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.
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.