Felix Andrew Alexander Salkey was one of the most prolific of Caribbean writers, having published more than half a dozen novels, several volumes of poetry, three travel books, ten anthologies for which he was editor, and at least ten children’s books, including short stories and folk tales from the Caribbean. In 1992, his prolific output and significant contribution to black literature around the world were recognized by Black Scholar magazine, which granted Salkey its Twenty-fifth Anniversary Award for Excellence in the Field of Literature. The citation read at the Commonwealth Institute in London praised Salkey for his forty years of producing poetry and fiction and for his journalism and editing work.
Salkey was born in Colon, Panama, in 1928 and was brought to Jamaica to live first with his grandmother and then his mother when he was two years old. He attended high school at one of Jamaica’s prestigious boarding schools, Munroe College. His father remained in Panama, where he managed to make a fairly good living renting and repairing boats. Throughout Salkey’s childhood, his father was absent; the clearest demonstration of his father’s existence came each month when money arrived to support the family. Salkey never met his father until he was thirty-two years old. Even a passing familiarity with Salkey’s writing reveals that this absence of a father figure greatly influenced his work. Curiously, his children’s literature sought to celebrate the presence of the father figure as the constant and reliable head of the household, but his adult novels became, among other things, involved explorations of the psychology of fatherlessness.
While growing up in Jamaica, Salkey was drawn to, and deeply influenced by, the oral tradition that was passed on to him by his grandmother and his mother. The impact of the Anancy stories shared at nighttime, complete with the inimitable improvisational style of folk telling, is clearly demonstrated in his fascination with the trickster figure in virtually all of his work. This figure not only appears as a character in the short-story collections Anancy’s Score and Brother Anancy, and Other Stories but also appears in novels such as A Quality of Violence as a catalyst for dramatic action and ideological complication. More tellingly, the figure emerges in the guise of the author, who is constantly using duplicity, innuendo, the withholding of information, and intrigue to produce tension and interest in his works.
In Jamaica, Salkey attended two prestigious boys’ grammar schools, St. George’s College and Munroe College. At the age of twenty-four, he left Jamaica for England, where he took a bachelor’s degree at the University of London. He then worked as a teacher for several years, teaching English language and literature and Latin. At the same time, he pursued his writing desires by working as a scriptwriter, editor, and broadcaster with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Salkey’s voice thus became one of the many Caribbean voices emanating from England to the Caribbean on BBC broadcasts. After the 1959 publication of his first novel, A Quality of Violence, his status as a significant West Indian novelist was fairly well established. During this period, he wrote both prose and poetry; he was busy on the manuscript for A Quality of Violence when he won the Thomas Hemore Poetry Prize for the long poem “Jamaica Symphony” in 1955.
A Quality of Violence established Salkey as a significant Caribbean voice, and it was upon the evidence of that novel that he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960. The novel’s significance lies in the clear way in which it demonstrated Salkey’s penchant for the role of novelist as trickster–a role that many critics would come to misunderstand in the analysis of his work. In A Quality of Violence, Salkey deals with deeply problematic themes of violence, religion, and the dynamics of colonial power and culture in a manner that appeared to challenge the value of superstition and Afrocentric religions in Caribbean society.
Like many Caribbean writers of his generation, Salkey spent most of his life abroad. Nevertheless, his life has been marked by a constant movement between the Caribbean and “abroad,” whether that be England or North America. This movement affected his work significantly, and in much of his adult fiction he deals with themes of exile and alienation. He also constantly contends with the dynamic of nostalgia as it affects the writer abroad. His poetry collections reflect this pattern vividly. The 1973 volume Jamaica explores issues of identity and place and is characterized by a strong desire to retrieve origins–a sense of belonging in a writer who has spent many of his years away. In the volumes Land and Away, he returns to similar themes of absence, departure, and return, preoccupations that manage to eschew the temptation of blind nostalgia. His novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement is centrally about a young West Indian living in Britain, facing the tragedy of absence and homelessness; his 1976 novel Come Home, Malcom Heartland explores the problems of return and the challenges of coping with the sense of being away from home for too long. Yet while these themes are central to the works, it must be noted that Salkey has always been, in his adult work, a deeply political writer whose interest in the dynamics of Marxist ideology serve as a fascinating anchor for many of his ideas.
Salkey’s other preoccupation, which stayed with him for most of his life as an active writer, was to produce anthology after anthology of Caribbean writing (essays, poetry, fiction), including an important anthology of Cuban poetry since the Cuban Revolution. His 1971 anthology Breaklight has remained for years one of the basic texts of high school English programs in the Caribbean and for many West Indians served as their earliest introduction to West Indian writers. While reflecting Salkey’s clear passion and confidence in the work of his fellow authors, these anthologies also show him as an informed scholar and reader of West Indian writing and as a generous promoter of the work of his colleagues. This role of mentor and guide for many writers has had a significant effect on Caribbean literature since the 1960’s.
Throughout his life, Salkey traveled extensively in the Caribbean. In 1971, he published a travel journal about Cuba, Havana Journal; the following year, after a visit to Guyana, he wrote Georgetown Journal: A Caribbean Writer’s Journey from London via Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana, 1970.
In 1976, Salkey moved to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught until he retired because of ailing health. For several years, Salkey had battled severe diabetes, and in 1995 he succumbed to its complications. Salkey was married and had two sons.