Natalie Lucy talks about their project mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through the letters of Andrew Salkey.
I am a PhD student at UCL. I started a part-time placement at the British Library in September which finished at the end of February. I was supervised by Eleanor Casson, who, until recently, was working on the Andrew Salkey archive and Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator. The aim of the project was to map the Caribbean diaspora through the correspondence of the writer, broadcaster and poet Andrew Salkey. Well-known both as a meticulous chronicler and a prolific correspondent, the many fascinating and frequently poignant, letters in Salkey’s extensive archive reflect a network of Caribbean writers and academics for whom Salkey served not only as something of a nexus but also as a facilitator in their careers. More importantly, though, the correspondence shows the movement of these writers within a wider context of the diaspora, a feature which we have visually presented through the digital applications, Gephi and Kepler.
Why did I apply for this project?
My thesis explores the way that the trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented, primarily at key political points, to say something about heritage and identity and how he emerges in the literature of British writers and artists, particularly those with Caribbean heritage. A significant part of my research concerns the ways that Anancy was appropriated in the writing of the Caribbean Arts Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s. Andrew Salkey was one of the three founders of CAM, along with John La Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He had been in London since the early 1950s and had already demonstrated his potential influence as something of an ‘enabler’, both through his immense generosity towards his fellow writers and his connections both within the writing world and at the BBC. The project offered an exciting opportunity. Not only would I be able to access Andrew Salkey’s archive, which would undoubtedly enhance my research, but the project had the potential to explore the dynamics between the writers and to bring to life something of the networks, which were so key to the establishment of a literary and cultural foundation.
What are Gephi and Kepler?
Gephi is an open graph visualization platform. It has been used in a variety of projects, to illustrate both social networks, which are evidenced within correspondence, and historical patterns of movement. In these projects, Gephi has been used as a way to make data more accessible and, by visually animating it, more engaging.
Kepler is an open source geospatial analysis tool, which was originally created by Uber to map Uber drivers around the world. This offered a useful application through which to map the movement of the Caribbean writers in Salkey’s correspondence during key periods.
Gathering the Data
The first stage of the project was to acquire the data that would ultimately be used in the visual map of the diaspora. Salkey was a meticulous archivist, retaining a significant quantity of the letters he received; he was also a diligent and attentive correspondent. Salkey’s friends were prominent Caribbean writers and publishers and Salkey’s archive contains the letters of Samuel Selvon, his distinctive language reminiscent of his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming and Jan Carew.
The initial data was limited to the date and location of the correspondence, information that could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. The idea was that it would provide a framework with which to start to explore the potential of the project.
The letters were so rich in detail, however, that other information was also recorded. I was able to note when correspondents mentioned other countries that they were planning to visit or when they spoke about other writers within the network. This provided an additional layer of information, which helped to broaden the analysis of the Caribbean diasporic network, linking people with each other as well as with Salkey.
One of the recurring themes of the letters was the evident impact that these writers had on each other, not only as a network through which to promote their work, but also to seek some form of solidarity. In numerous letters, Andrew Salkey is asked for advice or practical assistance. Sometimes this is a request for a review of their work, or a recommendation for a lecturing post, or his opinion on a piece of writing. Further clues are revealed by the fact that some of the letters also contain Salkey’s additional notes, handwritten in the margin or a penned tick beside a request.
What did I Learn?
In addition to the fascinating insight into the important work that the British Library does, I have discovered something about Andrew Salkey himself. What evolve within the letters are essentially a series of stories of friendships, between remarkable writers and artists. Sometimes, the extent of appreciation for Salkey’s generosity in helping so many other writers and friends can also be glimpsed within the, frequently poetical, words on the page. Samuel Selvon’s letters to Salkey are habitually humorous, but occasionally he steps outside his mocking, affectionate style, and says something that is profoundly moving. In one letter to Salkey on 15 March 1975, he writes: ‘you have a great gift, Andrew, so great, that even with those few words, and my inability to express myself as you do, you will understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. That is the quintessence of your genius - that behind the ballad and the episode that other human beings will laugh kiff-kiff at and enjoy you can see with the inner eye and analyse with the unique power that God gave you.'
Natalie Lucy was a PhD placement at the British Library from September 2022 until February 2023. In this blog, Natalie explains her interest in the project, development of the project through the content of the correspondence, as well as what she learned from the placement. This blog is linked with another post on the Digital Scholarship Blog, which gives more detail on the digital visualisation applications used for this project.