canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Play a Song Somebody
by Cyril Dabydeen
Mosaic Press, 2004

Reviewed by Anne Borden

"Roy kept thinking about far-away places… and the image of the turtles laid out one by one, their backs atop the water like slabs of stone. He imagined stepping across the stones and going all the way north.

How far north? His heart beat faster. Thud-thud, as he twisted in his hammock. He didn’t want to fall asleep now; and maybe the jaguar was indeed close by, as he again conjured his father’s fears… and inexorable fate at work. No, Pa.

Boy, it’s true.

The night air itself circling, with places appearing stranger.

Asia, Africa, America – all one – with the stars moving above."


This anthology by one of Canada’s most popular post-colonial writers contains short stories dating back to the 1970s, selected and re-edited by the author. Most of the stories centre around class and inter-ethnic tensions, identity and sexuality as characters migrate across continents as well as the landscapes of memory and desire. While its arc is not as refined as his other short-story collections, Play a Song Somebody contains some of Dabydeen’s best stories, and is an excellent introduction to the breadth and depth of his fiction.

Like Dabydeen’s poetry, the stories in Play a Song Somebody are seeped with restlessness as characters negotiate the pull between North America and Guyana (or Cuba, or Central America) vis a vis their families and within themselves. Dabydeen’s protagonists are often isolated from their communities, physically and emotionally, as a result of their decisions: to migrate (Mammita’s Garden Cove); to marry across cultural lines (Close to the Island); to transcend gender roles (When It Rains in the Sunshine); to collaborate with white developers (Amerindians). Sexual tensions run high in Dabydeen’s work, and often signify a much deeper desire in his characters, to love across East Indian/African/white cultural lines and to muddy the myths we live by – race, tribe, nation.

This desire is represented most starkly in The Wedding, where members of a wedding party, mostly acculturated immigrants to the U.S., come face to face with "home," and struggle to integrate their shared history within the context of their new lives in North America. Guyanese-Canadian Mick is un-nerved by a recent immigrant, Mahal, who calls out to the crowd, "And when are you all goin’ back there, eh?" Mick is silent, as is the rest of the wedding party.

"A knot in my throat, because of a strange emotion mixed with embarrassment in me, maybe due to what I figured everyone was experiencing, and what our circumstances were indeed like, in a changed world, a changed spirit too, in us. With Mahal, though, it was still the same, even as he tried to appear different."

In addition to these inter-ethnic tensions, Dabydeen lays bare intra-ethnic conflicts in the anthology’s strongest and most painful piece, Time to Get Out, in which ambitious taxicab inspector Al Beharry faces working-class scorn in 17 languages. Class, colour and politics converge in the day-to-day struggle to make a living in the white world as well as the larger quest for unity among people of colour now rooted in North America. "Maybe we should go back home," a frustrated Beharry says to his wife. "Home, where is home?!" she cries.

This is the greater question that informs Dabydeen’s work, and the strength of his inquiry draws his geographically disparate narratives together in Play a Song, Somebody. Dabydeen sounds out this question in Close to the Island, when a mother-to-be tempts her lover to leave the island (and his mother) for the mainland. Their child "would know both the island and the mainland – like the palm of his hands. Our son… will return to the island one day." As she promises her lover reconciliation between the two worlds in the next generation, her hopeful words compete with "waves crashing… the hurl and buffet of the ocean itself," just outside their window.







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