May 20, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sam Selvon

When in the course of human events, the oppressed find it necessary to dissolve the political and psychological bonds which have joined them to the oppressor, revolutionaries have a choice to pick up either a pen or a gun. The true revolutionaries pick up a pen because they realize that violence truly begets violence and that any solution that is brought about by bloodshed will only be temporary—the powerful will change positions and the gorillas are in charge again.

Among the revolutionaries who choose to pick up a pen, there is another choice: to write comedies or tragedies. Those who write tragedies make the oppressed appear weak, and the main character must experience a “fall” that results from a flaw in her/his character. For tragedy to be successful, the writer must maintain within his/her work the divisions of class, race, and creed that s/he is trying to overthrow. And no matter how much we empathize with the protagonist in a tragedy, his or her “greatness” separates him/her from the realm of us mere mortals. In other words, none of us will ever be as noble or brave as Macbeth, so at the end of the play we are moved to pity because of the “height” from which Macbeth “falls” because of his pride. But try an imagine the Scottish play where every time Lady Macbeth comes on stage to say something like, “Out , out damned spot,” the audience erupts in laughter. Instead, we pity her because she is one of the nobility and we accept the inequality of the class system and the “divine right of kings.”

However, serious writers like Sam Selvon, will write comic novels and short stories to overthrow such arrant nonsense that insults our common humanity. Comedy is a subversive art form. And comedy in the hands of Selvon obliterates class, color, and creed. We are all equally foolish.

Throughout his career, Sam Selvon used his comic talents to expose the foolishness of the oppressed who thought they would actually be accepted into the life and culture of the oppressors. In The Lonely Londoners, he shows the hardships of a group of West Indians as they try to cope with the British weather, customs, and people. These 'citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies' as they try to gain acceptance are viewed with prejudicial disdain by the British. Neither side comes of looking good.

But Selvon is never bitter even in the moments of his most biting social satire. He seems genuinely amused at our silliness. For example, in one of my favorite stories, “Waiting for Aunty to Cough,” he describes the plight of Brackley and the cramped situation that he finds himself as an immigrant who must make a living and find a time and place to love. By focusing on Brackley’s plight, we can empathize with him. Brackley is an arm’s length away from the object of his desire, but cannot consummate his wishes. After reading Selvon’s work, the reader cannot retreat into ignorance because s/he has shared those moments with Brackley “waiting for Aunty to cough.” The act of empathy unites the reader and character in a secret cause. “Waiting for Aunty to Cough” also illuminates the constant state of anxiety among immigrants: in the midst of “Paradise,” but unable to partake of its joys.

Sam Selvon was one of the most underappreciated writers of his generation, and his particular strength was that “unlike Naipaul, who portrays his fellow islanders as disadvantaged victims who are rootless, unimportant, and uncreative, Selvon writes with a genuine pride in his people and in their country, despite the social disadvantages and faded dreams that define their world.” (World Literature in English). And his use of comedy emerges from his engagement with the people of the Caribbean. As Selvon explains, "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. It seems to me that . . . this gift for laughter, of being able to laugh at everything and to laugh at themselves, is so much a characteristic of the Caribbean people." (Nazareth 80-81).

Give thanks, Sam Selvon.


Photo of Sam Selvon: Bruce Paddington, 120 x 139 pixels - 6k - jpg,

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Anonymous said...

Now that is a Declaration! Thank you, sir.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Stacy-Marie. Give thanks!