, always seemed to avoid parochialism and to achieve a certain humanity.
Selvon’s experience growing up among peasant farmers on sugar plantations in rural Trinidad played a significant role in the creation of many of his stories and most of his novels. His first novel, A Brighter Sun, and consequent novels explored themes that related to the dignity inherent in the peasant and largely East Indian culture of rural Trinidadian society. Selvon’s imagination, however, was never restricted to the East Indian experience; it expanded to include sensitive portrayals of African Trinidadians in such critically successful works as the comic trilogy The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending, and Moses Migrating.
After completing his secondary education at Naparima College, Selvon worked as a telegraph operator with the West Indian branch of the Royal Naval Reserve during World War II. During this time he began writing verse and short stories, many of which were published and earned him significant popularity as a fledgling author. He joined the staff of the Trinidad Guardian soon after the war, and while he worked as a journalist he continued to write and publish his poetry and stories in Caribbean journals.
His move to London in 1950 precipitated his shift to more ambitious writing projects. He began to work on novels and to develop his skills as a writer of radio plays; a compilation of his dramatic works was organized and published in 1991 as Highway in the Sun, and Other Plays. A Brighter Sun, published in 1952, explored the processes of maturation in the context of a rural Indian community. Set during World War II, the novel follows the movement to manhood of sixteen-year-old Tiger, who has just gotten married and faces the challenges of becoming a man.
By the time Selvon came to publish his most popular novel, The Lonely Londoners, in 1956, he had lived for six years in England and had developed a vivid sense of both the pathos and dynamism of the lives of West Indians in Britain. The novel, told as a “ballad,” or a Calypso tale, by the main character, Moses, is a sophisticatedly constructed series of episodes that handle with humor the lives of the new wave of black immigrants in London. Written in Trinidadian dialect, Selvon’s novel confirmed that the idioms of the West Indies could work effectively at conveying not only character-defined humor but also deep emotion and philosophical introspection. The success and popularity of the Moses saga would lead to two later sequels that observed the return of a longtime London West Indian to the Caribbean to contend with issues of alienation and loss.
In his fourth novel, Turn Again Tiger, Selvon returned to the protagonist of his first novel, looking more closely at the processes of “creolization.” Selvon’s short-story writing, like his novels, demonstrates his embrace of a multicultural aesthetic as well as his complete immersion in the business of telling a story for its entertaining qualities. His collection of short stories, Ways of Sunlight, reveals Selvon’s capacity for wit, trickery (as a writer), and poetic sensibility.
In 1954, he was given a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award he was again granted in 1968. In 1958, he won a Travelling Scholarship from the Society of Authors; in 1960, he received two Arts Council of Great Britain grants, and he was given a Trinidad government scholarship in 1962. In 1969, on the weight of his already impressive publications, he was awarded the Hummingbird Medal, a significant Trinidadian national honor, for his contribution to Caribbean literature.
Selvon continued to write novels in the 1970’s, including The Plains of Caroni, Those Who Eat the Cascadura, and Moses Ascending. In 1978, he left England for Canada; he settled in Calgary, Alberta, forging an existence out of his reputation as a writer and a highly respected West Indian voice. He served as writer-in-residence of the universities of Alberta, Calgary, Victoria, Winnipeg, and Dundee.
His writing in the “Moses” trilogy offers perhaps one of the most telling demonstrations of his preoccupation with issues of identity and belonging. Moses, the black character, finally musters the courage to return to Trinidad and to cope with the difficulty of recognizing that he has become thoroughly and yet peculiarly English in his values, his sense of the world, and his perception of himself. The self-deprecating discomfort felt by Moses epitomizes Selvon’s own preoccupation with the struggle to remain relevant to his history and social context. In this sense, Selvon never truly left the Caribbean but sought always, in his fiction, to discover the quintessential West Indianness of people from that region, wherever they found themselves. Selvon was awarded honorary doctorates at the University of the West Indies and Warwick University.
In 1994, during a visit to Trinidad, Selvon died. His legacy as an author is a vital one in contextualizing the complexities of the colonial and postcolonial experience. At the time of his death, he was working on an unfinished novel entitled “A High of Zero,” set in Trinidad and Canada, while also writing an autobiography. He had finished a film script for The Lonely Londoners while concluding negotiations on adaptations of Moses Ascending and Those Who Eat the Cascadura.
Joseph, Margaret Paul. Caliban in Exile: The Outsider in Caribbean Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Looks at the image of Caliban as a symbol of colonialist alienation in the London-based works of Selvon, Jean Rhys, and George Lamming.
Looker, Mark. Atlantic Passages: History, Community, and Language in the Fiction of Sam Selvon. New York: P. Lang, 1996. Places Selvon’s fiction at the center of postcolonial theoretical debates, measuring it against its social and cultural contexts and gauging its productive counterpoise with ideas of history and community.
Nasta, Sushiela, ed. Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1988. A collection of essays on Selvon’s work, especially focused on his place as a Trinidadian writer.
Salick, Roydon. The Novels of Samuel Selvon: A Critical Study. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Examines Selvon’s novels within their historical, sociological, and ideological contexts and offers a fresh assessment of his works.
Wyke, Clement H. Sam Selvon’s Dialectal Style and Fictional Strategy. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1991. Concentrates on Selvon’s use of dialect for both literary and philosophical effect.
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