Literary icon Professor David Dabydeen is a ‘Special Person’
“Being an academic allows you the space and the resources to publish. The primary aim of any academic is to research and to publish. If you don’t do that you are stealing the tax payers’ money.
By Sharmain Cornette
He is considered one of the most outstanding literary icons to have emerged from these shores. His expansive knowledge base is so diverse that our 214,969 square kilometres (83,000 square miles) could not contain him. But this has not hindered the Honorary UNESCO Ambassador to Guyana, devoted countryman, and Queen’s College Old Boy, David Dabydeen, from leaving his England-based home as often as possible to share his literary knowledge here.
The main aim of this distinguished gentleman, who has over the years been labelled an accomplished critic, novelist and intellect, upon his every return is to help promote and even publish the works of local writers. In fact, his life story is hinged on a bookish fascination which started ever since he was a young boy growing up in Berbice.
He was born to Veronica Dabydeen and David Harilal Sookram on December 9, 1955, but grew up with his mother and her parents Frederick and Amy Dabydeen in Plantation Zealand. His parents divorced while he was still a young boy and his father, an attorney-at-law, had migrated to England leaving his mother and five siblings behind. David Dabydeen was the third of his siblings.
He revealed during an interview that it was a privileged experience growing up in a small community called Brighton Village with his mother and grandparents.
“At a very early age you had a sense of landscape and of a rural life and language. I had a strong sense of top side coolie language (bad dialect)… My grandfather had about 3,000 sheep and he cut rice and so on,” Dabydeen fondly recalled. He revealed that he grew up during a time when East Indian people could not attend school unless they had a Christian name. In fact, that era was popularly characterised by East Indian folks practicing both Hinduism and Christianity simultaneously. As such he would routinely attend church and go to the temple as well.
By the time he was seven years old, Dabydeen said that he and his siblings moved to New Amsterdam with his mother where he completed his primary education. He attended the Vryman’s Erven Government School where his path to academia was first moulded.
Dabydeen recounted that he had strict but outstanding teachers, the likes of Messrs Spencer and Chung. Mr. Spencer in particular, he said, took especially good care of him.
“I thought that school was fantastic because my teacher liked me and others like me, who showed an ability or willingness to learn. He gave us a sense of a world that was bigger than ours. He also encouraged us to read and think and I got a sense of a world outside of Guyana.”
The evident willingness to learn saw Dabydeen and a number of other students becoming eligible for special lessons which undoubtedly led to them being very successful at the Common Entrance Examination, although resources were very minimal. Dabydeen secured a place at Queen’s College, situated in the capital city, Georgetown.
At the secondary level, his desire to thrive academically was not only influenced by distinguished teachers but also several students who Dabydeen viewed as “completely inspirational.” He remembered older students such as Eric Phillips, who is currently affiliated with the African Cultural Development Association (ACDA), and who he regards even to this day as his “boyhood hero” and a few others who drove him to embrace a world of achievement, in his case, literary achievement.
Dabydeen was just about 13 years of age when upon the invitation of his father he had to migrate to London, England. And it was readily recognised that he had entered a totally different atmosphere in terms of school life. It was a different sort of school setting that he was forced to adapt to and he vividly recounted that it was not as exciting as back home in Guyana despite abundant resources. And the physical climate was no less a drastic change, Dabydeen noted. He remembers feeling extremely cold. “I remember vividly…The first thing that struck me when I got there that it was so cold, and the students my age were also a lot duller.”
But it was to him a new country with new buildings and a variety of new and intriguing things to captivate the budding writer’s mind. He was enrolled in one of England’s outstanding schools, and according to him, he was lucky to again be entrusted in the care of a terrific English teacher who pushed him to towards one of the best universities in the world.
But even as he pursued academia there was the undeniable realisation that he was labelled among the minority. “You had that status and you felt like a second class citizen because you were of an ethnic minority,” Dabydeen confessed.
But the young Dabydeen would not be deterred. He saw England for its resources — libraries with books; it was a paradise for those academically inclined. “If you were somebody that loved books, England was the place to be. There were books everywhere; there were books and there were scholarships to be had too.”
In 1974, Dabydeen read for English Literature at Cambridge University and went on to undertake a doctorate at the University College of London in 1982. He was subsequently awarded a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. In 1984 he landed a job as an academic at the University of Warwick and has been teaching there for 26 years. He was appointed Director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and Professor at the Centre for British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University some 13 years ago.
“Being an academic allows you the space and the resources to publish. The primary aim of any academic is to research and to publish. If you don’t do that you are stealing the tax payers’ money. A lot of people don’t understand, academics must research and publish. If you don’t do this you are not fulfilling your duties as a scholar or performing your academic role.”
Dabydeen said that his job entails that he do extensive research, publish and teach as well.
“It is not sufficient to just do one you have to do all three and then you have done your job…” he insisted.
His works have been well chronicled over the years and include his first book, Slave Song (1984) which is a collection of poetry that won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Quiller-Couch Prize. A further collection, Turner: New and Selected Poems, was published in 1994, and reissued in 2002; the title-poem, Turner is an extended sequence or verse novel responding to a painting by J. M. W. Turner, Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on (1840).
And then there is his first novel, The Intended (1991) – the story of a young Asian student abandoned in London by his father – that won the Guyana Prize for Literature. He also authored Disappearance (1993) which tells the story of a young Guyanese engineer working on the south coast of England who lodges with an elderly woman. And of course there is The Counting House (1996) which is set at the end of the nineteenth century and narrates the experiences of an Indian couple whose hopes of a new life in colonial Guyana end in tragedy. The story explores historical tensions between indentured Indian workers and Guyanese of African descent.
Another novel, A Harlot’s Progress (1999) is based on a series of pictures painted by William Hogarth in 1732 and develops the story of Hogarth’s black slave boy. Through the character of Mungo, the author skillfully challenges traditional cultural representations of the slave.
Dabydeen has been awarded the title of fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and is the second West Indian writer (V.S. Naipaul was the first) and the only Guyanese writer to receive the title. In 2001 he wrote and presented The Forgotten Colony, a BBC Radio 4 programme exploring the history of Guyana. His one-hour documentary Painting the People was broadcast by BBC television in 2004.
In that same year he published Our Lady of Demerara and then The Oxford Companion to Black British History (co-edited by Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones) was introduced in 2007. In 2007, too, he was awarded the Hind Rattan (Jewel of India) Award for his outstanding contribution to literature and the intellectual life of the Indian Diaspora.
In 2008 he published Molly and the Muslim Stick and has since edited books for the Coventry-based Heaventree Press. He is also the author of several collections of poetry and several works of non-fiction and criticism.
His achievements over the years saw him being recognised and nominated as a member of UNESCO’s Executive Board where he functions in the post of Honorary Ambassador to Guyana.
It was in 1992, Dabydeen recounted, that he earnestly started rendering his intellectual self to the promotion of literary work in Guyana. “I was asked by the then President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, if I could help promote scholarship and publications in Guyana. So ever since then this is what I have been doing whenever I come to Guyana. I sometimes take some writings back (to England) with me and go to the various publishing houses and ask them to see if the materials could be published.”
However, the initiative to help local writers, particularly of the younger generation, has been upped a notch with the introduction of the Caribbean Press, which came about as a result of Carifesta X which was hosted by Guyana. The one-year-old press, which is jointly managed by Dabydeen and Ian McDonald on a voluntary, unpaid basis, exists for two main reasons: to publish the Guyana classics, which are books from the 17th Century and onwards, and to publish living writers, including children.
“We are doing what we can right now and so far we have published 11 titles which will be available to the public as soon as they are shipped over. I had brought some advance copies but that was for some of the schools. They are being distributed free to secondary schools, the university and the public library. The next stage is to reprint them for the general public,” Dabydeen related.
Among the titles are Egbert Martin – selected poetry, Clementi, a book on the history of Chinese in Guyana, a book called Guyanese poetry from 1831 to 1931 and Roy Heath’s novel The Shadow Bride.
The press also has as part of its editorial board the likes of Professor Eddy Bough of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus; Trinidadian artist and writer, Willi Chen; Al Creighton of the University of Guyana and Ms Ameena Gafoor.
“We have written to other people to invite them to join us, because although the focus at the moment is on Guyana and Guyanese writing, when the press has enough resources it will expand to the Caribbean,” Dabydeen disclosed.
Currently, he noted, the press is virtual and “is based in our intellect and in our hearts. We don’t have much to operate on because we don’t need much…Ian and I have a lot of contacts and we can draw on the goodwill of other scholars. Our first year budget was just about US$20,000.”
However, plans are already apace to publish short stories and poems of children of Guyana, Dabydeen added. And to encourage the involvement of children, a literary competition is on the charts, and has already been endorsed by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. Some 40 pieces are expected to be selected at the end of the competition and those will be published, according to Dabydeen, in the quest to boost the literary aspiration of local children.
In addition, the authors of the outstanding pieces will become eligible to be a part of a writing workshop where they will be guided on ways to improve their style of writing.
“We will teach them how to use better words. They will learn about creative writing…Having cleaned up their pieces we will organise a big reading, where they will be able to read their pieces at a public forum.”
The date for that event, which will be dubbed ‘A Festival of reading,’ has already been identified for later this year to mark the death anniversary of Martin Carter.
And even as he strives to encourage literary-inclined children and adults alike to reach greater heights in the world of academia, Dabydeen firmly embraces an undying passion for family life.
“I try to keep my family life away from my professional life…but I love my family dearly.”
His union to wife Rachel has so far produced two children – three-and-a-half year-old Moses and five-month old Surya. Together they reside in England with their cat, Clare Short. The family still mourns the loss of their dog Cheddi, who they loved dearly.