Samuel Selvon was born in 1923 of East Indian parents. He was educated at Naparima College and then worked as a telegraph operator with the West Indian branch of the Royal Naval Reserve during World War II.
He worked as a journalist with the Trinidad Guardian and contributed to several magazines of prose and poetry in the Caribbean.
He went to London in 1950 and has published substantial works which have established him as a leading West Indian writer. He has received many awards for his writing, including Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 and 1968, a Travelling Scholarship from the Society of Authors in 1958, two grants from the Arts Council of Trinidad honor, the Humming Bird Medal in 1969 for his contribution to Caribbean Literature. He holds an award from the Canada Council to write a book on Indians in Trinidad with special reference to the 1920’s and 1030’s.
The following notes were taken by Kumar Mahabir, a poet and researcher for the Indian Review. The occasion was a creative writing workshop held at UWI, St. Augustine Campus where Selvon was installed as a Writer-in-Residence for the months of June, 1982. The report is taken in direct speech and the recorder does not pretend to have jotted down every word of the speaker. He has tried his best to give you the essence of what Mr. Selvon had said. As for Selvon himself, he admits of not preparing a speech – he is speaking “off the cuff” about anything that comes to his mind.
I could tell you about how i write, my way of writing. Each writer has his own views. As I grow older it becomes difficult to write. I have been praised up and I am afraid that the next piece I write would throw me down from that height. After, it is almost as if you want to give up, resign.
The ending of my stories: – It ends before it begins. I know in a vague sort of way what direction I am going to take. Sometimes, I sit before the typewriter and I don’t write a single word.
When I sit down to write I don’t say beforehand, that is plot, that is beginning, that is ending. It works into a natural conclusion. When I write I don’t know what I am writing…when I finish it looks damn good and I say, who has written this?
When I wrote A Brighter Sun (1952), I say that finish. I didn’t say that it should have a sequel, Turn Again Tiger (1958). When I finish with a work I put it in an envelope and send it straight to the publisher. Once I find a natural conclusion that is the end…I don’t rewrite.
Quite recently I wrote a bad story in Canada. It was accepted by BBC. The university magazine ask for it. If you see something in it that I don’t see all right…go ahead.
How much a writer consciously know he writing? Critics find out a lot of good things about my work…I keep my arse quiet. If they say any bad thing I quarrel.
I remember one short story I consciously wrote, that is “Cane is Bitter”. It shows how an Indian boy who went to University comes back to the village. I didn’t know how the story would end. It was a departure in a way…I was robbing my personality.
Everybody wants to write the big West Indian novel. Nobody wants to write the short story. The short story is a creative medium.
You have to make up your mind whether or not you could write essay or novel or poetry. You may be a good critic; you may be a good short story writer. If you feel you could write a novel go ahead, but when you fall in the trap…
My new novel would be published next year (1983). I showed the manuscript to some people, a thing I never do before. It was turned down by Davis-Poynter (London). I showed it to Longman (Caribbean). They accepted it. They say it is good stuff – Selvon stuff.
I don’t write a lot…I am lazy. I look back and realize…in 35 years I have written 10 novels, short stories radio and television plays. I don’t know if I’ve written enough.
Critics make me analyse my work, a thing I didn’t do before. I can’t write structured things anymore. I used to write non-fiction. It is too precise. If I turn my hand to non-fiction then it would be competent, but it wouldn’t be to my satisfaction.
“Brackley and the Bed” in Ways of Sunlight (1957), is a simple title. I get a lot of trouble with the titles. When I use a name I give a Trinidadian name. Brackley in a next short story is a different person, like Moses and Moses Alloatta. How you think I get that name? I remember it from a childhood song, “Gentle Alloatta, Alloatta…”
“Brackley and the Bed” is a popular story. People did all sort of things with it: dramatise it in Africa, make it into radio play, etc. But the story has no plot, mood, extension of character…somehow this story doesn’t have this kind of thing. What does this story have in it? Maybe the magic was working on it.
“Brackley…” gives the woman the upper hand. In it the man allow the woman to dominate him? It is part of Indian life.
Here, it is the language that evokes the whole mood. If the story was written in Standard English it would have worked. The cadence and rhythm of language give the Caribbean flavour.
The word “loud”. I see a fella selling “loud fish” (Trinidad). It eh take me long to pick it up. My ear is specifically down to the ground to pick up words. I use it in my novel in a context that is self-explanatory.
The language that I feel comfortable in is the language I know best. When you use dialect you are using a written craft, a medium. Everybody can’t write a story in dialect.
I have a sweeping idea about the novel I am going to write. It would be about Indians in Trinidad in the 1920’s and 30’s. I am more interested in people, how they
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