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Samuel Dickson Selvon aka Sam Selvon was born in San Fernando in the south of Trinidad. His parents were East Indian: his father was a first-generation Christian immigrant from Madras and his mother's father was Scottish.He was educated there at Naparima College, San Fernando, before leaving at the age of fifteen to work. He was a wireless operator with the Royal Naval Reserve from 1940 to 1945. Thereafter, he moved north to Port of Spain, and from 1945 to 1950, worked for the Trinidad Guardian as a reporter and for a time on its literary page. In this period, he began writing stories and descriptive pieces, mostly under a variety of pseudonyms such as Michael Wentworth, Esses, Ack-Ack, and Big Buffer. Selvon moved to London, England, in the 1950s, and then in the late 1970s to Alberta, Canada, where he lived until his death from a heart attack on 16 April 1994 on a return trip to Trinidad.
Selvon married twice: in 1947 to Draupadi Persaud, with whom he had one daughter, and in 1963 to Althea Daroux, with whom he had two sons and one daughter.
Selvon is known for novels such as The Lonely Londoners (1956) and Moses Ascending (1975). His novel A Brighter Sun (1952), detailing the construction of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway in Trinidad through the eyes of young Indian worker Tiger, was a popular choice on the CXC English Literature syllabus for many years. Other notable works include Ways of Sunlight (1957), Turn Again Tiger (1958) and Those Who Eat the Cascadura (1972). During the 1970s and early 1980s, Selvon converted several of his novels and stories into radio scripts, broadcast by the BBC, which were collected in Eldorado West One (Peepal Tree Press, 1988) and Highway in the Sun (Peepal Tree Press, 1991).
After moving to Canada, Selvon found a job teaching creative writing as a visiting professor at the University of Victoria. When that job ended, he took a job as a janitor at the University of Calgary in Alberta for a few months, before becoming writer-in-residence there. He was largely ignored by the Canadian literary establishment, with his works receiving no reviews during his residency.
The Lonely Londoners, as with most of his later work, focuses on the immigration of West Indians to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and tells, mostly in anecdotal form, the daily experience of settlers from the Africa and the Caribbean. Selvon also illustrates the panoply of different "cities" that are lived in London, as with any major city, due to class and racial boundaries. In many ways, his books are the precursors to works such as Some Kind of Black by Diran Adebayo, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. Selvon explained: "When I wrote the novel that became The Lonely Londoners, I tried to recapture a certain quality in West Indian everyday life. I had in store a number of wonderful anecdotes and could put them into focus, but I had difficulty starting the novel in straight English. The people I wanted to describe were entertaining people indeed, but I could not really move. At that stage, I had written the narrative in English and most of the dialogues in dialect. Then I started both narrative and dialogue in dialect and the novel just shot along."
Selvon's papers are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, USA. These consist of holograph manuscripts, typescripts, book proofs, manuscript notebooks, and correspondence. Drafts for six of his eleven novels are present, along with supporting correspondence and items relating to his career.