Academic journal article ARIEL

"You Have to Start Thinking All over Again": Masculinities, Narratology and New Approaches to Sam Selvon

Academic journal article ARIEL

"You Have to Start Thinking All over Again": Masculinities, Narratology and New Approaches to Sam Selvon

Article excerpt

Clearly a pioneer in West Indian literature, Sam Selvon has received little of the detailed and sustained critical attention his work deserves. An innovative stylist, one of the first to experiment with "colonial" idiom in (capital E) English and the creator of some of the twentieth century's most enduring immigrant narratives, Selvon remains a decidedly second-tier figure in the West Indian literary pantheon, a lesser-light in the shadow of (among others) Walcott, Naipaul, and Lamming. Despite some suggestions to the contrary, the academy, even the segment of the academy explicitly interested in World (or West Indian) literatures, has not found much room for Selvon.

Perhaps more importantly, the criticism that does exist seems to overlook and/or ignore many of Selvon's particular (and peculiar) achievements, relying instead on formulaic reductions of his work in order to package it neatly into some specific critical category. The basic problem is that Selvon is not a neat writer and his idiosyncratic fictional worlds have not really accommodated any of the more prevalent critical approaches in postcolonial discourse. His explicit critiques of the black solidarity movement (most notably in Moses Ascending), his often sexist (or at least sexually reductive) depictions of women, and his ambivalent constructions of both the centre and the margin have, it seems, short-circuited most of the major analytical throughways associated with writers in his position. "His outspoken refusal to ally himself with any one political cause" (Ingrams 35) has made him critically unmanageable and, not coincidentally, critically unattractive. Lacking the critical apparatus to deal with him effectively, critics have opted either to ignore him or to kidnap certain sections of his work and force them into ill-fitting analytical frameworks aligned with particular political projects. (1)

Still, despite all its manifold contradictions, most of the existing criticism recognizes both a pervasive sense of machismo and a preoccupation with stories in Selvon's work, and these commonalities provide some useful points of departure for a critical reassessment of his novels. While previous studies have noted, but not pursued, the decidedly masculinist emphasis in Selvon, the emerging discourse studying masculinities might well provide a particularly illuminating analytical viewpoint on his work. At the very least, discourses of masculinity provide a critical apparatus that approaches (and I think reaches) Selvon in ways that previous racial, geographic, and self-consciously "progressive" analyses have not.

In a similar fashion, certain aspects of narrative theory offer unique perspectives on the more subtle function of stories and myths in Selvon's work. We know, for example, that Selvon thought that "writing a book" could provide a "plaster cast" ("Little Drops of Water" 58) for a human life and that stories can provide "a justification for living" ("The Leaf in the Wind" 56). Such positions clearly intersect with a number of theoretical works concerned with the constitutive power of narrative: the degree to which narrative shapes, moulds, solidifies, and justifies an individual's perception and assessment of his or her life.

This article addresses the first two novels of Selvon's Moses trilogy (The Lonely Londoners and Moses Ascending) in an effort to draw some new and, I think, more productive connections between Selvon and contemporary critical discourses, arguing that many of the most important and rewarding aspects of the novels can be addressed in terms of a distinctly masculine psychology (and even a distinctly, if problematically male, spirituality) and that these masculine impulses are encoded in narrative terms. In The Lonely Londoners and Moses Ascending the struggle for masculine legitimacy underscores every character's struggle for a psychologically and sociologically viable sense of identity, and the struggle for that identity is, in some basic sense, a struggle to find a place inside some overriding storyline, some cast, that will frame (and straighten out) his life. …

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