Cyril Dabydeen was born in the Canje, Guyana, in 1945, a locality which also produced his contemporaries Arnold Itwaru and Jan Shinebourne. His family were too poor to permit him to attend high school. His father was a marginal cattle farmer, his mother a seamstress. He grew up with his grandmother and an extended family of aunt, nieces, nephews. He is a cousin of the writer David Dabydeen. His grandfather, a driver on the Rose Hall sugar estate, died when Cyril Dabydeen was very young, and the family survived through running a small-scale cakeshop.
When he left school at sixteen, he worked as a pupil teacher at the St Patrick’s Anglican School between 1961-70. Like most young Indo-Guyanese of his generation and background he was an active supporter of Cheddi Jagan’s Marxist PPP, and his politics remain true to those radical ideals.
He began writing in this period, winning the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for poetry in 1964; his first collection of poems, Poems in Recession, was published in 1972, a little pamphlet full of poems of an agitated freshness of language, overwrought at times, too concerned with finding a ‘poetic’ voice, but nonetheless of an unmistakeable originality.
In the early 1970s he left Guyana for Canada to obtain higher education, and he obtained a BA (First class Hons) at Lakehead University, an MA (his thesis was on Sylvia Plath) and an MPA (Master of Public Administration, Queen's University). at Queens University. In his early years in Canada he worked in a variety of casual jobs, most importantly as a tree planter in the Canadian forests of the north, where he worked with Native Canadians. It was this experience which was part of the process of the drawing of imaginative connections between Guyana and Canada, both with large ‘unpeopled’ hinterlands and surviving native peoples.
He was literary juror in Year 2000 for Canada's Governor's General Award for Literature; the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (Univ. of Oklahoma): prize worth $40,000 US; and the the James Lignon Price Competition (the American Poets University & College Poetry Prize Program).
He has been a finalist four times for Canada's Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, as well as for the Guyana Prize. He received the City of Ottawa’s first award for Writing and Publishing, and a Certificate of Merit, Government of Canada (l988) for his contribution to the arts.
Regular book critic for World Literature Today (U of Oklahoma).
He has worked for many years in human rights and race relations in Canada, and currently teaches in the Dept. of English, University of Ottawa.
From the late 1970s, he wrote and published with energy, rapidly establishing a reputation as an important new voice in both Canada and the Caribbean. His publications include Distances (1977), Goatsong (1977), Heart’s Frame (1979), This Planet Earth (1979) and Elephants Make Good Stepladders (1982). His writing moves from a tight formal control to a looser, more colloquial voice, realised in Islands Lovelier Than a Vision (Peepal Tree, 1986). Coastland (1989) selected poems from this period.
During the 1970s, he was also writing short stories, and a first collection Still Close to the Island was published in 1980, followed by To Monkey Jungle in 1988. His first novels, published by Peepal Tree, Dark Swirl and The Wizard Swami came out in 1989. Since then there has been a further collection of poems, Discussing Columbus (1997) and short stories, Berbice Crossing (1996). Peepal Tree will be publishing a new selected poems, Imaginary Origins in 2004.
More recently he has published in Canada Jogging in Havana, Black Jesus and Other Stories (1997), My Brahmin Days and other Stories (2000).
For an account by Cyril Dabydeen of his work see ‘Outside El Dorado: Themes and Problems of West Indian Writing in Canada’ Journal of Caribbean Studies, vol 5 nos 1& 2.
Cyril Dabydeen's bibliography:
Coastland: Selected Poems (Mosaic, l989); The Wizard Swami, novel (Peepal Tree, UK, l989); Dark Swirl, novel (Peepal Tree, l989); Jogging in Havana, stories (Mosaic, l992); Sometimes Hard, novel (Longman, UK, l994); Stoning the Wind, poetry (TSAR, l994); Berbice Crossing, stories (Peepal Tree, l996); Black Jesus, stories (TSAR, l996); Another Way to Dance, ed. poetry anthol. (TSAR, l996); Discussing Columbus (Peepal Tree, l997); My Brahmin Days, stories (TSAR, 2000); North of the Equator, stories (Beach Holme, 2001). Poet Laureate of Ottawa, l984-87. On Editorial Board, Journal of Caribbean Literatures (US); Sometimes Hard, young adult novel (Longman, UK); Hemipshere of Love, poetry (TSAR, 2003), and Play A Song Somebody: Selected Stories (Mosaic Press, Canada, 2004).
Selected periodical publications/anthologies:
Poetry: Arc, Ariel, Antigonish Review, Atlanta Review (US), Artrage (UK), Critical Quarterly (UK), Canadian Literature, Chandrabhaga (India), Canadian Author, Canadian Ethnic Studies, Caribbean Qly., Canadian Forum, CV ll, Dalhousie Review, English Quarterly, Exempla (W.Germany), Event, Fiddlehead, Grain, Kunapipi (Australia), Kyk-over-al (Caribbean), Kavya Bharati (India), Jouvert (U of North Carolina), Journal of South Asian Lit. (Michigan), Laomedon Review, Nebula, Northward Journal, Poetry Canada, Prism International, Quarry, The Toronto Review, Small Axe (U. of Indiana), This Magazine, World Literature Today (Oklahoma), Wasafiri (UK), etc. Poems in the Holyoke Bus System (via Massachusets Review).
Short stories: Canadian Forum, Canadian Fiction Magazine, Fiddlehead, Dalhousie Review, Quarry, Grain, Waves, Antigonish Review, Can. Author & Bookman (Okanagan Fiction Prize), Northward Journal, Toronto Review, Journal of South Asian Lit. (Michigan), Kunapipi (Aus.), Wasafiri (U.K), Wascana Review, Literary Review (New Jersey), U. of Windsor Review, Globe and Mail, Books in Canada, Queen's Qly., New Qly., Descant, International Qly. (Florida). Etc.
The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse (UK), l986.
Breaking Silence: Asian American Poetry (Greenfield Review Press, New York), l988.
Canada: Native People and Immigrants (Myrdal Press, Denmark),l984. Poetry.
Breaking Through: A Canadian Literary Mosaic (Prentice-Hall, l990). Fiction.
One People's Grief (Moana Publications, New Zealand, l983). Poetry.
Fiddlehead Greens (Oberon Press, Ottawa,l979). Fiction.
A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape (Mosaic, Toronto, l987). Fiction, poetry.
Language at Work (Holt, Rinehart, Winston: Toronto, l987). Fiction.
Pure Fiction (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Toronto, l986).
Arrivals: Canadian Poetry in the Eighties (Greenfield Review Press, N.Y., l988).
India in the Caribbean (Hansib, UK, l988). Fiction, poetry.
Caribbean New Wave: Contemporary Short Stories (London: Heinemann, l990).
Companeros: Writings about Latin America (Cormorant, Ontario, l990). Poetry.
The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Verse (UK, l992)
Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent (Harper and Collins, l992). Poetry.
Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature (Oxford U. Press, l995). Poetry.
Best Canadian Short Stories (Oberon Press, l996).
Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (Delhi, Pencraft International, 2001). Etc.
See reviews for this author