Cyril Dabydeen’s Drums of My Flesh won the 2007 Guyana Prize for Literature. The novel was also nominated for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed as a finalist for the Ottawa Book Awards in 2006.
A Review of Drums of My Flesh (Toronto: TSAR, 2005. pp. 234. ISBN 1-894-770-250) appears in the current issue of THE ARTS JOURNAL
by Dr. Mariam Pirbhai
Cyril Dabydeen’s Drums of My Flesh is the first full-length novel by the author, though Dabydeen is certainly no stranger to fiction having penned three novellas, The Wizard Swami (1989), Dark Swirl (1989) and Sometimes Hard (1994), and several works of short fiction, including his most recent publication to date, Play a Song Somebody (2004).
In Drums of My Flesh, there is a distinct reverberation of the concerns, patterns and stylistic turns of phrases that readers have come to identify with Dabydeen’s unique poetics.
On a structural and thematic level, Dabydeen’s “necessary elsewheres,” anchored within a diasporic consciousness that includes Canada, South America and South Asia, results in what Edward Said once referred to as “contrapuntal awareness” to describe the simultaneity of experience and synchronicities of being for those who straddle multiple spatial and epistemological frameworks.
Framed within seven distinct sections, not including a prologue and epilogue, each chapter reading like a prose-poem, the narrative coheres through symbolism and imagery rather than plot.
The humdrum causality of plot doesn’t suffice where the quotidian and the surreal merge (as they do in the tradition of magic realism), and where private realms of interiority, incident and fate propel character and action.
Narrated in the form of an extended flashback, a father’s reminiscence of life in Guyana, the “elsewhere” of experience that his young Canadian-born daughter might never directly come to know becomes a larger reflection of the “distances that we carry in us”, rather than the civilizational clashes and upheavals of a post-9/11 era.
The greater part of the narrative is set among the Indo-Caribbean descendants of indentured labourers in the Canje district of Berbice, Guyana, and intermittently positions the reader along the autumnal banks of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, a dual setting that resonates with autobiographical detail.
The story pivots around the protagonist’s boyhood in rural Guyana and, to a lesser extent, Guyana’s Corentyne coast. The story charts the history of familial dysfunction, explained primarily in terms of the father’s philandering, alcoholism and domestic abuse, but more implicitly in the father’s earlier sacrifice to leave behind his coastal existence to live in the old sugar plantation district which, for him, merely reeks of the lingering vestiges of colonial oppression.
In this sense, Dabydeen’s narrative encompasses the coast, the mysterious hinterland and the sugar plantation estate-village, at least three of the five spatial terrains that publisher/author Jeremy Poynting refers to as the predominant settings of Guyanese fiction.
But in Dabydeen’s text, the symbolic and psychological interiority of the human mind is itself a landscape upon which characters dwell for much of the narrative. It is in the overactive imagination of Boyo, the protagonist during his youth, that characters find their fullest expression.
Boyo invests in the people around him a mythical and legendary status to compensate if not cope with the somber reality of societal dysfunction and familial breakdown.
It is in Boyo’s imaginative landscape that some of the most memorable characters in the novel come into being, including Jaffe, a blind mendicant whose imagined role as an oracle and muse guiding Boyo along a spiritual globe-trotting journey echoes the figure of Omeros in Derek Walcott’s epic poem of the same name.
For those readers who delight in realism, this may not be the novel for you. Here, characters are crafted as spectral figures rather than fully formed beings.
But once a reader accepts the symbolic (and, as the epigraphs tell us, the Jungian logic) of the novel, and allows him/herself to ride the rhythmic waves of Dabydeen’s poetic prose, the unconventionality of the work becomes a richly rewarding, if albeit challenging, experience.
Indeed, Dabydeen’s work has an impressionistic quality: images, symbols, even words and phrases linger and dance about in the reader’s mind in unexpected ways long after the pages are turned.
Dabydeen has a distinctly feminist sensibility that is reminiscent of Rooplall Monar’s candid portraits of Indo-Caribbean women’s lives in the rural Guyanese interior, as they are encoded within Hindu patriarchy and an abusive colonial infrastructure.
This comes across in the author’s blurring of marital and other forms of sexual violation in the characters of Dee and Fatima.
At the same time, women are configured beyond the parameters of victimhood, particularly an older generation of women—those grandmothers who bear the legacy of the epic journey across as early migrants and settlers. But here, too, Dabydeen is careful not to impose a representational straight-jacket on his characters.
For instance, though Boyo’s maternal grandmother bears the onus of his parents’ disintegrating marriage (she is left to raise her three grandsons almost single-handedly), she is nonetheless the moral force that leads to her daughter’s demise in a second marriage to a “townman” whose shallowness contrasts with the albeit tormented depth of character that defines the first husband.
On a number of levels, Drums of My Flesh is an extension of previous works by Dabydeen, incorporating familiar tropes, leit motifs and other authorial signatures, such as the enigmatic father-figure who embarks on metaphysical journeys into a “hinterland” that is populated by mythical creatures and the even more elusive indigenous population; the lyrical juxtapositioning of tropical excess with the understated ferocity of Canadian winters; and the interweaving of global mythologies, including the Greek Pegasus, the Roman minotaur, and the Bengal tiger of Indian lore.
But as much as the novel throws the reader into familiar Dabydeen territory, so too does it chart new frontiers, not only in terms of the author’s oeuvre but perhaps also in terms of Guyanese Literature.
This is most poignantly brought to bear in the Muslim character Jaffe, whose pivotal role as the shaping mytho-cultural consciousness and repository of racial memory becomes the primary vehicle through which Boyo comes to make sense of his increasingly destabilized world.
This is a bold and far-reaching step, not only given the under-representation of Islam and Muslim characters in Indo-Caribbean Literature, but also insofar as it brings the Guyana of the protagonist-narrator’s past into the projected fold of his daughter’s increasingly uncertain future as a global citizen poised on the threshold of radical environmental and political change.
Most strikingly, Drums of My Flesh is concerned with the question of legacy, patrimonial legacy in particular. How does a father explain to his daughter “the distances that we carry in us”?
Perhaps the story is the legacy, the act of telling, the bridge that unites the daughter’s and the father’s disparate worlds.
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