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The Art of David Dabydeen

Written by Bruce King for World Literature Today Winter 1998 on Thursday, October 22, 2015

This is the first book about David Dabydeen and the first book in a series to be devoted to British Caribbean authors, by which is meant writers born in the Caribbean but resident in England. It is an extremely useful work consisting of three interviews and nine essays on the subject’s poetry and novels, followed by a bibliography of books and articles by Dabydeen and a list of reviews of his creative work. Part of the usefulness is that the essays overlap, build on, and disagree with one another. They bring out Dabydeen’s recurring themes, autobiographical material, and the links among his scholarly publications, interviews, and creative writings. The authors know Dabydeen, and some were his students or colleagues, which is reflected in the way that what were perhaps offhand remarks are passed on as truths.

There is a surprising conformity of assumptions concerning the postcolonial, that it always means anticolonial resistance. Benita Parry’s two intelligent but ideologically rigid essays, Between Creole and Cambridge English: The Poetry and The Intended set the course that others attempt to negotiate. Fragmentation of standard English or of straightforward narrative is liberating creolization, recognition of cultural and social conflict, an expression of the non-European; that Dabydeen basically writes in standard English means that he remains complicit, part of the system. Margery Fee’s essay is titled 'Resistance and Complicity in David Dabydeen’s The Intended'. Complicity is basically Saidian, in contrast to Ashcroft-Griffith-Tiffin’s emphasis on the resistant hybrid. Both positions, however, have a built-in contradiction; since the reactive is dependent, the entire modern world can be shown to be complicit.

Some contributors object that postcolonial theory seems designed to prove the political correctness of the critic at the expense of creative writing. Sarah Lawson Welsh’s 'Experiments in Brokenness: The Creative Use of Creole in David Dabydeen’s Slave Song' replies to charges of complicity but is filled with clichés and jargon. Part of the problem derives from Dabydeen, who has been influenced by Theory since his Cambridge days; there are diagrammatic stories and observations in his work. But as the better essays show, Dabydeen is much more complicated and interesting than the theories. He likes masks, distancing, parody, intertextuality, and is as likely to be replying to other postcolonial writers as to Conrad or Shakespeare. Such complexity can be seen in the titles of Mario Relich’s 'Labyrinthine Odyssey: Psychic Division', Karen McIntyre’s 'Necrophilia or Stillbirth? David Dabydeen’s Turner as the Embodiment of Postcolonial Creative Decolonization', and Mark McWatt’s two essays, 'His True-True Face: Masking and Revelation in David Dabydeen’s Slave Song' and 'Self-Consciously Post-Colonial'. Needless to say, the three interviews offer a different Dabydeen, someone with a strong sense of humor, self-contradictory, in love with life, women, and literature, a politically incorrect human being, even a humanist. The creative writing is alive because this Dabydeen coexists with the theorist.

The book would be more useful if the bibliography were more thorough (even the footnotes to essays list articles not in the bibliography) and if the list of book reviews included page numbers (without which it is difficult to order copies through interlibrary loan).

This is a review of The Art of David Dabydeen

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