A Ballad for Sam

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Google celebrated Sam Selvon's 95th birthday in 2018 with an illustration by Jayesh Sivan


Last week I described the eloquence prized in T&T culture as part of an assertive black masculinity. And yet the Trini who most celebrated our loquacity was the most anti-macho storyteller possible: Samuel Selvon.

He was known for his gentleness, his legendary generosity and kindness, his reluctance to accept the chasm between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians or between different islanders. He died in the April of 1994. Today in my mind’s eye I can see him as he was in January, four months before his death.

He is only 70 but enters the room slowly. It is a small seminar at UWI. Tall and thin, he wears jeans and sandals. He has a neat beard and his ponytail is silver, yet his eyes are sad and ancient. He fidgets with the books on the table before him while novelist Earl Lovelace introduces him as “a believer in Trinidad”.

Lovelace says that Selvon’s work proclaimed and affirmed the lives and dreams of ordinary people. “I dunno what else to say,” confesses Lovelace.

“Go on, go on, it sounding good,” prompts Selvon with a forced smile. Lovelace can add little more than to say that Selvon allowed us to “thumb our noses at what is frothy and jokey in us.”

Selvon drags his chair closer to the small, encircling audience, perhaps to evoke the huddled intimacy, which must have generated the anecdotes he wrought into his vignettes of West Indians in London.

Often people who speak about Selvon refer to his humour and use of the dialect — “the frothy and jokey in us” — and see no further, because he was not a good novelist. Lovelace couldn’t, because Selvon was a different type of writer, the older, wiser species — the storyteller.

The novelist is of the modern era of complex societies and anonymous lives. He informs us strangers of the secrets of other strangers living amongst yet more strangers. What he writes is new — novel. The storyteller, on the other hand, is an ancient survivor from earlier, smaller communities, where everyone knew everyone else and secrets were few. He told of what everyone already knew about familiar people or gods or animals, but he did so more memorably. Selvon held more in common with Aesop, or his cousin, the epic poet, Homer, than with Lovelace.

Aesop, depicted as a black Ethiopian slave serving two priests, by Francis Barlow in 1667.


“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn,” wrote German essayist Walter Benjamin. “And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.”

And then, on the nature of the real story: “It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.” Hence the lessons in Aesop’s fables.

Selvon shuffles the books on the table with his long, delicate fingers and opens The Plains of the Caroni and starts to read. It is not a very good novel, but the bombast in the passage animates Selvon. He seems to be recalling an incident, not reading a book. The rhetoric causes the protagonist Balgobin to cough. Selvon coughs too, uncontrollably.

The audience titters. Selvon stops. “I suppose I have to read something from The Lonely Londoners,” he says. It was published in 1956, twelve years before The Plains of the Caroni. He attempts to talk about the language of the book, but runs out of steam: “Er… I forget what I was going to say.”

So he launches straight into one of the story’s long, lyrical, bittersweet soliloquies, which opens with an evocation of London. And Selvon in stride becomes the Storyteller. His voice shifts timbre as beneath its kif-kif laughter words change mood. The Storyteller’s solitude gradually transforms his lyrics from a kaiso to the blues:

“Every year he vowing to go back to Trinidad, but after the winter gone and birds sing and all the trees begin to put on leaves again, and flowers come and now and then the old sun shining, is as if life start all over again, as if it still have time, as if it still have another chance. I will wait until after the summer, the summer does really be hearts.”

The Lonely Londoners tells the West Indian stories of solitude and uprootedness, something we have been reliving since the Middle Passage in the sixteenth century, before anyone else except the Jews. Only in the nineteenth century did other peoples begin to move around the globe in massive numbers. Cultural critic John Berger pointed out that that widespread experience of homelessness produced the modern centrality of romantic sexual love in Western art: the longing for the fusion of two displaced, rootless individuals. Home is where the heart is.

Appropriately, Selvon concludes the session with “My Girl And The City”, one of Caribbean literature’s great love stories, a story he wrote “as if you and I were earnest friends and there is no need for preliminary remark.”

It recalls a love which blossomed between a man and a woman in London, the city which he loves but she doesn’t.

He courts her as the story is told: with urgent words, talking incessantly, desperately, about the two of them, about what they do in the city, about life, about walking through the rain and getting lost, about buying a sandwich for her in a pub or waiting for a train.

“Fidgeting in that line of impatient humanity I got in precious words edgeways, and a train would rumble and drown my words in thundering steel. Still, it was important to talk. In the crowded bus, as if I wooed three or four instead of one, I shot words over my shoulder, across seats; once past a bespectacled man reading the Evening News who lowered his paper and eyed me that I was mad. My words bumped against people’s faces, on the glass window of the bus; they found passage between ‘fares please’ and once I got to writing things on a piece of paper and pushing my hand over two seats.”

You can hardly think of a major West Indian writer who hasn’t testified as to the impossibility of love in these cynical ex-slave, ex-colonial societies, with their neuroses of ethnicity and class and skin colour. It’s not Jamaican Roger Mais, nor Dominican Jean Rhys, nor Trinidadians Errol John or VS Naipaul. In Selvon’s Trinidad the primary oral art form, kaiso, celebrates desire but laughs at love’s folly.

Then you realize the storyteller’s naivete is really the radical innocence demanded by love, and the stream of anecdotes he spins are really the threads which bind communities together more firmly than kings or anthems and flags, and which have always secured women’s hearts firmly to men’s.

“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,” says Selvon. “These things we talk... why mustn’t I say them? If I love you, why shouldn’t I tell you so?

“I love London," she said.

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