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)
Nationality: Guyanese and British. Born: British Guiana, 9 December 1956. Immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1969. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. (honors) in English literature, 1978; London University, Ph.D. in English literature 1982; Wolfson College, Oxford, 1983–87. Career: Community education officer, Wolverhampton, 1982–84. Since 1984 lecturer in Caribbean studies, Warwick University, Coventry. President, Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African, and Asian Literature, 1985–87. Awards: Cambridge University Quiller-Couch prize, 1978; Yale University Center for British Art resident fellowship, 1982; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1984. Agent: Curtis Brown Ltd., Haymarket House, 28/ 29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP. Address: Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, England.
Slave Song. Mundelstrup, Denmark and Kingston, Surrey, Dangaroo Press, 1984.
Coolie Odyssey. Mundelstrup, Denmark and Kingston, Surrey, Dangaroo Press, 1988.
Turner: New & Selected Poems. London, Cape, 1994.
The Intended. London, Secker and Warburg, 1990.
Disappearance. London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.
The Counting House. London, Cape, 1996.
A Harlot's Progress. London, Cape, 1999.
Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art. Mundelstrup, Denmark and Kingston, Surrey, Dangaroo Press, 1985; Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Hogarth, Walpole and Commercial Britain. London, Hansib, 1988.
Black Writers in Britain, with Paul Edwards. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Editor, The Black Presence in English Literature. Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Council for Community Relations, 1983; revised edition, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985.
Editor, with Brinsley Samaroo, India in the Carribean. London, Hansib, 1987.
Editor, A Handbook for Teaching Carribean Literature. London, Heinemann, 1988.
Editor, Rented Rooms. Mundelstrup, Denmark and Kingston, Surrey, Dangaroo Press, 1988.
Editor, with Nana Wilson-Tagoe. A Reader's Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature. London, Hansib, 1988.*
Critical Studies: "The Other Triangle" by Fred D'Aguiar, in Poetry Review (London), 78(2), 1988; "Between Creole and Cambridge English: The Poetry of David Dabydeen" by Benita Parry, in Kunapipi (Aarhus, Denmark), 10(3), 1988–89; "David Dabydeen: Coolie Odyssey" by Frank Birbalsingh, in his Frontiers of Caribbean Literatures in English, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996; The Art of David Dabydeen edited by Kevin Grant, n.p., Peepal Tree Press, 1997; "Gender and Hybridity in Contemporary Caribbean Poetry" by Jana Gohrisch, in Anglistentag 1997 Giessen, edited by Raimund Bormeier, Herbert Grabes, and Andreas H. Jucker, Trier, Germany, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1998.
David Dabydeen comments:
I write in English and in a creolized English on two subjects: the colonial experience, specifically the erotic and pornographic dimensions of empire; and the experience of migration, exploring the transformations of language, identity, and sexuality that result from such migration. As with many writers from the Caribbean, my work has been influenced by two literary texts—The Tempest and Heart of Darkness.
My ancestors came from India to the Caribbean from 1838 onwards to work in the British sugar plantations there. In the twentieth century most of us left for England and North America. I would like to move back to India to complete the triangle in real life, not just in poetry.* * *
In the introduction to his first book, Slave Song, David Dabydeen expresses surprise at the lack of poetry written in Creole. He duly wrenches it from the ground by the roots to enact a simple, violent, and often spellbinding drama of oppression, agony, lust, and sweat among the sad and brutalized cane cutters of Guyana. Dabydeen uses limited diction and a simple oral rhythm to such compelling effect that one can only share his surprise.
Slave Song has the claustrophobic darkness of a Jacobean blood tragedy. It employs a handful of raw, day-to-day sensory experiences—the cloying sweetness of cane, the crackle of the cutters' bare feet killing frogs, the workers accidentally gashing themselves with their own cutlasses, and murderous, surging lust for the white mistress ("Bu when night come how me dream … / Dat yu womb lie like starapple buss open in de mud / An how me hold yu dung, wine up ya waiss / Draw blood from yu patacake, daub am all over yu face / Till yu dutty like me an yu halla"). These experiences are all Dabydeen needs to give his songs the resonating pity and humanity they demand in order to ring true.
What moves under the hot sun oozes, rots, drips, and spurts. This description of a girl found dead in a swamp, merging sex and blood in the shape of lush fruit, typifies the voices, concerns, and techniques of Slave Song:
Yesterday she womb bin live an stirrin wid clean bright blood
Like starapple inside, full flesh when yu squash it open
An all de ripe juice run dung ya finga, dung yu arm an troat.
Now she hollow, now she float.
Dabydeen can infuse single images with such color and vitality that they take on the Marvellian power to change a poem's course, whether universalizing to the racial, dimming to the tenderly personal, or swerving to the explicitly sexual. The hot sun turns into an overseer, the mistress's silk frock into a waterfall, and her unattainable sex into the "baigan-chokey," the too-ripe aubergine.
Within these glaring confines Dabydeen displays impressive range. He can take us quickly into the shade: "Leh we go sit dung riverside, dip, dodo, die— / Shape deep in cool deh." The language is clear enough in its alliteration and assonance to wave-off English annotation.
In the following two stanzas we hear the familiar voice of the worker after his work, though, as with all of Dabydeen's characters, it is a voice of extreme pain and extreme relief, followed by the equally universal sound of the melancholy drinker hours later. The stanza break itself does the work of three hours lost with the bottle:
Tank Gaad six a'clack!
Me go home
And me go bade
An me go comb
An me go rock
Drink some rum an coconut!
… When me soul saaf and me eye wet
An de breeze blow an me eye shet
An de bakle na ga mo rum
Den leh yuh come
An tek me wey,
wheh Chain na deh, wheh
Cane na deh …
Out of these two voices, blending effortlessly and pitifully into one man, we feel the dirt and pain of his job, the pathetic joy of the exhausted in simplest pleasures (this is the work of the exclamation mark after "coconut"), the pathos of the habitual rum drinker, and what lies beneath every word spoken in this book, the dull misery of enslavement.
In Dabydeen's work, as with Derek Walcott's, the tongue chosen is itself a character in the drama, the tension between native patois and colonial English loading every word with personal, racial, or political significance. Coolie Odyssey, the second of his books, charts the last stage of the immigrant's journey to England and duly enrobes itself in that language. Everything of importance in the first work is expertly carried over: the joy of song, some of the starkest images (the raw lust of the cane cutters becomes, for example, in the context of England and its literature the eyes of Caliban on Miranda—"And the sun resumed its cruelty / And the sun shook with imperial glee / At the fantasy"), and the transfiguring capacity of simple objects. Dabydeen's work in English loses none of this quality, so that, while it describes the troubled racial feeling, the use of English and the absence of Creole themselves perform it:
[We] confess the lust of beasts
In rare conceits
of the educated Sipping wine, attentive between courses—
See the applause fluttering from their hands
Like so many messy table napkins.
When Dabydeen employs a cross between the tongues (roughly speaking, English diction with Creole grammar), the effect is even stronger. What we hear sounds exactly like what it is, the divided voice of the displaced immigrant knowing two cultures and at home in neither. Nowhere is this better evinced than in his description of the legendary batsman Kanhai, where, in the poem as a whole, cane cutting, cricket, the colonial past and hoped-for future, and the indignation, pride, and fury of the race draw every line as taut as can be:
… round night radio we huddle to catch news
Of Kanhai batting lonely in some far country
Call Warwick-Shire, and every ball blast
Is cuff he cuffing back for we,
Driving sorrow to the boundary
Every block-stroke is paling in a fence
He putting down to guard we,
And when century come up, is like dawn!
The work of Dabydeen, native Guyanese and now a teacher in England ("where it snows but we still born brown"), powerfully voices the enslavement, odyssey, and modern dilemmas of his people. The voice is as articulate in the mouth of the slave boy or cane cutter as in that of the naive immigrant or educated poet.
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. British (born Guyana), b. 1956. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Art/Art history, Literary criticism and history. Career: Community Education Officer, Wolverhampton, 1982-84; Warwick University, Coventry, Professor of Literature, 1984-. Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African and Asian Literature, President, 1985-87. Publications: (ed.) The Black Presence in English Literature, 1983, 1985; Slave Song (poetry), 1984; Coolie Odyssey (poetry), 1985; Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art, 1988; (ed. with B. Samaroo) India in the Caribbean, 1987; (ed.) A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature, 1988; (ed.) Rented Rooms, 1988; Hogarth, Walpole and Commercial Britain, 1988; The Intended (novel), 1990; Disappearance (novel), 1993; Turner (poetry), 1994; The Counting House (novel), 1996; A Harlot's Progress (novel), 1999. Address: Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, England. Online address: [email protected]