02 November 2021
Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political”
By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310). Last few days to get tickets to Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Writing (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.
The Conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.
Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican writer, emigrated to the UK in the early 1950s to study at London University. Salkey was one of a few Caribbean writers swept up in the boom of interest in Britain for the ‘exoticism’ of colonial countries, particularly after the migration of Caribbean workers to Britain. His successful, critically acclaimed debut novel A Quality of Violence was published in 1959. In 1960, he followed this with a significantly more controversial novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which has, over time, become an influential piece exploring the Caribbean diasporas portrayal of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
This early success as a Caribbean writer in Britain led Salkey to become an instrumental figure in developing a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Salkey experienced the majority of his literary success in the 1960s-1970s with the steady publishing of his children’s novels alongside his adult fiction and poetry. This early success reflects the appetites of British and American publishers during this period. Salkey’s literary works are often underpinned by a political message or influenced by Salkey’s experience of ‘exile’ from his home, Jamaica. By the 1980s the popularity of this type of writing had waned and Caribbean writers often found it more difficult to be published in the UK and also in the US. Salkey continued to write prolifically regardless of his works being published less often. His archive, held at the British Library, includes unpublished manuscripts and typescripts of work he attempted to publish without success. All of the unpublished novels in the archive are children’s novels: The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road, Luisito, and Norman Kelly. This blog will focus on his unpublished children’s novel Luisito and his unpublished long poem In America.
Luisito is a children’s novel based on the true story of the assassination of a ten-year-old boy, Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores (Luisito), by the Somoza Regime in Nicaragua during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Luisito was a child revolutionary fighting against the oppressive Somoza Regime in the late 1970s. Salkey wrote in his notes that he first read about the assassination of Luisito in Gramma the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 2 September 1979. He began his research notebook on the events surrounding the event and Luisito’s life on 12 October 1980. He lists the ‘characters’, ‘events’ and ‘places’ in the story based on his research of the events in much the same way he did for all of his novels. To ensure he had the correct information Salkey contacted the Office of the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People in Washington DC, and the Nicaraguan Mission at the United Nations in New York. He also wrote to the Nicaraguan government twice, in October 1980 and September 1981, but did not receive a reply. Salkey’s friend, the American writer and activist Margaret Randall, was living and working in Nicaragua at the time. She had interviewed Luisito’s mother for her own work about Nicaraguan women. She sent Salkey copies of photographs of his mother and his passport. It is clear from the level of detail how invested Salkey became not only in Luisito’s death, but the cause he was fighting for against the Somoza Regime. Salkey wrote in his diary ‘I haven’t experienced this before, this extraordinary personal identification with the life and death of someone I’m trying to write about. A very odd feeling and equally odd behaviour on my part’.
There are similarities between this children’s novel and his earlier children’s book Joey Tyson. Both look at a ‘real life’ event from the perspective of a child and attempt to engage the reader in adult issues in a way they can understand. There is a clear educational undertone to the work that can be found in most of Salkey’s children’s story writing. The story was sent to publishers in the UK and the US, but was ultimately rejected by them all. Salkey was told by one US publisher that it was ‘too polemical. Too political’.
Salkey began the long poem In America in July 1976, just before his permanent move from the UK to the US, and completed it in August 1981. He had originally allocated four years to write the four ‘books’ (chapters) that make up the poem. In the notebook he kept for this work he wrote a set of notes for this period and a further “late extra notes” for the additional work he did on the poem. This literary project was a deeply personal one for Salkey. He writes in his diary ‘it’s a kind of diarist’s long poem, a record of the poet’s slow acquaintance of his new situation in America, and of America as an experience capable of being written about in poetry’. Alongside this exploration of America, the long poem also delves in to Salkey’s feelings of self-imposed exile from Jamaica and the mixed feelings of living closer to the Caribbean than before. Salkey wrote his novel Luisito within the same time period, which influenced his writing of In America:
In the same breath, the very same poet reminds us:
Somewhere, right now, someone, or system clever as
mustard, is busy building a Somoza castle of sand on an
unsuspecting shoreline. Stop it, if you can!
This verse also encapsulates Salkey’s call to arms style of literary activism. Ultimately the polemic tone of some of the poetry in the long poem contributed to publishers rejecting the manuscript. US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. were interested in the long poem but ultimately turned it down to focus on younger poets. William Morrow also turned it down. Salkey writes in his diary in November 1981 that he was not surprised that US publishers rejected the work; ‘I don’t think most of them are ready for the quirky experience the manuscript tends to deliver. In a sense, they never will’. Unfortunately, Salkey was equally as unsuccessful in the UK. He sent the manuscript to Hutchinson Publishing Group, Allison & Busby, and Faber and Faber; they all turned the manuscript down. The UK publishers saw merit in the work as an ambitious, interesting and diverse long poem. However, the did not think that there would be a viable audience for this type of work in the UK.
 The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed 2nd April 2020 https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently