Drums of My Flesh
Preserving our literary heritage
by Cyril Dabydeen
TSAR Publications, 2005
Reviewed by Petamber Persaud
January 21, 2007
DRUMS of My Flesh is an evocative expansive work of prose/poetry which suited the theme of a child dealing with trauma, escaping into flights of imagination with constant and swift change in scene, tone and rhythm, surprising the reader (which is an excellent technique) but too often slowing down the pace.
However, while that style of writing is innovative, the use of it went on too long, much too long to make a solid novel of throngs of insightful material.
The narrator is an unnamed grown male now settled in Canada coming to grips with himself, battling with questions of identity and history, alienation and integration, destiny and karma.
These issues he turned over in his mind while reflecting on his formative years in British Guiana and while observing his young girl child as they walk in a park “not far from where the Rideau and Ottawa rivers meet”.
The park is frequented by peoples (migrants) from all over the world. The girl’s name is Catriona and her mother is of Irish ancestry. The thought process of the narrator embodied the main plot the book: Boyo, a seven/eight boy, growing up in a sugar plantation setting in British Guiana, a country about to become an independent state, traumatised by racial friction and labour unrest.
Boyo and his two brothers are beset with harsh domestic situation when their industrious (ridiculed by women who labour laboriously in the sugar industry while she sits at a sewing machine) and very beautiful mother is mistreated by her first husband who lived with an “old fowl” named Fatima who was like a mythical figure – always around the action.
That harsh domestic climate was protracted when the legal man/wife relationship was severed and the father remarried. That was not the end of the trauma: the mother remarried, this time to a ‘town man’ who was also a philanderer.
Boyo moved, physically and mentally, among more than three houses/homes while living at the grandmother’s. The grandmother accepted her karma, often quoting “bear yuh chafe” to all and sundry who were visited by misfortune.
Some of Boyo’s movements from home to home were delightful escapes like his actual visits to the Corentyne Coast of Guyana and imaginative flights to foreign lands especially to Canada (to where the narrator of the book had escaped).
Drums of My Flesh will make the hair on your skin raise as it explored man/woman relationship in shocking details.
It will cheer your heart, portraying the goodness of humanity, the redemptive power of man, woman and child.
Drums of My Flesh will broaden your knowledge of sinister domestic violence (physical, verbal and non-verbal), will inform your sensibilities and refine your perceptions, will show you how trauma can be assuaged, directing you to possible routes of escapism.
But it will also leave you disquieted and unfulfilled – the characters are thin, unable to carry to plot (which relied heavily on structure).
Disquieting in that the writer may have consciously left much too much to the imagination, the imagination of the reader.
The book is heavy on structure and form - 234 pages were divided into seven sections which were further subdivided into forty-two chapters in addition to a prologue and an epilogue.
Short sentences, short chapters but long in the recovery of history with long forays into the future. This looking back and forward is not surprising, as one section of the book is prefaced with Carl Jung’s “anything psychic is Janus-faced; it looks both backwards and forwards.”
The book is also heavy on symbolism, repetition and gloom. A great many chapters end on a gloomy note and the repetitions “bare yuh chafe” tell of a dark novel. Of course, there are redeeming features like the young man, Boyo, wanting freedom and the young girl, Catriona, wanting her independence.
And the extremes are tempered in scenes like the one in which Boyo’s stepfather blew out smoke, ‘setting up an impenetrable screen between us’.
This novel, recently short listed for the Dublin IMPAC Prize and the City of Ottawa Book Prize, is a new addition to a lengthy list of works – poetry, fiction (short story and short fiction), essay – by Cyril Dabydeen whose prolific cache of writing deals with origins and (reconfiguring of) identity, integration and alienation, drawing heavily on history for material.
Dabydeen operates within certain parameters including “to mash up the language” (Jan Carew), to “purify the dialect of the tribe” (T. S. Eliot), to be loyal to “the country of the imagination” (Derek Walcott) and to “plumb the bottomless pool of origins” (Wilson Harris).
Cyril Dabydeen, born in East Canje, Berbice, British Guiana in 1945, migrated to Canada in 1970.
Drums of My Flesh is a difficult book but worth the while reading for it is indeed intellectually challenging. And there is direction on how the book aught to be read in the epigraph quotes from Michel Foucault and V. S. Naipaul about memory and consciousness.
Structured along the line of Jungian psychology which stresses the influence of “racial and cultural inheritance to the psychology of the individual”, Drums of My Flesh is definitely thought-provoking. The writer has done the beating; it is now time for the reader to dance to the rhythm, an interpretive dance, any interpretation can be justified.
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THE GUYANA ANNUAL 2006-2007 is a literary and artistic tradition started in December 1915 courtesy of the then Chronicle newspaper. 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 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 also includes a two-page listing of new Guyanese publications and much more.