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Fred D'Aguiar Biography - Selected writings

poetry university british guyana

1960—

Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected writings

Novels

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.

Plays

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.

Poetry

Mama Dot, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Airy Hall, Chatto and Windus, 1989.

British Subjects, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Bill of Rights, Chatto and Windus, 1998.

Sources

Periodicals

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.

On-line

"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).

—Chris Routledge

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