Andrew Salkey: writing in the international language of oppression

I first heard Andrew Salkey's poetry in the man's own rich Jamaican accent 10 years ago when we both lived in London. He was giving a benefit reading in aid of medical supplies for southern African rebels. The afternoon was a fascinating juxtaposition of explosive poetry recited with gentle musicality, of political radicalism in trendy Hampstead. This pattern of contradictions still surrounds and supports his poetry. Well known in Britain, Africa, the West Indies, Latin America, and Australia, Mr. Salkey is virtually invisible in the United States, although he has been living here and teaching at Hampshire College in Massachusetts since 1976. Salkey is a kind of decathlon writer -- the author of 22 books and editor of eight anthologies. His work includes poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and children's books. He is as at home in this variety of forms as he is in the diverse countries he has inhabited. His topics range from the brutal assassination of Chilean singer Victor Jara to the evolution of Jamaica to the self-loathing of expatriates to the solidarity among third-world revolutionaries.

Only a few of his books have American publishers -- two anthologies, ``Breaklight'' and ``Island Voices,'' and one book of poetry, ``In the Hills Where Her Dreams Live.'' The poems, which won the Cuban ``Casa de las Americas First Prize for Poetry,'' were published in 1981 by Black Scholar Press. Salkey blames fear for the American aversion to consciously political literature. ``It's a kind of censorship. The things I dream up and think about are not commercial. Britain takes risks with this sort of thing. America doesn't.'' Salkey's voice moves with controlled irony. He is a short, light-skinned black man with a full beard and wire-rimmed glasses. His delicate appearance belies a powerful political commitment and artistic drive.

Despite 32 years away from his homeland, Salkey is an indelibly Jamaican writer. His work is suffused with island cadences, passionate yearning, and explicit historical references. ``I am not ashamed of being regional. By being truly regional, you're universal. Look at Judea -- now that's a terribly tiny and provincial place and all of us are being educated by their work.'' Perhaps his most dramatic and sustained exploration of home is the epic poem, ``Jamaica,'' which chronicles the island before European settlement, the slavery of 1692, the upheaval of 1938, the new Constitution of 1944, the mythic hurricane of 1951, and it ends with a defiant hope for Jamaica's future. Salkey rocks readers between a rich island patois and rhythmic, standard English. I remember bridges breaking like bamboo joints between the howl and sizzle of leader wind, between the sough and sigh of coconut palm. I remember a small clump of old women saying late prayers, premature thanks, like busy bees at logwood blossoms. I remember the lash and the sting.

Salkey criticizes portraits of the West Indies that have gained currency here, like the work of V. S. Naipaul and Edgar Mittlehouser. ``They say what the United States wants to hear. They `yes' the U.S. version of Caribbean history. They portray the West Indians as simple, trusting, childlike, naive -- as the Third World's Third World.'' Salkey complains about an article in The New Statesman where Naipaul advised the British to stem immigration from the West Indies by supporting the island economy: ``A banana a day keeps the Jamaican away.''

Salkey says that Mittlehouser was so self-hating in his blackness that he committed suicide by setting himself afire in the corner of an English field. Salkey wants a broader selection of West Indian literature available here, particularly more books by Samuel Selvon, George Laming, Jan Carew, and Louise Bennett. ``But these writers are not echoing the North American sentiment,'' he says, shaking his head.

Expatriation is a significant theme in Salkey's work, and he is careful to distinguish between idealistic expatriates who romanticize the past and activists who work to change conditions from a distance. I left the island so that I wouldn't have to leave; I left the island I never left. (``I Never Left'')

One of his most forceful novels is ``Welcome Home, Malcolm Heartland,'' about a middle-age Jamaican lawyer fed up with London, planning to return to Kingston. As Heartland packs and moves through his last days in Britain, he examines his disappointments as mirrored in the eyes of friends who don't want to lose him. His lover, Honora, wants to accompany him. His friend Thomas criticizes his desertion of the London black community. Heartland gets entangled in a surrealistic tension with two black activists who try to enlist him in their vague ``liberation'' organization. Here he is confronted with the possibility that they are double agents trying to sabotage revolutionary movements. Suddenly the borders of national identity and personal loyalty are not so simple. How does one choose between black and white, between home and London? The startlingly violent climax rings with profound resonance about acts of conscience.

Salkey, like Heartland, has never returned home, and he still misses the daily sensuous experience of island life. ``I long for the smells of night jasmine. North America has smells, but they don't startle me. The plants don't seem to exude perfume. Even the roses are stronger in Jamaica.''

He maintains his ties with home by copious reading and correspondence. And he has come to expand his literary citizenship, writing about the intersections of colonialism in Jamaica and Chile, in Guinea Bissau and Ireland. No doubt this is the root of his work's wide, international appeal. The commonalities of oppression emerge in ``Un Pueblo Unido,'' from the prize volume ``In the Hills Where Her Dreams Live.'' Like arcs of bramble, half-strangled weeds and bush cast coils of barbed wire ghosts over Dawson Island; worm-traceries of axed roots, neglect and slow death twist through the cold southern slab, day after day; torture-stains like trampled stadium rosettes appear where clusters of wild roses should be breaking free.

In this book, Salkey moves through shock, grief, and rage about Chile to find promise in ``Three Years'': And yet, she keeps faith with home, somewhere warm, somewhere underground. Earth tremors usually topple statues; Earthquakes tear apart whole designs. She's certain there's more copper hot in the hills where her dreams live.

Salkey fondly recalls the heyday of West Indian writing in the 1950s and early 1960s when many of his compatriots came to London for education or publication. ``They called us the `Black Irish,' and while one must acknowledge the racism of the term, there was a lot of truth in the comparison to Irish writers. We, also, were angry, pugnacious, prolific. There was a fever in the 1950s.''

Salkey himself started to publish then. He wrote 33 radio plays and won awards such as the Helmore Poetry Prize and the Guggenheim Fellowship. The '70s and '80s have not been so kind to West Indians, according to Salkey, because many moved to North America where their writing is ignored. He asks in ``Drifting,'' For whom do I speak, now, so far away from home? For whom do I write, now, so far away from myself?

In 1976, after a successful reading tour of the States, Salkey accepted a position at Hampshire College. The job puts him in contact with young poets and gives him enough time for the writing and reading that connect him to his homeland. ``One of the real pleasures of being here is following the work of Black Americans who draw on the experience of their West Indian parents, people like Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, and Rosa Guy, for whom I have a great deal of affection and admiration.''

He still thinks about returning to Jamaica. ``I almost went back under Manley. But then he sold the country down the river after a call from the US State Department.'' Salkey's voice is taut now, underlain with a wistful grief reminiscent of ``Summer Song'': There seems almost nothing to hold on to, now; nothing; home drifts on farther away like a late wish in the wind; and the corner I stand in seems frozen over and dead. ``There's nothing, here, now; nothing, back there, either!'' Whispers sneak over everything; Everything's cold and clear.

Valerie Miner, a novelist, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

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