Samuel Selvon

Portrait of Samuel Selvon
Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Biography

The novelist and short story writer Samuel Selvon – also known as ‘Sam’ Selvon – is best-known today as the author of The Lonely Londoners (1956). Narrated in creolized English and following a cast of Caribbean migrants striving to make their lives in London, this ground-breaking novel established Selvon as an important voice for Caribbean literature in Britain.

Early life

Selvon was born in San Fernando, Trinidad, in 1923. As an Indian Trinidadian with a maternal Scottish grandfather, Selvon grew up in a multicultural society with a mixed colonial history.

Selvon attended Naparima College in San Fernando before leaving at age 15 to work. During the Second World War he was a wireless operator with the Royal Naval Reserve, an experience which provided the backdrop for his first novel A Brighter Sun (1952).

During a slack period, Selvon started to write poetry and then in 1945 moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, where he worked for the Trinidad Guardian as a reporter and literary editor. He began writing short stories under pseudonyms such as Michael Wentworth, Esses, Ack-Ack and Big Buffer, early writing which can be found in the collection Foreday Morning (1989).

From Trinidad to London and Selvon’s first novel, A Brighter Sun

In 1950, Selvon left Trinidad for Britain, travelling by chance on the same boat as the Barbadian novelist George Lamming (and bickering with him over shared use of an old Imperial typewriter). It was on this journey that Selvon completed the first draft of A Brighter Sun, which was published soon after his arrival to international acclaim. Set in Trinidad during the Second World War, A Brighter Sun is a coming-of-age story centred on a young Indian man named Tiger, while also delving into the prejudices between Indians and Creoles on the island.

The Lonely Londoners and Selvon’s writing career

Selvon went on to become a prolific author, publishing nine more novels and a short story collection:

  • An Island is a World (1955), about two brothers leaving Trinidad for India and the United States in search of themselves;
  • The Lonely Londoners (1956), an iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain;
  • Ways of Sunlight (1957), a short story collection praised for its wit and sensitivity to life in rural Trinidad and hustling London;
  • Turn Again Tiger (1958), the sequel to A Brighter Sun, which follows Tiger on a journey to the sugar cane country of his childhood;
  • I Hear Thunder (1963), a novel about Trinidadian middle-class malaise;
  • The Housing Lark (1965), which follows the plight of Battersby, a West Indian exile in London searching for shelter;
  • The Plains of Caroni (1970), a novel arising out of an incident on a sugar cane farm where shots were fired during Selvon’s 18-month residence in Trinidad during the late 1960s;
  • Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972), set in post-independence Trinidad in which a village Obeahman foresees trouble when an Englishman comes to stay and falls in love with a local Indian woman;
  • Moses Ascending (1975), a sequel to The Lonely Londoners in which Moses Aloetta has finally saved enough money to buy a house, but the dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be;
  • Moses Migrating (1983), the final chapter in Moses’ story, in which the original Lonely Londoner re-encounters his native Trinidad.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Selvon adapted several of his novels and stories into radio scripts that were broadcast by the BBC. These are collected in Eldorado West One (1988) and Highway in the Sun (1991).

Later life and recognition

In 1978, Selvon and his family left the UK for Canada where they settled in Calgary, Alberta. During this period he took up writer-in-residence posts at the universities of the West Indies, Victoria, Winnipeg, Alberta and Calgary. Selvon lived in Canada until his death in 1994, when aged 71 he died in Trinidad on a return trip.

For his contributions to the literature of Trinidad and Tobago, Selvon was posthumously awarded the Chaconia Medal Gold for Literature in 1994 and honoured with a NALIS Lifetime Achievement Literary Award in 2012.

Further reading

Further information about the life of Samuel Selvon can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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