Repeating or Renewing Island? Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock

Last week I considered a poet, John Agard, who also wrote prose.  Today I’m going to look at two prose writers from Jamaica, who published works for children contemporaneously (between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, more or less) and who occasionally forayed into poetry: Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock.  The two men have many things in common; both were raised in Jamaica (Salkey was born in Panama but his Jamaican parents brought him back to Jamaica for schooling), educated in British colonial schools, went to England as young adults, and attended London University.  Both were interested in the education of young people and specifically in connecting children to their cultural roots.  Sherlock worked in education throughout his career, and eventually became Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Salkey was known as a generous spirit who helped many Black writers and publishers through his promotion of them.  He worked for the seminal programme, “Caribbean Voices,” both as a presenter of his own work and seeking out the talent of others, he was an advisor to the Black British publishers Jessica and Eric Huntley, and he taught creative writing in America.

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Anansi as top-hatted spider, illustrated by American artist Marcia Brown.

Both of them published versions of Anansi stories, and it is here that I want to start.  Anansi, half-spider and half-man, is a folklore figure from West Africa, the son of the sky god and a trickster; when Africans were sold into slavery and transported to the Americas by Europeans, Anansi came with them (although he became somewhat more domesticated in the Caribbean than he was in Africa).  Philip Sherlock was one of the first to publish the folk stories of the trickster figure for children through mainstream—that is to say, British and American—publishers.  His Anansi the Spider-Man, published by Macmillan and illustrated by the American illustrator Marcia Brown, first appeared in 1956, and some version of his Anansi tales have remained in print in America and Britain ever since.  I mention this because Sherlock was focused on the education of Jamaican children, but it is likely that more children outside of Jamaica than in it have seen Sherlock’s version of the tales.  Sherlock’s stories are, in keeping with both his (white British) cultural background and his interest in promoting education, in “standard” British English rather than patois.  Sherlock is absolutely to be credited for bringing attention and cultural capital to the folktales of Jamaica, but his depiction is certainly less verbally adventurous than those of Black Jamaican writers, including Andrew Salkey’s.  Compare Sherlock’s (prose) introduction to Anansi in his 1956 collection to Salkey’s poem, “Anancy,” found in Time for Poetry (1988) edited by Nahdjla Carasco Bailey.  Sherlock writes:

WHO WAS ANANSI?  He was a man and he was a spider.

When things went well he was a man, but when he was in great danger he                         became a spider, safe in his web high up on the ceiling. . . .

Anansi’s home was in the villages and forests of West Africa.  From there long                  years ago thousands of men and women came to the islands of the Caribbean.                      They brought with them the stories that they loved, the stories about clever Br’er                Anansi, and his friends Tiger and Crow and Moos-Moos and Kisander the cat. (1)

Sherlock’s description puts Africa (and Anansi, for that matter) in the past, and connects Anansi’s spider form with fear; but Salkey’s poem suggests otherwise.  The first stanza and the last stanza are connected by Anansi’s ability to constantly change—not out of fear, but out of preference.  “Anancy is a spider;/ Anancy is a man;/ Anancy’s West Indian/ And West African” Salkey writes in the first stanza.  In the last, he adds, “And always,/ Anancy changes/ From a spider into a man/ And from a man into a spider/ And back again/ At the drop of a sleepy eyelid” (87).  Salkey’s Anancy is present and always changing; Sherlock’s Anansi belongs to the fixed past.

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Sherlock’s poem in Nahdjla Carasco Bailey’s Time for Poetry, a collection of poems for secondary students in the Caribbean.

This distinction is not merely a prose/poetry difference.  Another topic both men wrote about was the fishing communities of Jamaica.  This time, it is Sherlock who writes in poetry and Salkey in prose.  Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman” (also collected in Time for Poetry) depicts an outsider viewing a lone fisherman on the beach.  Sherlock’s frequent use of the term “black” as a descriptor and his negative adjectives (wretched, broken) puts the poet in a position of privilege with regard to the fisherman.  Sherlock’s repetition of the fisherman’s “ancient” connections puts the fisherman’s wealth and status firmly in the past.

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Cover illustration by Gerry Craig for Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Salkey, on the other hand, describes a very different fishing scene in his 1969 novel Jonah Simpson.

Jonah left the house very early Thursday morning and went down to the jetty to watch the fishing-boats coming in from the long night’s haul.  The fishermen looked tired but satisfied with their catch.  They were all younger than the men who had been in the Co-op shed the night before.  They were strong, muscular, stripped to the waist, and very confident in the way they stood and handled their small craft, bullying them into the shallow water near the jetty, and afterwards dragging them high up on to the beach.  Jonah kept out of the way, as the men began unloading the fish across a large sheet of canvas spread over the end of the jetty.  The women arrived soon afterwards with their basket and deep metal containers.  They chatted with the men and teased them about the very big fish they hadn’t had the luck to catch. (16)

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Not a lonely fisherman in poverty, but a vibrant community; Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Here is not a lonely, broken, wretched black fisherman without any fish, but a community of fisher-folk, all busy, all strong, all working and laughing together.  The community, in Salkey’s case, is more crucial than the color of their skin.  Sherlock’s Jamaica is a place fixed in the past, in poverty, in fear and loneliness; Salkey’s is communal, of the present, strong and always changing.  These are just two examples of each man’s writing, and an exhaustive study would likely show more nuance in their views of their island home.  As depicted here, however, Sherlock’s Jamaica is a repeating island, characterized by (as Antonio Benítez-Rojo writes, in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective) “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity” (1).  Salkey’s Jamaica, on the other hand, holds the possibility for change, and makes the island part of the future rather than the past.

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