Double Whammy, Part II

So as promised, and without further ado, we move on to discussing Slave Song!

I know a lot of people are vehemently calling Dabydeen out for his skewed presentation of Guyanese slave culture, especially in terms of race, rape, and violence. A lot of what I say is going to poke at you guys, because I’m attempting to sympathize with Dabydeen a bit more – I think he means well, and I feel like we need to be a little less up-in-arms and a little more open about what he’s trying to do and what it means for him. I will do my best to explain myself fully (I’m not always the best at that), but I hope that getting my perspective in along with yours and Dabydeen’s will make the picture a little fuller.

Yes, I am a Canadian-born Chinese, but I also lived in Hong Kong for a few years during some of the formative years of my childhood. I still remember the musk of the city air as it was in the early 2000s – the aroma of smoked-sausage street stores intermixing with the putrid waste air emitting from double-decker busses heading to and fro…everything is still vivid to me. Looking at his Wikipedia page, Dabydeen left Guyana when he was 13. He has a couple of years more on me when it comes to being steeped in the homeland’s way of life, so I’d assume as he grew into an adult he would have even clearer memories, clearer ideas, of what it means to be Guyanese.

But his years spent studying in England changed him, took him further away from his homeland, because those years weren’t spent there. He continues to grow, now an Englishman from Guyana, as the social, political, economic status of his homeland continues to endure new developments. Even if he was smart enough to keep tabs on it all the time, which second-generation immigrants nowadays definitely have the technological resources to do, he still wouldn’t be living and experiencing it. In addition to that, because of the different set of cultural values he grew up with, he might have found it difficult to connect with through-and-through Englishmen, or even just people who had lived in England all their lives. This resonates with me as well – within Vancouver’s large Chinese population, there are many second-generation Chinese-Canadians who have lived in Canada all their lives and never in the “homeland”. They are steeped in the culture of their heritage insofar as their parents’ domestic environment forces them to; yet because they are raised Canadian, they feel little-to-no connection with the real culture of the homeland. Thus when something happens – like, for example, the Umbrella Revolution that took place in December 2014, which saw students take to the streets in a pro-democracy movement that frightened my parents and their milieu with its similarity to Tiananmen only 25 years before – they have a nominal connection, but no real idea what exactly is going on. And for someone even further in-between, like me, like Dabydeen – when we have truly lived it, but our homelands have changed so much since the last time we’ve been there, when the street vendors and old shopping malls filled with Japan-imported trinkets and kind old ladies serving free desserts to children have disappeared, replaced with high-end name-brand chains and cultural assimilation and aggravating political disagreement – a great sentiment arises that urges us to do something, to play a part in the fate of the homeland to which a part of you belongs.

But what?

The Cantonese language is in many ways an oral language. To read it orthographically in its current form is a little baffling for speakers of other Chinese dialects, because its grammar is very different. However, it is important to note (and don’t take my word as-is, this has only come up in discussions with my father and other Chinese enthusiasts) that Cantonese more closely resembles Middle Chinese, which is what was spoken during the time that much of Classical China’s greatest poetry was composed, thus being extremely important in preserving its poetic cadence and authenticity. Hong Kong (and Taiwan as well) also uses the Traditional Chinese writing system, maintaining the Chinese language’s orthographic tradition, as opposed to the Simplified Chinese used and proliferated within Mainland China. Based on these things, one can say that the Cantonese language and culture, as used today, is an integral part of the Chinese identity. So when the Chinese government is closing in on Hong Kong from all sides, not only political, but also educational and cultural, seeking to take its independence and intermixed British-Chinese heritage away from it, I must say that I disagree. I’m sorry if I offend anyone with my quasi-political-cultural views, but it is a heritage that I have to at least some degree lived, and one that surrounds my life and my identity. I believe that in any case, regardless of the individual strength and authenticity of the voice that speaks it, the voice of a culture under fire must be heard.

So what of Dabydeen?

I do not know Guyanese culture as well as I probably ought to – but because I am in-between, equally in love with the culture that raised me and the one that adopted me, I don’t think we shouldn’t listen to him, even if we think his idea of his own heritage is perverse and wrong. I don’t think we can deny that he tried – if not necessarily to be completely historically and sociologically authentic, then at least to provide “an imaginative rendition and reconstruction, a private fantasy” (Dabydeen 10) of what he thinks his cultural heritage might have felt like. We should keep in mind that the life of an archetypical slave does not necessarily abide by moral rules; we also have to acknowledge the depravity of humans under circumstances in which they have themselves been deprived. He may have bastardized his own culture, he may come under fire from green mango-sellers who are literate enough to read his work, and true, as Farah said, his voice may not really be purely Guyanese, but somewhere in-between British and Guyanese – but I, as a reader somewhere in-between Canadian and Chinese, with a perceived similarity of experience, an equally-cherished tie to both sides, and a strong desire to invoke the ties to the place of your ancestry, and somehow rekindle a part of your identity therein…I am glad that he chose to speak up, to do his utmost to promote and preserve an inkling of his unwritten heritage.

David Dabydeen, I appreciate your efforts, and I thank you.

The evening lights of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. By User User:Dice on zh.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The evening lights of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. By User User:Dice on zh.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Heyo,

    This was really interesting (both parts), I enjoyed reading it a lot. I do also want to point out that I also don’t think that we should discard Dabydeen’s voice altogether, because, as you said, the voices of the middle-cultures (like you, like me, like Dabydeen) need to be acknowledged. However, Dabydeen never speaks from the voice of the middle-culture. He embodies the voice of the Guyanese slaves, knowing fully that their real voice was never heard and therefore can’t be compared. He also embodies the voice of the “translator”, as if he weren’t also a Guyanese man who could understand their pain. And so, I do agree with you in that a piece of literature reminiscing and mourning a culture he lost, while also assessing and experiencing the culture he is in would have been a beautiful and multifacetedly poetic piece of literature that I would have applauded through and through. But, unfortunately, this is not what Dabydeen did.

    I’m fully aware that it’s very possible he didn’t intend the book to be read the way I and a few others are reading it (and I also have nothing personal against Dabydeen at all, like,cool bro u do u). But he, especially, knew that he was writing in a nonexistent voice (which still doesn’t give the slaves a voice, it gives them his already different-cultured voice).

    No matter how much Dabydeen tries, he’ll never really know the pain or the lives of the Guyanese slaves, and so to write a book (the only book) that ,does not tell us of their lost story but, tells their story for them (if you see the difference here) does the exact opposite of whatever empowering liberation it is being interpreted as. The most powerful expression the Guyanese enslaved had of their unspeakable oppression was that it was unspoken. And the fact of the matter is, Dabydeen took that from them. And he cannot give it back.

    That’s kind of what I’m trying to say, and I hope it makes sense. I can definitely see where you and Dabydeen are coming from, but I think Dabydeen did it the wrong way. What he did was a very dangerous literary move, and it backfired (in my opinion). I didn’t expect this to get this long. Sorry, if I made you feel attacked or anything during seminar, I think we really stand on a lot of the same ground on this topic but we may be talking about different things. (I also had a little too much caffeine and 0 hours of sleep).

    1. Hey Farah,

      Thank you so much for your reply! And no need to apologize, I definitely appreciated the passion in your arguments, haha.
      Anyways, I sort of realize that I discounted what he was doing with the “translator” side of things, because that’s a whole other can of worms. Is he being facetious with himself? Is he trying to portray the other side of him that’s pulling in the opposite direction from his Guyanese heritage, trying to dissociate from it or elevate itself in the sense of colonizer and colonized? I think its very existence and ambiguity of interpretation complicates my viewpoint a whole lot more.
      I am also definitely getting the sense of what you’re saying about Dabydeen interposing for the Guyanese slaves a voice that isn’t theirs and can never really be theirs, and his attempting to do so in the way he did given his mistaken identity is where he went wrong. I’m just contending with the idea that their plight should be left unspoken, or perhaps is more powerful that way. It’s highly possible that what Dabydeen is illustrating is but one interpretation of their unspoken battle – it just so happens that it’s the only prominent one out there. What I’m getting at with that fact is that their struggle ought to be brought to light in one way or another, lest it be forgotten, and if Dabydeen or a scholar of Guyanese culture or some other person who might not have lived through the experience doesn’t do it, it might not ever be said at all, simply because of what time does to people’s memories and a whole lot of other possible factors (and maybe those people might not be well-spoken or brave enough to speak for themselves as well).
      I also think that Dabydeen asserted himself as speaking from their perspective to reflect his desire to identify with them and their heritage. I don’t think it’s that he lacks the cultural background to talk about it – it’s just that his experiences post-Guyana have changed him and added things on top of that cultural background to partially preclude him from talking about it.
      All in all, I think the point you’re making about Dabydeen taking their voice away is a powerful one; I just feel that unless a voice strong enough to speak for itself emerges from the masses, an advocate with some differently-cultured bias is better than no advocate at all.


  2. This is a very thought-provoking post and discussion–thanks to you both. I must admit, as I’m sure you could tell in seminar, that I’m somewhat convinced by the “3rd option” of reading these poems, which is that not only is he parodying his own translations and interpretations at the back, but he’s also raising questions about the status of his own writing of these poems. He writes as if he were giving real “songs” from an authentic voice, but of course it is not an authentic voice and he may be directly trying to question the very thing he is doing. If that’s the case, though, my next question is why: I can get the point of parodying a European scholar trying to interpret the poems if they were authentic–as he says himself in his postcript, the translations and interpretations seem to try to strangle the poems before they are born (I don’t have the book with me, but I think it says something like that), and he states explicitly that he wrote those sections as parodies. And I can see how that might have some importance in getting people to think about what it can do to have a scholar “strangle” authentic works in that kind of way.

    But if we are to read the poems themselves as somehow questioning their own very existence, then I’m not sure what the point of that would be. Unless, that is, it were a fairly common practice for people to pretend to write in an authentic voice when they don’t have one. Is it? I’m not sure it’s as common as the sort of academic work he parodies in the translations and interpretations.

    I agree with Farah that pretending like one is writing from someone else’s voice when one isn’t is a problem. He could have written more from the “outside” to give his impression of their experience, and signal directly that it was just that, an impression. But, if he was taking on that voice to prove a point, consciously, as suggested above, then perhaps that’s a different story? Or perhaps not, because it can too easily be taken as a serious endeavour?

    I completely see your point too, Elliott, that where there is no voice at all, a voice is better than none. But I still think that that voice is best if it doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not (unless it’s not actually pretending, and is pretending to pretend, if that makes sense–unless he is consciously pretending that he’s trying to be serious about presenting the voice as if he were one of the people he’s writing about).

    One place that I found particularly complicated when thinking about these issues was in the translation and interpretation of “The Canecutter’s Song.” There he says that “singing it is therapeutic because it “expresses what the cane-cutters cannot themselves verbalize because of their lack of command of words” (53) (I have this in my notes for seminar; that’s why I have this particular quote and not the one from the postcript). What’s striking about that is that it is written as if the song is a real one, and the canecutters actually sing it, and it’s therapeutic for them. This statement, in itself, brings up the issue of authenticity and how he’s pretending to write the songs as if they are real. But we know they’re not, and he knows we know, and in a complicated way this might be raising the question of whether we should think him as trying to give an authentic voice (he draws attention to the idea of their authenticity in a note that we should be questioning itself, as coming from the parodied scholar). In addition, I find it strange to say that the song expresses what the canecutters themselves cannot verbalize–isn’t that what Dabydeen himself is actually doing in this collection? I find this statement rather self-reflexive and possibly instructive for what he’s doing in the work.

    I, too, didn’t mean this to become so long, and I’m not sure I’ve made sense. But I really appreciate this discussion.

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