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.
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, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 26, 2005).
"Fred D'Aguiar," Caribbean Poetry Web, www.humboldt.edu/~me2/engl240b/student_projects/daguiar/daguiartoc.htm (January 26, 2005).
"The Poetry Kit Interviews Fred D'Aguiar," The Poetry Kit, www.poetrykit.org/iv/daguiar.htm (January 26, 2005).
"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/daguiar-fred-0
"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/daguiar-fred-0
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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.
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 slavery—in their own language and imagery—for 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 ability—her body—to 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 lovingly—but economically—through 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 of—and connection with—surviving 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.
"D'aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/daguiar-fred
"D'aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/daguiar-fred
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Nationality: British. Born: London, 2 February 1960. Brought up in Guyana. Education: University of Kent, Canterbury, B.A. in English; Cambridge University (Judith E. Wilson fellow), 1989–90. Career: Trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse. Writer-inresidence, London Borough of Lewisham, 1986–87, and Birmingham Polytechnic, 1988–89; visiting writer, Amherst College, 1992–94; assistant professor of English, Bates College, 1994–95, and since 1995 University of Miami, Florida. Editor, Artrage magazine, London. Awards: Minority Rights Group award, 1983; University of Kent T.S. Eliot prize, 1984; G.L.C. literature award, 1985; Guyana Poetry prize, 1987; David Higham First Novel award, Book Trust, London, 1995, and Whitbread award, Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, 1995, both for The Longest Memory. Address: c/o Chatto and Windus Ltd., 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, England.
Mama Dot. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.
Airy Hall. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
British Subjects. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.
Bill of Rights. London, Chatto and Windus, 1998.
High Life (produced London, 1987).
A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death. London, Methuen, 1995.
The Longest Memory: A Novel. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Pantheon, 1994.
Dear Future. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Pantheon, 1996.
Feeding the Ghosts. London, Chatto and Windus, 1997; Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1999.
Editor, with Gillian Allnutt, Ken Edwards, and Eric Mottram, The New British Poetry 1968–1988. London, Paladin, 1988.
Critical Studies: Interview with Frank Birbalsingh, in Ariel (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 24(1), January 1993; by Michael Horovitz, in Poetry Review, 83(4), winter 1994; by M. Simpson, in Critical Survey (Oxford, England), 6(3), 1994; by Paula Burnett, in New Statesman Society (London), 22 March 1996; by Sean O'Brien, in London Review of Books, 18(11), 1996; "'Tricksters of Heaven': Visions of Holocaust in Fred D'Aguiar's 'Bill of Rights' and Wilson Harris's 'Jonestown'" by Hena Maes-Jelinek, in 'Union in Partition': Essays in Honour of Jeanne Delbaere, edited by Gilbert Debusscher and Marc Maufort, Liege, Belgium, L3, 1997; "Remembering Slavery: History As Roots in the Fiction of Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar" by Benedicte Ledent, in The Contact and the Culmination, edited by Marc Delrez and Benedicte Ledent, Liege, Belgium, L3, 1997; by H. Hathaway, in African American Review, 32(3), 1998; "Anonymity, Naming and Memory in Fred D'Aguiar's 'Feeding the Ghosts': Islands of Fiction in a Sea of History" by Carole Froude-Durix, in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (Dijon, France), 21(1), autumn 1998.* * *
Fred D'Aguiar was born in London of Guyanese parents. His early years were spent in Guyana, but his secondary education was in London. He is a leading name among the now established generation of black poets who have contributed a wide variety of new energies and rhythms to British poetry during the 1980s and 1990s. D'Aguiar's poetry represents a cross-cultural synthesis of two traditions: one predominantly oral and belonging to the Caribbean, and the other the mainstream written literary tradition. The Caribbean has fostered major writing in both traditions, but its impressive performance-based oral tradition was not widely known in Britain until the 1980s, when it proved something of a revelation to many, especially younger, contemporary poetry readers.
The two traditions can be seen in D'Aguiar's first book, Mama Dot. Through the persona of Mama Dot, D'Aguiar creates a living metaphor for the Caribbean region, part possibly an actual person, part archetypal mother figure, but most importantly a spirit of place, as in the title poem "Mama Dot":
Born on a Sunday
in the kingdom of Ashante
Sold on Monday
Ran away on Tuesday
cause she born free
Lost a foot on Wednesday
when they catch she
Worked all Thursday
till her head grey
Dropped on Friday
where they catch she
Freed on Saturday
in a new century
In "The Day Mama Dot Takes Ill," another poem in the sequence, "The continent has its first natural disaster: / Chickens fall dead on their backs, / But keep on laying rotten eggs …" When Mama Dot returns to health, the natural world celebrates: "She throws open her window / To a chorus and rumpus of animals and birds, / And the people carnival for a week."
The volume Mama Dot is divided into three sections, of which the title sequence is the first. The poem "Roots Broadcast," from which the second sequence takes its title, is written in the Caribbean and Guyanese oral vernacular idiom that was named by Edward Kamau Brathwaite "nation-language" (the book has a one-page glossary of these words):
No sun nah come up
dese days yet sun muss deh
some weh shinin pan somebady
else back wen all we gat
is hevy cloud redy fe bruk
pan we head an memry
of how sun wuk cawn dead
fo dis ya roots broadcast
pickin up pickin up
The third section of the book is taken up with "Guyanese Days," a long autobiographical poem on D'Aguiar's recollections of his early days in Guyana. It is written in Standard English, in itself a comment on his own mixed cultural and ethnic heritage. The poem is a tour de force and something of a virtuoso performance in language, equally eloquent and direct and providing impressive evidence of D'Aguiar's talent.
D'Aguiar's second book, Airy Hall, is also carefully divided into three sections. Although just as fastidiously written as Mama Dot, the volume has an altogether stronger feeling of magic realism. The first part is taken up by the "Airy Hall" sequence, which, like "Guyanese Days," seems based on the poet's early memories of Guyana, although the poems are altogether more mysterious and imaginative in their evocations. The sequence reflects different aspects of the place, with titles such as "Airy Hall's Dynasty," "Airy Hall's Dark Age," and "Airy Hall Isotope," where the Western world and the third world meet:
Consider our man in a hovel
With no windows, a shack our missiles
Sail through; cracks that do not interrupt
The flow of moonlight or sunlight,
Seen here washing or baking his floor
The second section of Airy Hall includes the poem "El Dorado Update," a title referring to the abundant unmined gold in the interior of the Guyanese rainforest. The poem comments on the financial and other problems of third world nations, and stylistically it is a new departure, mixing lines from children's rhymes with phantasmagoric imagery to create a dream atmosphere in which fantasy and reality coexist:
Riddle me, riddle me, riddle.
One people, one nation, one destiny?
Let's take a walk
not to stay, just to see
You pass a man at Customs,
returning from an island;
he wears several tin chains,
tin rings on every finger,
and tin bracelets that jingle
as his arms swing.
what he declares
tallies with their list made
when he departed
with identical amounts
The third part of Airy Hall consists of the long poem "The Kitchen Bitch," which, more than any other part of the book, puzzled reviewers on its publication. The poem is complex, interweaving images of Guyana and the Caribbean with more phantasmagoric imagery and with dislocations of the narrative. A note to the poem explains that "kitchen bitch" is the name for a tin kerosene lamp used by Jamaican peasants. The poem tells the story of an expedition high up in the rainforest of the Guyanese interior, apparently following in the tracks of the half real, half legendary figure of Albert Collier. It is best read the way one reads, say, a Wilson Harris novel or a Jorge Luis Borges story, trusting to its own logic rather than to any linear narrative. Airy Hall is an ambitious and adventurous book that deserves to be better known, for it shows D'Aguiar broadening his range to look into the mysterious and enigmatic Amerindian past of Guyana.
D'Aguiar's British Subjects takes a long look at his birthplace of Britain, which he loves and yet where he most keenly experiences what he has called the black British poet's "sense of being 'other.'" The book does not have the brilliance of imagery of his earlier work and chooses to focus instead on the everyday feel of the "grey light and close skies" of urban Britain. In "Home" he explores his love for the red telephone boxes, "chokey streets, roundabouts and streetlamps / with tyres chucked round them" that he misses when he is away. His happiness as his plane touches down at Heathrow is short-lived when he arrives at customs "to the usual inquisition":
my passport photo's too open-faced,
haircut wrong (an afro) for the decade;
the stamp, British Citizen not bold enough
for my liking and too much for theirs.
"At the Grave of the Unknown African" is a moving and accomplished poem in couplets that is set in Bristol at the grave of a slave dead for 250 years. In the first part the poet meditates on the past "souls for sale in Bristol's port" and juxtaposes this with images of urban riots and skinheads in modern Bristol. In the second part an unnamed African slave answers the poet and urges him to
Say what happened to me and countless like me, all anyon.
Sry it urgently. Mean times may bring back the water cannon.
I died young, but to age as a slave would have been worse.
The tone of the poem is assured, and the quiet dignity of the slave is allowed to speak out plainly.
British Subjects also includes several sequences: "Sonnets from Whitley Bay," a series of well-wrought love poems; "Frail Deposits," a series of four poems for Wilson Harris; "The Body in Question," addressed to various parts of the body; and "Notting Hill," an evocation of the annual celebratory Caribbean carnival in the Notting Hill area of London.
In the 1990s D'Aguiar published three distinguished novels—The Longest Memory (1994), Dear Future (1996), and Feeding the Ghosts (1997)—that met with critical acclaim in Britain. The distinction of his prose writing might have led to the confidence of address that is found in D'Aguiar's book of poetry Bill of Rights, published in 1998 and his most ambitious work to date. The book consists of an interlinked sequence of poems that make up a single dramatic narrative of an event in contemporary Guyanese history, the mass suicide in Jonestown of the followers of Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of a doomed religious sect. Place-names and scenes shift between a remembered London and present-day Guyana, creating the feeling of a disjointed life. The book is told from the point of view of a member of the cult whose personal history is intermixed with that of the group and whose voice we follow through illness and the birth of a child with his partner. We are given glimpses of the warped sexual morality of Jones and see the chilling mass suicide of the group, "… an excursion to God's theme park," which, miraculously, the speaker survives.
The book reminds us how many dramatic voices we find in the poems of D'Aguiar (he also has written plays), and the dramatic voices in Bill of Rights lead the reader through the experience in a exhilarating progression. Yet craft is present throughout, and contrasting sections use both the oral and the literary traditions. The poem is full of echoes of other poets, including W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Bob Dylan.
D'Aguiar's achievement is substantial, and he has shown himself to be an ambitious, original, and subtly experimental writer in the mainstream of contemporary poetry in Britain.
"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Poets. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/daguiar-fred
"D'Aguiar, Fred." Contemporary Poets. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/daguiar-fred