David Dabydeen on Coolitude

A Coolitude interview

David Dabydeen from Peepal Tree.

Critic, writer, and novelist David Dabydeen was born in 1955 in Berbice, Guyana, moving to England with his parents in 1969. He read English at Cambridge University, gained a doctorate at University College London in 1982, and was awarded a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. David Dabydeen is Director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and Professor at the Centre for British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick. He is also Guyana’s Ambassador-at-Large and a member of UNESCO’s Executive Board. In 2001 he wrote and presented The Forgotten Colony, a BBC Radio 4 programme exploring the history of Guyana. He is the author of four novels, three collections of poetry, and several works of nonfiction and criticism. His first book, Slave Song (1984), a collection of poetry, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Quiller-Couch Prize. A new collection, Turner, was published in 2002.

— From the British Council


Rajiv Mohabir: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. I am a long-time fan of your work. Your writing and documentary have been very instrumental in Khal Torabully and Marina Carter’s book Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labor Diaspora as well as in the works of many West Indian authors. My first question considers belonging and not belonging to national space. Do you think of yourself as a diasporic subject or do you see yourself as belonging to an uninterrupted history of migration?

David Dabydeen: Both, I think. In the West Indies, where I was born, we were a migrant people … enslaved Africans, indentured Portuguese, Chinese, and Indians … In the modern era, we moved out to resettle in America, Canada, Britain, another series of middle passages. As the great Stuart Hall said repeatedly, our identities are fluid. Of course, to travel is to experience travail and trauma, but there is also the nervous excitement of adventure and encounter with the unfamiliar. My own life has been diminished and enriched by migration to Britain as a boy. It was in Britain that I felt lonely (as in the loneliness of Sam Selvon’s characters) but it was in Britain that I had the resources to research and publish on West Indian history and culture. Scholarship and creative writing done in Britain have brought me great happiness, and London today is so excitingly diverse, that I am slowly settling in after fifty years.

Rajiv Mohabir: What is remarkable about your poetry is that in Slave Song, Coolie Odyssey, and Turner you speak back to colonial authority by critiquing the white gaze on brown and black bodies. You embody the subjects of these dehumanizing paintings and write poems from their perspectives. You draw from an archive that includes paintings by Francis Bartolozzi (“A Female Negro Slave with a Weight Chained to her Ankle”), Francis Wheatley (“Family Group and Negro Boy”), and J.M. W. Turner (“Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying”). What gave you the idea to have your speakers write from the voices of the brown and black subject of colonial art?

David Dabydeen: I grew up in Guyana without pictures, except images of Hindu deities or Bible illustrations. There was no gallery in the town of New Amsterdam. I did come across, as a boy, an erotically charged picture of Andromeda in a book of stories about classical myths, and it made a lasting impression, given my age! Later, at university, I discovered Hogarth and then Turner. It just struck me that giving voice and biography to the marginal black figures in their work would be an exciting imaginative adventure, quite apart from the desire to highlight the historic black presence in British literature, art, society. The 1980s in Britain saw an awakening of black British consciousness, with poetry by Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson, James Berry, and others. There was the Brixton riot or uprising in 1981. Small publishing houses like Karnak House and the Karia Press were established. Journals like Race Today and Race and Class gave space for expression of the West Indian and the black British character. A very influential figure in London was Arif Ali, a Guyanese who published newspapers like Caribbean Times and Asian Times and who went on to establish a superb publishing company called Hansib. The University of Warwick set up Britain’s first Centre for Caribbean studies, after the 1983 American invasion of Grenada. West Indian cricket was triumphant, England beaten constantly, sometimes humiliated by the scale of defeat at the hands of West Indian bowlers. Cricket, as the West Indian intellectual said in his book, Beyond the Boundary, was not a mere game but a political act with high artistic qualities. So my interest in writing blackness into British art, or rather, highlighting the dark corners of the canvas where black people were placed, was part of a larger political and artistic movement in 1980s Britain.

Rajiv Mohabir: In these collections you often write in Guyanese Creole that, before your intervention, did not have a place in the literary world. Since it was understood as a “broken language” — often a coded term for “broken people” — you invigorated West Indian literature by giving us back our (nation) languages. Were you ever afraid to write in Guyanese Creole? What were the language politics that surrounded you when you published Slave Song, winner of the 1984 Commonwealth Prize?

David Dabydeen: I left Guyana when I was thirteen, and made my first trip back seven years later. I was bowled over by the freshness and power of the Guyanese creole, which I had forgotten, growing up in relative isolation in London. I was at university at the time, reading a lot of medieval alliterative verse like Sir Gawain and was moved and excited by the Northern English dialect. So the idea of writing poetry in a dialect of English was not a problem. Also, Linton Kwesi Johnson was writing in Jamaican English and we were all reading him since he was widely covered in the British media. Then, of course, there was the great poetry of Tony Harrison. So, for me, there was no overt ideology or ethnic obligation when it came to writing in creole, I was just moved by the sheer lyric possibilities of the language. Of course, in the West Indies itself, the politics around the use of creole in public discourse, as well as in literature, raged for a while. Kamau Brathwaite famously argued against English meter by stating: “The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” It was only after composing my creole poems in Slave Song (1984) that I became aware of the politics of what I had done. The poems came first, as they should do.

Rajiv Mohabir: I know that you are familiar with Khal Torabully’s work and ideas of Coolitude. It’s been described as not [being] based on Coolie as such but relies on the nightmare transoceanic journey of Coolies, as both a historical migrant and a metonymy of cultural encounters. The crossing of the Kala Pani constitutes the first movement of a series of abusive and culturally stifling situations. By making the crossing central, Coolitude avoids any essentialism and connection with an idealized Mother India, which is clearly left behind. It disclosed the Coolie’s story, which has been shipwrecked (“erased”) in the ocean of a Western-made historical discourse as well as a world of publication and criticism. (Bragard qtd. in Carter and Torabully 15).

Why do you think poetry is a vessel of communicating the nuances of Indian Labor Diasporic identities? What do you think is both lost and gained from imagining a new origin story based on the violence of colonialism?

David Dabydeen: Not just poetry, but fiction and scholarship and journalism. Trying to give voice to the silenced is to provoke literary creativity. Violence and horrible injustices are breeding grounds for poets and novelists, generating excitement and fertility, sad to say, but such is the imagination and its need for manure. It’s hard to write about nice things, or rather, it takes a special talent to be scented on the page.

I have tremendous admiration for Khal Torabully and his attempt to theorize Indentureship and its aftermath, in the form of ideas about “Coolitude” and “coral identities.” It was my pleasure and honour about ten years ago to have invited him to the University of Warwick to give the keynote speech on his work, at a conference on the Indian Diaspora. He was terrific. A theory needs to be backed up by an army, so on that occasion, I was hoping to create a regiment of students to appraise and disseminate his work. I have to admit that all theory stumps me, the language/terminology is too dense for me, and, like Walcott, I believe there is a lot of onanism out there in the academies. Walcott said he never put Decartes before the horse! I prefer to stick with the creative writing and with Keats’s “negative capability” (i.e. partial knowledge), and leave theory to the philosophers of literature.

Rajiv Mohabir: You have written most of your work from England and have lamented this fact through the various speakers in your poems. How do you think your writing would have been different if you had stayed in Guyana? How has England colored your work?

David Dabydeen: I don’t recall any lamentations, England provided me with great libraries and university learning. England also gave me a fragility, since, as an immigrant, I was always up against incipient violence. It was an unsafe place, once you left campus. All these nervous experiences have the potential to be embodied on the page. You write when you are on edge, or else in tranquil recollection of having been on the edge. Guyana was, according to its splendid poet Martin Carter, a graveyard for writers, no readers to speak of, no culture of encouraging or appreciating writers. Who am I to argue with Martin Carter? It is true that most West Indian literature was made in England, largely because of the relative lack of  literary infrastructures in the region, but also because London has always been a place where writers from all over the world gathered to drink, whore, ferment, brawl, write.

Rajiv Mohabir: Who have been your greatest literary influences?

David Dabydeen: D. H. Lawrence and the Gawain poet when I was young, then later, V. S. Naipaul and Wilson Harris and Sam Selvon. And Derek Walcott of course, who has not been awed by him? And … and… and … There are so many exciting and inspiring writing out there … John Burnside, the contemporary British poet, comes to mind immediately, and the short stories of Pauline Melville or the novels of Kai Miller … Rushdie, Ishiguoro … It’s impossible to talk properly or sensibly about influences.

Rajiv Mohabir: Your most recent book, Johnson’s Library, sees a return of characters from Turner — a happy return for your readers to experience more of this story. What do you see as the differences and connections between writing poetry and fiction? This is a question of form: how do you decide between writing poems and writing fiction?

David Dabydeen: I don’t decide. I just sit down with pen and blank paper and wait to see if anything will happen. If nothing happens I go to the pub to meet friends. If a line of a poem comes, then I follow it and try to find the form. Same with a paragraph in prose. The blessing is if anything comes at all! Mostly nothing, because of laziness or making excuses to do something less arduous and demanding. Then you have to pretend that you might make good royalties (Samuel Johnson said writing to make money was a sure way to get writing done) or meet wonderful people overseas at potential readings, just to excite yourself. Then you flatter yourself that fame will come your way, and you fantasise for a minute or two, before coming to your senses and the bleakness of the blank page and fully inked pen.

Rajiv Mohabir: You have also made a wonderfully elucidative documentary entitled “Coolies: How the British Reinvented Slavery,” in which you put Indian indenture history in Guyana in conversation with Indian indenture history in Fiji. What similarities and differences did you find surprising between these two seemingly different cultural contexts while you were researching and filming?

David Dabydeen: Such work made me see connections between us, as descendants of indentured labourers. It’s fulfilling to hope for the possibility of visiting Fiji (or Durban/Mauritius/wherever the Indians were shipped to) and finding kinship with food and song and speech. Things to do with Indentureship move me; I find myself organizing conferences and seminars on the subject, or raising funds to promote research. I feel a strong moral obligation to do so, which I am glad for.

Rajiv Mohabir: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I was so happy to hear you read at Bocas Literary Festival in Port-of-Spain in April. I was wondering if you could tell me, what are the projects that currently occupy you?

David Dabydeen: I am looking forward to the Galle Festival in January in Sri Lanka. I also have to continue writing a new novel, which I left off to do more pleasurable and lazy things like travelling. I need to make some money …