to Prof. David Dabydeen, recipient of the Raja Rao Award 2004:
The 2004 Samvad India Foundation’s Raja Rao Award, which honours individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the literature of the South Asia Diaspora, is awarded to David Dabydeen, the Britain-based Indo-Guyanese poet, novelist, scholar, teacher, and critic. Dabydeen was born on 9 December 1955, in Berbice, Guyana (to Krishna Prasad and Vera Dabydeen, descendants of indentured workers transported to Guyana in the nineteenth century). He moved to England with his parents when he was thirteen years old. He read English at Cambridge University, and earned a doctorate at University College London in 1982, marking the beginning of a most productive academic life. Soon after gaining his PhD (for a dissertation on eighteenth-century literature and art), he was awarded a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford, and eventually became Director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and Professor at the Centre for British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick.
Dabydeen is very much a twenty-first-century Renaissance man. Not only has he produced a substantial oeuvre of scholarly and creative writing (which includes five novels, three collections of poetry, and numerous academic books and articles), but he also wrote and acted as a consultant to BBC's one-hour documentary film, The Coolies: Britain’s Secret Slave Trade, on indentureship in Guyana, Fiji, and South Africa, broadcast in 2003. He scripted a dramatized version of Sonny Ladoo's No Pain like this Body, broadcast on BBC in 2002 – the first time BBC Radio Drama commissioned an Indo_Caribbean piece. In 2001, he wrote and presented The Forgotten Colony, a BBC Radio 4 programme exploring the history of Guyana. He is Guyana's Ambassador_at_Large. He is a member of UNESCO's Executive Board. He is founder and first Director of the Centre for Research in Asian Migration, University of Warwick, 1989_1992, where he brought in such guest speakers as V. S Naipaul, Lord Bhiku Parekh, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey).
In his novels and poems, Dabydeen extends and complements the work of earlier Indo-West Indian and Afr0-West Indian diaspora writers who have depicted the social, cultural, and psychic devastation of slavery, indentured labour, and colonialism. He has made us aware of the lot of the Indian and African double diaspora (first to the Caribbean and then to the UK and North America), focussing on the darker aspects of the hegemonic encounter but always holding out the possibility of the suppressed salvaging independence, dignity, and self-worth. Scholar and researcher as well as poet and novelist, Dabydeen’s mature work is informed by a rational-cum-intuitive sensibility evident in the emotional intensity and analytical brilliance of his well-crafted texts.
Dabydeen came to our attention with the publication of his first volume of poems, Slave Song (Dangaroo, 1984), an impressive collection that tellingly evokes the brutal nature of slavery and plantation life in the West Indies. His second volume, Coolie Odyssey (Hansib/Dangaroo, 1988), tells about the plight of Indian indentured workers and their descendants on the sugar estates of Guyana and in countries to which they were flung in a second diaspora. In these volumes, whatever encounters there are between colonials and their imperial masters are charged with antipathy, producing complex, disturbed psyches. Much of Dabydeen’s work is informed by a bifocality that is virtually a hallmark of colonial and postcolonial writers. In Slave Song and Coolie Odyssey, this is particularly evident in the juxtaposing of the two languages he employs with equal ease in these poems: the nation language of rural Guyanese Indians and standard English. Dabydeen’s latest volume of poems, Turner: New and Selected Poems (Cape, 1994) includes a new, long poem “Turner,” which, drawing on Dabydeen scholarly research for his PhD dissertation, movingly evokes M. W. Turner's painting, “Slave Ship,” depicting chained African slaves being thrown overboard on the journey from Africa to the new world. Since 1994, Dabydeen has shown a preference for prose fiction, but the poet Dabydeen materializes in his novels in passages of beautiful poetic prose.
Dabydeen’s first two novels are set in the UK but they continue to examine the themes of his poems – the colonial and postcolonial experience. The Intended (1991) is set in contemporary London, which, for the protagonist, a young Indian student abandoned by his father, is perceived as a sort of heart of darkness. Despite its dark theme, there are humorous sections that recall Sam Selvon’s treatment of London. This tone recurs in his next novel, Disappearance (1993), which relates the attempts of a young Guyanese engineer to shore up the sea defence on a stretch of the south coast of England – emblematic of his desire to make his mark on the imperial centre. In these early novels (and his early poetry), there is an acknowledgement of Dabydeen’s West Indian progenitors and precursors, particularly Edward Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, V. S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon, and Derek Walcott. In subsequent novels, Dabydeen’s scholarly knowledge of slavery, indenture, and colonialism comes into play, imparting an almost documentary feel to his work that is counterpointed by a subtle ironic tone and a ludic pleasure in linguistic gymnastics. Dabydeen has established his own distinct style. The Counting House (1996) reconstructs the tragic life of an indentured Indian couple, rendering authentically their brutal existence on Guyanese sugar estates and the historical tensions between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese. A Harlot's Progress (1999) recreates the life of slaves in eighteenth-century Britain, drawing on Dabydeen’s knowledge of William Hogarth’s paintings and of slave narratives. His latest novel, Our Lady of Demerara (2003), his most complex, most postmodern so far, eschews the linear form of narration and easy cause-and-effect in relating the consequences of the imperial-colonial encounter for various individuals in the UK and Guyana in various time periods.
Dabydeen’s scholarly career parallels his burgeoning prominence as poet and novelist, and often, as we have seen, his scholarly work becomes the well spring of his creative writing. He has made a solid contribution to studies of blacks in Britain with such scholarly texts as The Black Presence in English Literature (Manchester UP, 1985), Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in 18th_Century English Art (Manchester UP, 1987), and Black Writers in Britain 1760_1890, a co-edited volume published by Edinburgh UP, 1991. A teacher as well as a researcher, he has written aids for teaching diaspora and immigrant writings, including Caribbean Literature: A Teacher's Handbook (Heinemann 1985), A Reader's Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature (Hansib/U of Warwick Centre for Caribbean Studies, 1987), and Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature (Heinemann 1988).
Dabydeen has taken extraordinary measures as editor and co-editor to make readily available to us documents and texts by and about diaspora Indians. He has co-edited India in the Caribbean (Hansib, 1987) and Across the Dark Waters: Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the Caribbean (Macmillan, 1995). He has edited three collections of Cheddi Jagan’s writings: Selected Speeches 1992_94( Hansib, 1995), The USA in South America and Other Essays (Hansib,1996), and Cheddi Jagan: Selected Correspondence, 1947_1965 ( Dido, 2003). He has edited Cheddi Jagan: Tributes in Prose and Verse (Peepal Tree, 1997) and a new edition of Edward Jenkins’s Lutchmee and Dilloo (Macmillan, 2002), the first novel on Indo-Guyanese life, published in 1877. He is General Editor of Hansib's “Coolie Odyssey” series inaugurated to commemorate the 1988 Arrival Day celebrations (which includes such titles as Basdeo Mangru's Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Policy to British Guiana). He has co-edited No Island Is an Island: Selected Speeches of Shridath Ramphal (Macmillan, 2000). His latest effort in making relevant Indo-Guyanese documents accessible is a forthcoming book, Wismar, a reproduction of a 1050-page official report on the atrocities against Indians that occurred at Wismar, Guyana, which includes eyewitness testimonies and interviews with rape victims, police and army depositions, and the presiding judge's report.
David Dabydeen has appeared recurringly on prize lists, for his poems and novels. In 1984, he won both the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and Cambridge University’s Quiller_Couch Prize for Slave Song. In 1991, he was awarded the Guyana Prize for Literature for The Intended. In 1997, he was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac Prize for The Counting House (1997). In 1999, he was shortlisted for James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Harlot's Progress. He was awarded the title of fellow of the Royal Society of Literature – the second West Indian writer (V.S. Naipaul was the first) and the first Guyanese writer to receive this title. And now in 2004, he a most deserving recipient of the Raja Rao Award. He shows no sign of flagging creativity and energy; no doubt there are more awards and prizes ahead for him.
Citation by Victor Ramraj, Professor of English, University of Calgary, Canada