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Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom

Sam Selvon

Samuel (Sam) Selvon was born in San Fernando in 1923 into a Christian Indian family which was ‘neither prosperous nor poor’. His grandfather (from Madras) was an interpreter and his father the manager of a dry goods store. His maternal grandfather was Scottish. It was a creolised family and Selvon reports little involvement with the rituals of a more Hindu life. He reports that his cultural influences were the American films showing at the local cinemas, and that as a child he was not going to ‘bother with any stupid "kar-har-jar".’ He attended Naparima College in San Fernando, before leaving at fifteen to work. From 1940-1945 he was a wireless operator with the Royal Naval Reserve, and as such closely involved with the war-time American presence which provides the backdrop for A Brighter Sun (1952).

From 1945-1950, having moved north to Port of Spain, Selvon worked for the Trinidad Guardian as a reporter and for a time on its literary page. In this period, he began writing stories and descriptive pieces, mostly under a variety of pseudonyms such as Michael Wentworth, Esses, Ack-Ack and Big Buffer. Much of this early writing is to be found in Foreday Morning (ed. Ramchand and Nasta, 1989). It reveals a writer who, very far from the peasant images conveyed by the bios of his earlier UK publications, actually wanted to be a musician and to write philosophy (which of course Selvon did in the two Tiger novels, in particular). Indeed, the novels which most closely explore the personal issues and lifestyles of characters closer to Selvon’s own are the least well-known: An Island Is a World (1955) and I Hear Thunder (1963). Perhaps the greatest influence on Selvon’s writing about the rural world came from his admiration for the English writer Richard Jeffries. 

In 1950 Selvon left Trinidad for the UK where after hard times of survival he established himself as a writer with A Brighter Sun (1952), An Island is a World (1955), The Lonely Londoners (1956), Ways of Sunlight (1957) Turn Again Tiger (1958) I Hear Thunder (1963), The Housing Lark (1965) The Plains of Caroni (1970) Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972), Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983). During the 1970s and early 1980s, Selvon converted several of his novels and stories into radio scripts that were broadcast by the BBC. These were collected in Eldorado West One (Peepal Tree, 1988) and Highway in the Sun (Peepal Tree, 1991). 

In 1978 he left the UK for Canada where he lived until his death in 1994 on a return trip to Trinidad.

Selvon’s writing has always been well-loved, not least because he was such an engaging person and keen reader of his work. Initially, however, perhaps in part as a result of George Lamming’s ascription of Selvon’s work into the category of peasant writing, it was valorised politically but not aesthetically. This was further reinforced by the public perceptions (which Selvon himself in part created/went along with) of Selvon as a writer of Indian origins who put his West-Indianness above any ethnic consideration, at a time in Trinidad and Guyana of considerable ethnic tension.

The first area in which the importance of Selvon’s work began to be seen was in its linguistic innovations, in his closing the gap between narrator and subjects in The Lonely Londoners, where he was seen as extending the possibilities of nation language as a literary medium. 

Then in 1979, Selvon presented an important paper, ‘Three into One Can’t Go: East Indian, Trinidadian, West Indian’, where he explored his sense of threat from the conversion of ‘Negro nationalism’ into the currents of Black Power which shook the Caribbean in the 1970s, and his sense that as an Indian, ‘we best hads don’t talk too loud before we antagonise the Black people’. Such a statement drove some critics back to a closer consideration of Selvon’s novels, which are indeed far more complex, conflictual and ironic in their treatment of ethnic relations and West-Indianness than the sentimentalisation of Selvon’s work had allowed. More recently, with the work of Ken Ramchand, Susheila Nasta and others, (See Something Rich and Strange), there has been a revaluation of Selvon’s work which gives its aesthetic innovations with the form of the novel proper consideration. Reviewers of Selvon’s novels of the 1950s consistently complained of its meandering form and weak construction (Mittelholzer put Selvon in ‘the primitive class’) and in 1958, VS Naipaul in reviewing Turn Again Tiger wrote of Selvon working best within ‘the flimsiest of frames which can, without apparent disorder, contain unrelated episodes and characters’. Just how Selvon achieved that ‘without apparent disorder’, has been the subject of more recent recognition (See, Jeremy Poynting, The Second Shipwreck).

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