20 May 1923|
San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago
|Died||16 April 1994(aged 70)|
|Notable works||The Lonely Londoners|
Samuel Selvon (20 May 1923–16 April 1994) was a Trinidad-born writer. His 1956's novel The Lonely Londoners is ground-breaking in its use of creolised English, or "nation language", for narrative as well as dialogue.
Life and work
Samuel Dickson Selvon was born in San Fernando in the south of Trinidad, the sixth of seven children. His parents were East Indian: his father was a first-generation Christian immigrant from Madras and his mother's father was Scottish. He was educated at Naparima College, San Fernando, before leaving at the age of 15 to work. He was a wireless operator with the local branch of the Royal Naval Reserve from 1940 to 1945. Thereafter, he moved north to Port of Spain, and from 1945 to 1950, 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 including Michael Wentworth, Esses, Ack-Ack, and Big Buffer. Much of this early writing is to be found in Foreday Morning (eds Kenneth Ramchand and Susheila Nasta, 1989).
Selvon moved to London, England, in the 1950s, where he worked as a clerk for the Indian Embassy, while writing in his spare time. His short stories and poetry appeared in various publications, including the London Magazine, New Statesman, and The Nation. In London he also worked with the BBC, producing two television scripts, Anansi the Spiderman, and Home Sweet India.
In the late 1970s Selvon moved to Alberta, Canada, and found a job teaching creative writing as a visiting professor at the University of Victoria. When that job ended, he took a job as a janitor at the University of Calgary in Alberta for a few months, before becoming writer-in-residence there. He was largely ignored by the Canadian literary establishment, with his works receiving no reviews during his residency.
On a return trip to Trinidad Selvon died of respiratory failure due to extensive bronchopneumonia and chronic lung disease on 16 April 1994 at Piarco International Airport; his ashes were subsequently interred at the University of the West Indies cemetery, St Augustine, Trinidad.
Selvon married twice: in 1947 to Draupadi Persaud, with whom he had one daughter, and in 1963 to Althea Daroux, with whom he had two sons and one daughter.
Selvon is best known for his novels The Lonely Londoners (1956) and Moses Ascending (1975). His novel A Brighter Sun (1952), detailing the construction of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway in Trinidad through the eyes of young Indian worker Tiger, was a popular choice on the CXC English Literature syllabus for many years. Other notable works include the collection of stories Ways of Sunlight (1957), Turn Again Tiger (1958) and Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972). During the 1970s and early 1980s, Selvon converted several of his novels and stories into radio scripts, broadcast by the BBC, which were collected in Eldorado West One (Peepal Tree Press, 1988) and Highway in the Sun (Peepal Tree Press, 1991).
The Lonely Londoners, like most of Selvon's later work, focuses on the migration of West Indians to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and tells, mostly in anecdotal form, the daily experience of settlers from the Africa and the Caribbean. Selvon also illustrates the panoply of different "cities" that are lived in London, as with any major city, due to class and racial boundaries. In many ways, his books are the precursors to works such as Some Kind of Black by Diran Adebayo, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. Selvon explained:
"When I wrote the novel that became The Lonely Londoners, I tried to recapture a certain quality in West Indian everyday life. I had in store a number of wonderful anecdotes and could put them into focus, but I had difficulty starting the novel in straight English. The people I wanted to describe were entertaining people indeed, but I could not really move. At that stage, I had written the narrative in English and most of the dialogues in dialect. Then I started both narrative and dialogue in dialect and the novel just shot along."
Selvon's papers are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, USA. These consist of holograph manuscripts, typescripts, book proofs, manuscript notebooks, and correspondence. Drafts for six of his 11 novels are present, along with supporting correspondence and items relating to his career.
Selvon was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships (in 1955 and 1968), an honorary doctorate from Warwick University in 1989, and in 1985 the honorary degree of DLitt by the University of the West Indies. In 1969 he was awarded the Trinidad & Tobago Hummingbird Medal Gold for Literature, and in 1994 he was (posthumously) given another national award, the Chaconia Medal Gold for Literature. In 2012 he was honoured with a NALIS Lifetime Achievement Literary Award for his contributions to Trinidad and Tobago's literature.
- A Brighter Sun (1952)
- An Island is a World (1955)
- The Lonely Londoners (1956)
- Ways of Sunlight, short stories (1957)
- Turn Again Tiger (1959)
- I Hear Thunder (1963)
- The Housing Lark (1965)
- The Plains of Caroni (1970)
- Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972)
- Moses Ascending (1975)
- Moses Migrating (1983)
- Foreday Morning (1989)
- Eldorado West One, collected one-act plays (1989)
- Highway in the Sun and Other Plays (1991)
Filmography (as writer)
Critical works on Selvon include:
- Susheila Nasta (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon, Washington: Three Continents Press, 1988.
- Clement Wyck, Sam Selvon's dialectal style and fictional strategy (1991).
- Margaret Paul Joseph, "Caliban in Exile: The Outsider in Caribbean Fiction", Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Austin Clarke, Passage Back Home: a personal reminiscence of Samuel Selvon, Toronto: Exile Editions, 1994.
- Mark S. Looker, Atlantic Passages: History, community, and language in the fiction of Sam Selvon, New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
- Roydon Salick, The Novels of Samuel Selvon, Greenwood Press, 2001.
- Curdella Forbes, From Nation to Diaspora: Sam Selvon, George Lamming and the Cultural Performance of Gender, Mona, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2005.
- "Samuel Selvon", Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Kenneth Ramchand, "Selvon, Samuel Dickson (1923–1994)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2006. Accessed 19 November 2014.
- Louis James, "Obituary: Sam Selvon", The Independent, 20 April 1994.
- Author profile at Peepal Tree Press.
- "Samuel Selvon", Caribbean Hall of Fame.
- Michel Fabre, "Samuel Selvon: Interviews and Conversations", in Susheila Nasta (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon, Washington: Three Continents Press, 1988; p. 66.
- "Samuel Selvon: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center".
- "Sam Selvon", Trinidad and Tobago National Library and Information Service (NALIS).
- Selvon, Sam (1984). Moses Ascending. London: Heinemann. p. i.