canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Cyril Dabydeen

Cyril Dabydeen was born in Canje, Guyana in 1945, and worked as a teacher prior to leaving Guyana. Dabydeen came to Canada in 1970 to pursue post-secondary studies and completed a B.A. at Lakehead University and both an M.A. and M.P.A. at Queen's University. His M.A. thesis was on the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Dabydeen is a prolific author of poetry and prose and served as Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1984-1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations and earlier taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa and lives in the nation's capital. He recently juried for the Governor General's Award for Literature (poetry).

TDR Reviews of Cyril Dabydeen's books:

Michael Bryson interviewed Cyril Dabydeen by email in November 2006.


To begin, the basic biographical introduction. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

C.D. I was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America. Guyana is in the greater Amazonia region close to the equator. It is the only English-speaking country in South America, and is seen as part of the Caribbean (perhaps similar to island-states such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados): with almost the same historical and socio-political conditions at work; these were all states struggling for independence when I was growing up, and all of us took part in the excitement of the times, so to speak, fraught with political upheaval associated with the anti-colonial struggle. I worked and taught school there, in a sugar plantation (Rose Hall: one of the largest in the country) up to my early twenties, then came to Canada l970. I came primarily to pursue higher education, and maybe to further a career as a writer (all our writers then tended to go to the metropolitan centres: London, New York, or Toronto: this latter, where the Barbadian-born novelist Austin Clarke has lived for decades).

The education I received in Guyana was a somewhat colonial oneĖeverything geared towards looking outside for our values, our expectations: "the outward gaze," as itís called. At the same time the sense of nationalism burgeoned in us, as we repudiated "self-contempt" (as Franz Fanon describes the colonial mindís neurosis), and in the flux of upheaval and change it was also the preoccupation with who we were becoming with political ideologies of East and West, North and South, all very much in our thinking. Then I was enamoured of progressive social ideals, the sense of wanting transformation; and no doubt I still am.

Was the education a British-oriented one then?

C.D. We saw everything through the eyes of the colonial powers. As a result I came to know British history fairly well, especially the Tudor period: Henry VIII, the period of Queen Elisabeth and Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert and others, their exploits, the "sea-dogs," as they were called, and the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Shakespeare lived during that period, also: really the time of the English Renaissance. And, you see, our high school exams in Guyana were marked by Oxford and Cambridge universities, so things had to be of a fairly high standard, traditional as it was. The education about Guyana itself, the local peoples, Africans and Indians and the other races, the indigenous population especially, was marginal, minuscule at best. We never studied Gandhi in school, for instance. But, to be fair, we did get a good educational grounding, albeit from a British point of view.

Then, I remember, how I used to spend lots of time in the British Council library and read voraciously: Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas, a host of other poets and novelists, and American ones as well; all came to me closely, I felt. As a result, I grew passionate about literature from an early age. At the same time, the so-called first generation of Caribbean writers, the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, were very much with me, too; we began seeing possibilities, in ourselves. I may add, too, that I was largely self-taught.

What sort of perspective did all that give you?

C.D. The perspective relates to history and to the whole notion of discovery: Who "discovered" the Guianas and the Caribbean, and so on. I was brought up in a time of an interesting transition, where the struggle world wide against colonialism was taking place, as Iíve said before: the tremendous energy exerted towards achieving independence, the so-called "winds of change" blowing. You see, India got its independence in 1947, and Ceylon became Sri Lanka, in 1948, and then Ghana, formerly Gold Coast, in 1957, I think; and other places were achieving independence too in the '60s: Guyana, in 1966, and the other Caribbean states, Jamaica, Trinidad, around the same time. So before coming to Canada, there were the years of angst, agitation, and excitement--all that I grew up with, being formative elements, shaping oneís perspective, if you like. Does all this make me a post-colonial writer? I am not sure.

The young writer as I was beginning to be in Guyana, those intellectual and social currents I refer to kept shaping my imagination. And, you see, before I was 20, I won the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal, Guyanaís highest prize for poetry; and in some sense that gave me confidence and contributed in a way to how my perspective was being shaped, even in numinous ways. I may add that my reading was quite eclectic, all-embracing: besides the British and American and Caribbean-born authors I was exposed to, I was also reading writers from India and Africa: Tagore, Chinua Achebe, and others were very much part of my consciousness. There were Canadian writers too I started reading then, like Morley Callaghan; and I was glued to my radio, listening in particular to shows about literature and the intellectual life beamed from London through the BBC; as well as Voice of America, and the CBC. I was addicted to my radio, you could sayĖwe had no TV then.

Youíve been writing for a number of decades in a variety of forms. Iím wondering about continuity and divergence over time. Does it seem to you that you have a subject that you return to in your work, or do you find that over time your preoccupations have changed a great deal?

C.D. I try to explore "the bottomless pool of origins" in my work, the sense of the hinterland landscape, if you think of it in a pioneering way, because of where I came from. And the idea of memory as the mother of the Muses feeds into my work a great deal, I suppose. Iíve often quoted Carl Jung at readings: that "any psychic is Janus-faced, it looks both forwards and backwards." Maybe itís just my habit as a creative person of looking there and here, and searching for congruences, connections, not intentionally or in any contrived way; but itís how my imagination tends to work, with the sense of polarities and juxtapositions, indeed. So whatever form or genre I am working in at a given time, you see, memory does play a seminal I explore "origins." And things ancestral, where my forebears came from, and history, that past and present melding; and climate, too, tropical and temperate worlds, all sometimes coming togther as more than metaphor.

Naturally, now that I am in the NorthĖand I have lived here longer than anywhere else--Canada is shaping my sensibility, feeding my psyche; maybe geography is destiny: itís how it is as I find inspiration to write my poems, short stories, and novels. The sense too of difference is very much with me, and simultaneously how I interact with other Canadian writers, the works which I read and dwell on, images altogether as I mingle these with lore and myth intrinsic to the region I was born in: these are all very much alive in me, are part of oneís subject matter; and new experiences and emotions stem from the "spirit of the place" undergoing change as I explore imagery and try to see the world as it truly is, and hope to find some kind of epiphany. In my novel Dark Swirl, published in the UK more than decade ago, you can see how local myth combines with present feelings and attitudes, in more than a binary view world.

Maybe this is another question about continuity and divergence. Iím wondering both how transferring from one culture to another affected your writing and also, perhaps, how that transfer of cultures has evolved over the past forty-odd years.

C.D. Canada is always uppermost in my mind, is continually with me: the vast territory that this country is, which I intermingle with my hinterland sense and the "idea of the north," and contemplated Canadaís settler and pioneering days--the experiences of people from France and Britain: English, Irish, Scotch...drawers of water and hewers of wood; and of course, this is not to overlook the Native peoples, the original inhabitants of this land with the sense of the Great Spirit and injustices done to themĖwhich are all elements that form part of my artistic space and have an impact on what I write, and how I write. And do I now want to reflect the Franklin expedition, also? Irony is very much part of my metier, maybe: the Arctic juxtaposed with my tropical beginnings, as I am inclined to see things in more than a stereotypical insider/outsider view of the world.

Of course, in Canada I am considered a minority writer, or an ethnic writer, and so on: these labels are always problematic. One thing is clear, howeverĖas one born outside, you tend to see Canada in one clear glance, as it were; maybe thatís the advantage of being an "outsider." Also, in my first years in Canada, the early 70's, I lived in the Lakehead region and worked planting trees around Lake Superior during the summer months, and lived in bush camps with Native peoples, winos, drop-outs, American draft-dodgers, all seminal experiences continually feeding my imagination. I keep interacting with all kinds of people; and Iíve worked in government, and been an advisor in race and ethnic relations and travelled to over 30 towns and cities across Canada advancing this work for a time; and as I write this, I want to say that yesterday I gave a talk to staff of the Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, and briefly discussed being a writer and the changing landscape of the imagination, a Shapely Fire, as I called it in an anthology I did many years back. More than anything though, I see my writing as combining " the alphabet with volatile elements of the soul" and the quest to find truths about one's self and to understand human experience as whole.

You teach literature at the University of Ottawa. What is it you teach exactly? How receptive do you find the students?

C.D. I teach sessionally in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa, now for a number of years while at the same time doing other work; I taught the Advanced Fiction writing course for five years; now I teach mainly a first-year course, essay-writing things focussing on logic and clear expression and how to make compelling arguments, and so on. The students, on the whole, I find are very receptive; and I often introduce topical social issues into the classroom discussions. One student recently said to me that in my class heís learning two thingsĖEnglish and "something else." Heís not sure what that something else is; maybe itís a broader view of the world, the perspective I bring to bear in my teaching and writing. Itís also that my creative work is not just self-reflexive angst or fancy image-making for its own sake, as has been said of our current literary trend.

I find itís good to be in a classroom environment interacting with students, because you learn from students also, you get a sense of the world and how itís evolving with its changing values; and itís a new and refreshing perspective each time, a different energy also. Of course, education is a life-long process, and through teaching and writing, hopefully you can have some kind of influence, make some kind of impact.

Canadian Literature: What makes you optimistic/pessimistic about it?

C.D. Canadian literature is continually breaking new ground, I think. When Margaret Atwood was first nominated for the Booker Prize, I was in the UK then, and I recall a BBC commentator saying that the image of Canada as a boring place, is no longer so because of Atwoodís books. Our literature is now fascinating, itís changing the perception of our landscape as a whole, especially in dismantling those stereotypic perceptions held outside. I recall too when I first met the South African writer Ezekiel Mphalele in Ottawa, he told me his image of Canada was that of being in the Arctic, but meeting people like myself has changed that perception. You see, Canadian literature is extremely interesting because of its many new directions, new ways of looking at the world; and writers born outside and living here now and writing about Canada makes it even more interesting, all so fascinating. New inner states and new rhythms are all before us, I think.

I formally studied Canadian literature in the early seventies as an undergraduate and became acquainted with the works of E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, Lampman, D.C. Scott, and the other major Canadian poets, novelists, and short story writers. I used to spend long hours in the university library studying literary magazines such as Quarry, The Fiddlehead, Prism International and so on to see the new kind of writing taking place; and the short story and poetry keep fascinating me continually. I recall during this early time first meeting bp nichol at a reading he did at Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, and was excited by his sound poetry. And down the years Iíve read, and interacted with, other Canadian writers like F.R. Scott, Miriam Waddington, Michael Ondaatje, Joy Kogawa, Austin Clarke, John Metcalf, Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji, Dionne Brand, and sat on a panel with Margaret Atwood in New Orleans, and so on; and Iíve twice juried for the Governor Generalís Award, and been a poet laureate of Ottawa, as well as belonged to writersí organizations like the League of Canadian Poets. All this has given me a first-hand or close-up view of Canadian literature, you see, and I am a part of it as I keep making connections with writers elsewhere and embrace what the Cuban Jose Marti has said, that "literature is the most beautiful of countries." I keep writing and studying literature, if not just looking at it subliminally or consciously, noting other writersí techniques, and their use of language, and changing sensibilities.

What is most interesting now is that there are the newer streams of writers from the immigrant communities who are being well received, being acclaimed, writers of diverse backgrounds, and the openness of Canlit to all this, which speaks more importantly to the kind of country and people we are, and to the generosity of the Canadian spirit as a whole. Through the literature, I think we are being challenged all the time; and therein lies the genius of the place, as north and south blend in someone like myself; and itís always a new awareness of who one is becoming, and the infinite capacity of the human spirit and imagination.

What are you working on now? Or what have you completed recently that youíd like people to know about?

C.D. My recent novel Drums of My Flesh came out, and I am pleased thatís itís on the long list, recently announced, of the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Award; itís a work that was a finalist for the City of Ottawa Book Prize, and it has received some good reviews and comments thus far from people who have read it. Drums was partly edited by Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji, the publisher of TSAR. A few years back the novel was seriously considered by a Penguin Books editor, who wanted me to add another character; then she went on maternity leave, and that was the end of that. Itís a novel, I think where I am splicing time and space, tropical and temperate worlds, Ottawa and Guyana; and I think itís far more than a bildungroman technique at work here as the main character, Boyo, retells his lifeís story about his own father, Gabe, to his young daughter, Catriona, in Ottawa. Flashbacks of life in a sugar plantation are everywhere, and an almost Edenic coastal place juxtaposed with grittiness, in the context of colonialism and changing spaces. Fractured experiences mixed with sprung rhythm elements in the narrative and dialogue make the novel unique, different from other things published in Canada. The epigraph, quotes from Michel Foucault and V.S. Naipaul about memory and consciousness, suggests how the novel should be read. It took me about seven years to write this novel, and maybe it says who I am.

Two other books also came out not so long ago: My Imaginary Origins: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK), and Play A Song Somebody: New and Selected Stories (Mosaic Press); the former was a finalist for the Archibald Lampman Poetry Award. Both of these books have been fairly well-received; and the short story collection, in particular, I read from at the International Short Story in English conference at the University of Lisbon not so long ago; and the novel and the poetry collection were launched in New York City in the Fall.

I am currently working on a new collection of stories, and a new set of poems entitled "Unanimous Night": this title is a take-off from something Borges, the Argentine writer, said. Some people are now seeing Latin American influences and connections in my work, especially a few scholars in Spain and Brazil, which is somewhat interesting. Of course, these interests and connections have always been there, I think; and Iíve been called "the Pablo Neruda of Ottawa," by the critic Patricia Morley two decades ago, and that my reading style has "Stravinskyís rhythms," not far unlike how our Maritime perform perhaps, bearing in mind my background, and the sense of my wanting to get into the absolute interiority of the poem or story I am writing, and maybe finding ways to escape the solitude of the labyrinth, as is sometimes said by writers like Carlos Fuentes and Marquez. 

Michael Bryson is the editor of TDR.







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