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A Lark in West Indian London

Photo by Howard Grey/Bridgeman Images
Caribbean migrants arriving at Waterloo Station, London, 1962

On every level, Sam Selvon’s The Housing Lark is a novel about community. From its unconventional narrative voice, to its ingenious ballad form, to its triumphant plot, to its wry observations about race, nationality, gender, food, music, and history, the novel at once depicts and enacts the coming together of West Indian emigrants in postwar London. Unlike A Brighter Sun, The Lonely Londoners, and others of Selvon’s better-known novels, The Housing Lark rarely appears in courses on Caribbean, black British, or postcolonial literature. Yet it is not for lack of quality that the academic canon has abandoned The Housing Lark. Rather, it seems that required reading lists often can’t accommodate humor. With its surprisingly happy ending and irreverent, spirited wit, The Housing Lark goes against the grain of much postcolonial literature.

The Housing Lark shares with The Lonely Londoners and Selvon’s Moses trilogy the topic of West Indian migrant lives in London. In response to a postwar labor shortage, the United Kingdom’s government encouraged its Commonwealth citizens to emigrate beginning in 1948. After arriving, the new inhabitants faced white supremacy and xenophobia in multiple forms, including social segregation, housing bias, and employment discrimination. Yet Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Barbadians, Grenadians, Guyanese, and others continued to emigrate until the British government erected legal barriers in 1971. Published in 1965, The Housing Lark belongs to a slightly later wave of immigration than the better-known novels of Selvon, George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, and others; its characters are already somewhat established in London but still figuring out their way. Most significantly, whereas the government predominantly recruited male migrants in the 1950s, more women began to arrive in the following decade. Accordingly, the novel’s female characters play a significant part in its plot and themes.

That plot, roughly, involves the “lark” or quixotic idea of buying a home together. Each of the novel’s main characters has encountered variations of racist and predatory rental markets, and together they scheme to find a literal and figurative place of their own. From its opening scene, The Housing Lark poses the question of whether the lark can become a reality: Will these motley folks, male and female, black and Indian, from Trinidad and Jamaica, prostitutes, housecleaners, factory workers, and hustlers, be able to achieve this milestone of upward mobility? More than any other of Selvon’s novels, The Housing Lark explores the possibility of unity in difference.

The Housing Lark depicts the quest among migrants for a place to be fully human. Rather than use a conventional chapter structure, Selvon chose to shape his novel according to “ballads,” or character-based episodes. Though carefully thought out and brilliantly executed, this unusual structure has the effect of appearing spontaneous and unmediated. Our impression is of a friend associatively recounting stories; the novel, in fact, is perfectly assembled to make the points and create the effect that Selvon intended.

As the Barbadian poet and literary theorist Kamau Brathwaite writes in his critical study History of the Voice, calypso has often provided a central format and aesthetic for West Indian writing. Whereas Brathwaite’s topic is poetry, in The Housing Lark calypso influences the shape of the work of art on the most macro levels of plot and novelistic form as well as at the more line-by-line level of rhythm and language. To my mind, The Housing Lark represents one of fiction’s most fortuitous marriages of form and content: every character’s fate is linked to that of others; they form a community together; and that interdependence comes across perfectly in the overall shape of the novel. Whenever we move from one character to the next, the anonymous narrator navigates the novel’s terrain in a careful, deliberate way: out to a new ballad, then back in again to the main storyline, in the search for a place that these individuals, together, can call their own. Thoroughly in control of the narrative, Selvon’s narrator masterfully balances individual and communal stories.

Selvon employs an extraordinarily innovative narrative voice, which I would call “embodied omniscient.” Like a traditional omniscient narrator, this one has no name or specific persona, and is aware of the inner thoughts and motivations of all the characters. Yet he also identifies himself as part of their community, an individual with raced, nationalized, gendered characteristics. He is clearly male, of West Indian origin, a fellow migrant.

Vernacular fiction, in other words fiction in any nonstandard variety of a language, tends to fall into two categories: either an omniscient narrator uses a standardized variety, while characters speak in vernacular (as in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy), or there is a vernacular-speaking first-person narrator (as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Sapphire’s Push, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and many others). Selvon’s novels are extremely rare in their choice to bestow narrative authority—in other words, objective knowledge—on a vernacular narrator. Perhaps only Earl Lovelace (in The Wine of Astonishment and other fiction) and Oonya Kempadoo (in Tide Running) have also created omniscient vernacular narrators, and those came decades after Selvon’s innovation.

Even beyond the innovative choice of omniscient vernacular narrator, this is a novel in love with West Indian Vernacular English (WIVE). Like the novel’s form and narrator, its linguistic medium, too, works to create and reinforce a sense of community and belonging. Consider the following ode to Selvon’s subject and method:

If you ever want to hear old-talk no other time better than one like this when men belly full, four crates of beer and eight bottle of rum finish, and a summer sun blazing in the sky. Out of the blue, old-talk does start up. You couldn’t, or shouldn’t, differentiate between the voices, because men only talking, throwing in a few words here, butting in there, making a comment, arguing a point, stating a view. Nobody care who listen or who talk. Is as if a fire going, and every- body throwing in a piece of fuel now and then to keep it going. It don’t matter what you throw in, as long as the fire keep going—wood, coal, peat, horse-shit, kerosene, gasoline, the lot.

Selvon draws a compelling parallel among language, community, and his own novel: talk is life, life is literature, literature is talk. WIVE, here, functions as both a metaphor and a medium for the idea of communal endeavors and survival in the colonial metropolis. This is the essence of Selvon’s undertaking and his success.

The Housing Lark celebrates West Indian vernacular cultures in all their multiple manifestations, from language to food, music, religion, nicknames, history, and ultimately to vernacular forms of knowledge. The novel draws a clear contrast between “mash potato and watery cabbage and some thin slice of meat what you could see through” and “all kind of big iron pot with pilau and pigfoot and dumpling, to mention a few delicacies.” Music is an equally strong source of pride and community. Formally, calypso gives the novel its ballad shape; calypso also provides the deus ex machina happy ending. The charming and optimistic Harry Banjo is a perfect metatextual figure for the artist (whether musical or literary) who brings people together and interprets migrant culture to a broader audience. Like Langston Hughes’s ode to internal migration, “Po’ Boy Blues,” Harry’s music merges a pre-existing musical form with reinvented migrant content.

Channeling Harry’s diplomatically phrased publicity materials, the narrator tells us that “he would be cutting his first disc soon, with some numbers that he compose while awaiting Her Majesty’s pleasure in the Brixton jail.” Migration and unjust incarceration have changed Harry’s music; the pre-existing genre of calypso is made new for a new place and a newly diversified audience. Art, in Selvon’s view, is always reinventing itself, for the good of all its consumers. Like The Housing Lark, Harry’s album is a faithfully West Indian artistic product that could only have existed in diaspora.

Along with food, music, and, briefly, religious practices, nicknames too signify a vernacular outlook. The nicknames that abound in The Housing Lark constitute an insider’s shorthand that defines and delineates a community. Nearly every male character has a nickname; the narrator displays his careful negotiation of multiple codes and audiences by establishing their “official” names (Battersby, Fitzwilliams, and so on) and then quickly switching to the more intimate and personal nicknames.

Finally, in the same way that he deflates Standard English language, Selvon’s narrator also punctures “official” English history. When the characters visit Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s sixteenth-century palace, the narrator observes,

You could imagine the old Henry standing up there by the window in the morning scratching his belly and looking out, after a night at the banqueting board and a tussle in bed with some fair English damsel. You could imagine old bastard watching his chicks as they stroll about the gardens, studying which one to behead and which one to make a stroke with.

This moment, among others, displays Selvon’s revisionist agenda: to tell the story of West Indian immigration to England from a West Indian point of view. We see competing versions of history, “official” and popular, dominant and subaltern. As one of the central figures narrates his version of English history to his family, they’re shushed by a disapproving guard: “‘Here here, what’s all this?’ a attendant come up. ‘You can’t be shouting like that. Move along now.’” Authorities upholding white supremacy will always be present, telling the immigrants that they don’t belong and have no right to interpret the meaning of England. Yet The Housing Lark itself defies those authorities, moving along with its characters rather than pushing them away.

Despite its light tone, The Housing Lark conveys a complex and crucial debate about education and historiography: Whose history will be told, and how? Later in the same Hampton Court scene, unnamed characters ponder how history will be taught now that West Indian children have entered the English school system in large numbers. The following unattributed dialogue may be spontaneous and conversational, but it contains important and enduring questions about curriculum and national identity:

‘I must say you boys surprise me with your historical knowledge. It’s a bit mixed up, I think, but it’s English history.’
‘We don’t know any other kind. That’s all they used to teach we in school.’
‘That’s because our people ain’t have no history. But what I wonder is, when we have, you think they going to learn the children that in the English schools?’
‘Who say we ain’t have history?’

The Housing Lark enters this vital and prescient debate, presenting Selvon’s version of Anglo-Caribbean history in the making. The narrator concludes the passage about Henry VIII, “And suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!” As the most xenophobic white English citizens feared, and as the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett triumphantly predicted in her 1966 poem Colonisation in Reverse, the presence of West Indian migrants would fundamentally and irrevocably change English culture.

While entertaining and diverting, the novel has an explicitly counter-discursive function: Selvon intends it to provide evidence against all the stereotypes and assumptions his characters face in the unwelcoming metropolis. To give one example out of many,

You see, though the newspaper and the radio tell you that people in the West Indies desperate for jobs and that is why they come to Britain, you mustn’t believe that that is the case with all of them. I mean, some fellars just pick themselves up and come with the spirit of adventure, expecting the worst but hoping for the best. Some others just bored and decide to come and see what the old Brit’n look like.

Fiction, in Selvon’s hands, offers an alternative to portrayals of immigrants in the mainstream media.

Along with providing a valuable corrective for its white audience, the novel is also clearly pitched to West Indian diasporic readers. The unapologetically capitalized phrase “OUR PEOPLE” appears throughout, often in moments of pride. For both audiences, the novel has a continually defamiliarizing function: In other words, it presents mainstream Anglo culture through the eyes of those who don’t take it for granted and therefore can highlight its absurdity and arbitrariness. For example, a brilliant early passage mocks English folk beliefs about the weather:

I mean, you think it have a lot of obeah and black magic in the West Indies, but if you listen to some of these Nordics. They say red sky is shepherd’s delight, and if the dog all asleep that mean rain coming, and if the cat start to play frisk that mean sunshine.

As in the scenes at Hampton Court, here we have what we could call a West Indian vernacular epistemology: a form of knowledge that lightly but deliberately challenges Anglocentric ways of thinking. In this instance, Selvon’s narrator deploys humor to deauthorize English forms of knowledge. This is only one of many tactical uses of humor throughout The Housing Lark. Indeed, it is a seriously funny novel, in the sense that its wit is both constant and satisfying, and also always in service to the work’s themes and political observations. Selvon’s narrator sums up this technique in one of his formal explanations: “Now, I will have to digress with a ballad about Syl, which will help to explain why Syl ain’t laughing.” Syl, the novel’s most prominent Indo-Trinidadian character,  ain’t laughing about the idea of co-owning a house because he has found his low-status regional identity as a Caribbean migrant at odds with his higher-status racialized appearance as a person of Indian origin. His only way around prejudiced landlords is a desperate masquerade. Syl’s “ballad” is at once a profound—and profoundly sad—exploration of the complexities of racial and cultural identity, and also a genuinely amusing episode.

The Housing Lark contains humor that challenges respectability politics as well, and sometimes reproduces English stereotypes of Anglo-Caribbeans. Within an overwhelmingly racist structure, as Selvon demonstrates throughout the novel, no individual of color can be seen as an individual; instead, all come to represent their race and nation. Given that condition of hyper-visibility, notions of appearance and propriety have a strong implication for literary art, as they lead to the question of which stories should be told, and how. With his staunch commitment to humor and vernacular values, Selvon stakes out a claim against respectability. Rather than participate in the literature of uplift, he is determined to paint a picture of the West Indian immigrant community that is comic and often unflattering, including misogyny, fractures of solidarity, and much generally ridiculous behavior.

In keeping with its continuous dual audience, its jokes come at the expense of West Indian as well as English readers. We all are left with the feeling that Teena’s accusation, “You all can’t even get serious” applies at once to Selvon’s male characters and also to his novel. In Teena’s voice, he indirectly condemns his own methods of comedy and digression. Selvon resists getting too serious, but by the end of the novel shows that he takes Teena’s emphasis on pride, appearance, and upward mobility quite seriously. Opposing the literature of respectability and uplift, Selvon asserts that his characters’ stories need to be told.


Adapted from Dohra Ahmad’s introduction to The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon, which will be published by Penguin Classics.