Cyril Dabydeen Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
June 25, 2006

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BETWEEN 1984 and 1987, Cyril Dabydeen was Poet Laureate of Ottawa. In 1988, he was awarded a Certificate of Merit by the Government of Canada for work in literature and art. He was also recognised for writing and editing by the Ontario Arts Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Dabydeen received his tertiary education in Canada, gaining a B.A. from Lakehead University and an M.A. from Queen’s University. His M.A. thesis was on the poetry of Sylvia Plath. He lectured at universities in North America including Cornell, Iowa, Florida, and Penn State. At present, he’s attached to the Department of English, University of Ottawa.

He was a founder-member of the League of Canadian Poets, of PEN International (Canada Chapter), and the United States Association for Commonwealth Languages & Literature Studies. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was involved in The Canadian-Asian Studies Association.

For many years, he worked with the Canadian Government on human rights issues.

The bulk of his writing was done in Canada where he took courses in creative writing and where his recent novel, DRUMS OF MY FLESH, was a finalist in the Ottawa Book Prize.

But Cyril Dabydeen was born in British Guiana in the year 1945. A cousin to David Dabydeen, and a contemporary of Arnold Itwaru and Janice Shinebourne, Cyril Dabydeen was born in Canje Village, East Berbice, to a farmer father (who recently passed away in Guyana) and a seamstress mother.

He received his primary education in Canje, Berbice, before going on to the Teachers’ Training College, Georgetown. Between 1961 and 1970, he taught at St. Patrick’s Anglican School, Berbice.

Dabydeen was an avid reader, a characteristic that drew him into writing. The long hours he spent at the British Council Library and the Public Library in New Amsterdam were well invested. At the latter institution, he said, he would go over past issues of KYK-OVER-AL (edited by A. J. Seymour) again and again, studying the works of established and emerging writers, hoping to see himself in print one day. Another push towards writing came from the fact that Edgar Mittelholzer, born in New Amsterdam, was making waves in the literary arena at the time. That nearness to greatness was infectious – urging Dabydeen to write.

Dabydeen started writing in his teens, falling under the influence of Tagore’s Gitanjali in much the same way as J. W. Chinapen and many other writers from that county. Dabydeen’s first poems were published in the Berbice Times. The first draft of the novel, THE WIZARD SWAMI, was written during that early visitation of the muse coupled with the reading of by V. S. Naipaul’s novels.

With the need to write came the need to connect with other writers. With Arnold Itwaru, (another Berbice-born writer living in Canada), Dabydeen founded the literary group, ‘Aspirants’, that fizzled out too soon for the lack of a literary infrastructure in the county of Berbice, a matter Dabydeen discussed with Martin Carter who was a ‘seminal influenced’ on Dabydeen’s writing.

In 1964, he won the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for poetry and in 1967, the A. J. Seymour Lyrical Prize. It was during that period, the National History and Arts Council (NHAC) paid special interest in his work, harnessing his thoughts. Those interviews were done by Seymour and Wordsworth McAndrew.

Sheik Sadeek, who was attached to NHAC and had acquired a printing press, published Dabydeen’s first collection, POEMS OF RECESSION.

The push factor to migrate to a place where the literary climate was more conducive intensified as he listened to ‘Caribbean Voices’, a BBC radio programme produced by Henry Swanzy featuring the poetry and short fiction by Caribbean Writers. Eventually, he succumbed to the call of those voices of Caribbean writers who were making a name for themselves in the Diaspora.

In 1970, he migrated to Canada from where he eventually gained international recognition. His work (some translated into foreign languages) is studied in universities in North American, India, Brazil and in Europe. His novel THE WIZARD SWAMI was taught at the M.A. -level literature course at Jawaharlall Nehru University, Delhi, India.

His poetry, short fiction and essays can be found in major literary publications around the world including Kaie, New World, Kyk-over-Al, The Caribbean Writer, Ariel, Exempla (W. Germany), Kunapipi (Australia), Kavya Bharati (India), World Literature Today, and Wasafiri.

He is honoured to have his work selected for significant anthologies including ‘The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse’, ‘India in the Caribbean’, ‘Caribbean New Wave: Contemporary Short Stories’, ‘Companeros: Writings about Latin America’, ‘The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Verse’ and ‘The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse’.

So far Cyril Dabydeen has published four novels, eight collections of short fiction, and ten books of poetry.

A prolific writer, Dabydeen remains a significant voice of the Indo-Guyanese-Canadian Diaspora, focusing on theme of cultural clash, identity and alienation, expressing ‘strong sympathies for the poor’ and revealing the ‘hard ironies of existence’.

Sources: * Email correspondences with Dabydeen during 2006 * Online information