Competing Voices and Cultural Negotiation in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners: An Interview with Bomi Jeon

By Nicolas Silva

Bomi Jeon, “Between Transgression and Conviviality: Everyday Urban Space and the Carnivalesque Strategies in The Lonely Londoners,Texas Studies in Literature and Language 64.2 (2022): 163-183.

Clouds over north London England

Readers may not be familiar with novelist Sam Selvon or The Lonely Londoners. Could you give us a brief introduction?

Sam Selvon is a Trinidadian novelist and playwright born to an Indian father and an Indian/Scottish mother. After World War 2, Britain was in need of a workforce and the country encouraged the Caribbean people to migrate to help rebuild postwar Britain. Like others of his colonial generation from the West Indies (so-called the Windrush generation), he migrated to Britain during the 1950s to find a better opportunity as a writer. This large-scale migration from the Caribbean to Britain was initially viewed as a return to their “mother country” but many Commonwealth citizens soon faced xenophobic responses and racial discrimination within the British society. Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners is one of the iconic novels from this period of postwar reconstruction and racial conflict that deals with this early experience of migration and settlement of a group of Caribbean workers.

Pauline Enriques Sam Selvon on Caribbean Voices (1952)

What strategies or approaches do you suggest for new readers of The Lonely Londoners, especially those that may not be familiar with the experiences of Caribbean migrants in postwar London?

In order to understand Selvon’s work, learning the specific historical context and social atmosphere of postwar Britain is extremely important. In that sense, I strongly recommend Colin Grant’s Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation and Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment. Both provide an excellent account of the mitrang experience during the 1950s, each offering surprisingly different tales of humor and hostility respectively.

What qualities make Sam Selvon’s postwar London setting in The Lonely Londoners especially valuable for those wanting to learn more about migrant experiences in new urban settings?

The Lonely Londoners is a significant work in that it is one of the first representations of a black London formed in the 1950s. However, this novel at the same time emphasizes how difficult it was to achieve the ideal harmony and coexistence of black and white that Caribbean migrants had expected before their arrival. Beginning with an aspiration to the mother country, the novel toward the end depicts lots of Caribbean characters becoming aware of a meaningless repetition and circularity beneath the surface preoccupation of the West Indian workers in the city. Phrases such as “what happening” implies a painful sense of futility and disconnection facing the harsh reality of the black migrants in London. However, such a sense of fragmentation and incompleteness is overcome through numerous comedic moments and negotiation. I believe this is what constitutes the ironic yet still hopeful vision that runs through this novel.

Super moon over City of London from Tate Modern (2018)

What are some of the insights you have gained while studying postwar British literature, and how have they shaped your own reading of The Lonely Londoners?

Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, there have been numerous efforts to define and rebuild a coherent British national character in response to rapid and threatening social upheavals, including the decline of the British Empire, postwar immigration, and economic globalization. Postwar literature and cinema record this social transition in order to discover the possibility of a common culture; at the same time, they willfully challenge a fixed and stereotypical idea of British identity by exposing various gender, class, and racial differences and conflicts hidden behind monolithic accounts of the nation. Sam Selvon is definitely one of the authors who present postwar Britain as a zone of competing voices. His novel shows how immigrant British subjects produce critical readings of the island’s spatial history that deal with the sense of radical loss and dislocation caused by the War and decolonization.

London is Still London – Everyday Life in Wartime London, England (February 1941)

Why is the novel as a literary medium so well-suited in portraying the experiences of migrant communities in urban settings?

The fact that Selvon’s work was written in the form of a novel is actually very important. This is because it not only shows his affiliation with Western culture but also indicates his dialogic perspective on the diasporic process in which identities undergo constant change and negotiation. Selvon borrowed a western novel form, but he never stopped writing about the West Indies and its cultural legacy, trying to find a source of inspiration and creative expression from the ordinary Caribbean people and their lived experiences.  It comes as no surprise that rather than following the narratives of a few heroic characters, his novel is more concerned with the vulnerable lives of marginal people such as peasants, workers, and the dispossessed. His mixed-use of standard English and dialect in the novel also shows the complexity of the emigrant experience in Britain. At the same time for Selvon, Caribbean writers cannot merely rely on the authentic native culture but must practice dialogue between the colonial culture and the traces of island identities that have been erased and recreated throughout the Caribbean history of dislocation. His representation of Caribbean culture particularly within a new urban setting thus becomes a dynamic process, which is also materialized by the revised form of the novel. It does not assume a preexisting identity with a foreclosed past, but it is always a result of a continual process of collective reinvention, constructed in response to multi-layered relationships in which the regional root is entangled with different colonial networks.   

Given that The Lonely Londoners’ title emphasizes “loneliness,” what kind of relationship exists between the novel’s portrayal of immigrant loneliness and the carnivalesque spirit?

At first, I thought that the characters’ exaggerated gestures, laughter, and womanizing tendency are quite subversive performances. At that time, I was into Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque and focused on the rebellious messages inherent in laughter. However, the more I read the novel, the more the Caribbean characters’ laughter and carnivalesque elements came to me as a method of socialization, not just a gesture of revolt full of antipathy and anger. Throughout the novel, I noticed their willingness to overcome their “loneliness” and sense of isolation by learning how to live with the white British. I felt that the characters continued to crave affection in their relationships with others and that they strongly desired to build relationships with English people despite their excessive and sometimes intimidating laughter and bluffs. Many critics have criticized the excessive carnival aspects of the characters in the novel as aggressive and non-social, arguing that they reinforce the existing stereotypes about black British people. But rather, I imagined how the characters would have to live in order to establish a place of life in a white society that was not accustomed to the existence of black British citizens. Even though they sometimes act according to the fantasies and stereotypes of white people, I thought that maybe their exaggerated performance itself could be seen as their own way of survival and part of their strategy for making friends in an unfamiliar environment.

London 1950s

Are there other elements of The Lonely Londoners that you believe deserve more attention from both readers and critics?

Whenever I read Selvon’s novels, I feel that his use of language resembles some forms of music. Selvon’s narrator often establishes a style that, with his adoption of Creole language and syntax, creates unique forms of stress and repetition which seems to be affected by Caribbean culture and musical tradition. I would love to learn more about this sound-related and rhythmical dimension of his narration and see what kind of cultural meaning can be elicited from this musical point of view.

The Lonely Londoners was published in 1956. How have novels’ social commentary developed since then?

When Selvon’s novel first came out, the dominant view was to see his novel as a simple comedy or as a Caribbean authentic text that is completely opposite to British culture. However, as time goes by, the perspective of seeing his novels as dynamic texts that overlap and interact with Caribbean and European presence prevails.  For example, the interpretation of the use of various dialects was initially viewed as a kind of resistance to the standard English, which symbolizes the dominance of British culture, but these days, many view his modification of Caribbean vernacular as a gesture to embrace not only Caribbean readers but also European readers.

London cityscape – Aerial view of London UK

Migrant experiences in the United Kingdom today have altered since 1956, especially with the country’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2020. In what way will The Lonely Londoners continue to resonate through these changing circumstances?

I think the recent nationalist revival around the globe and the highly selective rhetoric of its supporters shed new light on the role of art and literature as important participants of social reality. Particularly in Britain, the responses to the Brexit vote evince that a significant number of British people still imagine nationhood in terms of purportedly pure cultural ideas of self, while oblivious to the history of colonial violence and the two World Wars. The impact of the Brexit vote on British society has already been visible in the last few years through its reinstatement of cultural authoritarianism that condones a series of xenophobic, racist campaigns and homophobic expressions. What the “make Britain Great again” slogan reveals is not just the prevailing fear in times of uncertainty but also the recurrent nature of national discourse in postwar and contemporary Britain. In this sense, I think Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners helps us explore a plurality of ways to rewrite the monolithic accounts of the collective past and present. By presenting multifaceted forms (mixed use of modernism and African oral tradition; standard English and dialects; comedy and tragedy) and contents of representation (lives of ordinary migrants, mobility and immobility), it unearths the habits of thought that structure abstract and selective constructions of nationhood, stressing the productive indeterminacy of the meaning of identity and culture.

Brexit Protestors London (2019)

Can you recommend other literary works that expand upon or enhance The Lonely Londoners’ portrayal of Caribbean migrant culture through the carnivalesque?

George Lamming’s The Castle of My Skin (1953), Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979) are set in the prewar West Indies but they nonetheless deal with the complex Caribbean masculinity through representation of the Carnival and Carnivalesque laugher of the characters. This kind of carnival spirit is continued in Selvon’s London Trilogy including Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983) published after The Lonerly Londoners. Although the later two novels are far more like face and slapstick full of ribaldry, I think this change of humor style and comedy form makes an equally serious response of this migrant writer to a rapidly changing world. I believe that Selvon’s humorous and comic style indeed had a great influence on later Black and Asian British writers such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, whose celebrated works, The Satanic Verses (1988) and White Teeth (2000), were received with great critical enthusiasm. Like Selvon, these writers regard humor and comedy both as a practical political stance and as a powerful antidote to the dogmatic idea of community.

London Eye by Day

What perspectives have you taken away from your study of The Lonely Londoners, and how will they be applied to your future research projects?

Recently, as an extension of my study of comedy and carnivalesque in The Lonely Londoners, I have begun to analyze the comedic elements that are prominent in English-speaking literature after World War II. My long-term goal is to examine whether the contemporary representation of “laughter,” which simultaneously expresses a critical attitude and familiarity with an object, can function as a productive discourse or critical genre that presents a strategy for overcoming the racial prejudices and anti-feminist sentiments that are currently appearing around the world, including the US and South Korea.