OBITUARY: Andrew Salkey
Tuesday 16 May 1995
Like so many of his compatriots, Andrew Salkey was born in Colon, of Jamaican parents who had migrated to work in Panama. Although schooled - in the best ''British colonial'' traditions - in Jamaica, he remained fluent in Spanish and was an attentive scholar of new writing in the Spanish Caribbean and Latin America and an acute observer of its political life. His anthology Writing In Cuba Since The Revolution (1977) represented an important and committed act of cultural ''translation''; and his collection of poems In The Hills Where The Dream Lives: Poems For Chile was awarded the Casa de las Americas poetry prize in 1979.
Salkey was born a story-teller - a quality most evident in his children's stories and folk tales. Both his reading voice and his written prose explored those fluid transitions between literary English and the Caribbean vernacular which was characteristic of the first generation of Caribbean writers in exile.
In the early Fifties Salkey came to England to go to London University; published his first novel - A Quality of Violence - in 1955 and quickly took his place at the centre of a small but outstanding circle of Caribbean writers and intellectuals. For a critical period he was the key figure, the main presenter and writer-in-residence in the Caribbean section of the BBC World Service at Bush House, and his programmes became a glittering showcase for a generation of writers, including Sam Selvon and George Lamming, who had made London their second home. Established and aspiring authors were chivvied, cajoled, gently chastised, inspired and schooled to produce new work for radio on the Caribbean Voices programme over which Andrew Salkey often presided.
His generosity and inspiration to young black writers is evident in their first, halting appearance in the several anthologies of new Caribbean writing which he edited. He was a key figure in the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement and a keen supporter of Bogle L'Overture in its pioneering role as the first publishing house for black writing in Britain. But writing was, to the last, his abiding passion, especially where it allowed him to evoke popular life.
His own gifts for vernacular narrative are, in my view, seen to best advantage in the wonderful versions of Anancy stories which he wrote. Anancy stories are folk-tales, African in origin, part of the Jamaican oral tradition (so much of which has now been lost), which were the indigenous children's stories of his (and my) Jamaican childhood. Anancy was a classic folk- trickster, half-man, half-spider, whose hilarious exploits and guileful stratagems were really ''survival stories'' of everyday life among hard- pressed and oppressed Jamaican ''folks''. Anancy's inventive double-dealings, folk-craftiness and mastery of language and the forked tongue of the vernacular were a perfect mirror for Andrew Salkey's explosive sense of humour, gifts of narrative and generosity of spirit.
He had been partially disabled for some years, but retained his vitality and passion for the new, and he created around him in Massachusetts, where he went to teach, a circle of inspired students. He was frequently in London, which remained in many ways his true spiritual and literary ''home- from-home''. His untimely death has not only robbed us of one of nature's true fabulators, but of a generous and inspiring spirit and one of those for whom living the literary life was always also an act of courageous political commitment.
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