D'Aguiar, Fred 1960–

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Fred D'Aguiar 1960-

English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, and critic.


A prominent figure among a young generation of writers of West Indian descent, D'Aguiar brings a unique perspective to his writings. The appeal of his style became obvious with the publication of his debut volume of poetry, Mama Dot (1985). His personal history forms a rich pool from which he draws for his works; his themes often include colonialism and racial identity. Slavery as well as the economic and political issues of postcolonial Guyana are also key subjects in his works. His poetry and novels offer thematic explorations on both the personal and historical levels.


D'Aguiar was born in London in 1960 to Malcolm Frederick D'Aguiar and Kathleen Agatha Messiah. Both parents were immigrants from what was then British Guiana. When D'Aguiar was nearly two, he and his older brother were sent to Guyana to live with their grandparents, due in part to their young parents' financial difficulties. Living in a postcolonial country during the 1960s, D'Aguiar witnessed racial partitioning and political warfare. In 1972, when he was twelve years old, D'Aguiar returned to England to complete his education. In his absence, his parents had divorced and his mother, with whom he lived, had married a Pakistani Muslim. Following his completion of advanced-level examinations at Charlton Boys Secondary School, D'Aguiar trained and later worked as a psychiatric nurse. Additionally, he began a three-year English literature course at the University of Kent. He also took courses in African and Caribbean studies. He graduated in 1985, publishing his first book of poetry, Mama Dot, that same year. He continued to write poetry and novels while working as an assistant professor (at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine) and later as a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Miami. Currently D'Aguiar is a professor of English and serves as the co-director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He has won a number of awards and prizes, including the Malcolm X Prize for Poetry for Mama Dot in 1985 and the 1994 Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory (1994).


D'Aguiar's first published book was the volume of poetry entitled Mama Dot. The collection offers the metaphor of the grandmother figure, based on his two grandmothers in Guyana. The mythical figure he creates is a Caribbean woman in touch with her connection to her African past. Like Mama Dot, D'Aguiar's second volume of poetry, Airy Hall (1989) relies heavily on his past experiences in Guyana, exploring not only his personal history but also the postcolonial history of Guyana. In his next volume of poetry, British Subjects (1992), D'Aguiar explores the immigrant experience, portraying the conflict and alienation felt by the children of immigrants. D'Aguiar's first novel, The Longest Memory, focuses on the issue of slavery in the Americas. The novel is structured as a series of monologues given by both slaves and masters on a Virginia plantation in the early nineteenth century. In the novel Dear Future (1996), D'Aguiar studies postcolonial Guyanese politics from a child's point of view. His next novel, Feeding the Ghosts (1999), is again focused on the slave trade and D'Aguiar once again uses the point of view of a young girl, a slave, to tell the story of slavery and cultural identity. In Bloodlines (2000), D'Aguiar employs another experimental technique, the verse novel, to explore slavery in the American South during and after the Civil War. The novel tells the improbable love story of a slave girl who falls in love with the slave owner's son after he rapes her. D'Aguiar's most recent novel Bethany Bettany (2003) is the surreal story of a little girl in Guyana, who, after her father's death and abuse by the relatives who are caring for her, discovers her ability to become invisible.


Having made his debut on the literary scene as a poet with the publication of Mama Dot, D'Aguiar made a name for himself among critics for his clarity and sense of humor. While his later poetry collections received more mixed reviews, he continued to deal with serious issues—including colonialism, slavery, and cultural identity—with originality and a sense of irony. His novels are greatly influenced by his verse style and some critics have criticized his experimental forms, but others have found his unique storytelling method an effective way to discuss painful themes. Feeding the Ghosts tells the tale of the murder of over a hundred Africans on a slave ship and is based on a true story. It is broken into three sections, as critic Gail Low explains. The first section is told in the third person, from the perspective of a young slave girl. The second section offers an account of the trial that resulted from the deaths of the human cargo, and is told as a third-person narration by a voice distinctly different from that of the slave girl. She returns, however, in the final section, which is comprised of a first-person account of her life in Maryland and Jamaica. In Low's analysis of this structure, she traces similarities between D'Aguiar's use of water/ sea imagery and that in Derek Walcott's poetry. Commenting on D'Aguiar's novel Bloodlines, Bruce King notes the "improbable plot points" and adds that the pace of the story is not well served by its ottava rima form. This stanzaic form was one favored by many British Romantic poets and D'Aguiar, in an interview with Kwame Dawes, discusses their influence on his work. D'Aguiar explains how another novel, The Longest Memory, also began as a long poem, but collapsed as the story grew more complex. The author also points out the ways in which Caribbean language and music influenced the form and content of his poetry, and how the notion of home is present thematically in many of his poems and novels. While his work has garnered some unfavorable reviews, particularly for its structural experimentation, it continues to be praised for its lyricism and ability to provide fresh, nuanced examinations of the history of slavery, the effects of colonialism, and the search for cultural identity.


Mama Dot (poetry) 1985

The New British Poetry [editor, with others] (poetry) 1988

Airy Hall (poetry) 1989

A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death (play) 1989

British Subjects (poetry) 1992

The Longest Memory (novel) 1994

Dear Future (novel) 1996

Feeding the Ghosts (novel) 1999

Bloodlines (verse novel) 2000

Bethany Bettany (novel) 2003


Gail Low (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Low, Gail. "The Memory of Slavery in Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts." In Post-Colonial Literatures: Expanding the Canon, edited by Deborah L. Madsen, pp. 104-19. London: Pluto Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Low examines D'Aguiar's use of a female protagonist and his contribution to contemporary discussions of slavery in the novel Feeding the Ghosts.]

But it's the biggest of those shadows where the history of Europe meets the history of the Americas

          (Caryl Phillips)

… each has its own mystical sense of the relationship between blood, soil and seawater

          (Paul Gilroy, 1993a)

Slavery, as specifically British theme and subject matter, in fiction has only relatively recently emerged into prominence with Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, Caryl Phillips's Higher Ground, Cambridge, Crossing the River, and The Nature of Blood and Fred D'Aguiar's The Longest Memory and Feeding the Ghosts. In their introduction to The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, Carl Plasa and Betty Ring argue that, in Britain, while racialized discourse has been explored ‘in relation to colonialism, post-colonialism and imperialism’, it has been less addressed in relation to slavery (Plasa and Ring, 1994, p. xiv). Likewise, Benedicte Ledent asserts that ‘one can indeed say that slavery has rarely been tackled head-on’ by an older generation of Caribbean novelists and that it is only with the ‘new wave’ black British novelists like Phillips and D'Aguiar that slavery becomes a ‘fecund’ site (Ledent, 1996, pp. 271, 273). This is not to say that slavery has entered the imagination only recently. Within the provenance of Caribbean and black British poetry, slavery has long been the site for an imaginative interrogation of questions of history and memory, culture, power and identity; coming to terms with the history of slavery is an abiding theme in Caribbean and black British poetry. Derek Walcott speaks poetry of the shards of traditions, ‘a huge tribal vocabulary’, that (re)combine to new creative potential despite the rupture of the middle passage and the histories of indentured labour. In his Nobel Prize speech, Walcott argues that ‘deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old epic vocabulary … an ecstatic rhythm in blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture …’ (Donnell and Lawson Welsh, 1996, p. 507). Edward Brathwaite's collection of poems The Arrivants has been concerned to forge a distinctively Caribbean aesthetic; a language and mythology that reflects New World transatlantic connections and histories that have emerged from the history of slavery and from recovered African connections. More recently in Slave Song, David Dabydeen attempts to embody in sound and language not only the everyday violence of plantation life, but also the resistance and strengths of the slave com- communities. As Dabydeen puts it, ‘what I wanted to show was the way of life that survived brilliantly and wickedly, mischievously and tragically, in spite of certain experiences of violence and brutality’ (Donnell and Welsh Lawson, 1996, p. 417). Grace Nichols's i is a long memoried woman looks at the survival and endurance of slaves from the point of view of women, creating a web of kinship and mythology over time and space:

Inerasable as my scars and fate
I am here
a woman … with all my lives
strung out like beads …
[I seek] the power to be what I am / a woman
charting my own future / a woman
holding my beads in my hand.
          (Nichols, 1983, p.79)

The scholarship of slavery has an even longer history, but with James Walvin's Black Ivory, Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery and Paul Gilroy's immensely influential The Black Atlantic, we have a more concerted attempt to link slavery to the history and processes of (Euro-American) modernity. Slavery becomes a counter-history of modernity, a history that has been erased and forgotten in the Enlightenment's narrative of rationality and progress. In his mammoth historical overview, Blackburn argues that the development of the ‘slavery of the Americas’ is associated with the ‘processes’ associated with modernity, such as ‘the growth of instrumental rationality’, the rise of the nation state, ‘racialized perceptions of identity, the spread of market relations and wage labour, the development of administrative bureaucracies and modern tax systems, the birth of consumer societies’ and the growth of the press and the rise of civil society (Blackburn, 1997, p. 4). Walvin's more popular account of British slavery remarks on the enormous changes to patterns of consumption, settlement development, and growth that emerged from the traffic in slaves, and asks, ‘is it possible to consider the rise of nineteenth-century racial thinking without considering the legacy of slave empire, the growth of the slave colonies and their relationship to British prosperity and economic development?’ (Walvin, 1993, p. 334). Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993) is also concerned with modernity's embeddedness in the history of slavery and its legacy of racial politics. Gilroy argues for an ethnohistorical approach to the narrative of the Enlightenment that is sensitive to its blind spots. In searching for an alternative discourse of cultural belonging, one that does not mystify blood and soil Gilroy's holds up the chronotope of the ship. The ship, used for its connections with the middle passage, enables an alternative vision of cross-cultural fertilizations, hybridities and diasporas. Gilroy's Black Atlantic charts the migrations, displacements, borrowings, ‘affinities and affiliations’ that link black intellectuals to the project of the Enlightenment; it also offers their specific contributions towards a theory and praxis of freedom and citizenship. The main motivation behind this paper is to explore Fred D'Aguiar's contributions to the contemporary discourse of slavery through a reading of Feeding the Ghosts. I want to examine his deliberate choice of a female protagonist to tell the story of the Zong; I aim also to explore his manipulation of a structuring pair of symbols to articulate the juxtaposition between connectedness/affective relations and severance/loss that shape the human tragedy of the middle passage. Such juxtaposition is of course vital to the way slavery has been imagined. I shall argue that in his choice of the sea as symbol, D'Aguiar echoes the work of Derek Walcott but refashions his meanings, entering into a dialogue with his predecessor and compatriot. In providing a reading of Feeding the Ghosts, I hope to use the novel as a means of opening up and exploring the specific way in which slavery is talked about and imagined and, consequently, also to reflect on its effects.

Feeding the Ghosts is based on the story of the murder of 131 Africans on board the slave ship Zong in 1781. The real ship was bound for Jamaica from the West Coast of Africa but ran into difficulties. Mortality rates were high on the journey but inflated outrageously by the captain's decision to throw sick (and allegedly dying) slaves overboard in order the claim insurance money. Luke Collingwood, the captain, is recorded as justifying his decision on the grounds of a scarce and diminishing water supply. He is also alleged to have said that if slaves died through illness or suicide on board the ship, the owners would have to bear the cost; but if they were thrown overboard or killed to safeguard a ship's safety, the insurers would have to underwrite the losses. There was some dissent on board the Zong at this course of action. It emerged that his first mate, a James Kelsall, had disagreed with his captain's decision to drown the sick and dying slaves but the drowning of slaves continued even after heavy rain began. The killing of slaves in this fashion was not new but the sheer numbers involved meant that the resulting court case became the subject of much attention. The initial trial found for the claimants but the case returned to the courts when the insurers refused to pay the required £30 compensation for each slave who died. At the second trial, the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, agreed with the claimants that as slaves were mere property or goods, there was no ‘impropriety’ in the action: ‘the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard’ (Walvin, 1993, p. 20); yet he also granted a new trial. But as both Walvin and Fryer note, no records of a subsequent trial exist and the efforts of anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp to prosecute the crew for murder failed. However, the case of the Zong galvanized abolitionist support and a parliamentary bill was passed in 1790 which ruled out insurance claims resulting from slave mortality through ‘natural death or ill treatment, or against loss by throwing overboard of slaves on any account whatsoever’ (Walvin, 1993, p. 20). The callousness and brutality of the Zong incident seems also to have motivated J. M. W. Turner to paint his famous portrait of a ship jettisoning her human cargo during a violent and turbulent storm entitled Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying.

D'Aguiar's novel takes some poetic licence with known records of the real historical incident by telling the tale of the Zong's tragedy through the eyes of a slave girl on board the ship. The main story of the incident is narrated in third person with Mintah, a Fetu slave girl, as focalizer; she is also given her own voice in the form of her written record of the events on board the Zong, and in a brief first-person narrative account of her life after the tragedy. The novel itself is divided into three main parts, and framed by a poetic prologue and an epilogue that links the necessary telling of tale to our narrative present. The first part of the novel belongs to Mintah, who is depicted as literate in the English language and used to the ways of Europeans from her life at a Danish Mission. Although Mintah serves as the main focalizer in the first and longest part of the novel, alternative perspectives are also given to add complexity and depth to the tragedy. For example, James Kelsall's ambivalence regarding his captain's actions and his refusal to deal with his former encounters with Mintah who had looked after him at the Danish Mission is also rendered sympathetically. But Mintah's anguish over her dispossession, uprooting and dehumanization, and the murder of her fellow slaves, forms the emotional centre of this first part; her attempts at resistance and insurrection also grant her an agency and dignity that is written out of official history. The second section is an account of the trial, over which Lord Mansfield presided, and is narrated in third-person voice. Here, the narrative voice is more distant and sits in judgement of the crewmen, judge and lawyers at the trial; there is little attempt to render them sympathetically (although the ambivalence of the first mate Kelsall and the conflicting loyalties of the cook's assistant are handled with some care). In this section, Mintah's written record of the incidents on board the Zong surface at the trial but is dismissed as incredible. In ruling against Mintah's record, her voice disappears from official history. The last section begins with Mintah's written account of the Zong, and continues, also in first person, with her life in Maryland and Jamaica, haunted by the memory of the Zong.

In retelling the tale of the Zong through Mintah, D'Aguiar seems to be suggesting that there are (extra) ordinary lives that have been silenced and erased from history. Unlike the slave narratives that appeared in abolitionist literature, and free men and women who have negotiated their own autobiographies in the wake of the abolitionist movement, Mintah's record cannot exist in this early period because ‘it argued against the law concerning the status of Africans as stock’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 169). Barbara Bush, in her pioneering study on slave women, has written of the difficulty of recovering ordinary women's voices in Caribbean plantation society, and of having to ‘generalise from specific examples due to the paucity of evidence and the absence of slave testimony’ (Bush, 1990, p. 9). The historical records of the Zong case contest the status and significance of slaves, but this contestation appears as one conducted between men: Lord Mansfield (the judge), John Lee (the solicitor-general), Granville Sharp (the anti-slavery campaigner), Luke Collingwood and James Kelsall (the crewmen of the Zong), William Gregson and George Case (the owners of the ship), Gilbert (the insurers), the Morning Chronicle correspondent, and even Olaudah Equiano, who had alerted Granville Sharp to the Zong affair. The choice of Mintah is also bold in so far as it allows D'Aguiar to use the issue of Mintah's reproductive ability—her body—to explore slavery's severance of kinship and familial affiliations. The maternal is privileged in the choice of Mintah as the novel's central protagonist; the responsibility for the safety of her fellow slaves in the hold is marked as a nurturing burden. This makes her failure all the more poignant.

When we first encounter Mintah, she calls Kelsall's name in anger and is hauled out to the open deck to be interrogated. Made to entertain the sailors, she dances ‘fertility, temporary death and eventual rebirth’. The ritual dance connects her with her home and with (generations of) other young women dancing to the sound of the drum beat in an African village. In Mintah's status as potential slave mother, we have a brutal contradiction of terms; her fertility dance, a cruel irony in the light of the drowning of slaves:

Mintah thought about her performance above deck not so long ago. She felt ashamed. What fertility gods? Her blood flowed for nothing. Her benediction to the gods was for what? None of it could save a single hair on the head of a child. She wanted her blood to run dry and for the intricate apparatus that she harboured inside to dislodge from its moorings and drift out of her; to expel it and never feel that particular pain again and never bleed for any god, for any dance.

          (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 40)

Kin and family are obtained through the ties of blood and reproduction, and it is through Mintah's womanhood that the pain of slavery is felt. Her knowledge of European languages and customs means that others treat her as a translator and mediator of cultures; this role intensifies the responsibility she feels towards her fellow prisoners and her anguish at her inability to save them. In the third section of the novel, with her freedom, Mintah shapes 131 carvings out of wood; these shapes represent figures ‘of some kind, man, woman or child reaching up out of the depths’. In a continuation of the maternal metaphor, they are the ghosts of the past but they are also her children, the progeny that her body refuses to bear:

The sea had taken my blood from me and my ability to bleed. Yet I was surrounded by my progeny. The figures came from me. My hands delivered them…. From their shapes they appear to breathe like me. Each has a name, a likely age, and accordingly likes to be placed on the left or right side…. The wood suggested its name and habits to me as I worked the grain to bring the shape to the surface. They named themselves through me.

          (D'Aguiar, 1998, pp. 210-11)

It is significant that D'Aguiar avoids the temptation to reify motherhood and childbearing into some kind of mystical feminine status; the maternal metaphor is powerful but it is not the only one that symbolizes familial belonging and affiliations. The novel is careful to balance the maternal and the reproductive with that of the traditional crafter or worker. The latter is represented as Mintah's inheritance from her father, who teaches her how to work with the grain of the wood and to shape it. In one sense, Mintah ‘births’ her wooden carvings at the end of the novel; but in another sense, she also crafts them, ‘gouging chips from the birch in directions obedient to the flow of the grain’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 42). (Mintah's crafting is also linked to writing and the recording of her experiences on paper.) Woodwork is associated with her father, especially his approval when she exhibits her medium, and also with memories of her mother, home and village life. Wood is also associated with mud, earth and land and all four are the bases by which culture, kinsfolk and community are built upon. Mintah's longing for home is represented as a hunger for the depth and memory of connections that are expressed through wood and land. In her fantasy of escape from the Zong these become embodied—bodily—memories:

First she wanted to feel soil, mud, stone, rock, clay, sand, loam, pebbles, boulders, grass. Then wood…. There would be a path she could take and footsteps she would be able to retrace … One with old roots and stones jutting above the ground to stub the toes against and holes to jolt the first careless foot stepping into them…. Land would figure in her dreams like a lover or friend or parent…. Everything she dreamed, all the shapes without a basis in the waking world that surrounded her, belonged deep in the soil. Wood worked by her hands had tried to find these shapes. Sleep was a descent into the ground. She moved underground like a root feeling its way along, but with more speed, and secreted herself among those shapes, curling around them and caressing them. But waking she often lost all that she had in her dreams. All that remained was a sensation, a flavour or smell or some pleasure she could not define.

          (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 116)

I have included this long quotation to show the novel's method of creating a chain of associations that work by building upon each other. The reverberations of meaning around wood and land are layered one upon another, and coextensive with attributes of depth, belonging and connections. The novel's emphasis on creating poetic metanarrative forges a horizon of connections; events that happen in the different sections, spatial and temporal zones of the narration echo each other through imagery and a depth of meaning generated by their associations. D'Aguiar acknowledges such a technique in his ‘The Last Essay About Slavery’. When describing his brand of contemporary novels about slavery, he speaks of eschewing realism, and of generating a poetic level: a ‘deliberate reaching-up or elevation in the tone of the narration and a preponderance of suggestive imagery’ (D'Aguiar, 1997, p. 143). Interestingly, in the passage above, D'Aguiar depicts the memory of previous cultural and familial connections as a bodily memory which surfaces as the symptoms of past life, and as such echoes the poetics of the novel. The notion of an embodied memory that will return to haunt the body is also a figure that is used in contemporary representations of slavery; slavery in this sense is both an artistic/mythic reservoir and memory of a trauma passed down through the generations. But first, I want to pause over the absent term that cancels out the connections made through wood/land; the opposite of the latter is the contrasting symbol of the sea.

In Feeding the Ghosts, the sea represents the dissolution of ties of kinship and culture in the middle passage; as the poetic prologue puts it, ‘the sea is slavery’. The sea forms the companion symbol to the metaphoric associations of kinship, culture and community that coalesce around wood and land. Because the sea journey takes the Africans on board the slavers away from their homes, the sea represents a kind of death, a severing of all known forms of affective and cultural relations:

love would be nowhere: behind them and impossible to recover; a flat line in the wake of the ship where the sky bowed down to the sea or the sea ascended to the sky. Love was lost somewhere in the very sea with its limitless capacity to swallow love, slaves, ships and memories.

          (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 27)

But more than its metonymic association with transportation and uprooting, and the consequences that follow from those processes, the sea represents a far more symbolic impersonality. The slaves' passage across the waters is conceived of as a remorseless empty present, ‘an inbetween life’ where ‘time runs on the spot, neither backwards nor forwards’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 199). Cut off from civilization as they know it, and yet to arrive at a destination wherein they would ‘be lost forever but not dead’, the sea is a reminder that the impersonality of death awaits us all. The poetic prologue to the novel opens with such an image of the sea. The sea receives every body thrown into its waters with a soundless splash, ‘each [body] opens a wound in this sea that heals over each body without the evidence of a scar’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 3). The sea consumes every morsel of the human body, ‘swells the body to bursting point, tumbles it beyond the reach of horizons and gradually breaks fragments from that body with its nibbling, dissecting current’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p.4). Grinding their bones to dust and salt, the sea melts each body into nothingness and ‘becomes them, becomes their memory’. But unlike the land that has a fixed geography and preserves the traces of bodily presence, and unlike wood that has a capacity for memory embedded in its knots and grain, the sea is ever-changing and endless; it ‘destroys but does not remember’.

D'Aguiar's symbol of the sea owes much to Derek Walcott and it is possible to argue that Feeding the Ghosts uses Walcott's poetry as an intertext. The novel opens with Walcott's ‘The Sea is History’ as one of the two poems that function as an epigraph prefacing the narration proper. Some of the poetic language in the novel contains traces of Walcott's phrasing and extends his metaphors in poems such as ‘Names’ and ‘The Sea is History’ and ‘The Schooner Flight’. For example, in ‘Names’, the narrator of the poem describes his emergence as one with ‘no memory’, ‘no future’, and with ‘a different fix on the stars’. He searches for the ‘moment / when the mind was halved by a horizon … as a fishline sinks, the horizon sinks in memory’. D'Aguiar's horizon is a ‘flat line in the wake of the ship’ where sky and sea meet; his land is ‘a geography of fixed points’, ‘fixed points in the mind’ while his Africans come from cultures with a ‘different fix on the stars’. Walcott's poet and sailor Shabine in Flight, dives into the depths of the Caribbean sea ‘so choked with the dead’ that they are part of the seascape; ‘I saw them corals: brain, fire, sea fans, / dead-men's-fingers, and then, the deadmen. / I saw that the powdery sand was their bones / ground white from Senegal to San Salvador’. D'Aguiar's sea is also filled with the dead whose ‘faces pressed in coral or sand and seaweed braided in their hair’, whose bodies ‘have their lives written on salt water’. Significantly, Walcott's sea in ‘Names’ is also a sea of impersonal erasure:

Behind us all the sky folded,
as history folds over a fishline,
and the foam foreclosed
with nothing in our hands
but this stick
to trace our names on the sand
which the sea erased again, to our indifference

and in ‘The Sea is History’ Walcott refers to an ocean which ‘kept turning back pages / looking for History’. In an important interview with J. P. White in 1990, Walcott argues that the sea is an important figure of island peoples' lives and functions as a structuring symbol in his poetry. For Walcott, the sea represents a kind of timelessness and immensity outside of human history:

Nothing can be put down in the sea. You can't plant on it, you can't live on it, you can't walk on it. Therefore, the strength of the sea gives you an idea of time that makes history absurd…. The sea is not elegiac…. The sea does not have anything on it that is a memento of man.

          (White, 1996, p. 159)

But while Walcott uses the symbol of the sea to invoke the creative and Adamic possibilities of Caribbean life, and the transcendence of art against a Eurocentric linear history narrative of progress and achievement, D'Aguiar's symbol of the sea is bleaker in its emphasis on the rubbing out of human life and affective ties. The sea has no memory even if bodies are transformed into coral and salt, even if the wind howling over the sea mimes the living breath and speech of the ‘one hundred and thirty-one dissipated bodies’. In this reading of the seascape, the memory of the souls belongs to the living. This task of remembering is not a simply matter of choice. It is compulsive and undertaken by the survivors and their offspring who relive in ways that make sense of the trauma of death, dispersal and dispossession. In the prologue, the relation between the dead and living is conceived of as a haunting, the living ‘will have to be a witness again’ to the middle passage. Mintah's life after the Zong is dominated by the memory of the dead. She sees visions of the dead in the phosphorus glow above the water, shining with the life and love that ‘they had to give but were robbed from giving’. The dead also return in the way in which her work in wood mimics the sea: ‘the very element I sought to escape rose out of the wood shaped by me. Trees became waves. Waves sprouted roots, branches and leaves’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 207). Her 131 wooden carvings are unsettling sculptures, shapes that do not sit easily in normal domestic homes; they ‘fill the eyes with unease’ but they live with her in her wooden hut, ‘like guests who will not leave and whom … [she] eventually cannot bear to part with’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 209). In the epilogue to the tale, the narrator extends the theme of the past as a trauma that returns: the narrator's retelling of the story is one that is only temporarily laid to rest—knowledge is a burden; the past surfaces again and again in the present.

In ‘The Last Essay about Slavery’ D'Aguiar writes of trying to imagine ‘a last poem, a last play, a last novel, a last song, about slavery’ which would ‘kill slavery off’—‘final acts of creativity’ could ‘somehow disqualify any future need to return to it’ (D'Aguiar, 1997, p. 125). Yet he senses that such an act is not possible with the ‘conflicts between races’ and in the fracturing and scrambling of history that are a result of slave history. It is this belief, that one has to come to terms with a past in order to move on, that D'Aguiar shares with his fellow black British writer Caryl Phillips, who has in many ways been obsessively writing about slavery and the history of slavery since the 1980s. Phillips defends the return to slavery in similar terms, as an attempt to deal with how the past repeats itself in present relations; ‘the root of our problem—of all those people, white and non-white, who live in Europe or the Americas—is to do with the forces that were engendered by the "peculiar institution"’. Dealing with the past is part of a process of ‘understanding where we are or where we might be going’ (Jaggi, 1994, p. 26). Interestingly, for D'Aguiar, even the past and present are shifting and should not be understood in terms of mere temporal linearity:

the act of looking back not only acknowledges the present in the past, it admits too, the future in the past. The descendants of slaves are hurting because the present isn't working for them. They are shackled to the past by the failure of a present (the recent present), to examine that past in a way makes sense as rhetoric, as emblem, as art.

          (D'Aguiar, 1997, p. 142)

Every generation witnesses a compulsive need to revisit slavery in their own language and imagery; but 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’ (D'Aguiar, 1997, p. 138). D'Aguiar brings a self-reflexive quality to the debate about ‘remembering’ slavery; his essay exhibits an awareness that discoursing, telling stories, writing poetry about slavery creates a vast mythic reservoir or archive, ‘an inexhaustible seam’. It corresponds in part to Stuart Hall's identification of the language of cultural identity and tradition as a hybrid point between authenticity and invention, essence and performance. Such a hybridity disrupts the linear flow of time as unidirectional; ‘identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past’ (Hall, 1990, p. 225). It is at this point that I want to reintroduce Gilroy's Black Atlantic. There is much similarity in Phillips's, D'Aguiar's and Gilroy's attitudes towards the slave past and its reconstruction, especially in music. Phillips's conception of history as a redemptive act, his creation of a chorus of diasporic voices that ‘repeat, mutate, and transform the motif of exile from kinsfolk in the original rupture of families under slavery’ in Crossing the River can be read as an imaginative counterpart to Gilroy's Black Atlantic (Low, 1998, p. 139). D'Aguiar's examples of how the language and themes of slavery are reflected in popular contemporary music gesture towards Gilroy's more substantial analysis of black music as the quintessential expression of transatlantic mutated, hybrid artistic forms based on a common history. But it is in Gilroy's desire to formulate a language to address the commonality and the recurrent patterns of concerns in black diasporic cultures which is also not a reified notion of tribal memory and tradition, and it is his identification of slavery as a base matrix that I want to explore in connection to Feeding the Ghosts.

In his provocative last chapter, entitled ‘Not a Story to Pass On: Living Memory and the Slave Sublime’, Gilroy argues for the prominence of slavery in black diasporic intellectual and artistic life. Modernity for black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright was founded less on the ‘dream of revolutionary transformation’ of the European philosophical discourses of modernity but on the ‘catastrophic rupture of the middle passage’ and its legacy, ‘the countercultural aspirations towards freedom, citizenship, and autonomy that developed after it among slaves and their descendants’ (Gilroy, 1993b, p. 197). Gilroy wants to make a case for the distinctiveness of black expressive cultures that transfigures—even transcends—locality and time. Is there a strategic connection between the narratives of loss, exile, dispossession and journeying that recur in different musical and artistic forms? Are the ‘love and loss’ stories that populate black popular culture a way of transcoding ‘other forms of yearning and mourning associated with histories of dispersal and exile and the remembrance of unspeakable terror’ (Gilroy, 1993b, p. 201)? Gilroy introduces the idea of a displaced slave poetics that captures the notion of continuity amidst discontinuities (‘changing same’). In a move that is reminiscent of Hall's disruption of linearity, Gilroy finds the distinctiveness of black expressive cultures in their memory of slavery, which is at once an ‘ethnic tradition’ (a tribal memory?) and also a strategy for creating, performing and renewing tradition/identity. In a highly contentious move, Gilroy reads the turn to death as the motif that links disparate forms across time:

We will explore … how the rapport with death emerges continually in the literature and expressive cultures of the Black Atlantic. It is integral, for example, to the narratives of loss, exile and journeying which, like particular elements of a musical performance, serve a mnemonic function: directing the consciousness of the group back to significant, nodal points in its common history and its social memory. The telling and retelling of these stories plays a special role, organising the consciousness of the ‘racial’ group socially and striking the important balance between inside and outside activity—the different practices, cognitive, habitual, and performative, that are required to invent, maintain and renew identity. They constituted the Black Atlantic as a non-traditional tradition, an irreducibly modern, ex-centric, unstable, and asymmetrical cultural ensemble that cannot be apprehended through the manichean logic of binary coding.

          (Gilroy, 1993b, p. 198)

I do not want to deal with Gilroy's use of death and suffering as the key figure in a submerged slave poetics because others have dealt incisively with the problems associated with such an identification (see, for example, Chrisman, 1997). What I want to explore here is the isolation of slavery as the base matrix in the formulation of an ethnic or racialized tradition. In many ways, such a formulation invites comparison with the Jewish remembrance of the Holocaust, and Gilroy says as much in his comparison of the modern and the spiritual, exile and redemption, dispersal and connectedness in both groups. The link with the Holocaust is also one that is put to imaginative use in Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood. Alastair Pettinger in his review of The Black Atlantic suggests that Gilroy should have included a psychoanalytic approach to the issue of social memory, and argues that the term ‘transgenerational haunting’ would provide productive ways to explore how traumas of dispossession unconsciously repeat themselves across time in succeeding generations (Pettinger, 1998, p. 145). Jacqueline Rose's study of Jewish and South African narratives of the nation, States of Fantasy, from which the term is taken, argues that trans-generational hauntings are forms of remembrance which ‘hover in the space between social and psychic history, forcing and making it impossible for the one who unconsciously carries them to make the link’ (Rose, 1996, p. 6); they are the processes wherein ‘one generation finds itself performing the unspoken and unconscious agendas of the one that went before’ (Rose, 1996, p. 42). The powerful links between blood, land and national identity—the fantasies of identification—in Zionist rhetoric are the burdens of history, but one that ‘unfolds [also] in the deepest recesses of the mind’ (Rose, 1996, p. 6). Pettinger finds such that such a social memory of slavery would be more productive than ‘all the talk of invented traditions’; seeing the past as mere ‘cultural construct’ means that the ‘unconscious forces’ go ‘largely unacknowledged’ (Pettinger, 1998, p. 45).

To link Pettinger's arguments with D'Aguiar, one could say that his work does engage with the idea of hidden depths of historical and psychic proportions in his use of the poetic metaphors of wood/land, and also in his manipulation of the sea as symbol. In the prologue to Feeding the Ghosts, the sea is an erasure of human life and memory, but it is also—paradoxically—an embodiment of history: the sea swallows up the slave dead and ‘becomes their memory’. The phrase the ‘sea is slavery’ is extended with the suggestion that these ‘bodies have their lives written on salt water’; the wind, the water and waves embody their charges, the ‘sea current turns pages of memory’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p.4). Furthermore, the notion of the sea as a reservoir of the unconscious is developed with Mintah's creation of 131 wooden figurines; a result, she remarks, of a kind of haunting. As Mintah puts it, ‘the shape of each piece is pulled from the sea of my mind and has been shaped by water, with water's contours’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 208). The process is not entirely within her conscious control; ‘the very element I sought to escape rose out of wood shaped by me’ (D'Aguiar, 1998, p. 207), she says. But here the difference with Pettinger's account occurs—Mintah shapes, gives form to the blocks of wood. She brings her skills to the manufacture of these sculptures. If the sea of the prologue, and its natural elements, become the live memory of the Zong's murderous acts, it is the living that must bear witness to the crime—the living which fashions expression out of the traumatic memory of the past and (re)creates it. If one were to follow Pettinger's lead, that the traumatic effects of slavery recur in the present as a trans-generic haunting, we would deny any sense of creativity and agency to the writers and artists that shape our cultural imagination; slavery would in this version be reified as an unconscious ‘tribal memory’. What is perhaps significant about both Gilroy and D'Aguiar's account is their sense that the accumulation of texts on the subject, their textual reverberation and their intertextual dialogue with each other, strives towards the structure of a mythic/cultural repository of symbols, discourses, language and memory which is outside any individual control. Such a mythic reservoir plays a formative part in organizing group consciousness and in this manner ‘one cannot choose one's memories of a people any more than one can as an individual’ (Pettinger, 1998, p. 145). The positing and return to slavery as a mythic ur-text, the shaping, reconfiguring—to use D'Aguiar's term—the ‘nuancing’ of slavery by each succeeding generation performs a distinctive transatlantic bonding of black diasporic identities.

I want to end this chapter by returning to the question of national identifications. I started with an assertion about the specifically black British contribution to the representation of slavery. But, in a sense, this is somewhat contradictory in so far as D'Aguiar, Gilroy and Phillips write of a transatlantic black diasporic community that moves beyond national boundaries. Partly because of the history of migration, and partly as a result of a long history of racism, the black community in Britain has had a long tradition of looking over the waters. As Gilroy argues in his earlier There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, black Britain has always drawn ‘inspiration from those developed by black populations’ elsewhere, but particularly with regard to the ‘culture and politics of black America and the Caribbean’ (Gilroy, 1987, p. 154). Mike and Trevor Phillips in their collection of interviews that make up Windrush (1998) testify to the importance of these American connections: the Civil Rights campaigns (and the media attention it got), the Black Power movement, figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Stokeley Carmichael who visited, played a formative role in the creation of a black identity in Britain and in black politics generally. CARD (the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination) was formed in the aftermath of King's visit in 1965. Musical migrations across the Atlantic and back in popular culture is the bedrock of how young people make and remake themselves as part of a larger ‘black’ community. The movements of a younger generation of scholars and artists also reflect the Atlantic connections, with D'Aguiar and Phillips holding teaching positions and writing fellowships at American universities. The intellectual and imaginative debt can also be traced to the pioneering work done on slave narratives and African-American expressive cultures in the 1980s by a generation of intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, bell hooks, Hazel Carby and Toni Morrison. Morrison's Beloved is perhaps the most influential text in the contemporary American exploration of slavery, memory and trauma, but other writers such as Sherley Anne Williams and Charles Johnson have also made important contributions to imagining slavery and its legacy in black cultural life. The (re)turn to slavery in British novels reflects the wider black diasporic concerns and the formative role of African-American intellectual and cultural life in the production of a black aesthetics; but it must also mean a more integrative approach to history. This is to be particularly welcomed for it must also mean that Britain cannot simply displace slavery—its history and legacy—on to some other space and some other time.

Works Cited

Blackburn, Robin, 1997. The Making of New World Slavery, London: Verso.

Brathwaite, Edward, 1973. The Arrivants, A New World Trilogy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bush, Barbara, 1990. Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1838, Kingston: Heinemann; Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; London: James Currey.

Chrisman, Laura, 1997. ‘Journeying to Death: Gilroy's Black Atlantic’, Race and Class, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 51-64.

D'Aguiar, Fred, 1995. The Longest Memory, London: Vintage.

D'Aguiar, Fred, 1997. ‘The Last Essay About Slavery’, in Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter (eds), The Age of Anxiety, London: Virago.

D'Aguiar, Fred, 1998. Feeding the Ghosts, London: Vintage.

Donnell, Alison and S. Lawson Welsh (eds), 1996. The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, London: Routledge.

Fryer, P., 1984. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London: Pluto Press.

Gilroy, Paul, 1987. There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, London: Hutchinson.

Gilroy, Paul, 1993a. Small Acts, London: Serpent's Tail.

Gilroy, Paul, 1993b. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso.

Hall, Stuart, 1990. ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Jaggi, Maya, 1994. ‘Crossing the River: Caryl Phillips talks to Maya Jaggi’, Wasafiri, vol. 20, pp. 25-29.

Ledent, Benedicte, 1996. ‘Remembering Slavery: History as Roots in the Fiction of Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar’, in Marc Delrez and Benedicte Ledent (eds), The Contact and the Culmination, Liège: University of Liège.

Low, Gail, 1998. ‘"A Chorus of Common Memory": Slavery and Redemption in Caryl Phillips's Cambridge and Crossing the River’, Research into African Literatures, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 122-39.

Nichols, Grace, 1983. i is a long memoried woman, London: Karnak.

Pettinger, Alastair, 1998. ‘Enduring Fortresses—A Review of The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy’, Research in African Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 142-47.

Phillips, Caryl, 1989. Higher Ground, London: Viking.

Phillips, Caryl, 1991. Cambridge, London: Picador.

Phillips, Caryl, 1993. Crossing the River, London: Picador.

Phillips, Caryl, 1997. The Nature of Blood, London: Faber & Faber.

Phillips, Mike and Trevor Phillips, 1998. Windrush, London: HarperCollins, 1998.

Plasa, Carl and Betty Ring (eds), 1994. The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, London: Routledge.

Rose, Jacqueline, 1996. States of Fantasy, Oxford: Clarendon.

Unsworth, Barry, 1992. Sacred Hunger, London: Penguin.

Walcott, Derek, 1993. Poems: 1965-1980, London: Jonathan Cape.

Walvin, James, 1993. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, London: Fontana.

White, J. P., 1996. ‘An Interview with Derek Walcott’, in William Baer (ed.), Conversations with Derek Walcott, University of Mississippi Press.

Bruce King (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Bloodlines, by Fred D'Aguiar. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 95-6.

[In the review that follows, King assesses the problems he views as inherent in the verse structure of D'Aguiar's Bloodlines, maintaining that the tone and pace of the eight-line pentameter stanzaic form do not complement D'Aguiar's story.]

In his early work, Fred D'Aguiar appeared to be one of the most talented British poets of his generation…. Sensitive toward language and sound, he wrote metaphorically, assumed masks, and balanced the universal with the racial. He has, however, taken on the burden of being a black writer, with all the dangers of falling into clichés of victimhood and ignoring the specificity of life. He also has difficulty finding the right form to combine his poet's sense of words with a need to tell stories.

Bloodlines is a novel in verse which consists of about 480 eight-line pentameter stanzas rhymed a-b-a-b-a-bc-c. The story, set in the antebellum American South, concerns a black female slave, the white son of a neighboring plantation owner, their love, his disinheritance, their attempt to escape, their capture, and her death while giving birth to his brown son (the narrator). The white man is sold as an indentured servant and used as a boxer in a traveling circus. There is an older couple of slaves who are involved in the Underground Railway, some showy scenes from the Civil War, an imagined return to Africa, such later events as the now-freed white man seeking his lost black love, and the narrator's comments on the story.

Problems begin with the stanzaic form, which moves rapidly, even jauntily, while leaving space that needs filling. Ariosto and Byron could use a similar form because their writing was amusing storytelling. Such swiftness and space for digressiveness, however, works against psychological depth and feelings of pity. Vikram Seth could use a long, more complexly rhyming stanza in Golden Gate because his characters and their situations were humorous; they were likable San Francisco stereotypes of recent decades. D'Aguiar shows daring in using such a stanza and the resulting tones to describe the violence of slavery, but it does not work. The tone feels wrong.

Then there is the love story. We are to believe that a black slave raped at knifepoint by a lusty young white man will fall in love with him and he with her. It seems more like de Sade than the romantic tale that follows. There is much else here that is improbable, including the plantation owner's son giving up his inheritance for the woman, his being allowed to fistfight each of their captors, his being sold into indenture, and his work as a circus boxer. D'Aguiar is aiming for pathos; he is trying to sentimentalize a love story about a couple which is also intended as a national and racial allegory about white-black attraction and hate.

Derek Walcott has said of West Indians that the mulatto is racially insecure, whereas the black knows and accepts his blackness. There are signs of such insecurity throughout Bloodlines : "I stoke the very fire / I set out to smother." The narrator several times remarks, "I am condemned / to live an eternity, unless all the conditions / that brought me into being somehow mend: / I mean Slavery and all its ramifications / marching unfazed into the new millennium. / Everything that I see in countries and nations / tells me that is true. Slavery may be buried, / but it's not dead, its offspring, Racism, still breed." While saying "I am the lives of slaves," the narrator also regards his tale as symbolic of human injustice: "I criss-cross four time zones looking / for faults to do with race and find plenty / to write home about." This is an excessively plain style for poetry.

Fred D'Aguiar with Kwame Dawes (interview date 2001)

SOURCE: D'Aguiar, Fred, and Kwame Dawes. "Interview with Fred D'Aguiar." In Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, edited by Kwame Dawes, pp. 226-35. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

[In this interview, D'Aguiar discusses the influence of the nineteenth-century British Romantic poets on his work as well as the way Caribbean language and music color his themes and style.]

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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


McLeod, John. "Millennial Currents: David Dabydeen, Fred D'Aguiar, and Bernadine Evaristo." In Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis, pp. 158-88. London: Routledge, 2004.

Within the context of studying the ways in which three writers (Dabydeen, D'Aguiar, and Evaristo) depict a modern multicultural London, McLeod examines the themes and language of D'Aguiar's poetry.

Additional coverage of D'Aguiar's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 148; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 83, 101; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 145; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 157; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.