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D'Aguiar, Fred

Fred D'Aguiar



Poet, playwright, and novelist Fred D'Aguiar prefers to be described simply as a writer. He was born in London but grew up in Guyana and belongs to a second generation of Caribbean-British writers. His work is often highly politicized, addressing a sense of divided or dual identity. In his early poetry in particular D'Aguiar attempts to reconcile his early experiences in Guyana with his adult life in 1970s urban Britain. Although already an award-winning poet, during the 1990s D'Aguiar established himself as an important British novelist. His first novel, The Longest Memory (1994), won the Whitbread Prize for a first novel and has been compared favorably with Toni Morrison's Beloved, but it brings a distinctively British sensibility to the subject of slavery and its historical legacy. D'Aguiar's clean, almost underwritten prose style reflects his beginnings as a poet. This, along with his versatility and his ability to combine the British written tradition with the oral Caribbean tradition, have earned him a reputation as one of the finest British writers of his generation.

Born in London on February 2, 1960, D'Aguiar moved to Guyana not long before his second birthday, where he lived with one of his grandmothers and extended family in a village called Airey Hall, forty miles from the capital, Georgetown. He returned to England at the age of twelve in 1972 and credits an inspiring English teacher, Geoffrey Hardy, with introducing him to contemporary poetry through the influential anthologies released by Penguin and through the "Liverpool Poets," Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough. He admired songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but his lyrical influences also extend to reggae and calypso, in particular the Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener. D'Aguiar began publishing poetry in school magazines and local newspapers while he was still a teenager, but when he left school he trained to be a psychiatric nurse; he continued working as a nurse while he attended the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he majored in African and Caribbean studies. He graduated with honors in 1985.

D'Aguiar has claimed that the atmosphere of racial tension in London during the 1970s was what made him a political writer and has mentioned in particular an anti-racist rally he attended where one of the protesters, Blair Peach, was killed. His first book of poetry, Mama Dot (1985), recalls his time in Guyana, with the Mama Dot of the title being a combination of his two grandmothers. As with Airy Hall (1989) the poems in Mama Dot combine elements of the Guyanese vernacular of his childhood with more conventional British English. D'Aguiar is part of a generation of black British writers who have reinvented British literary style since the 1980s and these two collections of poems mark his beginnings as an influential member of that group. Both collections won awards, Mama Dot the Malcolm X Poetry Prize and a Poetry Book Society recommendation, and Airy Hall the Guyana Prize for Poetry.

While D'Aguiar has been very successful as a writer, he is also an educator, having held the prestigious Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge University (1989-90) and, from 1990-92, the position of Northern Arts Literary Fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. During the late 1980s and early 1990s D'Aguiar wrote several plays that were broadcast on BBC radio and television. He moved to the United States in 1992 and worked at several American colleges, becoming professor of English at the University of Miami in 1995. His move to the United States coincided with his emergence as a novelist, as he published his first novel, The Longest Memory, in 1994 to great acclaim, winning the 1995 Whitbread Prize for best first novel.

The Longest Memory is an unconventional novel. Set on a Virginia slave plantation, it switches from past to present and back again and is narrated by several different characters in their own voices. The deliberate circularity of the narrative suggests the impossibility of future generations ever "recovering" from slavery's legacy. After such a dramatic debut it was almost inevitable that D'Aguiar's second novel, Dear Future (1996), would not be received so well; its contemporary themes of globalization and the after-effects of colonization were perhaps also less attractive to readers. Feeding the Ghosts (1999) returned more directly to the subject of slavery, but in a more poetic and metaphoric style than his earlier work.

In 1998 D'Aguiar published Bill of Rights, a long narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978, and a book that re-established him as a poet with a powerful political voice. It was followed in 2000 by Bloodlines, another long narrative poem in the form of a novel, this time about a black slave and her white lover. Bethany Bettany, published in 2003, is seen by critics as a return to the form of The Longest Memory. The novel tells the story of a five year-old girl left to look after herself by her mother after her father dies. She has been seen as a symbol of Guyana searching for an identity as it emerges from between two cultures.

In publicity material prepared for Bethany Bettany, D'Aguiar describes himself as a product of the three countries in which he has lived: "My origin is not in itself of interest, except to say that Guyana, London and now the United States provide a curious cocktail of ethnicity, history and Conradian horror unmatched by any other triple mix of sovereign states." Perhaps because it deals with issues of race and identity more familiar to American readers, D'Aguiar's work since the 1990s has not received a high level of exposure in the British media. Yet his work has been of a consistently high quality and wide influence, having helped pave the way for better known younger writers such as Zadie Smith. In 2005 he returned to Britain to take up a post as professor of creative writing and postcolonial literature at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Selected writings


The Longest Memory, Pantheon, 1994.

Dear Future, Pantheon, 1996.

Feeding the Ghosts, Ecco, 1999.

Bloodlines, Chatto and Windus, 2000.

Bethany Bettany, Chatto and Windus, 2003.


1492 (radio play), BBC Radio 3, 1992.

Sweet Thames (television play), BBC2, 1992.

Rain (television play), BBC2, 1994.

A Jamaican Airman Forsees His Death, Methuen, 1995.

At a Glance

Born on February 2, 1960, in London, England. Education: University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, BA (honors) in African and Caribbean Studies, 1985.

Career: Trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse before attending university; London Borough of Lewisham, writer-in-residence, 1986-87; Birmingham Polytechnic, writer-in-residence, 1988-89; Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, Judith E. Wilson Fellow, 1989-90; Northern Arts Literary Fellow, 1990-92; Amherst College, Amherst, MA, visiting writer, 1992-94; Bates College, Lewiston, ME, assistant professor of English, 1994-95; University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, professor of English, 1995-2004; University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Professor of Creative Writing and Postcolonial Literature, 2005.

Awards: Minority Rights Group award, 1983; T. S. Eliot Prize, University of Kent, 1984; Greater London Council (GLC) literature award, 1985; Malcolm X Prize for poetry, for Mama Dot, 1989; Guyana Prize for Poetry, for Airy Hall, 1989; Book Trust (London, England), David Higham Prize for Fiction, for The Longest Memory, 1995; Whitbread First Novel Award, for The Longest Memory, 1995.

Addresses: Agent David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John Street, Golden Square, London W1F 9HA. Office School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Percy Building, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU United Kingdom.


Mama Dot, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Airy Hall, Chatto and Windus, 1989.

British Subjects, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Bill of Rights, Chatto and Windus, 1998.



African American Review, Fall 1998, p. 506.

Economist, February 24, 1990, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 1995, p. 6; February 4, 1996, p. 11.

Nation, January 13, 1997, p. 32.

New Statesman and Society, November 12, 1993, p. 37; September 2, 1994, p. 37.

New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1995, p. 26; March 24, 1996, p. 28; November 10, 1996, p. 56.

World Literature Today, Fall, 1999, p. 796.


"Fred D'Aguiar," Biography Resource Center, (January 26, 2005).

"Fred D'Aguiar," Caribbean Poetry Web, (January 26, 2005).

"The Poetry Kit Interviews Fred D'Aguiar," The Poetry Kit, (January 26, 2005).

Chris Routledge

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"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Black Biography. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Black Biography. . (December 15, 2017).

"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

D'aguiar, Fred


Nationality: English. Born: London, England, 2 February 1960. Education: University of Kent at Canterbury, B.A. 1985. Career: Trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse; visiting fellow, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 1989-90; visiting writer, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1992-94; assistant professor of English, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, 1994-95; professor of English, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, 1995. Awards: Minority Rights Group Award, 1983; University of Kent T. S. Eliot Prize, 1984; G.L.C. Literature Award, 1985; Guyana Prize for Poetry (Guyanese government), 1989; David Higham First Novel Award (The Book Trust), 1995; Whitbread Award (Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland), 1995. Agent: Curtis Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.



The Longest Memory. New York, Pantheon, 1995.

Dear Future. New York, Pantheon, 1996.

Feeding the Ghosts. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1999.


A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death. London, Methuen, 1995; also appeared in Black Plays, edited by Yvonne Brewster. New York, Methuen, 1995.

Televisions Plays: Sweet Thames. BBC-TV 2, 1992; Rain. BBCTV 2, 1994.

Radio Plays:

1492. BBC Radio 3, 1992.


Mama Dot. London, Chatto & Windus, 1985.

Airy Hall. London, Chatto & Windus, 1989.

British Subjects. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Bill of Rights. London, Chatto & Windus, 1998.


Contributor, New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, edited by Robert Hampson and Peter Barry. New York, Manchester University Press, 1993.

Editor, with others, The New British Poetry. London, Paladin Grafton, 1988.

* * *

Fred D'Aguiar is part of a younger group of talented Black British writers and critics including David Dabydeen and Caryl Phillips who bring to their novels a multi-layered awareness of the aesthetic, cultural, literary, and political debates surrounding race and representation. All three novelists have experimented with the delivery of the novel, particularly in its manipulation of time, its use of metaphor and symbol as structuring devices that cut across the linear unfolding of the text, and its dialogic engagement with other narrative works as inter-texts. All three novelists have also tackled the history and legacy of slavery as a site for the imaginative interrogation of questions of history and memory, culture, power, and identity. As such, these novelists can be located within what Paul Gilroy has called a "Black Atlantic" web of diasporic connections and concerns.

D'Aguiar was known as a poet and had produced critically acclaimed collections such as Mama Dot, Airy Hall, and British Subjects long before he began to write novels. With the publication of The Longest Memory, a novel centered on the life of a slave set on an eighteenth-century Virginia plantation, Dear Future, a book about growing up in the political climate of Guyana in the 1960s and 1970s, and Feeding the Ghosts, based on the historic case of the Zong slave ship whose captain threw overboard ostensibly sick and dying slaves, D'Aguiar's stature as a novelist is assured. All three texts show D'Aguiar's ability to create compelling characters and moods, but they also exhibit a willingness to experiment with the traditional form of the novel. In interviews, D'Aguiar himself has argued that the nineteenth-century realist novel, with its relatively straightforward unfolding of events, is not tenable in an age that has seen the innovations of writers like James Joyce and Wilson Harris. D'Aguiar's work is a good example of how the emotional strengths of the traditional novel need not be sacrificed for a more intellectual engagement with form.

The Longest Memory plays with voice and time. The book is narrated through different characters, all of whom are given their own voices: Whitechapel, the slave; his "son" Chapel; Chapel's mother, the cook; Whitechapel's granddaughter; Mr. Sanders senior, the overseer; Mr. Sanders junior, his son and Chapel's half brother; Mr. Whitechapel, the master of the plantation; his daughter Lydia; and the editor of the slavers' journal, The Virginian. These accounts function like dramatic monologues and offer very different emotional and intellectual responses to the same events, for example, the punishment and death of Chapel. There is no extra-diegetic narrator to mediate between his father, the Master, the overseer, the slavers' news report or the granddaughter's reconstruction of the event and its aftermath. Each are offered within the ideological context and are (at times) incommensurable: the overseer's need to assert his authority over runaway and rebellious slaves, the editor's belief in the righteousness of slavery, Whitechapel's conviction that resistance is futile, and his son's belief that freedom matters and that a different future exists where slavery will be outlawed. The book's abandonment of an overarching narrator in favor of a multiplicity of voice leads to a more fractured kind of narration. The use of dramatic monologues allows an event or a series of events to be told and returned to repeatedly in reconstruction and memory. Such a deliberate mixing up of chronology when assembling the novel's variety of stories and voices makes the reader's experience more disjointed; but this also has the effect of replicating how an event is experienced and remembered. Hence, as D'Aguiar himself acknowledges, the novel's circular structure. What results is that history behaves like trauma, a repetition that refuses to go away; as Whitechapel remarks, "the future is just more of the past waiting to happen," "memory is pain trying to resurrect itself."

The representation of slavery as a trauma, the task of reconstructing the lives and stories of slaves from their relegation to the anonymity of history, are part of a modern and postcolonial ethical and archival project. The Black Atlantic preoccupation with slavery is often depicted as part of a process of reckoning that is required in order to move on (see, for example, Toni Morrison's Beloved ). Coming to terms with the trauma of slavery enables one not to repeat the failures and mistakes of the past in new guises. But in an article, "The Last Essay about Slavery," D'Aguiar argues that there is also a compulsive need to revisit slaveryin their own language and imageryfor every succeeding generation of black writers. Rather than the past being laid to rest when it is told, each imagining "feeds the need for a further act of retrieval. In fiction as in song, the story continues both to bring to life a past that might otherwise remain lost or distorted into shame, and to convert that past from pain to cure."

This awareness that cultural memory is in an important sense not simply about recovering the past but how the past is formed and performed in the present is an integral part of a postmodern critique of essentialist notions of identity. Cultural identity is not simply an unproblematic ethnic inheritance; it is created and produced. Such debates structure D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts. The novel's central protagonist, the slave Mintah, is compelled to remember the deaths on the Zong, and her connection with her African homeland, and expresses such acts of memory through the crafting of wooden carvings of these murdered companions. D'Aguiar's choice of Mintah as a character that survives the seaboard murder of slaves is deliberate. It allows him to use her reproductive abilityher bodyto explore slavery's severance of family and community; here, her black identity is based on filial and kinship connections. Yet D'Aguiar also characterizes Mintah as an artist, and depicts her woodwork as a kind of creative "birthing." This allows D'Aguiar to capture a more complex articulation of black subjectivity as moving beyond the notion of the essential black subject that is based on a racialized culture; instead it is an affiliative connection that must be forged and renewed through creative and expressive forms.

If Feeding the Ghosts seems at first glance to be a more conventional novel than The Longest Memory, the novel's manipulation of metaphor and symbol cuts across the chronology of history and narrative and offers a more poetic meta-narrative. A body of metaphoric association, which accrues around the symbol of wood, land, and, especially, the sea (which owes much to Derek Walcott's poetry) forges a horizon of connections through the different spatial and temporal zones of the novel. D'Aguiar himself describes such a technique as abandoning the realism of the novel for the symbolism of poetry, but such a method of construction also performs the kind of diasporic aesthetics that Gilroy speaks about.

Dear Future looks not at slavery but at broader postcolonial issues such as the plight of former colonies, particularly Guyana, after independence. On the one hand, global capitalism makes nonsense of any form of political and economic autonomy, and on the other, the corruption of the indigenous elite undermines the future of the emerging nation. The black seamless bitumen road that replaces the red sand road of the village opens the rural heartland to a new form of colonial exploitation. Its huge articulated trucks "never stopped for anyone or anything they hit" as they convert the interior's raw materials to a stream of commodities for sale on the world's market. The indigenous politicians, with their hand in the country's till, collude with and profit from this traffic; they magic votes out of thin air in order to stay in power. The result is a betrayal of the promise of independence, to turn them into "nightmare[s] from the republic of dreams."

The political context of Guyana is not handled directly but is filtered through a child's eyes and the experiences of his family. The child's life stands in for the nation's future but D'Aguiar's portrait of Red Head (who has prophetic visions), his extended family, and their very full life together in rural Guyana is done lovinglybut economicallythrough episodes that depict the adventures of individual characters. (These are reminiscent of some of what appeared in D'Aguiar's first semi-autobiographic collection of poetry, Mama Dot.) The result is that Red Head's letters to the future, "as a lost chance rather than an eager prospect," are all the more touching. As with D'Aguiar's other novel, there is a striking use of symbolism (notably the opposition between red and black in the child's view of things) and the manipulation of space (the spaces of the Guyanese village and that of London, where his mother resides). The chronology of the story is turned on its head, as episodes are not offered in their temporal sequence. Time becomes the "ever present past" of the future as Red Head asserts his memory ofand connection withsurviving family members. It goes without saying that such strategic use of kinship across and against time is also the basis of the notion of a black diaspora.

Gail Low

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