Johnnie’s Letters

October 2018

Epistolary Practice in Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement

Among the numerous items included in “Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land,” the British Library’s 2018 commemorative exhibition marking the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, are several letters. These letters remind us of the complex currents and networks of exchange between Britain and the Caribbean in the middle of the twentieth century. They archive dialogues at different levels (state, institutional, interpersonal, intimate). There are official letters and dispatches but also personal notes and epistles sent through the post. These served as one means of facilitating political, narrative, and intimate exchanges between London and other spaces in the Caribbean diaspora and have become one kind of archive of the Windrush generation and moment.

One of the letters in the exhibition is from Edward Kamau Brathwaite to fellow Caribbean writer Andrew Salkey. It narrates an interesting confluence of occurrences—cultural, political, and personal—and becomes a peek into the historical moment of 1968 told through this intimate, informal exchange between two writers. The details of the letter include Brathwaite’s request for information regarding Salkey’s recent journey to Cuba; Brathwaite’s narration of his experiences living out in Spanish Town, Jamaica; his account of what films were in the cinemas of Kingston and Spanish Town (and the diligence of young men on bicycles shuttling film reels between the cinemas for showings); details regarding the obstacles, possibilities, and establishment of the Caribbean Artists Movement; and sweet news about the opening of the Creative Arts Centre (now the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Brathwaite also spends meaningful time expressing outrage regarding the attempts by Edwin Allen, the first Education Minister of independent Jamaica, to have To Sir, with Love by E. R. Brathwaite banned from schools. (The typescript of E. R. Brathwaite’s novel is also included in the Windrush exhibition at the British Library.) Kamau Brathwaite’s letter brings together a world of cultural happenings that have not often been examined together. Yet while it remains a rich cultural archive offering meaningful inquiries and firsthand accounts, it is the intimacy of the form of the letter that I want to note here. In this space of the letter, Brathwaite engages an informal mode of address. The lyrical style of the letter, written in a Creole rhythm that is arguably recognizably Brathwaitian, is conversational and disarming and offers glimpses of his aesthetics of word play that would continue to mark his published verse.

The British Library has in its holdings a rich archive of letters between Andrew Salkey and a range of other writers, including letters to and from Kamau Brathwaite, C. L. R. James, Jan Carew, and John La Rose, among others. As Nadia Ellis asserts in her discussion of Salkey’s role in the generation of writers of the 1960s, “He was absolutely central to the community of West Indian writers in London during the mid-20th century.”1 Letters offer one way of narrating and mapping these professional and personal intimacies. Michael Bucknor, for instance, further situates Salkey within broader circuits of literary community in his own examination of Austin Clarke’s letters (which includes letters from Salkey) in his essay “Canada in Black Transnational Studies: Austin Clarke, Affective Affiliations, and the Cross-border Poetics of Caribbean-Canadian Writing,” which examines Clarke’s correspondences and narrative exchanges with male writers across the Atlantic, in Britain, and in the Caribbean. Bucknor contextualizes these exchanges and communications between these men through a turn to queer theory and to a discourse of the homosocial as a way of noting the intimacies, or what he terms the “affective affiliations,” that marked their letters to each other:

Much of the expressions of affect are detailed in the fond names they call each other, the expressions of comfort and encouragement, the sharing of personal stories about their love lives, and their homosocial bonding. . . .

There is not enough space to detail the various accounts of intimacy in these letters . . . but the clear homosocial practice of hypermasculine cussing and retailing stories about womanizing is only part of a larger story of caring, thoughtfulness, comfort, support, confessions of vulnerability, and building of networks.2

Salkey emerges as a central figure within this transnational circuit of letter writing and exchange. Both the intimacies and the frequencies of his exchanges with Clarke, for instance, are signaled through the different names that Bucknor recounts that Salkey uses to address Clarke: “Brother Austin,” “My dearest Brother Man,” and “My dear Austin, Brother Man.”3 If, as Bucknor recounts, these letter-writing circuits were important modes of community making, intimacy, and support for these writers, it is little wonder that letter writing also recurs in their literary texts as an important mode of literary address and as a significant trope of diaspora, distance, and community making. I suggest here that as much as letters were significant to Salkey’s practice of literary community, they also function as an important, if understudied, presence in his literary fiction.

“Caribbean epistolary practice has not attracted much scholarly attention,” Kei Miller notes in his PhD thesis, “Jamaica to the World: A Study of Jamaican (and West Indian) Epistolary Practices.”4 Miller points to Isabel Carrera Suarez’s essay “Epistolary Traditions in Caribbean Diasporic Writing: Subversions of the Oral/Scribal Paradox in Alecia McKenzie’s ‘Full Stop’” and Rhonda Frederick’s book Colón Man a Come: Mythographies of Panama Canal Migration, which includes a chapter on the “epistolary narratives” of the Panama Canal, as the two primary critical discussions on this subject in Caribbean literary studies. Yet while Miller reflects on an absence of critical attention, it is also important to note his mapping of the presence and trope of the letter in a range of Caribbean literary texts. Miller points to an interesting archive including the letters shared between V. S. Naipaul and his father (published in Letters between Father and Son) and the published letters of Jamaica’s first prime minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante. He also examines a number of Caribbean epistolary novels, mainly by women, including Paulette Ramsay’s Aunt Jen and Beryl Gilroy’s Gather the Faces, and looks at the verse epistles of the Jamaican poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Louise Bennett, James Berry, and Lorna Goodison. Miller’s work points to an exciting body of texts demanding fuller critical study and examination.

Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement, published in 1960, might also be examined in relation to this tradition of Caribbean literary engagement with letters. The novel focuses on the main character, Johnnie Sobert, and his experiences living in London in the middle of the twentieth century. While Salkey does not use the form of the epistolary novel (as seen in the classic texts of the genre such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela), in his work we see a repeated return to the letter as theme and narrative subject and as an important tool for the development of character and plot. There are several moments, narrated in detail, that focus on characters reading, writing, and receiving letters. Some letters are also given textual space in the narrative, such as the letters that Johnnie receives from his mother in Jamaica. The textual inclusion of “his mother’s hectoring missives from home” calls attention to the influence of the epistolary genre in Salkey’s work and demonstrates a keen engagement with literary epistolarity.5 However, there are other letters that are only talked about or referenced, even as they function to mark important textual and narrative turning points. In noting this distinction, I would argue that Salkey is not keen to reproduce simply the epistolary form or to write a novel in the tradition of the epistolary genre; rather, he engages with letters as part of his writing of a text of diaspora. I am suggesting here that we might read the novel as documenting the culture of epistolarity rather than as producing a text of epistolarity.6 To read the novel in this way is to locate the centrality of diaspora to the narrative but also to locate the significance of letters to understandings and histories of Caribbean disaporas.

This tension in reading both the form and cultures of epistolarity in the space of this novel is perhaps best marked in the contrast between the treatment of the letters from Johnnie’s father and the letters from his mother, which form a counterpoint to each other. As mentioned above, the letters to and from his mother are given textual space and constitute part of the narrative. A reading of these letters reveals a vexed and complex intimacy between mother and son, but they also function, in tone and style, to reinscribe a history of letter writing as associated with the middle-class colonial world of manners, perhaps most vividly expressed through the use of letters in Jane Austen’s novels and other nineteenth-century narratives. The letters from Johnnie’s father, on the other hand, are recalled only through the space of memory and only briefly (as opposed to being referenced for their content and style). While the letters from Johnnie’s mother allow for a focus on the act of letter writing, the letters from his father serve a symbolic function of inscribing the socioeconomic world of migration, diaspora, and remittance, often textually signified through the object of the airmail envelope.

In noting these differences in Salkey’s invocation and treatment of letters, we might also reflect on what the narrative use of letters reveals about questions of intimacy, desire, memory, silence, absence, and temporal spaces of distance that have all been variously examined by scholars of epistolarity.7 Perhaps one of Salkey’s most moving and self-conscious reflections on letters occurs in a passage in which Johnnie reflects on his relationship with his father, which is primarily mapped through the presence of airmail envelopes sent from Panama:  

Panama is a strange world to a child who sees an airmail envelope being delivered every so-and-so of the month. Dutifully arriving. Appreciated on receipt. And more than that. . . . But when an airmail envelope means a father’s presence, then there is bound to be a problem later on. Much later, maybe. For child and mother. Poor Mother!

Nevertheless an airmail envelope is an airmail envelope if even there’s a real handsome draft in it. If even it feeds, clothes and even educates you. If even it buys houses and hires servants. If even . . .8

This reference to Panama, in this text of diaspora, recalls the fact of Salkey’s own diasporic formation and his biographical connection to Panama, where he was born. But it also recalls wider narratives of labor migration to Panama, which, as Rhonda Frederick notes, produced their own cultures of epistolary practice and narrative making.

Rhonda Frederick turns to some of these letters as sources in her 2005 study Colón Man a Come and is keen to locate these letters within the wider cultural circulation of narratives that constitute a “mythography” (a term she theorizes by referencing Audre Lorde’s “biomythography,” which refuses a straightforward delineation between individual and collective narrative and between truth and myth). Frederick’s critical engagement with Panama Canal histories, letters, and stories also proves useful for reading this text in that it specifically references and recalls the homosocial and masculine space of desire and contact that was the Canal Zone. Noting the queer, homosocial dimensions of this mythography, Frederick argues that “dandified Colón Men expose the figures’ masculinist imaginings.”9 In Salkey’s novel, the reflections on the letters from Johnnie’s father further calls attention to the narrative construction of the figure of the “Colón Man” through economies of lack and absence (in this instance, a kind of reductive narrative association with the symbol of the airmail envelope) but also through excess, as a figure of capitalist pursuit, a narrative that functions to construct what Frederick calls the “Colón-Man-as-dandy.”10 These masculine and homosocial narratives of movement, desire, and epistolarity that are recalled in Salkey’s brief, symbolic referencing of the stories of the Colón Man also connect with Michael Bucknor’s discussion of Salkey’s, and other Caribbean writers’, own diasporic and homosocial networks and circuits of letter writing and their construction of relations of intimacy and support.

In reading Salkey’s text we might also additionally note the importance and function of letters as one way of marking queerness. Letters become a key way in which queer desire is delineated, signaled, and expressed. At the same time letters also function to structure deferrals, silences, and retroactive resignifications in the novel’s engagement with queer subjects. The recent resurgence of interest in Salkey’s writing has largely been linked to a queer turn in Caribbean literary studies. Indeed, Thomas Glave’s introduction to the 2009 Peepal Tree Press republication of Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement, as well as Glave’s inclusion of an extract from the novel in his Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, has served to reintroduce the text to readers and critics interested in questions of sexuality in Caribbean writing. Critical discussions by scholars such as Kate Houlden and Nadia Ellis have also served to reexamine Salkey’s depictions of queer domesticity and desire.11 Yet as Ellis argues, “To call Escape to an Autumn Pavement an early ‘gay’ Caribbean novel . . . is to run up against some difficulty.”12 This difficulty arises for several reasons, among them the fact that homosexual desire is never explicitly consummated in the narrative. Rather, I would argue, letters function as a space in which declarations of queer erotic love are at once expressed and circumscribed.

Salkey’s novel might, in one way, be read as organized through the structure of “erotic triangles” that Eve Sedgewick writes of as central to our understandings of male homosociality.13 The main character, Johnnie, moves between a relationship with Fiona, a white Englishwoman, and Dick, a gay Englishman. Johnnie subsequently moves into a flat with Dick, in what he initially understands as a platonic arrangement. When Dick eventually declares his love for Johnnie and asks him to make a decision, between him and Fiona, this desire and demand is most explicitly conveyed through a passionate letter in the final pages of the novel. Dick’s letter arguably functions as a defining narrative moment that makes visible the tensions that underlie the later portions of the novel and structure the climax of the text. The position of this letter toward the end becomes significant, since the text itself concludes in the ambiguous waiting space of desire and anticipation that is postal time. The narrative closes with this queer letter awaiting a response, further underlined by Salkey’s use of a postscript from Dick that calls attention to this waiting:

My Dearest Johnnie,

This had to happen, sooner or later. I’m sorry, very sorry. There was nothing left for me to do but to help you; indeed, to force you to make up your mind. . . . I had to go or I’d only torment you and keep reminding you of how hopelessly involved and in love I am with you; and this, I know, would merely further complicate things, both for you and me.

. . . For our sake, for the pleasant memories we’ve stored up through the months of partnership in the flat and before at Hampstead, for our future sake, yours and mine, or, ours, choose, I beg of you, choose with both your head and your heart; choose intelligently and compassionately.

It’s either to be Fiona or myself. It’s as simple as that; and again, on second thoughts, not as simple as that sounds. It’s up to you.

With all my love,


P.S. Happy New Year. I’m waiting for you.14

In addition to Dick’s letter, the fact of epistolarity marks Salkey’s novel in key ways, with a notable pile-up of references to cards, notes, and mail. These chart a series of escapes, departures, absences, and desires and function, in dual ways, to mark both diasporic intimacy and domestic intimacy. In this final letter, however, it is the space of queer domesticity, or what Dick calls their “partnership in the flat,” that is explicitly named and mapped. Dick’s letter significantly marks a key textual turning point in that it at once, retroactively (through his very departure), comes to name that space of intimacy and domesticity that was shared, but it also, at the same time, opens up a longing and desire for a different kind of consolidation on more explicit terms. The closing of the narrative frustrates the immediate demand for the consummation of this desire but at the same time does not foreclose its possibilities. In reading Salkey’s novel, I argue that attention to the numerous letters that recur, and are referenced, throughout allows us to map how queer erotics and diasporic intimacies are complexly structured in this text.


Ronald Cummings teaches queer and postcolonial literatures at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. His current research focuses on queerness, marronage, and Caribbean writing.


1 Nadia Ellis, “Between Windrush and Wolfenden: Class Crossings and Queer Desire in Andrew Salkey’s Postwar London,” in J. Dillon Brown and ‎Leah Reade Rosenberg, eds., Beyond Windrush: Rethinking Postwar Anglophone Caribbean Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 61.

2 Michael Bucknor, “Canada in Black Transnational Studies: Austin Clarke, Affective Affiliations, and the Cross-border Poetics of Caribbean-Canadian Writing,” in Melissa Tanti, Jeremy Haynes, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York, eds., Beyond “Understanding Canada”: Transnational Perspectives on Canadian Literature (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2017), 71–72.

3 Ibid., 71.           

4 Andrew Kei Miller, “Jamaica to the World: A Study of Jamaican (and West Indian) Epistolary Practices” (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2012), 13.

5 Nadia Ellis, Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 106.

6 See Gary M. Schneider, The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005); and Janet Gurkin Altman, EpistolarityApproaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982).

7 See ibid.; Linda S. Kauffman, Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), and Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Bucknor, “Canada in Black Transnational Studies.”

8 Andrew Salkey, Escape to an Autumn Pavement (1960; repr., Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2009), 80–81 (ellipses in original).

9 Rhonda D. Frederick, Colon Man a’ Come: Mythographies of Panama Canal Migration (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005), 130.

10 Ibid., 131.

11 See Kate Houlden, Sexuality, Gender, and Nationalism in Caribbean Literature: Writings from the Post-war Anglophone Caribbean (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); and Ellis, Territories of the Soul.

12 Ellis, Territories of the Soul, 108.

13 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press), 21.

14 Salkey, Escape to an Autumn Pavement, 210–11.


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