Fred D'aguiar Biography
Nationality: English. Born: London, England, 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.
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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.
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