Not counting manuscripts completed and publications forthcoming, Kwame Dawes (born 1962, in Ghana) is the author of at least fourteen books of poetry (including some prizewinners), many plays (including One Love, which has been published), a book of short stories (A Place to Hide), a novel (She’s Gone), a work combining personal narrative and cultural theory (Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic), a book of commentary on Bob Marley’s words (Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius), and a collection of interviews with West Indian poets (Talk Yuh Talk). He edited Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry and Twenty: South Carolina Poetry Fellows. When you consider that he has teaching and administrative duties at the University of South Carolina (where he is distinguished poet in residence and Louise Fry Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts), does community work, is an active member of a church; travels to perform, lecture, and conduct workshops in North America, Europe, and the Caribbean; is programme director of the Calabash Literary Festival, held annually at the end of May in Treasure Beach, Jamaica; and is a committed family man with a wife and three children, it is not entirely surprising that his website announces “the busiest man in literature today.”

Books he published in 2007 include Gomer’s Song — elegant, sometimes erotic, poems linked to the harlot wife of the prophet Hosea — and the very readable reggae novel She’s Gone, which would repay more extensive commercial promotion. A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock and Impossible Flying were also published last year.

Impossible Flying is a collection of poems, centred mainly on the persona’s relationship with a younger brother who became delusional (“I woulda be flying now, / you know that? I woulda be flying if you never / hold me down . . .”). It also memorably registers many other experiences — such as the “cultured authority” of their Marxist Oxonian father who died at fifty-five, the loving hands of their Ghanaian mother (“careful manager / of my pathologies”), an episode of underwater coitus on an island (Tortola, it seems), a fat man’s reflection (“I dream / of better days when I will leap lightly, / a slender man gambolling in the mirror’s face”), a disappointing visit to his alma mater (“I am looking for myself”), the drama of childbirth and “the sound / of the word, son, its alien sobering, and the rush / of every image, every fear, every silence, / every tension, every broken meaning.”

But we are never far away from the persona’s loving, guilt-ridden relationship with his younger brother — “He must kill me. / He must kill me so I can be free of my shadow, / so he can be lighter.” In one of the most moving moments in this fine book, the persona addresses the brother who has been cursing him:

and I say, Kill me, you have wanted to, 
it would be better. This familiar anger 
is enough to leave me barren. I can die in it, 
peacefully, and when you lunge, reach to shake 
me, I hold you, hold you so tight, hold you 
so you can only hold me, and I keep chanting 
while we waltz clumsily around the room; 
and you, you flame until everything melts to tears, 
all this sweaty press of bodies, uncertain muscles, 
the sad, sad pain of our bawling, so long 
coming, so damned long coming.

Impossible Flying and A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock extend each other. A Far Cry — not from Africa (as in the Walcott poem) — is “a personal narrative” about identity, addressed mainly to the United States where Dawes and his family currently reside. How did they get there, and why? What have been the challenges to a black man born in Ghana who spent his teenage years in Jamaica, was a graduate student in Canada, and ended up working in the United States when the job he hoped for at the University of the West Indies was given to someone else? As a person, as a writer, who is he? Where does he belong? Where is home? 

Dawes unravels many ironies. In Ghana (which he left when he was eight), he was often called obroni, meaning white man or foreigner. On a stay in London — which stretched to almost two years — he was an underprivileged black child, whispering in a basement. In Kingston he found himself not in the rural world of his father’s stories, but in “an urban space: rough, harsh, exciting, complicated, and totally foreign.” He had to learn Jamaican language and culture. He learned them well, but when he tried to apply for a Jamaican passport he was made to seem unreasonable. 

“You think we just give out Jamaican citizenship like that? 
. . . I am sorry, sir, but you can’t inherit nationality from your father. He is Jamaican, but naturalised. He could get it from his father, but you can’t get it from him because is Nigeria him born.”

Years later his British publisher entered A Place to Hide for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Canada and Caribbean region. It was not eligible in that region.

Dawes describes his claim to being Ghanaian as “tenuous,” but also writes of “deep emotional connections that are impossible to dismiss.” He recounts the experience of listening in his car to an old cassette of Ghanaian music. “I was in a space of nostalgic recollection, of transported feeling and sentiment.” “The truth of it all is that Ghana was a shaping place for me, and I am only now starting to tap into what that means.” His Ghanaian mother offers him “clear links through blood, ties as ancient as her memories.”

Much of the book is a tribute to his father, a generous man, a mentor to many. The son’s assessment is informed not only by personal memory but also by the papers Neville Dawes left. Kwame constantly measures himself against Neville, not so much as a writer (Kwame is more productive), but most often as a husband and a father: “I feared those things that infuriated me about my father . . . I would talk more to my children, discuss everything with my wife, and I would never allow the silent treatment to emerge as a weapon.”

On the evidence of this book, Dawes and his wife Lorna communicate, and are serious about parenting. They recognise the need to talk with their children about sex, drugs, God, race, and so on. “We are still discovering what should be on our list because we did not have ‘talks’ while growing up.” The final paragraph of the chapter titled “Raising African American Children” begins: “So the next ten years would be spent carrying out the rituals of making South Carolina our home. The need for stability for the children’s education made this a necessity.”

The couple joined an integrated church where whiteness was the norm, but left on finding that “most members of the church would not attend a church that was culturally black.” They moved to an African-American church:


We are still foreigners in America, but being among blacks can be a refuge, a safe place after spending most of one’s week working through the minefields of race . . . I still don’t know how we can be so segregated and worship the same God. I still don’t know why it is not seen as a terrible sin. But I do know that I, too, have become part of a culture that allows this to be the norm. It is how one becomes American.

A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock will reward anyone interested in Neville Dawes, the mind and development of Kwame Dawes, the black diaspora, or the writing life. But, with its rambling structure and unnecessary repetitions, it reads like a first draft of what could have been a much better book. Markedly in contrast to the finished excellence of Impossible Flying.

Mervyn Morris
The Caribbean Review of Books