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The recent publication of Roydon Salick’s Sam Selvon (as part of the British Council Writers and their Work series), not only provides the first overview of Selvon’s oeuvre but also advances Selvon studies beyond previous critical preoccupations with his language and his novels.
As Prof Ken Ramchand noted in his feature address at the launch (hosted by Costaatt, where Salick is a senior lecturer in the Languages Literature and Caribbean Studies Dept), this slim volume “is the first book that attempts to cover not only the novels, but also his poems, radio drama and shorter fictions.”
While critical attention has inevitably focused on Selvon’s pioneering use of Trinidadian Creole in his 1956 novella The Lonely Londoners, which effectively introduced Caribbean vernacular to the world, Salick’s overview has a revisionist motivation.
As Ramchand highlighted: “This a book with missionary intent”—to address the neglect of Selvon’s poetry, radio drama and short fiction, which can only add to the understanding of Selvon’s versatility, range and depth, all crucial to a re-evaluation both of Selvon and his place in the Caribbean canon.
As a Selvon scholar himself, Ramchand agreed to disagree with some of Salick’s analyses of Selvon’s poems but praised his, “infectious love for the writings…the most valuable thing a critic can do for a writer and his readers.”
In the section devoted to short fiction, Ramchand was equally fulsome in his praise for the critique of Poem in London and My Girl and the City (classified by Salick as love stories but which also belong in the immigrant story category), “In the discussing two pieces of highly wrought and symbolic prose, Salick the Wordsworth scholar discusses illuminatingly the affinities between Selvon and Wordsworth.”
It is the section on the novels which carries most weight. Salick has recently revised his own 2001 critical study but while his revisions are awaited, there is already what Ramchand hails as “a valuable discussion of two middle-class novels, Island is a World (1955) and I Hear Thunder (1963). Ramchand singled out the struggles of the protagonist of An Island “to make sense of his world” as “the quintessential Selvon.”
Salick’s analysis of the “peasant novels” (The Cane Trilogy: A Brighter Sun, Turn Again Tiger, The Plains of Caroni and Those Who Eat the Cascadura) is important for current and future research into Indo-Caribbean literature, focusing on “the coming of age of the Hindu peasant.”
Salick proposes that Selvon’s peasant novels “comprise the only epic in West Indian literature of the heroic ordeal of the Indo-Trinidadian peasantry.” Ramchand noted that a bonus of this analysis was Salick’s focus on the heroines of two of the novels, which “encourages new assessment of the representation of women not only in (Selvon’s) fiction but also his poetry.”
While Selvon may have rehabilitated the Indo-Trinidadian peasant to his/her rightful place in Caribbean literature, as Mittelholzer did for the Indo-Guyanese, in no way does Salick corral him as an Indo-Creole writer. He emphasises Selvon’s ability “to write convincingly of all ethnicities, to move with ease over all the geographical regions of his island, across the whole spectrum of Trinidad English.”
Ramchand commended the book as “A worthy addition to the Writers and their Work series” and despite its necessary brevity, Salick’s overview has shifted Selvon studies beyond the narrow concerns of metropolitan academics, thereby inviting new scholarship on a major figure in Trinidadian, Caribbean and world literature.
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