David Dabydeen Biography
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.
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)