David Dabydeen: the odyssey continues…

Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
December 31, 2006

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David Dabydeen

WHEN David Dabydeen was born in 1955, Martin Carter had already published his signal collection, Poems of Resistance, which solidified Carter’s reputation as the foremost poet of Guyana and the Caribbean.

Some fifty years later, Dabydeen had become the foremost advocate in the Martin Carter research saga, maintaining and extending the focus on the life and work of Carter. In 2005, Dabydeen was influential in establishing the Martin Carter Scholarship, providing funds for less fortunate school children.

In December 2006, to mark the ninth death anniversary of Carter, Dabydeen was instrumental in erecting a plaque on the house in Lamaha Street, Queenstown, where Carter lived from 1963 to 1997.

Dabydeen has developed an enormous respect for his, as he termed it, literary ancestors which also include Shakespeare, Naipaul, Braithwaite, “definitely Walcott” (his words) and “definitely Wilson Harris”.

Dabydeen feels he has an obligation to ‘talk back’ to those writers as in a guild of writers carrying on a conversation, extending the dialogue.

Also during those fifty years, Dabydeen started an odyssey that led to him becoming Guyana’s leading contemporary artist, writer of poems, novels, academic papers, and radio and film scripts.

In 1984, Dabydeen won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize with his first book of poems, Slave Song. The same book won him the Quiller-Couch Prize in 1984.

David Dabydeen’s “The Intended” tells of the social divisions, educational obstacles, and self-exploration of a struggling foreigner in the mid-20th century.

In 1991, he won the Guyana Prize for Literature with his first novel, The Intended. He went on to win the Guyana Prize on two other occasions. In 2000, it was for the novel “A Harlots Progress” and in 2004, Our Lady of Demerara.

In 2004, also, he was presented with the Raja Rao Award for Literature, India, for “outstanding contribution to the Literature of the South Asian Diaspora”. Dabydeen has been awarded the title of fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

That tabulation shows the recognition of Dabydeen’s work in his ancestral home, in his birthplace and in his adopted home.

Two of his poems, “Coolie Mother” and “Coolie Son” are studied in schools throughout the Caribbean.
The first is about a mother working hard to educate her son in order to prevent him succumbing to the vicious sugar estate mentality. Those poems form part of Dabydeen’s collection “Coolie Odyssey”, which illustrates the formative years of the author’s odyssey.

David Dabydeen was born in December 1955 in Brighton Village, Corentyne, Berbice, British Guiana. It was a time of political crisis and reduction of colonial rule, a period that led to strain relationship among the peoples of this country, a period that led to the disruption of lives and families and migration.

Although he was born of peasant parents, Krishna Prasad and Vera Dabydeen, he managed to do well in school, winning a full scholarship to attend Queen’s College, the top school in Georgetown.

Much of his writing is informed by his formative days in rural Berbice. He admits the countryside filled him with the nakedness of life, the nakedness of nature, the texture of life, filling him with a sense of vegetation, of animal, of people working the land, of landscape.

Vivid in his mind is milking cows with his grandfather, going off to sell the milk, returning with bartered items more often than not. Vivid too is Mr. Spenser teaching him in New Amsterdam. He recalls the sense of literature he acquired at Queen’s College under the tutelage of John Rickford and at the same institution where Shakespeare’s plays were enacted and where he started reading West Indian literature.

Dabydeen confesses that from the very early age of twelve he wanted to write becoming aware then of that “natural fertility – the imagination”.

It is this imagination with which he pushes the reader to the edge of the cliff, always challenging the reader that makes him a successful writer.

While attending school in Georgetown, he boarded at several generous homes before migrating to England in 1969. Dabydeen won a scholarship to Cambridge University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts with honours in 1978.

He then gained a Ph.D. in 18th century literature and art at University College London in 1982, and was awarded a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. He is currently Professor at the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick.

He is also Ambassador-at-Large for Guyana, being Guyana’s Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO and a member of the board of the UN’s Intergovernmental Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).

Apart from his three books of poetry and five novels, Dabydeen has written and collaborated on numerous non-fiction titles including Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English Art, A Reader’s Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature, India in the Caribbean, Across the Dark Waters: Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the Caribbean, A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature, and Caribbean Literature: A Teacher's Handbook.

The odyssey continues with Dabydeen working on his sixth novel and he is also bringing back into focus the work of our most accomplished earlier poet, Egbert ‘Leo’ Martin (1862-1890).

And the odyssey continues with the extension the family tree. The marriage of David Dabydeen and Rachael has now produced a new addition to the family.

* Interviews with David Dabydeen on television programme, ‘Between The Lines’, 2004 & 2006.

Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: oraltradition2002@yahoo.com

Look out for The Guyana Annual 2006-2007, a tradition started in December 1915 courtesy of the then Chronicle newspapers. This issue continues the tradition of excellence in Guyanese literary and cultural heritage with the results of six competitions in poetry and fiction with special sections on literature written for children. This family-oriented general magazine offers scintillating recipes, Balgobin stories in the tradition of Guyanese folklore, Guyanese proverbs, articles on Guyanese cricket, festivals of Guyana, attitudes of young people in Guyana to HIV/AIDS, avant-garde art, Carifesta, and pen-portraits of Helen Taitt, Philip Moore and Paul O’Hara. It would also include a two-page listing of new Guyanese publications and much more.