Cyril Dabydeen is an acclaimed poet and fiction writer with nine books of poetry, five of stories, and three novels. He also edited A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape (Mosaic Press) and Another Way to Dance: Contemporary Asian Poetry in Canada and the US (TSAR Publications). His latest books are Unanimous Night, Poetry (Black Moss Press) and Uncharted Heart, Poetry (Borealis Press). His last novel, Drums of My Flesh (TSAR, 2005), had been nominated for the prestigious IMPAC/Dublin literary prize and won the international Guyana Prize for Fiction. He has also appeared in numerous anthologies, including the Oxford, Penguin and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse. He is a former Poet Laureate of the City of Ottawa (l984-87) and was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize (US). He is a professor at the university of Ottawa.
Amatoritsero Ede: You have worked in almost all the genres of writing; in which one do you feel more at home?
Cyril Dabydeen: I began writing both poetry and fiction at an early age, and after winning the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for poetry in British Guiana (now Guyana) where I was born, I became more comfortable with poetry because my confidence grew in it. And, you see, for me the image is all in being a creative writer; metaphor is what it’s all about, and the sense too of the “absolute interiority of the poem,” as Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes describes it. In Canada I’ve been writing both fiction and poetry for years, and both keep being published in the small literary magazines. And, of course, when I was appointed the Poet Laureate of Ottawa in the mid-eighties, I began to be labelled primarily as a poet, and kept writing poetry in the main, as seemed expected of me. I know, too, that I do like reading poetry more than I do fiction to public audiences (I am just better at it on the stage). Nowadays I seem to write more prose than poetry, as the mood seizes me. And, the short story form I am comfortable with, the story being “something apocalyptic in a teacup,” and the good short story combines the poet’s sense of style and the novelist’s sense of drama. Underlying this too, is the fact that poetry is not read widely for a number of reasons, perhaps because of the way it’s taught, or the poet’s penchant for self-reflexive angst, and so on. Fiction does command a wider audience, so common sense tells me that if one wants to reach more people, fiction is what you should focus on. What is interesting to note is that most Canadian poets tend to have moved from poetry to fiction, maybe with ease, e.g., Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and so on.
A.E.: One of your long poems – is it ‘‘The Caribbees’’ ? – is in the dramatic form. It sets one wondering if you perhaps at any point thought about writing plays.
CD: I have written one or two plays in the old country and appeared on stage about nine times , so I do have a dramatic flair. I was also trained by the CBC to write TV dramas (in a small group with George Elliot Clarke and others in Ottawa, I remember), and have written one TV drama about an illegal immigrant and the angst that goes with that; but I never sent it anywhere to be made use of. The poem “Caribbees” which you mention is based loosely on Greek drama – I used to read this a long time ago – and I think “Caribbees” should be performed or “acted” out on stage. Overall, while I think I have a good sense of dialogue – as a novelist and short story writer – I find the dramatic form perhaps too limiting for me, as it doesn’t allow the writer to explore the soul, the ubiquitous unconscious through interiorization the way you can do with the short story or the novel. With interiorization, that’s where you delve into what I think Virginia Woolf calls the “luminous halo” of a character’s inner state, I suppose.
A.E.: How do you decide what form is suitable for a particular theme, how do matter and manner correspond for you?
CD: I think the form decides itself, subliminally, though consciously too on occasions. If an image takes hold of my imagination, then that is the starting off point for a poem, and it could also be for a story. With the novel it is most likely something I keep thinking about for a long while, allowing it to gestate, so to speak, as it slowly begins taking its own particular shape and structure. In short, the poetic form may come quickly; with prose it’s something I dwell on over a longer period of time. Having said that, I suppose different writers function in their own unique ways. Essentially, it’s hard to be definitive about what’s the most suitable form until a given moment arrives. What is interesting is that the creative spirit guides you, the Muse, I think.
A.E.: The Caribbean has a rich literary tradition, and a history of epic proportions; how does this background impact your work?
CD: I grew up reading nearly all the key Caribbean writers, and I began my career like such as a writer. In Guyana itself my usual reading material tended to be Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, as well as a host of others from the UK, the US and elsewhere (India, Africa). Of course, if you are serious about writing in the Caribbean, you can’t avoid reading Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and novelists like George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon – and many of these writers I’ve come to know personally. I have read alongside a few and exchanged letters with others; some became friends – like the late Sam Selvon. I am in touch with Kamau Brathwaite, and with my cousin, David Dabydeen, and so on. There’s also Austin Clarke, the Barbadian-Canadian writer, and many others who are here in Canada. I still read a lot of Caribbean writing, including the newer writers because that region with its creative output is indeed the seminal one for me. Not so long ago I won (co-winner) the top Guyana Prize for fiction for my novel Drums of My Flesh, a work set largely in Guyana but with key references to Ottawa. In my poetry and short fiction I tend to look back to the Caribbean; for “memory is the mother of the Muses” as I splice images and motifs north and south, all through the alchemy of writing and art. Significantly one of my short fiction books is called North of the Equator (Beach Holme); and, maybe, my best novel is Darl Swirl (Peepal Tree Press) based on the Guyana-Caribbean lore or the ‘massacouraman’; I use this lore as a take-off point in expressing some of my deeply felt ideas. And not so long ago Kamau Brathwaite, in his unique way, made poetic use of our correspondence with respect to my Stoning the Wind (TSAR Publications) to form the third section of his 2007 Griffin International Poetry Prize-winning book Born to Slow Horses (Wesleyan University Press). So you see, connections and correspondences are always at work.
A.E.: Did writing a thesis on Sylvia Plath have any influence in your literary progression?
CD: I became enamoured of the confessional poets like Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath and others who were very influential in the sixties and seventies, and maybe later as well, primarily because of the way they use language with the sense that every subject, no matter how personal, is grist for the poetic mill. You see, I’d studied Creative Writing with a professor who came from Boston University where many of the confessional poets may have been influenced or been taught by Robert Lowell; but I had been reading Lowell too when I lived in Guyana. Later Sylvia Plath caught my attention because of the aesthetic energy (for example the line: “pears fatten like little Buddhas”) and the directness of her voice as she wrote first in the US and then in the UK (she’d studied at Newnham College, Cambridge University). I liked how her poems were not overdone, not metaphorically overwrought or too layered with obfuscating imagery as a lot of West Indian poetry tended to be (the early Derek Walcott, for instance). With poets like Plath and Anne Sexton it was the sense of the direct line, direct energy as emotion is laid bare without the poetic voice appearing hysterical (as in Plath’s most famous poem “Daddy”). So studying the confessional writers gave me a new insight into poetic form and technique; I may have internalized those ideas in a none intellectual manner . I read a lot of Ted Hughes’ poetry as well, and was aware of what other contemporary British writers like Peter Redgrove and Alfred Alvarez (The Savage God) were doing. I compared them with Caribbean poets, and with poets from Africa and Asia also (because I was studying Commonwealth Literature at Queen’s University at the time). I saw the difference in subject matter and technique; in some of the latter, there are political resonances because of an awareness of history and a post-colonial angst. I read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and her short stories critically and kept comparing all of that to Canadian writing that I was also immersed in. This was quite useful, perhaps leading to new insights of the poetic craft, at least from the North American point of view. Then, too, from reading Plath and others it was the vision of the women’s movement that came to me – long before Plath became a cult figure after her suicide.
A.E.: What challenges, if any, did you encounter as an immigrant writer new to Canada.
CD: The immigrant writer sees Canada in one clear glance because you come from the outside, from another place. And because you are aware of somewhere else you are continually, if not subliminally, making comparisons as the imagination takes you in many different directions at the same time. I think the immigrant writer, especially from the so-called Third World, may have a different point of view or perspective, say, a writer in the European tradition. One often approaches history in sometimes different ways, with colonialism in mind. And then issues dealing with discrimination, acceptance and identity, as well as climate, flora and fauna come into the picture, consciously or unconsciously, in one’s evocations; and this goes beyond notions of exotica. Recently when I read at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, Poet-Professor Christl Verduyn reminded her class that I am one of the early generation of writers of Caribbean-Third World background in Canada (novelist, Austin Clarke, of course, was here much earlier). It’s not unnatural that I would write, for instance, a poem like “Lady Icarus”– one of my signature pieces – dealing with illegal immigration. A writer like myself also functions in a two-toned English and within “a multilingual matrix” (George Steiner) and context, which poses challenges for book publishers and magazine editors. But this is gradually changing, I suspect, as book editors and book reviewers become more aware of multiple perspectives of immigrant writers as enhancing the ways I which we see the world and how we define reality, if just from a hyphenated-Canadian perspective. Structural problems I’ve encountered may have had to do with acceptance by the Canadian mainstream and being seen as an outsider. So, you see, there’s the outsider-insider binary, if you like. The way you sometimes use a two-toned English language with dialectal and sprung rhythm elements as you challenge conventional or standard Queen’s English as the norm, as what’s universal, and then everything may be interpreted as being subversive. But this is not something new. See, William Faulkner has been doing that in his novels; and Irish and Scottish writers like Roddy Doyle have also been doing that too. Maybe in Canada we’re slow to catch up with new and different rhythms; we still have a conservative mind-set. But demographic changes and shifts are occurring, and we have exciting writers like Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji, Larissa Lai, Dionne Brand and others on the scene. And in the late seventies and early eighties I was actively organizing readings across Canada with a focus on Asian-Canadian writers, and I edited two anthologies of Caribbean-born Canadian writers and Asian-Canadian writers with the aim of making immigrant literature become more acceptable, while interacting with Jewish-Canadian writers, Native writers, Italian-Canadian writers, and so on. With me, too, I am enamoured with the notion that “geography is destiny,” and I’ve been telling myself that if I live here I must reflect “the ground on which I stand” (as W.H. Auden, I think, said the poet’s aim should be). If only in ironic or paradoxical ways I reflect “the idea of the north,” as Margaret Atwood calls it – and let’s not forget too what Atwood said – that “we are all immigrants.”
A.E: On the strength of the above what would be your advice to immigrant writers new to the country.
CD: Writers should always try to be who they are and develop their own voice as much as possible, though it may take an entire lifetime to develop a strong or a unique voice; and, that being an immigrant there are enormous possibilities, because you can tap into the unwritten tapestry of where you come from, but not forget that you’re in Canada and also that you can learn a fair amount by participating in writing communities that already exist here. Don’t self-alienate. But, I am not one who’s good at giving advice to writers, including immigrant writers, though I’m sometimes asked to do this. Overall, every writer should just try to be himself or herself, and to develop your craft as much as you can, and keep writing and re-writing – for good writing is often constant re-writing, as I tell students.
A.E.: From your experience over the years, would you say Canadian literature, young as it still is, is catching up with the rest of the world?
CD: Canadian literature keeps absorbing and simultaneously tries moving away in unconscious if not deliberate ways from its seminal French and Anglo-Celtic and American influences. I think Canadian literature is now viewed positively around the world because of the many excellent writers in both prose and poetry we see in every region and province. And it should be noted that Canadian writers have won major prizes like the Booker Prize and the IMPAC/Dublin Literary Prize, and so on. The annual Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award nominees have usually been topnotch. Indeed, Canada is no longer seen as ‘a boring place’ as I heard a Booker Prize adjudicator say on the BBC when I was in the UK at the time Atwood was nominated for the Prize. And one can mention stellar figures like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, and others who keep garnering high praise. Besides, there are Centres of Canadian Studies in countries around the world, e.g., Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Israel, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and Denmark. I have been the guest of a few of these Centres of Canadian Studies, and have seen the excitement with which Canadian literature is being received.
A.E.: In how far has immigrant writers influenced Canadian literature from your observations?
D.C.: It’s hard to separate the two aspects implied in the question because as I’ve quoted from Margaret Atwood before, Canada is an immigrant country. And, of course, quite a few influential Canadian writers have American backgrounds (e.g., Carol Shields), and that influence is seen on the West Coast and on the East Coast. Maybe this is inevitable, bearing in mind that Canada is next door to the US, and it’s a cliché to say that Canada has a garrison mentality. And, too, many Canadian writers have British and/or European backgrounds, and so on. But what is significant is the presence now of immigrant writers from the so-called Third World: from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, leading to what critic David Staines calls “the international phase in Canadian writing.” In context, too, is what Atwood said to the Welsh some years ago that “the trouble with being from Canada was that it had none of the glamour of India, wasn't exotic like Africa, or interesting like Australia. It was just boring.” Well, Canada is no longer boring with our writers depicting new sensibilities or with the new embroidering of our literary landscape. The immigrant imaginary, so-called, takes on a new impetus as we see more and more immigrant writers appearing on the scene, which no doubt speaks to the openness and vitality of Canadian culture as a whole, I suppose. The immigrant imaginary also captures what Salman Rushdie calls the “plural and partial.” In Canada we’re now straddling more than two cultures – our multi-culture and, as it has been described in someone like myself, a culture of the “broken mirror metaphor.” That refers to all the discontinuities, dislocations and ambiguities involved in one simply expressing oneself as a writer of immigrant background. Is this part of the post-colonial spectrum... Or is it what a scholar recently refers to, in my case, as my “interstitial space”? I note here that one of my recent poetry books is called Imaginary Origins (Peepal Tree Press, UK). That idea, for us, does not only reflect the mirror of life or simple nostalgia, but also how we work in the present – albeit with imaginary homelands, and trying to expand the landscape of the imagination. (I wrote about this more than two decades ago in the Introduction to A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape). The idea is to go beyond the phenomenological sense of Canada in terms of its awe and beauty so well expressed in Earl Birney’s poem “David.” Writers like myself go back into memory as we explore our “becoming” with our uprooting and disjuncture and metamorphosis; and, maybe it’s more than “the empire” writing “back”. The Fiddlehead magazine, years ago, is correct in suggesting that in my writing, I am “going back through consciousness or history to an original condition of wholeness” in order to find meaning and relevance.
A.E.: Actually, I think Canadian immigration processes do not consider writers one of its target groups. What is your position on this? Are the literary arts inimical to nation building?
CD: Aldous Huxley said it best, that “nations are to a large extent invented by their poets and novelists.” This is seen in the stories and poems we create, the images and the metaphors we bring to bear or express with all our multiplicities that I think confirm our presence, confirm that we are here with our story-telling, our narratives and different sensitivities, and that Canada is no longer culturally homogenous. But I doubt whether immigration processes view things this way because, you see, writers and artists, implicitly or explicitly, challenge us all the time with new ideas, shaking up the status quo with new registers of thought: all that’s genuinely involved in nation-building. Then there’s also the notion of power: whose story must be told, the first-comers’ stories only and whose story must remain ascendant – if you subscribe to the conflict theory of human development. And politicians and bureaucrats who shape policies and programs in Ottawa may not always look too kindly on all this. At the same time, I want to be positive and speak of the generosity of the Canadian spirit. For many new writers of diverse backgrounds are getting published; and market forces, meaning the new reading public that publishers are aware of and more open immigration lead, to demographic shifts and new paradigms which may make the “processes” move faster, no? I think we have to be smart about all of this. I’ve worked in government for many years, and have been a race-relations manager advising municipal governments and travelled to over 30 towns and cities speaking on some of these issues with others. But, in the final analysis, I much prefer to dwell on what prize-winning Alistair McLeod, the Scottish-Canadian novelist, says: “the past is a condition of the present.” This echoes with me.
A.E: Would you say the plurality we see on a typical Canadian street –– say, Dundas in Toronto –– is reflected in writing?
C.D.: Toronto is a vibrantly alive place, for it is a major city, our largest. We have other key cities across the country, and more and more Canadians tend to live in urban centers, a well-known fact. My sense is that our literature has the potentiality to reflect the palpable diversity we see all around us, and it is slowly happening with writers like Dionne Brand reflecting the new Toronto with its black and immigrant communities. Our playwrights and poets are also doing this in their individualistic and unique ways – for example, Italian-Canadian writers like Pier Giorgio di Cicco, and dub poets like Lillian Allen, and many more who are giving us more than just the rhythms of other voices and other memories. But do we also want to create replicas of Asia and the Caribbean in Canada and have readers being in their own enclaves, so to speak? My take is that literature is always local and particularized, and interestingly, the more local it is, the better it is, aesthetically: the particular becomes the universal. Then, too, you have a writer like the Chinese-Canadian Wayson Choy saying, “I am a banana and proud of it,” as he tackles stereotypes of his own group, and a Native writer like Drew Hayden Taylor poking fun at his First Nations status. My view is that possibilities exist everywhere in the new Dundas and Gerrard streets in Toronto and across Canada. And just writing about ourselves is what’s significant because we will embark on or engage in different or new angles of feelings and experiences as minority writers, even if being seen as just the Other. See, “our lives teach us who we are,” to quote Salman Rushdie again, even if “in our world meaning lies in the embrace of the ironic,” as Jamaica Kincaid has said.
A.E.: And finally do you feel at home in Canada’s literary circles?
C.D.: No writer feels at home anywhere, and, as I think Wole Soyinka said, writers are nomads of the imagination. Derek Walcott has said virtually the same about having no home but the imagination. But I suppose what you’re really asking about touches on the political and about identity and, maybe I am the Other trying to find my Canadian space and also wanting to be accepted in and by the “literary circles.” This latter, however, is vague or amorphous at best: you tend to have groupings. And I’ve been a member of the League of Canadian Poets and served on the Membership Committee and so on. I was appointed the official Poet Laureate of Ottawa, and twice juried for the Governor General’s Award (poetry). So I tend to see things being in a flux. A few years back I attended the controversial “Writing Thru Race Conference” organized by the Writers Union of Canada held in Vancouver, and many of the points of identity and acceptance were discussed passionately, especially as it affects writers of colour, and it was all interesting, and amusing too at times. In Canada, in my work I am seen to have three identities: Asian, Caribbean, and Canadian (I’ve lived longer in Canada than anywhere else). When I go back to Guyana-Caribbean, I am sometimes told I really belong to Canada, and it goes on like that. Yes, there is the deep yeaning for acceptance, not to be seen merely as a hyphenated-Canadian because I am of a visible minority background. You see, I don’t mind being asked “Where do you come from?” or to be told “you have to play in snow as a child to be considered a Canadian,” as US-based writer Bharati Mukherjee once said, ironically. Or, maybe, like the Argentine writer Borges, it’s just wanting to escape the solitude of the labyrinth while wrestling with ambiguity and ambivalence as I keep writing. If I am just the Other now, crossing boundaries and in my narrative problematizing things because of the materiality of our lives, it’s because I don’t want to be too solipsistic or always self-reflexive. Overall, I simply concentrate on my writing, trying to be as good as I possibly can be, and to want “to explore the bottomless pool of origins,” as novelist Wilson Harris says; and the essential aim of the writer is nothing less than trying to combine “the alphabet with volatile elements of the soul.”
A.E.: Thank you very much for taking time off your busy schedule and more creative successes.
C.D.: I thank you.
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