David Dabydeen: Guyana Don

The success of David Dabydeen’s 2004 novel Our Lady Of Demerara — winner of the Guyana Prize

David Dabydeen. Photograph courtesy David DabydeenPhotograph courtesy David DabydeenPhotograph courtesy David DabydeenPhotograph courtesy David DabydeenPhotograph courtesy David DabydeenPhotograph courtesy David Dabydeen

Berbice, Demerara. East Indian, European. Massa’s son, indentured labourer’s child. David Dabydeen and I are firmly from different sides of the sugar estate punt trench. Yet we are firm friends, thousands of miles from the Caribbean in England, and back in our native Guyana. We are brought together by a common love for our “mothers’ land”, by an interest in matters of the Caribbean mind, and by a well-developed sense of mischief.

Dabydeen is fast becoming a literary colossus in the Caribbean, and much further afield. Just 50 this year, he’s already published 24 books of fiction and non-fiction, with more in the pipeline. For two decades he has been garlanded with literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic — and in his grandfather’s land, India, too. Last May, he was awarded an unprecedented third Guyana Prize for Literature for his latest novel, Our Lady of Demerara. Dabydeen is already working on his next, a book about the declining industrial communities of northern England. What’s the betting that this one won’t be well up there when the next Guyana Prizes are announced in 2007?


Our Lady of Demerara, published in 2004, is firmly in the tradition of Wilson Harris — mystical, opaque, and set in two centuries and two places, Coventry in England and Guyana in South America. Most critics lauded it. Sukhdev Sandhu in the Daily Telegraph called it “a brooding, powerful novel of unusual ambition”. Robert Fraser, writing in the London Magazine, did not spare the superlatives: “If the history of the 20th century constitutes a Bible of sorts, then Dabydeen is its very own bookworm.”

Such praise has become commonplace since the publication of his first novel, The Intended, in 1991. “Impressive debut is an understatement,” said one reviewer. This after his 1988 poetry collection Coolie Odyssey led dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson to describe Dabydeen as “the voice of cool . . . the voice of the exile whose return is a journey back in time”. Acclaim also followed his 1999 novel A Harlot’s Progress (another Guyana Prize winner), a story about a black servant boy in a William Hogarth print. Hilary Mantel called it “an intellectually fastidious book, honest but never plain”, while Adam Mars-Jones pronounced that “it is everywhere apparent that Dabydeen has an imaginative mastery of the period [the 18th century of Hogarth] and can render it in a hundred ways”.

Great writer without a doubt, beloved of critics; but one word of advice. Never accept an invitation to dinner chez Dabydeen without tying him down firmly first: exact date, place, and time. Trying to arrange a rendezvous with Dabydeen recently proved to be an adventure. Lunch in Coventry on a Sunday soon became dinner there on Saturday, then the location shifted to his other house in Cambridge — one hundred miles away.

David “Dabo” Dabydeen leads an interesting life. Wife in Cambridge, work in Coventry. The changes had not quite finished. When we finally met in Cambridge, David and his wife Rachel settled us down in our accommodation and calmed our traffic nerves with a few drinks. Dinner was eaten — in a restaurant — at 10 pm. But it was worth the wait. The meal was spicy, so too the company. David is pure conviviality. Learned, well read, gossipy. Full of insights into the UK, Guyana, and so much more. Rachel, an occupational therapist, has led the way to a more settled Dabydeen. They were married a year ago. Since then, that union has been blessed first in Coventry then in Georgetown and India.

Dabydeen’s novels and poetry reflect his life experiences. The boy from the logie (one-room house for sugar workers) in Berbice is never far away. He was born there in December 1955, but taken away when he was about ten by the scholarship exam in then British Guiana. Destination: the very elite Queen’s College in Georgetown. He was sent there at the insistence of his mother, who did not want him “to pick up a cutlass and cut cane”, as they say in Guyana.

David was taken to the UK in his teens, at a time when it was the promised land for migrating Guyanese fleeing the racial cauldron of their motherland. Soon Dabydeen settled into Balham — and racial stereotyping — in south London; he then faced the catharsis of his mother leaving home. Educated in a comprehensive school, he was inspired by one English teacher.The forecast of another teacher, that “you will not go to university”, proved wrong. Badly so. Dabydeen went on to Cambridge, Oxford, London, and Yale, where he studied art and literature, specialising in the 18th century.

Dabydeen is what the Guyanese call a “BA”: a Been Away. But he’s a “BA” who “CB” (Comes Back). He is in Guyana frequently — twice this year so far — and there he is treated royally, as you would expect of the country’s ambassador at large and ambassador to UNESCO. A longtime confidante of the late People’s Progressive Party (PPP) leader Cheddi Jagan, compiler of Jagan’s speeches and letters, he is always made welcome by Jagan’s widow, former president Janet Jagan. Dabydeen says he is “almost a son” to her.  President Bharath Jagdeo’s door is always open to him too. Yet David is very catholic in his political contacts. He escapes the PPP camp when “home” through friendships with the likes of Al Creighton, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Guyana, and Deryck Bernard of the opposition People’s National Congress.

But Dabydeen doesn’t restrict himself to the literary salons of greater Georgetown, tinkling glasses with the soi disant intelligentsia. He’s just as happy to take “groundings” with the Rastas at the poor end of town in Tiger Bay. So much so that he’s invested in one of their putative enterprises — a donkey cart tourist tour of the Garden City, a scheme yet to come to full fruition.

Dabydeen is like that: you always expect the unexpected. He’s a star professor at one of Britain’s top five universities, Warwick. He was the director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies there. A star cast passed through under his imprimatur. Last year, Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott came to talk and to read his poetry. Nothing unusual — until Dabydeen invited the entire audience to join him and Derek for a curry afterwards. Many followed to a darkened (there was a power cut) Indian restaurant in Tile Hill, another part of Coventry. Usually, though, there’s much electricity when Dabydeen is around. He makes things happen.

Dabydeen is a unique academic. At Warwick, he is full-on for two days a week. His office is the centre of many Anglo-Caribbean deals about literature, politics, fund-raising. His is the moving spirit behind the Centre for Caribbean Studies’ appeal for one million pounds to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The appeal committee members are his contacts (including former British High Commissioner to Guyana Edward Glover, and me). His lair in the Warwick humanities building is his HQ. Going there is not unlike visiting a rum shop, but without the rum; all human life is there. The university is non-smoking (officially), yet you face a fug on opening Dabydeen’s office door. Rules are for others.

Dabydeen’s reputation has been made by his writing, but also by his appearances on television in Britain. Approachable and charismatic, he is a natural for intellectual programmes. He and the top end of the medium suit each other. This modern renaissance man has so far spread his talent to presenting or advising on series about forbidden sex (for Channel Four), the “art of the ordinary” (for the BBC), and, earlier this year, a six-part documentary series for BBC Four: Guyana: Trouble in Paradise.

This was all about Guyana, and the problems faced in governance of the country. Ambassador Dabydeen eased the path to the backstairs of power; the programme-makers nearly trod it well. Trouble in Paradise is well worth a watch, for the searing insights brought to the screen by Dabydeen. He advised on this series through thick and thin, and managed to steer it clear of pure hagiography of President Jagdeo.

Back in the UK, Dabydeen is now firmly part of the “Guyanese mafia” — those with origins in or parents from the Land of Six Peoples who have risen in public life. “Mafia” members include Baroness Amos, the leader of the House of Lords (with whom Dabydeen takes tea in the Palace of Westminster); Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality (who delivered the Walter Rodney Memorial Lecture at Warwick in 2004); Lord Waheed Alli, media mogul and politician; and Professor Clem Seecharan, the winner of the 2005 Elsa Gouveia Prize for his book on Sir Jock Campbell — and also a Warwick graduate. These achievers have scaled many heights.

Having made it to the top, Dabydeen is not one for kicking down the ladder of advancement to his fellow Guyanese. Picture the scene four years ago. David and I in a darkened hotel bar in Georgetown, agreeing that we should find a way of saluting those very Guyanese achievers in the UK. We did: the UK Guyanese High Commission Awards took place later that year in Croydon. Among those honoured there: Amos; Phillips; writers Wilson Harris and Roy Heath; psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud; flautist Keith Waithe; and Dabydeen himself.

Writing is in his blood. “I always wrote since I remember,” Dabydeen has said. “I remember Naipaul saying that if he couldn’t write, he would die, and when I heard that — I was young then — I agreed with him.” He has to date published five novels. He is now a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Dabydeen’s personal “coolie odyssey” has taken him from Canje, Berbice, to Cambridge, England, via London and Coventry. Can it be long before the boy from Berbice joins the other great Caribbean writers Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul on the Nobel podium? I just hope that, if and when he does, I get an invite to the dinner afterwards. On the right day, in the right place!

“Writing is a kind of benediction”

David Dabydeen speaks

On his reasons for writing
“I write because it’s all I ever wanted to do, since childhood. There is the intense pleasure of arriving at an image or a metaphor. Without language, I’d be a beggar or a banker, so writing is a kind of benediction for me.”

On his literary role models
“Wilson Harris, the sheer imaginative energy of his work. And Derek Walcott, for his lovely extravagant images. And Sam Selvon’s joy in being alive. I have huge admiration for the work of Olive Senior and Pauline Melville. The English writers who amaze me are D.H. Lawrence and the Gawain Poet [author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight]. Among contemporary British writers, my favourites include poets like John Burnside, hugely talented.”

On the formative influences of Guyana and the UK
“Growing up in Guyana gave me the Creole language, as well as a sense of a rural landscape. Initially, England gave me the humiliations of immigrant life, then, later, access to a world of learning. For me, England is one big library. The place is awash with books, paper, pens, and strange creatures called readers. I am currently writing a novel about past working lives in the north of England, and on paedophilia. Part of it will be set in Guyana, which I shall use as a space of redemption. As you can imagine, it is a very difficult and controversial subject, so it may not find a publisher.”

On Guyana’s future
“Guyanese are essentially a decent and pragmatic people, so power-sharing is bound to occur in some shape or form. I’m not cynical about our political future, if only because we produced in the past visionaries like Cheddi Jagan and Walter Rodney.”

A Dabydeen reading list

Poetry

Slave Song (1984)
Coolie Odyssey (1988)
Turner (1995)

Fiction

The Intended (1991)
Disappearance (1993)
The Counting House
(1997)
A Harlot’s Progress (1999)
Our Lady of Demerara (2004)

Non-fiction

Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (1985)
Hogarth, Walpole, and Commercial Britain (1988)