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David Dabydeen - Introduction
I grew up in the colony of British Guyana, on the coast of South America. An isolated place, the only English-speaking country on the continent. Culturally West Indian, we were marooned from the islands of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and the rest, and our landscape was utterly different from theirs, being mostly rainforest. And our sea was not translucent blue but thick and muddy brown from the soil washed down by the mighty Amazonian rivers. We were also the furthest away from London (5000 miles), the capital of our dreams and our motherland. Our sense of isolation was deepened by the fact that the overwhelming majority of us lived on a narrow strip of coastland, wedged between the vast Amazonian jungle and the vast Atlantic. The Guyana coast is below sea-level and the sky endless and empty, for very very few aeroplanes came our way. With a population of considerably less than a million people, in a land the size of Great Britain, there was always a sense of being vulnerable to unimaginably violent natural forces. If Guyanese people have a reputation in the region for humility, it is because of our landscape. The kindness of spirit which is engrained in our national character has to do with the need to cooperate, to survive the jungle and sea. But the landscape also bred violence, for we were a sugar colony, rum was cheap and the men drank heavily. Women were their victims. I grew up with the sound of women being beaten, my mother foremost, the neighbours' wives, others. One day, aged eight or nine, walking to school, I paused to listen to a woman hollering under blows from her husband. I felt small, useless, ashamed, hurt, for there was nothing I could do. Another distinct memory: I was going to the sweet shop when my greed was stopped by sobbing from behind a garage door. A woman was locked within. Her noise was soft and slow as if she was crying to herself, knowing she was beyond saving by others. I remember resolving to murder my father when I grew up.
When I was ten, I won a scholarship to Georgetown, the capital city, and boarded for one year in a hotel-cum-brothel. My aunt was the live-in cook and I ate delicious curries. The creaking of beds in the adjoining rooms, the gasps, the smothered cries – these were the new sounds, so provocative, so enchanting. The men and women coming and going ignored me, being a mere boy, but one day a resident prostitute – a slim, fair-skinned, pretty young woman called Martha – spoke to me. She was complaining about the rent and about the manager threatening to evict her. It is hard to describe the excitement of being within touching distance of her. She left the brothel but remained in my imagination forever. That year in Georgetown was the highlight of my childhood. Apart from awakening me to my sexuality, it gave me a new sense of relations between men and women, based on forbidden desire, intense pleasure. And romance too, for many booking rooms for an hour or two were young lovers escaping the scrutiny of parents or social rules.
13 came, and the passage to England, the land of scones and marmalade and other exotic foods eaten by the Famous Five. The land too of Manchester United and Oxford and Cambridge: posters of these adorned the walls of the local library. In England there was the initial disappointment in the literary foods: scones turned out to be no different from our home-made buns, and marmalade was bitter in a mouth bred in a sugar colony. Then there were the skinheads, and a climate of racial hostility that made us feel unwanted. Black skin gave us shame, we felt ugly, aesthetically inferior. But England was full of libraries and bookshops: to survive you had to find a safe passage past the skinheads to the book shelves. Libraries were secure places, you could easily hide in books, forget your immigrant status.
At school, the English teacher, Mr. Mulhern, who had a passion for literature, inspired me to read. Without his years of devoted tuition and the moral support I would have probably settled for the normal immigrant job on the buses. For a variety of reasons I was taken into Care at the age of 14 and could have succumbed to the humiliations and deprivations associated with children in care. Mr Mulhern's constant encouragement and role as a literary father figure saved me from such. And watching George Best play football heightened my ambition to achieve.
At 18 I was lucky enough to get a place at Cambridge to read English. It was there that I began to write about prostitutes, violated women, absent mothers, worthless fathers, isolated folk, the longing for romance, the jungle, the sea, and an England cruel and kind in turn. I would love to have a go at writing a poem about George Best, but I suspect his genius is beyond words.
© David Dabydeen
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