Poet, novelist, and critic
Award-winning poet, novelist, and critic David Dabydeen writes about his native Guyana and the experiences of colonialism and migration. He makes particular use of Guyanese Creole, a dialect that blends African, French, Spanish, and Indian languages with English and contributes a great deal to the rhythms, rhymes, and emotional power of his work. The language itself is revealed as an area of dispute between colonial power and individuals themselves. Dabydeen was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1984 for his book Slave Song. His novels have attracted critical acclaim and his critical works, many of which explore the status of black writers and their work in the English literary tradition, have also been influential; he claims Shakespeare's famous colonial play The Tempest as among his major influences. He is a professor at the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, England.
David Dabydeen was born in Berbice, Guyana, on December 9, 1956; his family was Indo-Guyanese, tracing their heritage back to East Indian indentured workers brought to Guyana between 1838 and 1917. A British colony until 1966, Guyana was in a state of political turmoil during Dabydeen's childhood, and his family moved often to avoid what the British called the "disturbances." In 1969, as the country moved closer to becoming a republic under Forbes Burnham and his People's National Congress party, attacks on the Indo-Guyanese became more common. Dabydeen moved with his parents to London, England, where they believed life would be better, but their sense of disappointment and displacement later became a common thread in Dabydeen's work. After being told by a teacher that he would be lucky even to get into university, Dabydeen won a rare scholarship to Cambridge University and graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He studied for his doctorate in English literature at London University, graduating in 1982.
Dabydeen began writing the poems that would form his first book, Slave Song (1984), while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. Surprised at the lack of poetry written in creole, he set about recreating the authentic voice of enslaved laborers on the Guyanese sugar cane plantations. The poems explore all aspects of the workers' lives, from their backbreaking, dangerous work, to their leisure-time drinking and singing. But Dabydeen is also interested in exploring the experience of colonization. He uses the conflict between the slaves' patois and the language of the colonial masters to express the physical, political, and cultural conflicts in their lives. In Coolie Odyssey (1988), his second book of poetry, this tension between place, language, and identity comes to the surface in the form of an immigrant's journey from the Caribbean to England. This book is written almost entirely in standard English, perhaps reflecting the way immigrants find themselves swamped by the language and culture of their adopted country. Nevertheless the rhythms are markedly Caribbean, as if retaining some identity at least in the face of an alien mode of speech.
The way in which language is used to control and dominate is a central theme in many of Dabydeen's works. In his first two novels, Dabydeen creates characters whose narration in creole grates against the language of those around them. Somehow his characters have to negotiate an identity that remembers its origins, yet avoids descending into mimicry or parody. Above all, Dabydeen's characters struggle to assimilate many identities, a state that he applies to the wider context of Britain itself. In an interview with Wolfgang Binder in The Art of David Dabydeen, he said: "Over the centuries our cultures have become so interwoven that you can't be a Guyanese without being a Brit, and you can't be a Brit without being a Guyanese, or a Caribbean."
Dabydeen's work as an historian and critic explores similar themes. In the 1990s he wrote and edited several books exploring the importance of black writers and of blacks in English literature. His third poetry book, Turner: New and Selected Poems, includes a long poem, from which the book gets its title, on the subject of the representation of blacks in the paintings of J. W. Turner. His book Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art is a major study of race and identity in the eighteenth century and received much praise for its central argument, that artist William Hogarth includes black characters in his paintings as a subversive or unsettling presence.
In 2004 Dabydeen published his fourth novel, called Our Lady of Demerara and set in 1990s Coventry, England, and Guyana. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Sukhdev Sandhu described it as "a murder-mystery of sorts…a brooding, powerful novel of unusual ambition." The novel develops many of the themes for which Dabydeen has become known—cultural loss, the problem of poverty and failed ambition, colonialism—but it does so with perhaps a lighter touch than before. Sukhdev Sandhu explains: "Yet such themes…are explored with wit and fire. Not for Dabydeen the hand-wringing dolours and communal uplift of a certain strain of postcolonial literature. He prefers intellectual bawdy."
Dabydeen's diverse work has generally been admired by reviewers and he holds a distinguished position in the British literary establishment, making many television, radio, and live appearances to read his work and speak as a cultural commentator. He is Professor and director of the Department of Caribbean Studies at Warwick University and is the Guyanese ambassador to the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The Intended, Minerva, 1992.
Disappearance, Secker & Warburg, 1993.
The Counting House, Jonathan Cape, 1996.
A Harlot's Progress, Jonathan Cape, 1999.
Our Lady of Demerara, Dido Press, 2004.
Slave Song, Dangaroo, 1984.
Coolie Odyssey, Hansib, 1988.
Turner: New and Selected Poems, Cape Poetry, 1994.
At a Glance …
Born on December 9, 1956, in Berbice, British Guyana; son of Krishna Prasad and Vera Dabydeen; immigrated to the United Kingdom, 1969; married Rachel (an occupational therapist), 2003. Education: Cambridge University, BA (Honors) in English literature, 1978; London University, PhD in English literature, 1982; postdoctoral study at Wolfson College, Oxford, 1983-87.
Career: Community education officer, Wolverhampton, 1982-84; Centre for Caribbean Studies, Warwick University, Coventry, lecturer, then professor and director, 1984–; Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African, and Asian Literature, president, 1985-87.
Awards: Cambridge University Quiller-Couch prize, 1978; Yale University Center for British Art resident fellowship, 1982; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1984; Guyana Literature Prize, for The Intended, 1992; James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction (shortlist), for A Harlot's Progress, 1999; Samvad India Foundation, Raja Rao Award for Literature, 2004.
Addresses: Office— Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, England. Agent— Curtis Brown Ltd., Haymarket House, 28/29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP.
Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art, Dangaroo, 1985; University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Caribbean Literature: A Teacher's Handbook, Heinemann, 1986.
Hogarth, Walpole, and Commercial Britain, Hansib, 1987.
(With Nana Wilson-Tagoe) A Reader's Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature, Dangaroo, 1987.
Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature, Heinemann, 1988.
Editor (with Paul Edwards), Black Writers in Britain, 1760-1890, Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Editor, Cheddi Jagan: Selected Speeches 1992-1994, introduction by John Gaffar LaGuerre, Hansib, 1995.
Editor (with Brinsley Samaroo), Across the Dark Waters: Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the Caribbean, Macmillan Caribbean, 1996.
Grant, Kevin, ed., The Art of David Dabydeen, Peepal Tree, 1997.
African American Review, Spring 1997, p. 134.
Daily Telegraph (London), July 17, 2004.
History Today, June 1993, p. 57.
Poetry Review (London), vol. 78, no. 2, 1988.
The Guardian (London), March 13, 2004, p.11.
World Literature in Review, Fall 1999, p. 795.
"David Dabydeen," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 4, 2004).
"David Dabydeen," British Council Contemporary Writers, www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth113 (October 4, 2004).
"David Dabydeen," Poetry International Web, www.poetryinternational.org/cwolk/view/15897 (October 4, 2004).
Shepler, William, "David Dabydeen," Postcolonial Studies at Emory, www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Dabydeen.html (October 4, 2004)
"Dabydeen, David." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dabydeen-david-0
"Dabydeen, David." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dabydeen-david-0
Nationality: Guyanian and British (immigrated to Britain, 1969). Born: Berbice, Guyana, 9 December 1956. Education: Cambridge University, 1974-78, B.A. (honours) in English 1978; London University, Ph.D. 1982. Career: Director, Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick. Awards: Cambridge University Quiller-Couch prize, 1978; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1984; Guyana Literature prize, 1991. Agent: Curtis Brown, Ltd., Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London S.W.1 England. Address: c/o Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, England.
The Intended. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.
Disappearance. London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.
The Counting House. London, J. Cape, 1996.
A Harlot's Progress. London, Cape, 1999.
Slave Song. London, Dangaroo Press, 1984.
Coolie Odyssey. London, Hansib, 1988.
Turner. London, Cape, 1994.
Hogarth, Walpole and Commercial Britain. London, Hansib, 1985.
Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English
Art. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1987.
A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature. London, Heinemann, 1988.
Editor, The Black Presence in English Literature. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985.
Editor, with Brinsley Samaroo, India in the Caribbean. N.p., HansibPublishing Ltd., 1987.
Editor, with Paul Edwards, Black Writers in Britain: An Anthology. N.p., Columbia University Press, 1992.
Editor, Cheddi Jagan: Selected Speeches 1992-1994. London: Hansib, 1995.
Editor, with Brinsley Samaroo, Across the Dark Waters: Ethnicity And Indian Identity In the Caribbean. London, Macmillan Caribbean, 1996.*
Configurations of Exile: South Asian Writers And Their World By Chelva Kanaganayakam. Toronto: TSAR, 1995; English Imaginaries: Six Studies In Anglo-British Modernity By Kevin Davey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999.* * *
As a writer, editor, professor, and critic, David Dabydeen is remarkably committed to critically exploring the literary contributions of the Caribbean diaspora and the often conflicting polyglot identities that emerge from diasporic movements to and from homelands and homeless lands marked by racism, exploitation, and violence. Language—both the creolization of tongues and the overseer-institution of standard English—as an instrument of colonial bondage or the painful outcome of a brutal colonial past is also a central concern in Dabydeen's poetry and prose.
The Intended and Disappearance use Creole in ways that reveal a fascination with and resistance to standard English. First-person narrators in these bildungsroman-type novels start out by desiring assimilation and invisibility within white sociolinguistic norms. These norms are exemplified in an imagined purity and status associated with white bodies and standard English. Narrators in both novels are contrasted with characters and memories that recall them to the "angry, crude, energetic" (Slave Song ) rawness associated with a Creole that has little patience for lyricism and cleanliness given the constantly intruding wounded history of its users. In The Intended and Disappearance, Dabydeen's focus shifts between England, Guyana, and Africa, playing with the intentions, memories, and desires of his fictional African and Asian diaspora in Britain. The writer juxtaposes his narrator's denial and shame with a series of narrative movements that double back on themselves, keeping the narrator both complicit and questioning as to the relationships between power and its consequences for race, gender, and empire.
The Intended presents a dilemma of diasporic writing. On the one hand, there is a pressure toward mimicry and the erasure of Black identity through the disciplinary projects of a seemingly apolitical aesthetics of reading practiced by some academic institutions. On the other hand, there is also a concentration on what Dabydeen called the " folking up" of Black literature that could lead to its being considered important only as an example of the ethnically exotic or aberrant ("On Not Being Milton: Nigger Talk in England Today"). The Intended problematizes these ambivalences by introducing the (ill) literate Joseph, who relentlessly questions the young student narrator and his friends in order to disrupt the intended narrative of mimicry. However, since Joseph sets fire to himself and dies, his influence on the narrator is mostly posthumous. It remains arguable, therefore, from the implications of Joseph's death, whether posing an alternate picture to colonial discourses can ever survive without tragic consequences. In Disappearance, the narrator is again compelled to move into the spaces between his present—as an engineer trained in Britain who resists cultivating a "sense of the past"—and the African masks on the walls of his landlady's home in Britain. Ironically, this time it is the English Mrs. Rutherford who discomfits the narrator's sense of history. The novel also takes Ireland into consideration in its questioning of imperialism. The narrator and Mrs. Rutherford share a curious blend of friendship that at times approaches a romantic closeness, and there is a sense of mystery associated with her past that complements the disappearance that the narrator has practiced with regard to his own racial history. However, as with The Intended, the narrative moves toward distancing the past but constantly undercuts itself by advancing right into those areas, destabilizing any security that the narrative might intend to offer the reader.
Dabydeen's poetry and fiction also contains overtones of riposte, overtones that are sporadically marked in the form of intertextual interrogations of well-known pieces of English literature, such as William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and John Milton's poetry. Some of his poems in Slave Song, Coolie Odyssey, and Turner write back to English paintings depicting blacks, such as those by Francis Wheatley and J. M. W. Turner, among others. These rejoinders come alongside his extensive research into the depictions of blacks and Indians in English art and society and into the history of indentured labor in the Caribbean. This research can be seen in his books Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century Art and Society and A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature; as well as in books he has edited, such as The Black Presence in English Literature; or in books he has coedited, such as Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890 and India in the Caribbean. Dabydeen's poems, unlike his fiction, offer translations in standard English that accompany their creolized texts. The poetry collections also offer introductions and contexts (which the novels do not) for ways in which he uses Creole. These introductions also serve to emphasize some of his major poetic concerns, concerns that are present also in his fiction.
The Counting House begins in India, and takes protagonists Rohini and Vidia to Guiana as indentured servants in 1857. It is a novel of impotence, both literal (Vidia cannot father a child) and figurative. Mungo, the narrator of A Harlot's Progress, tells the story of a different but quite similar form of servitude: captured and sold into slavery, he has now been freed (as of "22 April 17—"), but he refuses to tell his story on behalf of the abolitionists who freed him. Instead, he directly addresses the reader, who is forced—by virtue of his apparent ingratitude toward those who freed him, and by other aspects of his personality—to avoid a too-easy sense of sympathy for Mungo.
The critical reception to Dabydeen's novels has been largely positive, except for a sharp critique on narrative complicity by Benita Parry. However, the complex and often tense ways in which gender, race, and identity configure in his writings deserve further and closer scrutiny that existing scholarship has offered.
"Dabydeen, David." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dabydeen-david
"Dabydeen, David." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dabydeen-david