Kunapipi 17 (1) 1995 Full Version
Anna Rutherford 0
0 University of Aarhus , Denmark
Kunapipi is a tri-annual arts magazine with special but not exclusive
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Copyright© 1995 by KUNAPIPI
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of
private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright
Act no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries
should be made to the editor.
VOLUME XVII NUMBER 1, 1995
Co-Editor for this issue
Kunapipi is published with assistance from the Literature Board of the
Australian Council, the Federal Government's art funding and advisory
body and the European branch of the Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies.
for the Arts
The editors would like to thank Eve Williams, for permission to use 'The
Keeper of the Temple' and The Independent for permission to reprint the
photograph of Sam Selvon by Philip Meech. Thanks are also due to all
contributors and publishers who agreed permission to reprint articles.
Roydon Salick, 'Selvon and the Limits of Heroism: A Reading of The
Plains of Caroni', first appeared in Shades of Empire in Colonial and Post
Colonial Literatures ed. C.C. Barfoot, Theo D'haen, (Rodopi, 1993); 'Sam
Selvon: Interview with Reed Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla' was
taken from Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, eds.
Dasenbrock, Jussawalla (University Press of Mississippi, 1992); Susheila
Nasta, 'Setting Up Home In a City of Words: Sam Selvon's London
Novels' is due to appear in Other Britain, Other British. Essays in
Contemporary Multi-Cultural Fiction, ed. A Robert Lee (London: Pluto, due
November 1995); Sam Selvon, 'Finding West Indian Identity in London'
first appeared in Displaced Persons, eds. Kirsten Holst Petersen, Anna
Rutherford (Dangaroo Press, 1988). Finally, and above all, the editors
wish to thank the executors of Sam Selvon's literary estate.
Cover: 'The Keeper of the Temple' by Aubrey Williams
Sam Selvon by Philip Meech.
When I come back here to Trinidad, I hear the kiskidee in the morning. You can
identify yourself with the soil and the feeling of those sounds, and you instantly
become part of the land.
... you took the small
language used by the island
for picong and calypsoes
and stretched its vowels
across the mouth of the world
Tiger's Triumph is a celebration of the life and work of the internationally
distinguished Trinidadian writer, Sam Selvon, who died at the age of
seventy one in April 1994. Sam, as many of the pieces in this collection
will testify, was distinguished not only by the sheer range and vanety of
his published works - which include ten novels, numerous short stories,
radio scripts, a screenplay as well as many other non-fictional essays
collected together in Foredny Morning: Selected Prose (1946-86) 1 - but also
by his influential position as one of the founding fathers of the Caribbean
literary renaissance of the 1950s. Many ballads and eulogies were sung
all over the world following Selvon's sudden illness and death during a
brief trip horne to Trinidad last year but one message seems to shine
through all of these tributes and that is Sam's extraordinary warmth and
generosity as a man, the depth of his vision as a natural philosopher, a
writer to use a phrase from Ken Rarnchand's memorial speech who was
'a believer fighting off unbelief and his passionate attachment, despite
the many years he spent abroad, to the land, to Trinidad. As he said in
1979, 'This island is my shadow and I carry it with me wherever I go.'
Most readers familiar with Selvon's work remember him primarily for
his humour, his comic vision and his creation of easily accessible,
picaresque and calypsonian characters whom one meets both on the
streets of London and Port of Spain. He is also remembered importantly
for his use of a creolized and non-Standard form of English both in his
'peasant' novels set in Trinidad - A Brighter Sun (1952) and Turn Again
Tiger (1958) in which he gave voice and status to the East Indian cane
community and heroic dimensions to his early character, Tiger - as well
as in his famous London novels, The Lo11ely Londoners (1956), Moses
Ascending (1975) and Mo ses Migrating (1983), where he colonizes
England in reverse and liberates his black characters from standard
English and the entrapping stereotypes that surrounded them. Whilst
there is a surface humour in all of these books, it is also important to note
a far more serious side to Selvon's writing which is often disguised as
simple naturalistic reflection and masks the profound sensitivity he felt
about all the big questions in life, a sensitivity that is explicitly apparent
in many of his non-fictional essays . As he wrote of the 'boys' in The
Lonely Londoners: 'They only laughing because they fraid to cry'.
Selvon's range of literary talents was far larger than most people ever
knew. Apart from the novels and short stories, there were reviews,
essays, poems which he contributed to literary journals all over the
world. Whilst he was in Britain between 1950-1978, many of his radio
plays were broadcast. He was co-author for the first black feature film to
be released in Britain, Pressure (1978). There were, later in life, other
honours and awards, lectures and reading.
Sam was born in South Trinidad in 1923 and grew up in the small
semi-rural town of San Fernando. He was the son of a dry goods
merchant, a first generation East Indian immigrant to Trinidad, and an
Anglo-Scottish mother. From an early age Selvon loved to write and
listen to stories though he did not continue his formal education beyond
High School. Always describing himself as a 'self-educated' man, Selvon
was committed to becoming 'creolized', and to being a positive part of
the cultural and racial mix of modem Trinidad. It was this pride in the
hybridity of his background and his need as an artist to translate this
vision into fiction, which resulted in his influential first novel A Brighter
Sun. And it was this novel that established Selvon according to George
Lamming as 'the greatest and therefore the most important folk poet the
British Caribbean has ever produced'. Whilst this was an early statement
of applause by Lamming (who travelled to England from the Caribbean
on the same boat in 1950), and set up what is perhaps now in retrospect
an unnecessarily extreme polemical opposition between Selvon's work
and that of his fellow Trinidadian, V. S. Naipaul, it nevertheless pointed
to a significant difference in the commitment of the two writers. For
Naipaul, Trinidad could never be made in to anything; for Selvon, the
celebration of the island was paramount even when as the title of one of
his short stories suggests cane is bitter.
Selvon was never bitter or jealous of the success of others. In fact in
1990 he supported Naipaul's entry for an international literary award.
He accepted his difference and was not interested in Naipaul's more
glittering success; in fact he often joked about their different perspectives
on race and the significance of 'home' by saying that old leopards can't
change their spots. Sam never felt he had to try to impress; writing had
always come first. Reputation was a bonus and he made no attempt at
any stage in his career to falsely adapt his subject-matter to current
trends or outside expectations of what 'black writing' should or should
not be. In fact part of his decision to leave Britain for Calgary in the late
1970's was to do with this sense of beginning to be told what to write,
whether it was Black Power politics or issues of gender. Selvon's art and
his life have always formed 'a seamless whole'; he felt deeply about
many of the political concerns of the day but refused to write
propaganda, to destroy the integrity of his fiction by self-consciously
espousing particular issues. As he said just after he left Britain in 1978:
'We have now to start thinking in terms of world literature, of
contributing universally rather than ...merely with protestation novels,
with days of slavery, with hardships of the black man...We want to rise
The pieces in Tiger's Triumplz have been organised to reflect the many
dimensions of both the man and his work. Creative pieces have been
placed alongside the personal and the critical in a way which I hope
reflects Sam's own feelings about the important need to cross over
boundaries and mediate between a number of different voices and
discourses. As will be obvious, the cover for this book depicts a leopard,
in this case a mythical Mayan figure represented in a painting by the late
Guyanese artist, Aubrey Williams. Whilst we know that you don't get
leopards or 'tigers' for that matter in Trinidad, Sam has not only created
an important 'Tiger' in Trinidadian literary history and the imaginations
of many many readers - a 'tiger' like his character of that name who is
rooted to the soil, to the mango tree and the kiskidee - but was also a
special kind of Tiger himself, a tiger whose voice has risen from the
language of the island and triumphed in stretching that language across
the mouth of the world. This book celebrates Sam Selvon's achievement.
Susheila Nasta, 1995
1. A full bibliography of Sam Selvon's fictional and non-fictional work
is provided at the end of this collection which is edited by Ken
Ramchand and Susheila Nasta (Longman, 1989, rpt. 1992) pp 226-248.
Main Books by Sam Selvon
A Brighter Su11 (1952)
An Island is a World (1955)
The Lonely Londoners (1956)
\<\bys of Sunlight (1957)
Tum Again Tiger (1958)
I Hear Thunder (1963)
Tire Housing Lark (1965)
Tire Plains of Cnroni (1970)
Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972)
Moses Ascending (1975)
Moses Migrating (1983)
El Dorado West One (1988)
Foreday Manring (1989)
Highway in the Su11 (1992)
The title of one of Sam Selvon's novels is Those Who Eat The Cascadura.
The cascadura is a small ancient, reptilian looking fish which lives in
swamps. It is considered to be a delicacy, and especially so when fixed
as a curry. Legend or myth has it that if you eat the cascadura you will
return to end your days in Trinidad. Did Sam believe in that myth? Do
we sometimes foresee the future? Or, does wishing it make it come to
He died in Trinidad, was cremated, and his ashes buried there. It
could have happened in England or Canada, but it did not. He rests
besides members of his family in his hometown of San Fernando, and he
was given a hero's funeral with all the pomp and ceremony that
Trinidad could offer its native son. Once a 'Trini' always a 'Trini'. I am
glad Sam returned to Trinidad, it would have been too lonely to be buried
in England or Canada, both of which are far too cold for someone who
loved the sun, loved his island, and loved his people. There is no longer
a question of whether or not there is truth to the myth. He ate the
cascadura, and he returned to Trinidad to end his days.
The first thought that crosses one's mind when a dose friend dies - a
friend who is one's own age - is one's own mortality. True or false? False
- I think. His death has not led me to think of my mortality. Instead, I
think of the days, the times we spent together. We met when we were
sixteen and seventeen, and we met because his brother Dennis married
my sister Betty. We have one nephew in common, we are writers, we both
worked for the Trinidad Guardian, I as a reporter, Sam, as an inside man,
he put together the Sunday section for the paper. He went to England, I
came to the US at about the same time- around 1950.
Although he lived in London, and I in NYC or Michigan or California,
we not only kept in touch by mail, but spent time with each other at the
various literary conferences we attended: Trinidad, Guyana, Montreal,
Toronto - and there were times when I visited with him, and he with me.
We spent time in Scotland where he was a writer in residence. He
arranged a lecture there for me, filled with colorful slides. That was
before the day and age of video-cams. Later on I arranged for him tore
place me for one semester at the University of California in San Diego,
and he lived with us for fourteen weeks. The Atlantic Ocean stood
between us, but our friendship continued. No matter how much time
passed between visits, whenever we met it was merely a question of
picking up where our correspondence left off. And now there is only
London in the early fifties. We swam in Bajan waters, ate flying fish and
drank Mount Gay Rum, and then we were off to Trinidad ... noisy
Trinidad, where at night, even if you turned your radio off and pricked
up your ears there was a low level sound of the radio station. During the
day there was not only the radio, but each main street of the city was
flooded with loud music. Each little store had a blaring loudspeaker
booming out Calypso or Reggae music, and the same was true of all the
mad taxis that plied the main roads of the island. Add to that the heat,
the humidity, the steepness nights swatting mosquitoes, and the rainy
We got into one of those 'gypsy' cabs, known for their mad drivers. We
squeezed in between its passengers. Sam sat in front, next to the driver.
As soon as we entered the cab, I knew that it was the wrong thing to do,
the radio was blasting. Sam asked the driver in his usual polite soft
spoken way to turn down the volume. Perhaps the driver did not hear
him, maybe he did, but chose to ignore Sam. Again Sam asked him to
tum down the volume. This time the driver looked straight at him and
sucked his teeth. Sam reached over and turned off the radio. Everyone in
the taxi was stunned, both at his action, and the sudden peace and quiet,
and we all knew something had to give.
'Stop the car...let me out!' Sam shouted, flinging some crumpled bills
at the driver, who promptly pocketed them then turned on the radio
again. The rest of us had little time to join him, it all happened so
quickly, or were we just cowards?
I saw that lonely disgusted slightly hunched over figure as we drove
on. He managed to catch up with us in Port of Spain. All he said in his
disgruntled voice was, 'These noisy bastards. Can't stand silence, can't
stand the quiet of their own thoughts!'
And the same thing was true in the streets of the city.. .loudspeakers
everywhere, belting and belching out their deafening decibels. Why, I
asked myself do we love noise? When did all of this happen? The
answer was simple, Sam and I had been away too long. I had seen some
of this in other Third World countries. How much we all loved the 'toys'
of the electronic world, the play-things of other worlds. When I related
this incident to other Trinis they were aghast. What Sam had done could
have ended in a fight, a stabbing or shooting...or worse. No one in his
right mind would dare to reach over and tum off a radio in a taxi.
'But Sam...you bold you know.' I said.
'Bold my arse...these bastards gone and ruin this place. No peace
anywhere anymore...just noise, noise, noise. What ever happen to
silence?', he said, not in anger, but more of a wistful longing for a time
that was, and was gone forever, the time of our 'boy-days', the halcyon
times of Trinidad .. .lost forever, replaced by something like a caged
animal that had been set loose.
After a few days in Trinidad, we flew to Guyana and landed in the
middle of a tropical rain storm. The tarmac was flooded, the rain came
down too fast to run off. We were met by people with large unbrellas
bearing the logo of the air-line which promptly blew inside out. I think
that some kind of reception was planned, but no one was interested. It
occurred to me that I had never seen rainfall like this in my life. I had
seen snow. I had seen hail stones. I had seen sleet, and I had seen many
a rainy season on our small island. This was what a rainfall was like in
a continent, for we were now on the South American continent, a huge
land mass compared to our island home. The skies seemed to burst open
through the great lightning bolts and the torrential rains came pouring
through the great flashes of dark and open skies. We were soaked and
water was running out of our shoes. The cool air-conditioned terminal
was no relief, I began to shiver in my wet clothes and longed for a dry
One of the things about living in the tropics is that lighting a fire to
keep warm, or to dry out is out of the question where it was already
ninety degrees. I now wondered about the serene days of my childhood
when playing in the rain was such great fun, such great sport.
There were cars waiting for us, and we were driven to a complex of
houses, a small city, built especially to house the artists from the entire
Caribbean. The first thing on our minds was to get into some dry clothes,
and to get some sleep, it was about two in the morning. We no sooner
turned off the lights when the mosquitoes descended. They were the
largest I had ever seen. Or, had I forgotten what they were like when I
was growing up in Trinidad? There were mosquito nets hung over the
beds, and one had to make sure that one or two did not get in while one
crept into bed with a feeling of 'at last', a bed, while we listened to the
heavy pounding and pinging of the galvanised roof. What a wonderful
sound that used to be as a child. I wondered what happened to the
music the rain used to make as I lay in bed, wide awake, damp and
tired. My wife went off to sleep immediately, and I could hear Shake
Keen snoring. I wanted to smoke, but that would be difficult under the
mosquito netting, so I tossed and turned, and then I heard Sam say, 'You
up?'. I merely grunted, then he went out on the porch to smoke, and I
joined him. There was a silence between us that spoke of fatigue, lack of
sleep, and a feeling of what on earth we were doing in this place. We got
back in our beds, and I saw Sam pull the sheets over his head as he lay
like a corpse. We said good night again and tried for sleep. I do not know
how long I slept, I do not know if I slept, but I was awakened by blaring
music coming from a long shed which was put up for the festivities. It
had a row of food stalls at either end, and a juke box, I later learned. The
light of day came up very early, the rain had cleared away. The first blast
of the juke box made us jump, and I could see Sam putting on his
clothes, wordlessly. He went into the kitchen where there was a cutlass. I
went to the porch to see where he was headed as he slouched to the shed.
I hardly thought that he would hurt anyone with it. But visions of Sam
slashing the electric cord, sparks flying...this un-mechanically minded
genius would never think to simply un-plug the juke box...and then the
music stopped suddenly and I saw him coming back, cutlass in hand.
He crawled back into bed and again pulled the covers over his head.
'Everything alright?' I asked. All he said was, 'These noisy bastards.'
The following morning at breakfast in the shed he was laughing and
joking with the men who had respected his wish to turn off the juke box.
His temper was cooled, and perhaps in part by the large serving of
Cascadura, large and plentiful around Guyana's capital, Georgetown
which is below sea-level and latticed by rivulets which ebb and flow
with the tides of the ocean... perfect breeding for Cascadura ...and
Since there were four of us, Sam, myself and my wife and the poet
Shake Keen (from St. Vincent) we were given a house to ourselves, and
since we were four, we were given a car with our own chauffeur, around
the clock. I have a picture of Sam sitting behind the wheel of the car,
smiling that impish smile of his. The humor behind the picture lay in the
fact that Sam had never learned how to drive. And while on the subject
of the car and the chauffeur, it was Sam, who seeing the man sitting
outside in the heat of the car, and who did not want him to feel like a
'servant' went out and fetched him. lie was to join us in all of our
activities, he was to have his meals and drinks with us, and our house
was the most frequented...we had visitors night and day.
At another time, Sam had come to the US, one of the requirements of
being a recipient of a Guggenheim grant. I was at Cape Cod for the
Summer. After a week or two at the Mc.Dowell Colony, he joined us at the
Cape where we had rented a sprawling bam-house overlooking the bay
in North Truro. One evening at sunset we were at the pier in
Provincetown and the sky was filled with kites...kites such as we had
never seen in our lives, not in our 'boy-days'. Sam wanted to be part of
that action. He decided that we would build a Mad Bull, a giant one
which stood four feet high when finished. All of the kites we had seen
were probably bought...ready-made. Ours would be singular in design,
and was made by our own hands. We found some bamboo strips in a
Japanese gift shop where we also found the right kind of paper. We got
some heavy string, and tore up strips from a bed sheet for its tail. We
worked at the frame each day, wondering as always if it would fly. And
then came the time for choosing and fitting the paper into the empty
spaces of the frame. We needed glue, and had none , but Sam
remembered how to make a good paste boiling flour in water. Now he
needed lime or lemon juice for the paste. I wondered, until he reminded
me of how the many bugs at home would eat the kite paper...because of
the paste. The addition of the lime juice would make it distasteful to
them. I took about a week to finally finish the kite. We were like painters
working on a canvas...so much today, quit to let it dry, then move on to
the other spaces. Meantime, neither of us had given any thought to
transporting it to Provincetown, some four or five miles from Truro. We
tried to get the kite inside the car...head-first, side-ways ever so gently,
but it would not fit, so I drove, and Sam held the kite outside the car as
we drove to the pier where we created quite a stir, and again his twinkle
and impish grin came on, transporting him back to the years of our 'boy
days' as he explained to the curious onlookers the nature and origin of
the MADBULL, emphasizing the fact that it was not 'store-bought' but
made by hand...from scratch. My chief concern was, will it fly. If it didn't,
it would take a dive...right into the sea. We got set with me holding the
kite in an upright position, its long tail trailing as we waited for a great
gust of wind. 'Leggo' (let-go) I heard him yell, and up went the kite,
straight as an arrow. 'Like a bullet!' I heard him shout as the kite danced
and buzzed, climbing into the sky with each tug of the string. The kite
was called a MADBULL because of the sound it made when in flight.
There were small sections of loose paper that fluttered like wings as the
kite moved through the air, 'singing' as we called it, its song. Each
evening we spent some time patching or strengthening sections of the
kite for the following day's flying.
And then as the summer was drawing to an end, we began to wonder
what we would do with the kite. I thought that we should just cut the
string on the last day and let it wander off to sea. But Sam feared, and he
was almost paranoid about it...that someone would find its frame at sea,
and 'learn' its secret, his secret, and so we did not cut it loose. Sam
crushed it to pieces on the beach the day before we left so that no one
could duplicate his masterpiece.
In all of this, one may well wonder if we did not have any difference of
opinion. We never talked about writing, his, mine, or the works of others
our age. Yet, we did have differing views, views which we both knew
would never be reconciled, and so we treated them as we treated each
other, with mutual respect. We never had any heated dragged out
arguments about them, yet they would surface from time to time.
One of the things we disagreed on was what I refer to as 'identity', a
term I use when asked what my writing is all about. At a conference at
York University to celebrate the 150th. year of the presence of East
Indians in the Caribbean we were on the novelists' panel with four or
five other writers. Frank Birbalsingh, writer, critic, professor and
organiser of the conference was moderator of the panel, and his question
was what we felt our writing was all about. My tum came first. I said
'identity' and went on to explain that I felt that we lived in something of
a borrowed culture, bits and pieces of other peoples' culture. I could tell
that Sam was annoyed, he could not wait to say his piece, and indeed
his tone was an angry one. I cannot recall word for word what he said,
but it went something like this as he broke into West Indian dialect. He
did not address me directly, his comments were directed to Frank, who
had asked the question. He said, 'Well .. .! don't know what that word
means, but what I know is that I know who I am...l know what I write
about, and all this talk about identity, or exile (another term of
disagreement) I am not an exile...Napoleon was exiled. I was not'.
We had lunch after the panel and we never got to re-hash or to clarify
just what we felt or meant, instead, we talked about our 'boy-days'.
I recall Sam telling about employment, or looking for work when he
first got to England. He, like myself, thinking ourselves to be Indian,
thought that a good place to look, some Indian business or agency
would be a good place to look for work. Sam told about meeting with
Krishna Menon at the Indian Embassy. Menon, even before interviewing
him said something like this to him: 'You people from the West Indies
seem to feel that you are Indians, that India owes you something. You
know nothing of Indian culture or ways, few of you speak our languages
etc. etc'. Needless to say he did not get a job with the Indian Embassy
despite his qualifications as a journalist, poet, novelist and dramatist.
I also had turned to, not the Embassy, but the UN Delegation which
was in the same building as the Embassy. I had heard of a messenger's
job with the delegation to the UN, and one of the reasons for looking to
the UN Delegation was because I was on a foreign student's visa, which
meant that I was not allowed to work in the US, unless the funds carne
from some non US source. I did get the messenger job for the Summer,
but I cannot say that I was treated with the same courtesies that other
Indians were treated with. I too, perhaps in more subtle ways was made
to understand that I was not Indian, and was looked upon as some sort
of anomaly or freak. It was also suggested that I change my name from
'Khan', a muslim name to a Hindu name. One member of the delegation
(I had to deliver the morning newspapers and the mail to the delegates
in their hotel rooms) seeing me for the first time addressed me in Hindi.!
muttered, I stuttered. I did understand him, but I knew that I could not
hold a conversation with him in Hindi. Like most second generation
people, I understood what my parents were saying, but replied in
English. He then proceeded to tell me that although there were many
things - facial structure, color or complexion - all of which were clearly
Indian, he could tell from the way I walked...just the few steps into his
suite...that I did not walk like Indian people, and this was said in the
most cutting manner.
Perhaps I use the word 'identity' in my own specific way, however, I
was, as Sam was, if not in our writing, corning to terms with who we
were, with our sense of 'identity'. It could also be argued that living
abroad forces one to see oneself in a different light - not only the way in
which we see ourselves, but the way(s) in which others see us.
Living abroad is one thing. Living abroad as a foreign student in the
US IS another. And living abroad trying to earn enough money to
support a family and still have the time and energy to write is still
another matter. What artist does not know the joys and sorrows of that
life? Yes, there were glorious days; the acceptance of a novel or short
story by a publisher, a good review, a luncheon paid for by one's
publisher, and the thought or feeling that you would like to ask for a
'doggie bag' to take home the 'left-overs' to your wife and child. And
there were other lean mean days.
I remember Sam telling about going through the cold London fog to
borrow five pounds from George Lamming. Apparently neither George
nor Sam could afford the luxury of a telephone, so he had to take his
chances of finding him home. He, Sam, and his family lived in what I
believe is called a 'bed-sitter', one room whose only source of heat was a
gas ring. I believe it was also used to cook their meals. After he got the
five pounds, he then had to worry about finding some shop or store
which might still be open so that he could make change...get shillings to
insert in the gas meter. One did not go up to strangers in the middle of
the night to ask them to change a five pound note. Indeed, I recall him
telling how people shunned you because they knew that you wanted
shillings and they wanted to hold on to theirs, and here is the way he put
it, 'Boy...people see you comin', and sometimes they turn away or look
away because they see a black man. It's as if some of them know that you
want to make change, some of them just frighten...but nobody want to
part with their shillings'.
As it turned out, he had to get some food for himself and his family
and was able to get the shillings to take home to keep his family
I was able to share one of my lean mean days with him. My wife and I
and our little girl lived in a tenement on the upper East Side of NYC.
While I could work full time for the delegation during that summer, once
school resumed I was allowed to work twenty hours a week, which I
did, putting away books in the library of the school I attended. We were
often broke, with no one to tum to for a loan. And this was not because
we did not have friends, it was because all the people we knew were as
broke as we were. One day my wife and I decided to walk the streets of
the city...to look for money. We found one dime, one penny, and an un
used ten cent stamp. I could also tell tales of washing my clothes in the
kitchen bath-tub with its lion's claws, clothes which should have been
dry cleaned. The rent for the apartment was thirty dollars a month, a
steal and a find in those days, impossible nowadays. Today, I still
wonder how I got as much done as I did. I wrote most of my first novel
in that apartment. I did not have to worry about the cost of typewriter
ribbons or paper, I wrote by hand on the cheapest yellow pulp paper
which now disintegrates at the touch of the hand.
Although Sam lived on one side of the Atlantic, and I on the other in
NYC (he later moved to Western Canada,!, to California, then back to
'Under the Kiff-Kiff Laughter':
Stereotype a n d Subversion i n Moses
Ascending a n d Moses Migrating
With the possible exception of V. S. Naipaul's Mr Biswas, no other
character in West Indian fiction is as well-known and well loved as Sam
Selvon's Moses Aloetta. Moses is the central figure in three of Selvon's
novels, and his adventures in London and Trinidad span a crucial thirty
years of contemporary West Indian migration to Britain. The Lonely
Londoners (1956) details the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Moses and his
fellow West Indians in the metropolis in the early years of West Indian
mass migration. By the time of Moses Ascending (1975) generational
'indigemsation' of West Indians in Britain, independence, and Black
Power movements had altered the London scene. West Indians had
gained an often uneasy foothold in 'the motherland' and Moses is now
the owner of his own house, though (not untyptcally) his fortunes suffer
a reversal at the end. Moses Migrating (1983) builds on this contemporary
relation between a more 'indigenised' generation of West Indians and
their 'ancestral' island homelands, and like many of his contemporaries
and their British-born progeny, Moses returns to Trinidad for Carnival.
Without ever denying- indeed often foregrounding- colonial and post
colonial West Indian experiences of racism, poverty, marginalisation and
abuse in London, Selvon, through his figurations of Moses, offers
hilarious, good-humoured, complicated, healing novels of racial and
colonial interaction whose radically subversive strategies are hidden
'under the kiff-kiff laughter'.
In an interview in 1979, Selvon noted that:
The comedy element has always been there among black people from the
Caribbean. It is their means of defence against the sufferings and tribulations that
they have to undergo. I always felt that this is a very strong element indeed and it
is too easily brushed aside by well-meaning critics who feel that the funny story
has its place but it is just so much and nothing more. I think it is a great deal
Under the 'kiff-kiff laughter' then, the purpose of Selvon's intricately
ironic novels is serious. A number of critics have noted the complex
Stereotype and Subversion in Moses Ascencling and Moses Migrating
tonal modalities of The Lonely Londoners 2 and examined the subversive
strategies of Moses Ascendingl, But Moses Migrating has generally been
ignored or dismissed as a lesser sequel to the 1975 novel, having little to
add beyond the prolongation, into the 1980s, of the adventures of a now
popular Trinidadian character.•
But to imply that Selvon's three 'Moses novels' constitute a trilogy is to
ignore important differences between them; differences related not only
to changing times, but to major shifts in tone and technique between the
earlier Lonely Londoners and the two later works. While the former is
character-centred and generally realist in mode, the later works are
increasingly focussed on a more general exploration and interrogation of
the role of representation in the construction of colonial subjectivities. In
Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating Selvon turns to examination of
racist and colonialist stereotypes and their most naturalised figure, the
cliche. Consequently the later novels are more broadly satirical in mode,
and Moses himself is represented as a much more extreme product of the
processes of colonialist interpellation than he was in the earlier novel.
And while Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating share this anatomi
sation of the stereotype in colonial discourse, they address the matter
through rather different topoi.
In 'The Other Question' Homi Bhabha argues that a primary strategy
of colonialist discourse is the circulation of the stereotype, which,
through its repetitive 'fixity' renders the colonised 'knowable and visible'.
Anti-colonial discourses have thus focussed on exposing the effectivity
of the stereotype, on destabilising its apparent 'fixity' and on unmasking
the imperialist anxieties which underlie and energise its still efficacious
repetitions. But as Bhabha argues, to
judge the stereotyped image on the basis of a prior political normativity is to
dismiss it, not to displace it, which is only possible by engaging with its effectivity;
with the repertoire of positions of power and resistance, domination and
dependence that constructs the colonial subject (both colonisers and colonised).5
In Moses Ascending and Mose s Migrating Selvon recirculates and
reanimates racist and colonialist cliches and stereotypes, interrogating
and destabilising them through partial, ironic and/ or incomplete
inversions of the binary codes which are foundational to both the
production and the persisting potency of such stereotypic figurations. In
unmasking and dismantling stereotypes of both colonisers and
colonised, frequently by 'collapsing' one into the other, Selvon relies
primarily on his (re)figuration of Moses in the later novels as an almost
absurdly interpellated colonial subject, 'obedient' (to use Pechaux's term)
to the point of caricature. The ironic distance between Selvon and Moses
is thus far greater in the two later works than it is in The Lonely Londoners,
and both texts focus more on an investigation of colonial and
colonial subjectivities than on presenting a 'realist' account of West
Indian experiences in London or English travellers in Trinidad.
In colonialist discourse the potency of the stereotype depends not just
on its fixity and its endless repetition but on the binaristic codifications
that serve as its inescapable foundations . Such rigidly maintained
binaries as coloniserI colonised; masterI slave; white/black; 'European'I
'native' are, of course, also hierarchised. Interpellated and 'obedient'
colonial subjects like Moses represent the fulfilment of colonialist desire;
they are products of an apparently perfected imperialism which, to
borrow from Macaulay's 1835 Indian Education Minute, has produced
'Indians in blood and in colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in
morals and in intellect.' 6
But this 'perfected' colonial subjectivity is inherently destabilising of
those very hierarchised binaries upon which the ideology of empire and
colonial governance rests, since paradoxically such ' ideal ' subjects
necessarily annihilate those very divisions by which their subjectivity is
constituted. Moses' taste(s), opinions, morals, intellect, (and, one might
add, affiliations and loyalties) are, he believes, white and English. But
Afro-Trinidadian in 'blood and colour' Moses' Anglo-affiliative speech
and behaviour occasionally produces a degree of self-mockery and
constantly attracts the derision of others - West Indians and Britons
alike. It is not only through Moses' split colonial subjectivity however
that Selvon interrogates stereotypes and their binary bases. In both
Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating comedy, irony and subversion are
enacted through a series of narrative inversions, intertextural and
historical ironies, which unsettle stereotypical figurations and the
hierarchies which provide their foundation. Characteristically however,
these inversions are never fixed or completed but produce further
inversions and upsets which energise more vortices of spiralling
In Moses Ascending the black poverty-stricken foreign 'migrant' (who is
not quite 'foreign' and has come 'home' to the motherland; and is thus
not really a 'migrant ' either) becomes landlord and resident, owner of a
'great house' in London, renting rooms to other Commonwealth
'migrants' . Man Friday thus becomes Crusoe, inverting those
paradigmatic stereotypes which were reflected in and widely dissem
inated through Defoe's influential1719 work. Landlord Moses takes on,
as helperI servant, the illiterate English Bob from the 'Black Country' of
the white heartland (the Midlands) of England. (And Moses resolves,
like Crusoe, 'to teach' Bob The Bible when he 'have the time'). Inversions
of the roles of master and servant; white and black; coloniser and
colonised here serve to denaturalise the stereotypes and their hierarchi
sation; to expose their constructedness, their interested representational
But these 'inversions' are neither neat nor completed, both because of
Moses' 'split' colonial subjectivity and because he is still in so many
ways a relatively powerless black immigrant in a white country. Moses'
'house' is already condemned when he buys it. In Moses Ascending he
thus inhabits the positions of both owner and tenant; master and
servant; coloniser and colonised; black and white. At the end, in spite
of his retention of the ownership of the house, he has been (re)relegated
to the basement by a now literate Bob, in possession of the 'tools ' of
representation, having, ironically, been taught these by Moses.
Such an interplay of ironic reversals produces wonderful comic effects
and serves to erode the binarist foundations of the stereotype itself,
without surrendering the novel's political purchase. (To suggest that in
a post-imperial metropolitan context, the West Indian had become
'landlord' would be (if salutary) idealist and politically irresponsible).
Moses is thus never really accorded status as resident and landlord in
English 'society'. Though he is (as an obedient 'white') opposed to the
black power ideology of Brenda and Galahad, he is the 'test ' arrested at
the rally and though Moses has to teach Bob his own language, once he
does so, Bob regains control and, Caliban/Friday-like, Moses is exiled to
his own basement. He still owns his (slum) property in the metropolis,
but it is really Bob in the penthouse who has the upper hand. Using the
stereotype of the 'English gentleman ' - a figure to which Moses aspires
and to which he is certainly closer than Bob - Bob is able to appeal to
'English ' morals in punishing Moses for his sexual exploits with
Jeannie. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, the working class Bob,
always eager to have sex with any female and constantly harrassing
(black) Brenda, invokes a useful English 'stereotype' (to which he
assumes himself entitled by 'race and birth' but which the novel
challenges) to send a chastened Moses (more sensitive to the mythology
of the English gentlemanly code) back to the basement.
But in Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating Selvon also targets that
particular form of language associated with the stereotype - the cliche. In
the contemporary world cliches, perhaps more than any other
figurations, perpetuate the stereotype through the ways in which they
have been naturalised, 'unconsciously' absorbed into everyday speech.
Selvon takes up the cliches, repeating, recycling and subversively
rewriting it with spectacular comic effect: 'It does seem to a black man
that though he is as pure and white as the driven snow ... it got
something, somewhere, sometime, what he do wrong, and that even if it
don't exist, the police would invent one to trap him'.7 The persistent
repetition (with significant variation) of cliches about both blacks and
whites, as well as their interrogation and dismantling through action
and dialogue in the novel is again both delightfully comic and radically
In Moses Migrating, fed up with his basement accommodation and his
'apple cart' (the complicated metaphoric connections between economic
status in Trinidad and London, apples, serpents, and 'having your apple
cart upset' are significant) Moses decides to return to Trinidad for an
initially unspecified period. Once again Selvon is primarily concerned
with the continuing power of stereotype and cliche and with
destabilising their binaristic bases. His technique is again broadly one of
comic/ ironic spiralling inversions enacted through episodes of role
reversal and cross-dressing, though, as in Moses Ascending, such
inversiOns are always qualified, always unstable. Moses is again figured
as the deeply interpellated colonial subject who (usually in spite of
himself) occupies both binaristic stereotypes, and so too (in a minor key)
does his English foil, Bob. While Moses is (provisionally) elevated to the
status of gentleman, master and Briton, English Bob is frequently
represented in the stereotypical roles of servant, dupe, 'savage', ill
educated bore. (In both Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating Selvon
unpicks the 'seamless' stereotype of the white colonising Briton through
his representation of Bob and Jeannie; through Moses' experience and
knowledge of British class and regional divisions; and through contrasts
between the language of 'high' English culture and literature and
contemporary vulgar London speech). But in spite of his experience of
Bob and his detailed knowledge of the metropolis, Moses of Moses
Migrating still clings determinedly to the imperial stereotype, to the era
when Britannia 'ruled the waves' and her civilising missionaries could
never have succumbed to sea-sickness.
Where Moses Ascending focussed on the master-slave relation (and the
'mastertext' of Robirzson Crusoe), Moses Migrating uses the topoi of
movement and migration to unsettle colonialist stereotypes which are
based on inflexible oppositions between race purity, ancestral lineage
and the 'mongrel'; 'native' and 'foreign'; 'home' and 'abroad'; tourist and
resident. It also addresses (both implicitly and explicitly) the
relationship between economics and empire, culture and migration and
persisting econo-cultural cliches: 'Coin of the realm'; 'two sides of the
com'; 'streets paved with gold'; and the myth of El Dorado and the
economic disillusionment of West Indian workers in London.
Two primary motivations energised the massive colonialist migrations
of the last four centuries. Voyages of Europeans to the Caribbean were
generally motivated by the promise of economic gain and mass
migrations to Europe by the colonised (and formerly colonised) in the
twentieth century were similarly sponsored by a hope of economic
improvement. Both 'migrations ' were underpinned by two powerful
myths - the myth of El Dorado and the imperial myth of the metropolis
where streets would be 'paved with gold'.
But a second imperial mythology underlay colonial migrations to
Britain - the myth of the 'mother' country with all its implications of
welcome and affiliation which had been sponsored by the nineteenth
and twentieth century rhetoric of empire (mothers and children, Sisters
and brothers) and deliberately fostered, in the twentieth century, in
educational curricula. The rhetoric of 'the family' and the 'mother
country' denied those racial differences upon which the ideology of
empire itself rested. As the colonial 'chickens' came home to roost 8 in
the imperium, however, their experience was, well, a horse of a different
colour. Whiteness, Englishness, biological ancestry were what really
mattered. The would-be children were received as unwelcome and
uncivilised rough colonials; foreigners, not residents.
Yet these (re)turning colonials were both 'children' of the Empire and
foreigners within it; closely related and no relation at all; black and
white, their parentage both genetic (biological) and Anglo-representa
tional. As Moses tells us:
Up to this moment I have never told a soul the truth about my past, that I was
born a norphan, and left to my own devices to face the wicked world, deposited
on the doorsteps of a distant cousin in an old wicker basket, and nearly get tote
away by the dustman and dump in the labasse. It was childless Tanty Flora ... who
took me under her wing and gave me the name Moses ... •
Moses' biological ancestry may thus be rather obscure, but his cultural
and representational ancestry is here exposed as a direct European
lineage through fairy tales and nineteenth century accounts of infants
abandoned on 'the doorstep' in wicker baskets(!) to the Biblical Moses in
the bullrushes. Moses Migrating thus examines questions of biological
and cultural allegiances; migration and ancestral origins, concepts of
'blood' and 'home'; exploration, and its contemporary manifestation,
tourism, and the foreigner and 'native'.
At the beginning of Moses Migrating Moses has decided to return to
Trinidad, and Bob and Jeannie resolve to accompany him as tourists. To
prepare for this journey into the 'wilds' with their 'native informant'
Moses, they purchase what they regard as appropriate clothing. Dressed
as the stereotypes of the European explorer 'on safari'; they appear before
Moses as representations of representations. Asked to inspect and
approve these outfits, ('I don't want to go around looking like a proper
Charlie,' Bob says ), Moses acts like a colonel reviewing the troops. The
passage is a lengthy one, but it illustrates the intricate ironic interplay of
Selvon's re-citation/re-sitation of colonialist cliches and stereotypes and
their radical destabilisation:
Jeannie had on leather boots corning up to her knees, a thick furry-looking midi
skirt belted at the waist, a white cotton shirt, a colourful bandanna round she
neck, and one of them cork hats like what you see film stars wear on safari. The
hat was trim with mosquito-netting material, like what demure brides wear.
Bob, standing at her side, had on heavy, black boots, white stockings up to his
hairy calves, a short pair of khaki drill trousers, a safari jacket with a pipe sticking
out of the top pocket, a cork hat like Jeannie but without the veil, and he was
sloping arms with a great elephant gun.
Oh, and both of them were wearing giant sunglasses, so big almost covering their
1 did not laugh. I looked them over appraisingly. I went and do a parade
inspection, straightening Bob's hat, patting and turning down the flap of the
pocket over Jeannie's left breast, then I stood in front of them, frowning a little.
'Well?' Bob say.
'Assume those are your costumes for playing Carnival?' I ask.
Bob frown now. 'It's our tropical gear.'
'It might do for Port-of-Spain,' I say, 'but when you get into the interior the natives
will laugh at you. You'll have to discard all that.'
'You mean walk around starkers?' Jeannie ask interestingly.
'1 won't have that,' Bob say. 'It's okay for Moses if he wants to revert, but we have
to toe the line somewhere.' '0
Ironic treatment of the notion of reversion ('going native'), categories of
explorer and indigene, resident and tourist, black and white are here
subjected to ironic inversion and dissolution. (Bob, meaning that (as
representative white) he will have to maintain imperial 'standards',
remarks that 'we have to toe the line somewhere ' when of course he
means 'draw the line'). And there is the further irony that Moses, not Bob
and Jeannie (who are going as tourists, purely for pleasure), is the one
with the 'civilising mission' - to set an 'example' to his countrymen and
to reassure them that in spite of the decline in the value of the English
pound, Britannia still 'rule the waves'.
If Moses begins the voyage - a kind of backwards sailing of the middle
passage - in a third class cabin with Bob and Jeannie in first class, he
nevertheless 'migrates' (on the advent of Bob's mal de mer) to the floor of
the upper class cabin (with Jeannie). Allowed into this section at her
behest, then taking Bob's place in 'entertaining' her and indeed wearing
Bob's clothes, he is consequently annoyed to find that Bob and Jeannie
have cast him as their servant. Once again, Moses is represented by
Selvon as protean, unwittingly resisting in his movements and
manoeuvres during the voyage, the stereotypes which pervade the
language and which still remain fundamental to the thinking of the
English and West Indian passengers and to Moses himself.
As both returning 'native' and civilising explorer, Moses, on arrival in
his Trinidadian 'homeland' does not rush off to Tanty Flora's house but
stays at the Hilton with Bob and Jeannie, once again inhabiting both the
roles of tourist and son of the soil. Moses' identification with such
ostensibly antagonistic stereotypes and his comic vacillations between
them is further emphasised by his discovery that the orange seller he can
see from his Hilton window is not the 'picturesque' market woman
beloved of the tourist, but Tanty Flora (to whom, as a foundling, he is
both related and not related). Moses rushes across the road to a not-so
touching scene of reconciliation, when Tanty angrily rejects his generous
offer to buy all her oranges with his English pounds. Moses is keen to
represent this scene to himself however, as such scenes should be
represented: 'Laugh if you want. I don't care. That's the way it happen.
I may be hard-boiled and black, but tender is the night, and I am not
abashed to confess that poignant moment in the sunlight' (p.64).
In ironic contrast to Moses' lack of interest in 'roots', white 'imperialist'
/tourist Bob has a personal mission in Trinidad: to trace his ancestry,
since he has heard of possible white planter connections. When, in
following this biological trail Bob discovers a (black) skeleton in his
(English) closet, binarist concepts of race, ancestry, civilised/savage,
home and foreign are inverted and thus destabilised and displaced.
Moreover, Bob's deep investment in a biological ancestry is rendered
almost comically simplistic in the context of the complications of the
cultural/ representational/biological 'ancestry' of an interpellated
colonial subject like Moses. Blood and colour are demonstrated by the
novel to be a very small factor in any consideration of self-identity, and
Moses rightly dismisses Bob's 'revelation' as the minor matter it clearly
is. But in its comedic destabilisation of colonialist stereotypes relative to
race-purity, 'motherland', migrancy, exploration and travel, Moses
Migrating attests to the continuing power of these 'stereotropes ' at the
same time as it critiques the simplicity of binarist categorisations in
comparison with the complex linguistic and cultural 'ties that bind' the
It is through Moses' carnival costume that Selvon brings together his
critique of colonialist stereotropes. Initially Moses does not intend to
play mas, but having considered the available avenues for prosecuting
his 'civilising mission' he reasons that a carnival costume
demonstrating his unshakeable faith that the 'coin of the (English) realm
'is still the 'real McCoy ' is the most fruitful course to pursue.
The representation of Britannia (or the King's or Queen's head) on
coins offers an example of a near literal stereotype - one that is also
iconic of empire and foreign rule as it operates as everyday 'exchange ' in
the lives of colonial subjects. In George Lamming's In the Castle of My
Skin school children discuss at length the 'technology' by which the
King's head is 'impressed' on a coin, inquiring into the processes and
power by which the icon is 'fixed' and endlessly circulated as currency.
In Moses' decision to dress not just as Britannia but as the representation
of Britannia on the English penny Selvon not only demonstrates the
historical connection between money and colonialism (and mocks
Moses' contemporary civilising mission to support the English pound)
but does so in the form of an almost literal stereotype that symbolises
basic modes of exchange in a colonial context, one with its foundations
in slavery where Africans were literally European exchange / coin.
Moreover English Britannia - female symbol of (white) British power
is here represented by a black male Moses.
But Moses is persuaded by Tanty and Doris to involve Jeannie as a
white hand-maiden and Bob as the 'slave' who will pull Britannia's
chariot. He rationalises these additions as suitable support for the
English symbol, but the Carnival judges and audience, far from
apprehending the pageant as pro-British and currency supporting, read
his representation subversively - as a counter-colonial inversion of the
historical hierarchy. His costume also carries a reminder of the ironies of
British educational practice where West Indian children were obliged to
learn by heart and sing on school parade grounds the anthem 'Rule
Britannia, Britannia rule the waves/Britons never never shall be slaves.'
Moses' 'obedient' gesture is thus interpreted by his Trinidadian audience
as deeply disobedient, and he wins the prize.
But there is a further twist to Moses ' Carnival costume and
performance. In his masquerade of Britannia, Moses literally represents
both sides of the coin (significantly he has to have white English Bob
pull his chariot round to demonstrate this to the judges) and in so far as
he thus renders a static image (a stereotype) mobile, and provokes the
opposite interpretation from that which he intended, his performance is
metonymic of Selvon's mobilisation and destabilisation of stereotypes
and stereotropes in Moses Migrating . Through his novels, Selvon puts
both sides of the coin back together, as it were, and sets it spinning.
But it is not just the stereotropes of empire and their colonial and post
colonial repetitions of which Selvon is critical. In Moses Migrating be
also interrogates counter-colonial strategies which invoke racial,
national, or 'nativist' essentialisms - strategies still rooted in the same
binary codifications and thus dealing in (neo) stereotypical figurations.
So Moses resists the trajectory that seems to be leading him 'home' to
(little) Doris, the trajectory of an essentialist return to 'roots', in favour of
an ambivalent return, as a 'norphan', to his 'other' 'London' home.
There, brandishing his 'holy grail' (the Carnival trophy) as proof of his
loyalty to the realm (though it was awarded for his subverting of the
historical paradigm) Moses as both traveller and resident, returning
child and foreign migrant, waits as the English entry officer goes off to
check his passport.
The eponymous hero of Sam Selvon's Moses Ascending (1975), an east
Indian from Trinidad, buys a tenement house in Shepherd's Bush, West
London. He also acquires Bob, a white Man Friday 'from somewhere in
the Midlands, a willing worker, eager to learn the ways of the Black
Man'. Moses tries unsuccessfully to convert Bob from the evils of alcohol.
'I decided to teach him the Bible when I could make the time.' The
account of Moses's trials with Bob typifies Selvon's writings, witty,
pointed and good-humoured, giving a Caribbean twist to a familiar
Selvon was born in 1923 in South Trinidad, and educated in the semi
rural town of San Fernando. His father, a dry-goods merchant, was a
first-generation East Indian immigrant to Trinidad, and his mother was
Anglo-Scottish. His education ended with high school - his parents
could not afford more - and he showed no ambition to take up a life in
one of the professions. It was during long hours as a wireless operator in
the Royal Navy in the Second World War that he turned seriously to
writing. When demobbed, he became sub-editor of the Trinidad Guardian
Weekly, one of the few writing outlets on the island.
The post-war years were a time of extraordinary literary activity in the
Caribbean, with many who would later gain international reputations
exploring their talents. These included George Lamming, Derek Walcott,
Kamau (then Edward) Brathwaite. Wilson Harris and V. S. Naipual.
Selvon's editorial work helped put him in touch with some of this
activity, and his short stories began to appear in Bim, a seminal West
Indian 'little magazine' and on the BBC.
In 1950 Selvon was one of the wave of Caribbean immigrants coming
to England in search of fame and 'streets paved with gold'. He found
neither, and there followed a hungry period, living in an immigrant
hostel, then in a basement flat in Notting Hill, West London. This was to
prove a formative period, turning a writer with yearnings to write
romantic accounts of Trinidad (an early influence was Richard Jeffreys),
into a sharp observer of the vagaries of immigrant life. In 1952 he
published A Brighter Sun, and excellent reviews encouraged him to
become a full-time writer.
A Brighter Sun is set in Trinidad, and he continued to write well about
his home island. But he will be remembered first as the chronicler of
black immigrant city life, the subject of The Lonely Londoners (1956), its
sequels, Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983), and a range
of brilliant short stories. The best known of these is perhaps 'Brackley
and the Bed', a tale which often featured in his public readings. Brackley,
an easy-going Tobagan, is pursued to England by the teriffying Teena,
who sets about reforming him and his tiny bed-sitting room. Teena takes
over Brackley's bed and, reduced to a blanket on the floor, he is driven in
desperation for sleep to marry Teena. But after the marriage ceremony
Teena breaks into Brackley's fantasies of slumber by announcing she has
now invited 'Auntie' to England to live with them. And 'she can sleep
with me until we find another place'.
The story can be read at many levels, from the undermining of the
sexual stereotypes of the West Indian male, to a parable about the
immigrant's lack of roots. But the story's genius lies in its wit, its brilliant
timing, and Selvon's miraculous transcription of the Caribbean idiom
into written English. He starts not from formal European models, but
from the strategies of the Caribbean calypso, the tall story told in rum
shop or on the verandah, and what Selvon himself calls the 'ballad'. His
anecdotal style is Trinidadian, yet it remains accessible to readers across
the varying creoles of the Caribbean, and, equally, to non-West-Indians.
Selvon's humour at first worked against his critical reputation.
Although one of the most widely read and anthologised writers of the
Anglophone Caribbean, he was sometimes dismissed as a lightweight
entertainer. Yet The Lonely Londoners (1956) was a pioneer in its use
throughout of Caribbean creole, and his success in using the idiom
stimulated the linguistic liberation of Caribbean and other non-British
writing from the bonds of 'standard English'. His importance has been
increasingly recognised. With Horace Ove he wrote the script for the first
British West Indian film, Pressure (1975). Despite moving to Calgary,
Alberta, in 1978, he received numerous literary honours and awards,
including doctorates from the universities of the West Indies and Sussex.
He was much sought after on the international conference and lecture
There was an element of Selvon himself in the Moses of his London
books, wandering with the immigrant tribes in the wilderness of
Bayswater and Marble Arch. Yet there is also an element of self-parody.
Selvon was the most gentle, self effacing of men, hardly a Moses. The
pressures of late success would have been hard to cope with, had he not
been protected by many friends world-wide. To the end he remained
extraordinarily unaffacted by fame, a warm and sensitive personality
whose art and persona formed a seamless whole. It is fitting that, after a
life of exile, he should have come home in the end to Trinidad.
(for Michael, Leslie and Debbie)
This story is based upon the last weeks in the life of Sam
Selvon who died in a hospital in Trinidad.
The Korean woman what tell Jerry to bring some Frank Sinatra records
for me (I don't know what kiskadee tell she I even listen to Frank Sinatra
record), that same bitch pushing her mouth against my ears as if is a
trumpet, getting on just like that writer feller what look at a big man like
me and tell me he love me.
She come to announce that they carrying me to Canada in a special
plane: 'Saam, Saam darling, I know you're hearing me, Saam, I have
something to tell you but you mustn't get angry you hearing me? I want
you to be a good boy?'
What the ass is this? Who have more causes to be obedient more than
me? Who could want this sickness to pass more than me?
Aftenvards, the boy in whose veins the poem sang left his companions sitting
on the steps of the railway station and wandered off for more poetry, discovering
it in the sleeping village and the flower-strewn lane by the cemetery, and in the
flowers which appeared to explode into efflorescence. A clear stream ran through
the village. Engraved on a clock high on the steeple of an old churdz were the
words. 'Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.'
It surprise everybody how meek I get in the hospital. I abide by all the
rules, and I follow every instruction. Keep my mouth quiet when I know
the care is not intensive care. Kick up no fuss when a female patient
whose head can't be right, leave her own bed and come to lay down in
mine, and nearly tangle on all them wires and hoses that tying me
down. Make no complaint when a nurse get confuse and try to give me a
tablet and I know, from the colour, that is a tablet the doctor who come
this morning decide he not giving me again.
It have no dignity in it this helplessness. I keep still while they do all
the shit that they have to do for me. I don't flinch when they invent some
new procedure, some new pain that they have to inflict. I make no
complaints. Sometimes I think I will go mad on this hopeless, heartless
mount, but I refuse. If it is time they want to clear up what has to clear
up, is all right, I am fighting. I am giving them time.
Blinding shocking sensntzons crossed crisscross in his brain as the little men
began their macabre work. He longed for death as the blunt pegs thudded
against and split open the skin of his forehead, then met unresisting bone.
Armies marched in his brain, all the drums in the world boomed, cymbal
clashed, the Kalteur Falls roared. And yet, with a grimness impossible to
conceive he clung tenaciously to reason, preferring to die than be driven into the
looming limbo of the ring of deep purple, and everytime he thought that lze
could bear it no more, some itch of life stirred and came forward.
Haul all you ass, little men.
The first time the hospital send me horne was a happy time. I remind
the short bitch how he make me go outside in the Colgate snow
everytime I want to light up and smoke. Then I tell him not to worry it
wouldn't happen again, I finish with that, boy. If they are looking for a
famous face to advertise how smoking is bad, and how liquor will lick
you up before your time, they don't have to look far, they could come and
take out my photo any day.
Three times they let me out, and is three times I had was to go back.
The Black Englishwoman tell Junior they didn't really have to admit me
again, but they like to be absolutely sure.
When they let me go for the third time, they still telling me I can't leave
right away. They playing up in they ass. I didn't want to wait to ten days
again just for them to make sure I could go by myself. But seven days
pass and I am feeling so nice, I start to believe I will travel on Sunday for
sure. I drink a cold Carib because the doctors say one drink a day is good
medicine for the heart. I almost feel I could take a smoke. The temptation
strong. But not me, boy. A year or two from now when I forget the terror I
pass through. I have a feeling the battle will be hard. But not now. Not so
But Friday morning it is fever and pain, and when Junior come for us
to drink some coffee before the Test match start, I don't have the pride to
put on appearance to fool no man. I have to hold on to the walking stick
with two hands, bend my head over; and let my belly squeeze in order to
breathe. The Black English doctor ask me some fucking questions she
shouldn't be asking a man of my age, and shouldn't be asking after I in
the hospital so long. I am glad Junior didn't hear because he would have
make some joke about how I am just like Syl and I can't even recognise a
drawing of the thing, and how it is so long since I bounce up one he
could bet I wouldn't know the difference between a picture of it and a dry
I feel as if I am dying this time. As if something clog and the air reach a
wall at the top of my nose, and when I pull with my mouth, air jamming
again at the back of my throat. I can't believe it. These mother asses don't
know what is wrong with me. They are putting me under observation
which mean I have to lie down, and they are going to wait and see.
For three days nobody observe that I am fighting for air. On Sunday I
prop up in the bed struggling as usual to breathe, and the nurse get up
and leave saying your friend come. The next thing I know is like Junior
gone crazy in the place. I hear him telling somebody he don't care one
fuck, he is a fucking doctor too, and he know that fucking man stifling,
and they better find some way of giving him some fucking oxygen before
he dead. The fucking man he talking about is me. If I wasn't frighten
before, I frighten no arse now.
By Sunday night they have me on something called a life-support
system. They tell everybody they ventilating me. Ventilating. After weeks
and weeks of 'Nothing ain't wrong is only the medication to adjust', they
change they mind and decide the problem is the lungs. The Black
woman with the English accent say in she funny voice that the lungs full
of Gunk. If is scrabble she playing, I could think of plenty other four
Weeks now of the needle's prick, of black and blue and red, of the flesh
bruised and dug up and plastered over, of tubes in my mouth, in my
nose, in my throat, and in openings drilled in chest, in neck, in arm, in
leg. I studying how I am paying all this money and they are tearing me
up, and just so I start to remember the song they teach you to sing when
you small and stupid in school. Je te plumerai Ia tete. Et le nez. Et le dos. Oh
Oh. They suctioning through my mouth, they suctioning through my
nose, and the same Korean woman wants to make a by-pass and suction
through an opening she will cut in my chest.
Every day is a different doctor, everyday is a different story. Each new
doctor have his favourite medicine he itching to try. You remember 'goes
in goes out' where who get the ball, bowl and whoever knock down the
wicket, bat? It is goes in goes out they playing on my head, and every
man Ambrose pelting ball at my arse. If things wasn't so serious in truth,
I could raise a laugh and make a ballad out of these hospital blues.
I am a man of words and I could tell you, the metaphors and similies
these doctors using would put Lamming and Naipaul to shame. Some of
them playing police and thief, some of them fighting guerrilla war. Hear
them. They can't make a positive i.d. but they have some clues. They
eliminate some suspects, and they closing in on the elusive bacteria.
Getting on as if they want to hold press conference to announce they
have a strong lead, but time after time, the lead led to nothing in the end.
The pot-belly man say he can't be sure if the one they pin-point is the
culprit for true, or just an innocent bystander. Assness.
I should be glad they put me in a coma to keep me alive, but this is not
the way I want to live. Day in day out, I can't talk, I can't eat, I can't
drink, I can't pee, I can't shit. Most of the time, the shapes and colours
that cross my eyes are shadows I can't name. If I imagine hard, some of
the sounds I hear turn into words. I know in my heart of hearts that I am
going. The day Jerry and Junior look at me and say I had lovely skin and
now they looking at dead man's flesh, water tried to come to my eyes: I
am angry that it is ending like this, but I try to tell myself there is always
an ending. I have always known.
There is a joy in living because you know you are going to die, and nothing can affect that one way or another. But what I am deeply afraid of is that when the final call comes, I may break down and become a jibbering piece of frightened humanity.
But when the bodi vine finish bearing aint it does dead? Everything
does dead when it finish the work it have to do. Still for all that I am glad
this dying is slow. Have I finished my work? This absorbing silence is an
infinite space, and I have drifted in it towards truths that give fight to
words. The work I have done. The work I did not do.
There is greatness in the written word, and when men die what they have said will live and sing for other hearts.
Aspirations of the artist as a young man. Sunlight. Thunder. Islands.
Worlds. Pinpricks on an unmarked sky. Little drops of water. Little lights.
I lie and think of those I love and those who love me, I have never been
this close to the woman since those windy days, and I cannot even raise
a finger to let her know.
My girl, she is beautiful to look at. I have seen her in sunlight and in moonlight, and her face carves an exquisite shape in darkness. These things we talk, I burst out, why musn't I say them? If I love you, why shouldn't I tell you so? I love London she said.
All the words I have gathered to say to her at last. I had gathered many
times before, and always when I reached to the edge of utterance,
something would happen to make me hold back, as if saying the truth
would be too complete a surrender, as if I must wait and let her be the
one to break the silence, as if the heart that sang in the darkness of the
lonely city could not free itself from its own choking. 'What's the Use', as
if love's innocent life-line snaps as soon as it starts to find out about life.
I have not said it, but she knows it now.
Eh, eh. All of a sudden the great hospital changing their tune. The long
'Jete plumerai' is over. They have plumerai'd me into silence, immobility
and the odour of death. They have done all they can. They cannot find the
bacteria. If I improve, it will not be because of anything they do. The best course
now is to send me abroad. It might be a virus and the colder countries have more
experience with viruses.
I smile to myself, and Junior is looking at me as if he is expecting me to
say 'What fuckery' . I do not know what a nancy story they spin for the
insurance company to spend all that money and send flying ambulance
My wife, she loves me, and she wants me to come home. Oh, but when
I think. Still, if this journey and this peace between the woman and me
can bring some healing, and make me at last the father and family man I
have been in my secret heart, my spirit shall return to day and life like a
My private jet is waiting. But I know what the native legend says.
Whether I go or whether I stay is not for me to decide. I don't know what
will happen when they move me from this bed. I don't know what will
happen on the road to the airport. I can't tell what will happen when
they try to load me onto the aeroplane.
The land knows, I have always trusted the land. Whatever it decides
will bring me peace.
Leaving the island this time; there was a great deal of anguish because so
much had been left unsaid and undone...let cockcrow and early bird whistle make
the decision for me: let the green mountain spin a coin in the first rays of the sun,
and when it was light enough I'd enlist the crystals of dew and the gossamer
strands that spiders had miraculously spun in space, and pass the buck to them
I have always loved the land (even more than the people) and it was not too much to ask. Whatever the land gave I took without question, and it had sent me away and it had brought me back, and it had a certain responsibility which it respected.
Your Island, Your World
(In memory Sam Selvon)
With that loping stoop
you bore down on me like
an eagle (as I imagined one)
and asked me to write
someting for the Sunday
Guardian magazine you
put out. Me, who thought
writers lived on Pamassus
(a mountain I'd heard of).
But youth is impetuous.
I went home and scribbled
an implausible story that
you printed. (I still have
the page I clipped out.)
And some nights I walked
the two blocks between
our homes and tried
to tap inside your words
the vein feeding your pulse.
You seemed to a blind
fumbler a mystic of sorts,
one mad enough to think
about leaving the island
to write. Openmouthed
I watched you depart.
Then you took the small
language used by the island
for picong and calypsoes
and stretched its vowels
across the mouth of the world.
Placed us, as raw as uncured
rum, with every sweet nuance
we used for survival, in pubs
and underground stations
of London. Took Brackley
and Moses out of Rose Hill
and gave them a stature
Micawber once had
in the classrooms that
censored the tongue
our thoughts found ease in.
Yet at home some giggled,
still ashamed. Wondered
how Englishmen took it,
your bold spuming of what
the schools still frowned at.
You were half-disowned.
Then, as usual, when foreign
approval tendered your fame,
when laughter they heard
came from white far-away
continents it was OK
to lay claim to your name.
That time in Croydon
we spoke long about ways
sunlight shone in your pages.
The bitter cane had already given
its liquor to all lonely
Londoners, squeezed from
the Caroni plains, and
girls in that city wanted
to clip like Delilah
your fast-greying mane.
But you had eaten the
so again and again you
returned to the thunder
you heard in your heart,
needing the heckles of
Gallows, of Bat.
Rest now. Your pen has done all of its work. Tiger lives, Urmilla stoops at a standpipe washing away
the last traces of race
you sent to her to get rid of.
Sir Galahad has touched
your shoulder with time's
I never delivered the tales
of the place you expected,
save a few. See my wreath
like an 0 in my sorrow.
But then I knew every
square mile gave you its
story, each dustpile its gold.
All of it was your island,
all of it your world.
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
AUSTIN CLARKE grew up in Barbados and has published several novels about
immigrant life in Canada where he now lives.
REED DASENBROCK recently edited a collection of interviews with post-coloma!
DAVID DABYDEEN is a novelist and poet. He teaches at the University of Warwick.
CECfL GRAY is a poet based in Trinidad.
WILSON HARRIS is a well-known Guyanese writer and critic who now lives and
works in London.
JESSICA HUNTLEY is one of the founders of Bogle L'Ouverture publishers.
LOUIS JAMES teaches English at the University of Kent.
FEROZA JUSSAWALLA recently edited a collection of interviews with post-colonial
!SMITH KHAN is an East Indian novelist from Trinidad, who grew up with Sam
Selvon. He now Jives in New York.
SUSHEILA NASTA is editor of Wasafiri and teaches at the University of London,
Queen Mary & Westfield College. She is author of Critical Perspectives em Sam Selvcm.
GRACE ECHE OKEREKE teaches at the University of Calabar, Nigeria.
KEN RAMCHAND teaches at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. He is
working on a biography of Sam Selvon and edited Foreday Morning : Selected Prose
(1946-88) by Sam Selvon.
VICTOR RAMRAJ teaches at the University of Calgary and is editor of Ariel.
ROYDON SAUCK teaches at the University of the West Indies. He is writing a book
on Sam Selvon.
HENRY SWANZY was one of the early producers of Caribbean Voices, the programme
which did so much to support writers such as V S Naipaul, Sam Selvon, Andrew
Salkey, George Lamming and many others in the 1950s.
HELEN TIFFIN teaches at the University of Queensland. She has written widely in the
area of post-colonial literature, and has co-edited The Empire Writes Back and
ANNA RUTHERFORD teaches at the University of Aarhus. She is editor of Kunapipi
and director of Dangaroo Press.
ANNE WALMSLEY is a freelance writer, critic and editor.
This issue of Kunapipi, co-edited by Susheila Nasta andAnna Rutherford,
is a special issue dedicated to Sam Selvon, the dis~ed '&inii;ladian
writer, who died in April1994. Included in this tribute are essays, articles
and memoirs from writers, critics and contemporaries,~e a selection
of extracts from Sam Selvon's work, which spans his :writing career. The
pieces have been organised to reflect the many dim~ ofboth the man
and his work. This issue celebrates Sam Selvon's a~t
Austin Clarke, David Dabydeen, Reed Dasenb~ Cecil Gra~ Wilson
Harris, Jessica Huntley, Louis James, Feroza Jussawalbl, Ismith Khan,
Susheila Nasta, Grace Eche Okereke, Ken .Ramcl\and, VICtor Ramra~
Roydon Salick, Sam Selvon, Henry Swanzy, Helen 1\ffin, Anna Rutherford
and Anne Walmsley.
'Olmec Maya-The Keeper of the Temple' by Aub~ W'tlHiams, 1984
1. Peter Nazareth , ' Interview with Sam Selvon' , World Literature Written in English 18 , 2 ( 1979 )), pp. 423 - 424 .
2. See for example Kenneth Ramchand, 'Song of Innocence, Song of Experience: Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners as a Literary Work' , World Literature Writ fell in English , 21 , 3 ( 1982 ) pp. 644 - 654 .
3. See for example Edward Baugh, 'Friday in Crusoe City: The Question of Language in Two West Indian Novels of Exile' , (ACLALS Bulletin, 5th Series , 3 1980 ) pp1 - 12 . and Helen Tiffin, ' Post Colonial Literatures and CounterDiscourse', ( Kunapipi 9 , 3 1987 ) pp. l7 - 39 .
4. An exception to this is Jeremy Poynting's perspective article 'Samuel Selvon , Moses Migrating' in Susheila Nasta ed. Critical Perspectives 011 Sam Selvo11 (Washington: Three Continents, 1988 ), pp. 260 - 265 .
5. Homi Bhabha , The Locatio11 of Culture (London: Routledge , 1994 ), p. 67 .
6. Thomas B. Macaulay , ' Minute on Indian Education' in Speeches of Lord Macauley with his Minute 011 Indian Education ed . G.M. Young (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1935 ).
7. Samuel Selvon , Moses Ascending (London: Davis-Poynter.) , p. 37 .
8. The Housing Lark ( 1965 ) offers an example of the way in which Selvon takes a cliche (chickens coming home to roost) and elaborates it, denaturalising it by giving it historical groundmg, and then placing this history in ironic or inverted relation to the present: 'By the time the coach reach Hampton Court you would think the party went out for the day and now coming home to roost in the palace (p. 112 ). The West Indians are indeed the colonial 'chickens coming home to roost', taking possession of their rightful inheritance, that which their education taught was theirs while their skins/bodies/history relegated them to the status of colonised others. The play on poultry/poetry, the echo of the English expression 'chickens coming home to roost' is elaborated over the next five pages. The West Indian visitors/owners imagine Henry Vm himself looking out the window and sizing up his chicks -his women (all envisaged as existing simultaneously) and this 'historical' imaginative flight is followed by: 'And suppose Old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarth characters walking about in his gardens!' (p. 117 - 118 ) - not his 'chicks' now, but the 'chickens come home to roost' the return of a history of exploration, genocide and exploitation that began in the Renaissance period .
9. Samuel Selvon , Moses Migrating (London: Longman , 1983 ), p. 61 .
10. Ibid ., P. lO.