Dabydeen & Identity

No matter how much we talk in seminar about the poems in Slave Song, we can’t seem to come to an agreement on what the book’s purpose actually is. Is it a political statement on colonization? An attempt to recreate an authentic account Guyanese life? Or is it purely a product of Dabydeen’s fantasy, or “work of art”?

I (obviously) can’t say I know what the answer is, but I feel it’s a mix of the three. Almost like the intent of the book changes with each different “voice” Dabydeen takes on in the poems themselves vs. in the translations and notes. He jumps around from role to role, a one-man book with first-person poems told by Guyanese women paired with Western scholarly analysis, and also Dabydeen’s own introduction and postscript commenting his work. That’s why there are so many ways to read this book; Dabydeen speaks as so many characters each giving different angles to view the book’s content from.

But why did he write it like this? To confuse us? Maybe. Like I said in seminar, I think Dabydeen was struggling with his own identity and played with the different sides of his personality in making this book. He can identify with being an educated English scholar as well as with Guyanese culture. The history of his family mixed with his own life experiences has probably left him in some state of confusion about where he fits. Perhaps the main purpose of this book was actually to act as a therapeutic exercise for Dabydeen to explore and discover how all the pieces of him fit together or even contradict each other at times. Sometimes I feel like the poems and the translations are passive aggressively fighting each other or making some comment about each other. When the translations/apparatus feel so distanced and unaffected by the cruelty of the poems, it comes across as insulting, but at the same time purposeful. Dabydeen is simultaneously trying to speak about what happened in the past through the means of his present. This is seen in the last poem, Two Cultures, as the voice of a Guyanese man tells off a young boy for “ruining” the English people’s culture, and also for not acting true to his Guyanese origin. I believe the boy in question is representative of Dabydeen as he struggles to belong in both Guyana and England. Maybe he wants to honour his heritage in the way he knows how – writing poetry(?)

Remember, this is just another possible interpretation of many. I don’t know how much of this is actually makes sense. I’d love to hear any feedback of what you guys think. Open invitation to roast me in the comments!

One thought on “Dabydeen & Identity”

  1. I don’t have any roasting to offer–I think what you’ve said here makes a lot of sense! When I read this text I somehow find myself getting so confused by the different ways to interpret it that I don’t take the larger view you’re taking here: maybe that is part of the point. Maybe he is expressing something about the complications and confusions in his own experiences as someone who spent a good deal of his childhood in Guyana and then moved to England and got a typical Western scholar’s education and who is accepted by many as a typical Western scholar. This helps me think differently about the book and put it together better, so thank you!

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