Caribbean Fiction for Grown-Ups: Selvon & Phillips

When I lose my way with blogging, I try to retrace my steps by keeping the title of my site in mind. I try to come back after a long absence with something of value, something that shows I haven’t forgotten what this space is about.

Lately I’ve been dipping my toes into Caribbean fiction. In the last week I read The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon and A State of Independence by Caryl Phillips. Both novels are set in the era of the 50’s and 60’s around the time of the West Indian migration to England, but while Selvon’s novel has more of a ‘stranger in a strange land’ focus Phillips explores the prodigal son’s return.

Both novels are depressing in their histories.

The mood and tone of The Lonely Londoners mimic Britain’s notorious lack of sunshine. It’s a bleak and haunting memoir of dashed hopes and survival instincts that have the tenacity of a bulldog. There are lighthearted moments that flash like a smile in the dark proving that West Indians, like weeds, can sprout and live (if not thrive) between the cracks of any pavement but the overarching theme is one of desolation. The final pages accrue an even darker mood as the thoughts of our narrator, Moses, grow ever more distressing, and the final scene on the banks of the river Thames pick up an ominous current.

Selvon left me thinking that all the displaced West Indians should just come back home, but Phillips trumps that idea soundly. In his modest 158 page description of the first few weeks on the life of a returning resident we are treated to more low blows than a street side skirmish. Bertram Francis, the main character, faces emotional hurdle after emotional hurdle as he attempts to start a new life back home after spending twenty years in England.

The business of resettling is lot like reopening the abdomen after previous surgery. It kinda looks the same but everything is so distorted by scar tissue that you’re not quite sure about the layout any more.Francis moves from being a stranger in a strange land to being a stranger in his home land, and I can’t quite tell which situation is worse.

These novels are my first serious foray into adult Caribbean fiction and they’re painting me a picture of disturbing pathos. Do we write any novels for our grown ups that aren’t about the difficulty of our struggles? Are there any distractions from the tediums and everyday terrors of our existence? Where is the fantasy, the suspension of disbelief, the light-hearted trope with a plot and no moral lesson?

Jamaicans, and West Indians on a whole, are fantastic storytellers. Nobody can labrish like we. I just wish our resplendent oral traditions could make their way to the page a little faster.

2 thoughts on “Caribbean Fiction for Grown-Ups: Selvon & Phillips

  1. As someone who’s had to go home and feel terribly displaced, I get the writers’ opinions. It’s a sad thing to feel more at home in a strange country than in your own land, but one that is keenly felt by a lot of Jamaicans – the diaspora from our country is enormous, and you can never really come back home.


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