Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Masculinity as Prison in Samuel Selvon's a Brighter Sun: Journeying from Boy to Man

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Masculinity as Prison in Samuel Selvon's a Brighter Sun: Journeying from Boy to Man

Article excerpt

Samuel Selvon's A Brighter Sun has been largely approached in terms of Selvon's use of language and his social themes. In this paper, I start from the premise that approaching Selvon's text from a gendered, masculinity studies perspective produces alternative insights into this text. I focus on protagonist Tiger's journey from boyhood to manhood and argue that, through his depiction of Tiger's engagement with his culture, Selvon constructs a central metaphor where the tenor is masculinity and the vehicle is prison. To examine Selvon's representation of Tiger's journey, I utilize Michel Foucault's idea of the panoptic and Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance, suggesting that Selvon develops a carceral conception of normative Indo masculinity, supervising and restricting Tiger.


A pioneer in West Indian literature, Indian Caribbean writer Samuel Selvon received international acclaim with his first novel, A Brighter Sun. The novel was published in 1952 and is set in Trinidad, Selvon's native land. There has been some speculation that this novel was already completed when Selvon, like many West Indians at the time, migrated to Britain after World War II Dyer, 2002, p. 113). Selvon puts this idea to rest in his interview with Michel Fabre (1988). When asked whether the book was written in Trinidad, Selvon responds, "No, I wrote it, or completed it in London. In Trinidad, I wrote poems and a good deal of short stories ... but I mostly worked" p. 65). The novel was significant for a number of reasons, one of which was that, according to Ivan Van Sertima, "It was in A Brighter Sun that an East Indian writer himself spoke for the first time ... about the life of an Indian family in the Caribbean" 1968, p. 43). Harold Barrati notes that the novel also received critical acclaim because of Selvon's use of Trinidadian dialect 2003, p. 28).

Selvon has stated that the protagonist, in A Brighter Sun, Tiger, is based on a "really old man [whom] he knew," Fabre, 1988, p. 69). At the beginning of the novel Tiger is married off to a girl, who, like himself, is Hindu. He moves from Chaguanas to Barataría. Tiger "starts off by gradually discovering about life" Fabre, 1988, p. 69). He is exposed to a whole new way of life and begins to mature as an individual and a man. His transformation is set against the landscape of changing Trinidadian society.

Many of the critical essays which have been written about A Brighter Sun have tended to consider together or separately addressed) Selvon's use of language, his commentary on race relations, and his treatment of the move toward independence in Trinidad. Frank Birbalsingh, for example, contends that "Tiger's biography is merely the frame in which a lavish social canvas is hung" 1988, p. 83). Birbalsingh's comment suggests that Selvon's primary focus in the novel is the changing Trinidadian society with Tiger's story and development largely instrumental to this focus. And while Roydon Salick cautioned that it is important that we do not miss "the historical, colonial context that Selvon so carefully constructs in the novel" 2001, p. 3), it seems equally important to see the protagonist's biography as more than a mere frame, as there is much to be gained from paying attention to Tiger not only as individual but more importantly as gendered individual. As Kenneth Ramchand states, the book's real theme is "the growing into manhood of the rural Indian, Tiger," 1988, p. 160). This is, in fact, an analytic dimension to which many critics have alluded while focusing on other aspects of Selvon's novel. Critics including Mark Looker (1996), and Harold Barratt (2003), for example, acknowledge the theme of manhood in A Brighter Sun but go on to elaborate other themes including community, self-awareness, and the use of language.

Lewis Macleod, in his essay on The Lonely Londoners, sums up much of how A Brighter Sun has been critically approached, and offers an explanation of why gendered approaches to the novel would prove useful:

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. …

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