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David Dabydeen Biography

london english narrator caribbean

Nationality: Guyanian and British (immigrated to Britain, 1969). Born: Berbice, Guyana, 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.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

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.

Poetry

Slave Song. London, Dangaroo Press, 1984.

Coolie Odyssey. London, Hansib, 1988.

Turner. London, Cape, 1994.

Other

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.

*

Critical Studies:

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.

—Marian Gracias

David Dabydeen Biography - Selected writings [next] [back] Chris D'Lacey (1954–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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