The Canadian-Guyanese Cyril Dabydeen’s latest work of fiction, a novel with a cute ethnic-sounding title, Drums of My Flesh, is not an attempt to present us with “an accurate view of the world” (to borrow the Naipaul credo). It is in fact a prize-catching embellishment of Dabydeen’s private world & celebrity image. The author has had a long string of published fiction, poetry, reviews and essays. There is a sense in some quarters that he has arrived. In this novel he seems preoccupied with autobiography disguised as new fiction.
Biography and memories, stories from the plantation days, have become the preferred barrel of choice sent home by a greying generation of Guyanese writers living abroad. With the change of political fortunes in the 1990s and a fresh sense of group ascendancy, Guyanese Indians have continued the “reclaiming of our heritage”, a process of unearthing and dusting off buried names and hitherto unheralded accomplishments.
Drums of My Flesh (2007) fits neatly into this ascendancy. (Back in the 80s and 90s The British Peepal Tree Press was eager to encourage ethnicity-based Guyanese authorship. Its published fiction was “new” and ground-shifting, the quality in general uneven.)
Drums of My Flesh has been gossiped as a novel that “enriches” the Guyanese canon, that tiny harbour of accomplishment that is home to the literary works of Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, Roy Heath (plus David Dabydeen and the not fully stretched talents of Oonya Kempadoo and Rooplall Monar). The evidence suggests, however, that it owes little to these writers and their superlative creativity.
There is instead a disconnect from “the canon”. Individual vision has given way to group representation. Author focus is steadfastly on tribal memory, not the nation’s human psyche.
Our earlier writers were gifted with powers of observation, an adventurous life experience and a delight in discovering Guyana’s landscape and peoples. A post Independence generation, only half as talented but with writerly yearnings, seems content to scrape memory barrels or examine navels in search of something to write about.
The concerns and lessons of history are valuable, but a persistent turning in or blindness to troubling deformities in present-day Guyana might result in fresh amnesias, lost testimony. There are stories to be told, truths wrapped in silence inside closed or broken communities, whether in Buxton or in public institutions or in those “refugee” enclaves overseas. Absurdities and disorders within the lives of our elected or ordinary folk cry out for the satirical intelligence of a VSNaipaul, or Mittelholzer’s keenly observed realism.
Drums of My Flesh comes from over seas but chooses not to address urgent human issues at home.
It opens with a Guyanese man strolling with his daughter, Catriona, near the Rideau River in Canada. Her Irish mother, we learn, is at home “reading about Ireland’s landscape.” The little girl is three years old, and still glowing with “Look, Daddy, a raccoon!” innocence. Near the river there’s a park frequented by “people from the embassies and high commissions all around.”
To make her a viable character for his novel, author Dabydeen drains her of credible life then, implanting archetypal tissue, re-presents her with a growing “consciousness”. She’s suddenly old enough to “contemplate”. Her personality “seems to be forming before my eyes”. When she asks 3yr old questions he senses her spirit’s “incessant stirrings”. At one point her 3yr old curiosity moves her to ask her father: “why do you keep talking to yourself?” (If she was thirteen, not three years old, holding a cellphone not his hand, it might have been a different story.)
The problem for the old man is: how can his storaged memories of Guyana be wired to the consciousness of his daughter? Should he even try one day to make her aware of her connection to his past – his father, his mother & grandmother, brothers & sisters; Hindu deities, those eccentric village folk; the sugar estates, “agitation over British rule”, racial riots & the Coldstream Guards; and a young man cycling home along a winding public road? (Curiously, contact with other ethnic groups in Guyana goes unregistered in these memories,)
The reader can sense quickly the fictional challenges some authors in the diaspora invent for themselves. You start thinking, if Dabydeen could pull this off, Drums of My Flesh would be a praiseworthy literary feat. But Cyril Dabydeen is not Wilson Harris who can lure the reader into a shower of metaphors, linking time zones and communities of experience sometimes with dazzling reimagined effects.
Here and there in Drums of my Flesh Dabydeen lets slip allusions to several weighty authors – V.S Naipaul, Michel Foucault, Indian Proverb, John Keay, Joseph Brodsky, Carl Jung. You get the feeling, though, that his writer’s bag of devices is filled with fluffed up straw; his talent strains to infuse complexity in the novel.
The prose rarely rises above H/Bollywood cinematic means. Here for instance is what happens as a newly wed couple gets ready to consummate their marriage
“Tassa beat louder. Wind wafted against the eiderdown of the night.
The wedding guests chanted outside the window of a high house built on stilts. My father’s awkward coping with his deep-seated need, groping in the dark: he and my mother being adolescents merely. Legs, thighs bared....
Blood flowed, a haemorrhaging shame. My mother and father entangled or confused in their contrived romance…
The Atlantic waves lashed everywhere. The cattle kept lowing.”
Enriching the Guyanese canon? The prose “wafting” with the winds of Guyanese prose masters? Some readers might well think so.
As he walks with his daughter the father’s mind feverishly “conjures up images” and makes swift deliberative connections; so that looking at the waters of the winding Rideau River he “unconsciously draw[s] parallels with other rivers, creeks. Dark brown or chocolate-coloured waters too in the faraway Demerara, Essequibo, Berbice in Guyana, then the Orinoco and the Amazon. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers also. Again, origins. The Liffey in Ireland, as the Irish also come closer.”
That’s a lot of river water running with resonance around his head. This father reveals here a too easy talent for global connectivity. Still, the reader is invited to join his Canadian afternoon stroll, and share his emotions & musings about the Guyanese identity as sluiced through the memories of our migrant author (otherwise doing very well, thank you, only connect).
One device Dabydeen uses is to introduce, for instance, a jaguar, a creature the narrator’s father one day hunted, caught and caged. This caged jaguar pops up in subsequent pages where it morphs into things metaphoric: “Jaguar spots in my mind’s roving eye”; the jaguar in his father’s eyes; a Bengal tiger; the tiger “on that last ship which had brought my forefathers to these shores”; a jaguar “with a horse’s hind quarters” galloping and leaping over waves. There’s plenty stuff like this to get sharp academics going, with pencils and rulers all set for cross-cultural diagramming and inert abstractions about identity.
The novel shifts from here (father & child) to back there (boy & village) in abbreviated sections, each ringing with conjured images of what really interests Dabydeen, his once tough, now exotic life growing up “on a sugar plantation…on the Guiana coast… on the edge of the world in South America”.
Juxtaposing the Courentyne past and his new Canadian residency the author asks readers to consider seriously the chasm between old vanished lives and a little girl’s tabula rasa possibilities. But after awhile the sentimental leaping back and forth grows wearisome; the bits and set pieces feel contrived and artificial. There is no question in the end, though, about the author’s ethnic rep credentials and his ethnic market appeal.
Our migrant communities, nursing anxieties as livid as skin rash, often find themselves longing for the salve of any ethnic “victory”; for occasions to gather in a park, pay tribute to heroes, dance traditional dance, share cricket stories. Drums of My Flesh is a novel for a displaced, conflicted (but fairly comfortable) generation backtracking home for “connections”. Its romance with the past might alleviate feelings of isolation and unwantedness in Guyanese diaspora enclaves; it offers cultural “representation” to the unrepresented living on the margins in disdainful cities.
The novel, it should be noted, was shortlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Prize (2007). It won the Guyana “Best Book of Fiction” Prize (2006). That might make you stop and wonder. Sometimes you can’t argue with awards or success, the way these things go.
Book Reviewed: Drums of My Flesh: Cyril Dabydeen: TSAR Publications, Toronto: 2005, 234 pgs.