Fred D'Aguiar 1960-
English poet, novelist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of D'Aguiar's career through 2000.
With the publication of his debut poetry volume, Mama Dot (1985), D'Aguiar emerged as a prominent figure among a young generation of writers of Caribbean descent who have broadened the scope of contemporary British literature. Because D'Aguiar was born in London but reared in Guyana, his childhood experiences play a distinctive role in his writings. Concerned primarily with themes of colonial marginalization and racial identity, he has striven to present a perspective that takes into account both public and private concerns. Historical developments play an essential role in his work, particularly those of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas, the economic and political troubles of postcolonial Guyana, and the post-World War II influx of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. D'Aguiar began his writing career as a poet, and his poetic sensibility continues to inform his work in other genres, notably the novels The Longest Memory (1994) and Dear Future (1996).
D'Aguiar was born in London in 1960, the second child of immigrants from the Caribbean nation of British Guyana. His parents both worked for London Transport, and their schedules made it difficult to care for their two sons. When he was two years old, D'Aguiar and his older brother were sent to Guyana to live with their paternal grandparents, who lived in a house at Airy Hall, about forty miles from the capital of Georgetown. The house belonging to D'Aguiar's grandparents, “Mama Dot” and “Papa T,” was a large one, made up of family members African, Asian, and European in origin. D'Aguiar spent the majority of his time in Guyana at Airy Hall, which was removed from the racial problems and political warfare of the capital. He spent the final four years of his Guyanese youth in Georgetown, where he lived with his maternal grandparents. At age twelve, D'Aguiar and his brother moved back to London (and a country increasingly antagonistic toward immigration by nonwhite members of the Commonwealth), where they lived with their newly divorced mother. D'Aguiar attended the Charlton Boys Secondary School, where he was, if only briefly, exposed to Caribbean literature. He then trained and worked for a period as a psychiatric nurse. During this time, D'Aguiar attended a series of writing workshops at the University of London. He began a three-year course in English literature at the University of Kent, graduating in 1985. (He had been exposed to English poetry during his boyhood in Guyana by his grandfather, Papa T.) In 1985, D'Aguiar published his first book of poetry, Mama Dot. He then released two more collections of poetry before the production of his first play, A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death (1991). Three years later he published The Longest Memory, his first novel.
The most significant part of D'Aguiar's oeuvre consists of his poetry and fiction. His first book, Mama Dot, grew out of a series of poems about a composite character based on both his grandmothers. The book is divided into three parts, with the first section devoted to the multifaceted metaphor of Mama Dot. With the image of Mama Dot, D'Aguiar combines the everyday and mythic qualities of the grandmother figure, and in the process creates a practical, no-nonsense Caribbean woman who provides a link to an African past. The second section of the book, “Roots Broadcast,” deals with experiences of metropolitan alienation. A long poem called “Guyana Days” makes up the book's third section and deals with the poet's return as an adult to the country of his youth. D'Aguiar's second poetry collection, Airy Hall (1989), is also divided into three sections, with the first two dealing extensively with the author's experiences in Guyana. While the first part takes a rather nostalgic look at the past, the second grimly reflects Guyana's postcolonial deprivation and corrupt politics. The author again closes the book with a single long poem, “The Kitchen Bitch.” This poem (whose title refers to a kind of kerosene lamp traditionally used in rural Jamaica) is based on an annual walk that the author takes at Hebden Bridge, where Sylvia Plath is buried. Superimposed on this walk is the drama of an expedition leader who loses his sanity as his fellow walkers die one by one. Metaphor plays an important role in Mama Dot and Airy Hall, serving as representations for personalities and places in D'Aguiar's early life in Guyana. In D'Aguiar's poetry the choice of language also occupies a significant position. He often uses for effect what has been called “nation language,” namely, the varieties of Creole spoken in the Caribbean and spread elsewhere via immigration. British Subjects (1992), the author's next poetry collection, more closely depicts the dilemma of the immigrant. The book's poems illustrate the tension felt by immigrants' children, who are alienated by the nation into which they are born. Bloodlines (2000) is an epic verse novel dealing with slavery in the American South during and after the Civil War. Rendered in the ottava rima meter, the story centers upon a slave, Faith, who falls in love with the plantation owner's son, Christy, after he rapes her. The two elope and are later separated. Christy eventually learns that Faith has died while giving birth to their child, a son who is presumed dead but has lived and narrates the story. In the stage play A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death, D'Aguiar confronts British attitudes toward nonwhite colonial immigrants following the collapse of the empire in the 1940s. In the play four young men in Jamaica enlist in the Royal Air Force. At the training base in Scotland, they are confronted with demeaning treatment, culminating in the racially-motivated assault of Alvin, the leader of the group. Alvin is rescued by a Scottish woman named Kathleen, and the two fall in love. Alvin's and Kathleen's happiness, however, is destroyed when he accidentally shoots down an Allied plane, is dishonorably discharged, and declines into insanity. While making sure not to sacrifice the play's narrative clarity, D'Aguiar emphasizes metaphor and language in such a way that the poet's voice is readily apparent. D'Aguiar's experience as a poet also seems to have encouraged experimentation with the traditional form of the novel. His first novel, The Longest Memory, directly addresses the issue of slavery in the Americas. The unconventional narrative consists of a series of monologues spoken by slaves and masters on an early-nineteenth-century Virginia plantation. The story centers upon Whitechapel, a slave who seeks to lead a dignified life by working hard and cultivating the master's respect. Even after his wife is raped by the overseer, Whitechapel treats the resulting child as his own son. When this son eventually tries to escape from the plantation, Whitechapel tells his master, unintentionally contributing to the boy's violent death. The novel's monologues, reflecting D'Aguiar's poetic sensibility, work to create multiple voices, a chorus of sorts that evokes not only a variety of emotional and intellectual responses to the novel's events but also subjective time shifts. Dear Future also involves a search to remember, a task aided by the evocation of symbolic images and the rejection of a direct, chronological narrative. In this novel, D'Aguiar considers the politics of postcolonial Guyana from a child's viewpoint. Consisting of a series of episodes in the life of the young Red Head, the novel demonstrates how global capitalism and corruption among the local elite have betrayed the promise of the nation's independence. D'Aguiar's novel Feeding the Ghosts (1999) likewise features a quest for memory, with symbolism used to unite the different physical and temporal spaces of the story. The novel centers upon Mintah, a slave who has survived the seaboard murders of her fellow slaves. Through Mintah's severed connection to her family and community, the novel explores the creation of cultural identity.
D'Aguiar's Mama Dot attracted considerable critical appreciation and immediately established the writer as a talented new voice in poetry. These early poems were commended for their clarity, humor, and sense of irony. Though his subsequent poetry collections received mixed assessments, reviewers have continued to appreciate the originality and wit of D'Aguiar's verse. In his writings about the hardships of life in postcolonial Guyana and the problems of nonwhite immigrants in Britain, D'Aguiar has demonstrated a keen awareness of aesthetic, cultural, literary, as well as political issues. His focus on the legacy of slavery, notably in The Longest Memory and Feeding the Ghosts, is recognized for his exploration of power, identity, history and memory. Reviewers are quick to note the overriding influence of poetry in his novels, which focus on memory to examine bonds of kinship. The Longest Memory and Dear Future have been well received for their intensity and intelligence, though some critics contend that D'Aguiar's experimentation with narrative form causes these works to suffer from a lack of focus and depth. His verse novel, Bloodlines, was deemed an ambitious experiment but was generally unfavorably reviewed. Despite such criticism, D'Aguiar is esteemed for his distinctive poetic sensibility and his provocative explorations of racism and postcolonial identity.
Mama Dot (poetry) 1985
The New British Poetry [editor, with others] (poetry) 1988
Airy Hall (poetry) 1989
A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death (play) 1991
British Subjects (poetry) 1992
The Longest Memory (novel) 1994
Dear Future (novel) 1996
Feeding the Ghosts (novel) 1999
Bloodlines (verse novel) 2000
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SOURCE: “Towards a Revelation,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 7-13, 1989, p. 737.
[In the following review, O'Brien concludes that Airy Hall is a mixture of “disappointment” and “refreshing ambition.”]
The title sequence of Fred D'Aguiar's second collection, Airy Hall, consists of eighteen poems about the Guyanan village where his boyhood was spent. It expands and enriches the prose account D'Aguiar gave in Poetry Review (Volume 75, Number 2, August 1985), and emphasizes his gifts in handling the evidence of the senses. Dry washing is heard “chattering” on a line; leaves “describe a slowed, / ziggurat fall”; a whole section of “Airy Hall at Night” brilliantly evokes the horrible toadness of a trodden-on toad. According to D'Aguiar, Airy Hall is a place you could drive or sprint through without noticing it, and he convincingly re-creates its remoteness, its heat, its stillness, its seemingly uneventful secrecy. At a barely explicit level, though, he seems to want to push the poems further, towards a revelation for which the speaking picture is inadequate.
Exactly how this squares with the observation in “Airy Hall Barrier” that “Many deny what we see / Has anything to do with anything” is not made clear in the sequence, but at times the effort to signify afflicts the verse with hyperaesthesia, and the result is cramped and...
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SOURCE: “Four Rum Jamaicans,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 19, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review of A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death, Jaggi commends the play's powerful symbolism and humor, though finds shortcomings in its uneven pacing and underdeveloped contemporary parallels.]
The title of Fred D'Aguiar's play sounds an echo of W. B. Yeats's poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Through an episodic, exuberant juxtaposition of dialogue, verse and song, D'Aguiar transfers the poem's ambivalence about fighting another country's battles to the experience of a Jamaican airman in the Second World War.
Set initially in Jamaica in the 1940s, the play satirizes the cynical appeal made to the dominions, to fight for King and country. Kojo, an eccentric creole seer, parodies Churchill's broadcasts with scatological relish, while mocking the gullibility of the young, rum-soaked Jamaicans who enthusiastically queue to join up. D'Aguiar humorously reveals the mixed motives of a naive foursome (played with engaging fervour by Clarence Smith, Sidney Cole, Maynard Eziashi and Fraser James) who enlist more in a spirit of fortune-hunting and sexual bravado than of patriotism. Yet it also exposes their illusions about the metropolitan power (“Britain is the father, Jamaica mother to me”, the boys chant), which others warn against.
As the scene...
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SOURCE: “Thames Barriers,” in New Statesman & Society, November 12, 1993, pp. 37-8.
[In the following excerpt, Burnett offers a generally positive assessment of British Subjects, though she notes that some of poems in the volume “do not earn their place.”]
The peculiarly British ambivalence about black cultural expression is well summed up by topical events. On the one hand, the South Bank Centre and the Arts Council are staging Out of the Margins, a celebration of British black and Asian writing. On the other, the government has announced that it is to close down the Commonwealth Institute by turning off the funding tap from 1996. With funds already reduced to little more than a trickle, the Foreign Office policy has starved all areas of the institute's work over the past decade. Yet that work has heroically continued to nurture the cultural climate in which such events as the South Bank festival can blossom.
So many of the black and Asian writers taking part have been fostered by the institute's encouragement. So many British citizens, both black and white, children and adults, have begun to appreciate a multicultural society through visits to the galleries and its special events. So many writers and students have been able to share the literature of the Commonwealth through the library, unique in this country. If all that goes, Britain will be the poorer,...
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SOURCE: “Sincere Despair,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1994, p. 18.
[In the following review, Sansom offers an unfavorable evaluation of British Subjects.]
The astonishing output of Bloodaxe Books over the past fifteen years is a testament to editor Neil Astley's enthusiasm and hard work. Unfortunately, Astley has worked so hard that he now sometimes seems to be asleep on the job—this, at least, would help to explain why British Subjects, Fred D'Aguiar's third collection, and his first from Bloodaxe, is not as good as it should be.
For D'Aguiar excites high expectations. His short but brilliant first collection, Mama Dot, was published in 1985, when he was twenty-five years old. In 1988, he was joint editor of the ground-breaking Paladin anthology, The New British Poetry, and 1989 saw his second collection, Airy Hall, win the Guyana Prize for Poetry. Since then he has written plays, held the prestigious Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge University and now teaches at Amherst College, Massachusetts. E. A. Markham included him as the youngest poet in Hinterland, the excellent (Bloodaxe) anthology of Caribbean poetry, where D'Aguiar's tough, fluent poems with their distinctive conceits (in “Mama Dot's Treatise” mosquitoes “suck our blood / From the cradle / And flaunt it / Like a fat wallet”) did not look out of place...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
SOURCE: “Resisting Ignorance,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review, Gurnah offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]
In the mythology of defiance to racial slavery in the United States, no act has quite the resonance as that of learning to read and write. There were practical reasons for the prohibition of literacy by the slave-holders, but among them was also a desire to have their assumption of the African's degraded humanity fulfilled. For the slave, overcoming the prohibition was a form of resistance to this assumption and a step towards liberation. In The Longest Memory, it is insurgent acts like these which indicate to the overseer that Chapel is bound to run one day.
The events in the novel take place on a Virginia plantation owned by Mr Whitechapel about the turn of the nineteenth century. An old slave, called Whitechapel after his master, betrays the route of his son's escape to the planter. The son is also called Whitechapel, shortened to Chapel to distinguish him from his father. Whitechapel's betrayal leads to Chapel's capture, horrific whipping and death. This is the central memory of the novel, but through it are revealed other memories which construct the degraded world of the slave plantation. “Remembering” is the novel's method, as different voices take up the narrative at various points. Fred D'Aguiar...
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SOURCE: “Ocean Views,” in New Statesman & Society, September 2, 1994, pp. 36-7.
[In the following excerpt, Burnett offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]
Two years on from the 1492 quincentenary, the Euro-American past still haunts British minds. Not only has the infant 23rd in line for the throne improbably been named Columbus, but London publishing has delivered four new novels addressing the shared transatlantic experience. Three of them have voyages at their heart. All revisit the guilt and suffering of the past, and all hold up to the light the racial encounters and moral conflicts of Atlantic history. …
Liberalism is taken apart in the poet Fred D'Aguiar's first novel, The Longest Memory. D'Aguiar, a British-born Guyanese, tackles the myth of the benign slave owner with a cleverly constructed tale set on a Virginia plantation, which exposes liberalism as self-interested and skin-deep. It tells the history of an Uncle Tom's betrayal of his runaway son, because he trusts his liberal master. The enigmatic story is unfolded through a series of separate narrations spoken by those involved, beginning with the disillusioned father, now ostracised as guilty by his own community, although he was the betrayed.
As speaker after speaker uses the same neutral language—eloquent, rational, ethical, low-key—impatience sets in, until it dawns...
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SOURCE: A review of British Subjects, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 864-5.
[In the following review, Salkey compares British Subjects to the verse of W. H. Auden and Phillip Larkin.]
The primary thematic thrusts of Fred D'Aguiar's spirited verse [in British Subjects] support subjects that readily yield themselves up to satire and irony. Of course, this is not to say that he writes down to levels of sarcasm, cynicism, or ridicule. Indeed, he does the very opposite; he achieves peaks of exuberant phrase-making, punning, humor, paraphrase, and fancy.
In one of D'Aguiar's most ironically layered narrative poems, the persona, an authentic citizen of Britain and the Commonwealth, lands at Heathrow, approaches Customs, and gives himself over “to the usual inquisition”; but he discovers after handing over his passport “the stamp, British Citizen, not bold enough / for my liking and too much for theirs” (from “Home”). Then there is the Cockney cab driver “who won't steer clear of race, / so rounds on Asians. I lock eyes with him / in the rearview when I say I live with one.” And now, see how the poet resolves that confrontation, with the wryest of witty strophes: “I have legal tender burning in my pocket / to move on, like a cross in Transylvania.”
One example of D'Aguiar's splendid, irreverent wit, aptly...
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SOURCE: “Black Family Matters,” in Washington Post Book World, August 13, 1995, p. 8.
[In the following excerpt, Mitchell offers a positive assessment of The Longest Memory.]
Many contemporary black writers exhibit a preoccupation with history—both public and personal—in their work. Because blacks have not always had the opportunity to engage in self-representation, they understand the importance of being able to tell one's own story. Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson and Maryse Conde have situated their most critically acclaimed novels—Beloved, Middle Passage, and I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, respectively—within the historical context of American slavery. By presenting slavery from the slaves’ perspective they not only record and preserve the slaves history and culture but also provide a look at the interior lives of black men and women. Younger black writers such as A. J. Verdelle, Fred D'Aguiar and Lionel Newton also situate their recently released novels within a particular historical context in order to illuminate the interior lives of black people. …
In The Longest Memory, his first novel, Guyanese writer Fred D'Aguiar examines the legacies of American slavery. D'Aguiar uses the memories of his characters to tell his story by means of various techniques and mediums: first-person narrations, stream of consciousness, shifting narrative...
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SOURCE: A review of The Longest Memory, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 851-2.
[In the following review, McLeod offers an unfavorable assessment of The Longest Memory.]
Although the publisher describes The Longest Memory as a novel, it is at best a novella; and if we subscribe to Poe's view that a story is a work than can be read conveniently at one sitting, then this work (under 25,000 words) belongs to the shortest of the genres of prose fiction. But is not merely length that allows this categorization: there is no substantial development of character, no complexity of interaction among characters, no feeling that a major statement about life (or any of its aspects) has been explored adequately. As a result, Fred D'Aguiar (whose poetry has been acclaimed) cannot be said to have created, in this his first fiction, a work comparable to any of the fictions of his celebrated Guyanese countrymen such as Wilson Harris, Jan Carew, or Edgar Mittelholtzer. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in his choice of subject and location.
The story presents in several forms (newspaper editorials, confessionals, reminiscences, conversations, even rhymed couplets) the recollections of a group of plantation family members, neighbors, and slaves, of the death by whipping of a young slave, the product of miscegenation, and the ramifications of the established...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
SOURCE: “The Nightmare Republic,” in New Statesman & Society, March 22, 1996, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Burnett offers a positive assessment of Dear Future.]
A megalomaniac leader whose dentist has planted a micro-transmitter in his rotten tooth to broadcast his secrets to the opposition takes an early-morning canter on the beach with his bodyguard. He ends up shooting the horse because the animal shies at the high-frequency noise. The country is recognisable as Guyana, where Fred D'Aguiar grew up, but it could be any state where politics has degenerated into a game of naked power.
Reminding us that he was a poet before he was a novelist, and that magic realism is as much at home in the Anglophone world as in the Latin countries, D'Aguiar is playing with the figure of the Guyanese bone flute. He updates it with a macabre humour that permeates this new book [Dear Future]. His first novel was about slavery; this one traces the fortunes of a contemporary Caribbean “sea-split family” (to use a phrase of Andrew Salkey's).
The story becomes a song of innocence and experience. The harmless family at its centre—which manifests the Guyanese ideal of cultural and racial pluralism, symbolised by the colour red—is sucked into the vortex of degeneracy that passes for public life. It is a world where “progress”, as seen in the replacing of the...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
SOURCE: “A Necessary Gospel,” in London Review of Books, June 6, 1996, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, O'Brien offers a generally positive evaluation of Dear Future, but concludes that the novel contains unresolved underlying concerns.]
It was as a poet that Fred D'Aguiar first won recognition, with his 1985 collection Mama Dot, set in the Guyanese village where the English-born D'Aguiar was sent to be educated. The place is dominated by Mama Dot, the archetypal grandmother, source of wisdom, comfort and discipline, a woman so important that when she falls ill nature itself goes to pieces.
Bees abandon their queens to red ants and bury Their stings in every moving thing: and the sun Sticks like the hands of a clock at noon. Drying the very milk in coconuts to powder.
This vivid, funny, uncluttered work, moving between standard and Nation language, was immediately attractive. D'Aguiar, however, had other subjects and formal challenges in mind. Apart from its title sequence, his second book, Airy Hall (1989), was a much more troublesome affair, showing the pressure of a more discursive and politically complex area of his imagination, at some cost to clarity and impetus. “The Kitchen Bitch,” an ambitious but clotted narrative, seemed strongly influenced by the Guyanese novels of Wilson Harris, whose hallucinatory, half-abstract, outrageously...
(The entire section is 2499 words.)
SOURCE: “Risky Business: Fred D'Aguiar Continues to Take Chances in His Second Novel,” in Chicago Tribune Books, November 17, 1996, p. 4.
[In the following review, Upchurch offers a favorable assessment of Dear Future.]
When Guyana-born poet Fred D'Aguiar turned to fiction last year with his debut novel, The Longest Memory, he proved to be a writer who likes taking chances on both topic and technique.
His subject: the fatal whipping of a runaway slave on the plantation of a “liberal” but absentee Virginia slave-owner. His approach: a nimble inhabiting of all the parties involved, giving each protagonist—black, white and shades in between—a vivid voice and presence on the page.
Though the book's central incident was horrific, D'Aguiar's explorations of the background prejudices, desires, appeasements and rationalizations leading up to it were so subtle and precise that the book felt less like a history lesson than a canny illumination of a distant era. His control of his volatile subject matter, too, was so dexterous that at times it resembled a kind of steely, rueful wit.
In his second novel, Dear Future, a gentler but still rueful wit is at work, and although the book is set closer to home—in a South American country much like D'Aguiar's native Guyana—it takes as many technical risks as The Longest Memory....
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SOURCE: A review of Dear Future, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 206.
[In the following review of Dear Future, King faults the novel's complexity, lack of narrative development, and weak conclusion.]
I have followed Fred D'Aguiar's work with interest ever since I read Mama Dot, his first volume of poetry, and attended the Royal Court production of A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death. The success of The Longest Memory, a novel in which the prose has the sensitivity of verse, confirmed D'Aguiar's ability to treat black history with complexity. Each work contributed to a new canon of literature written by West Indians born or long resident in England. Dear Future, however, may be his first book without such a future. The curse of magic realism has infected a highly poetical yet realistic writer; the new novel is difficult to get into, the technical complexity is greater than the story, its narrative movement fragments rather than builds, and the conclusion is thin and sentimental.
The novel shows how politics and exile can destroy family; themes include the role of the West Indian woman as family head, the fragmentation of family as a result of the West Indian diaspora, and the creation of the “black” Briton from a variety of nationalities, religions, skin shades, and cultures. As in the novels of Wilson Harris, who...
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SOURCE: “Fabulous Red Head,” The Nation, January 13-20, 1997, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review, Amdahl offers a positive evaluation of Dear Future.]
Fred D'Aguiar begins his second novel, Dear Future (the first, The Longest Memory, won the Whitbread and the Higham awards in England), with the bright violence and not-quite singsong meter of a fairy tale: “Red Head got his name and visionary capacity at age nine when he ran behind an uncle chopping wood and caught the back of the axe on his forehead. His uncle, Beanstalk, feeling the reverberations of a soft wood as it yielded to the blade he'd swung back, looked over his shoulder and saw his favourite nephew half-run, half-walk in a wobbly line, do an about-turn, then flop to the ground in a heap.” The next sentences are distinctly in the tall-tale mode, detailing Beanstalk's ability to walk upon and lasso alligators before anyone else can so much as shout the word, making the first paragraph a promise that the book will be easily and pleasantly consumable—which, fortunately, turns out not to be the case.
Set in an unnamed Caribbean country whose “Cooperative Republic Village[s],” border dispute and ties to Great Britain suggest D'Aguiar's native Guyana, and peopled with characters whose nicknames are descriptive and/or meaningful and bestowed upon them by the community (Red Head, Beanstalk, Wheels, Bounce...
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SOURCE: “Marine Motifs,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 22, 1997, p. 22.
[In the following review of Feeding the Ghosts, Tandon praises D'Aguiar's evocative description and plotting, but concludes that the work lacks an underlying element of coherence.]
Sea-water and wood, with their capacities simultaneously to preserve and obscure, figure strongly in Fred D'Aguiar's long historical novella. While the suggestive conjunction of natural materials in sea-stories is hardly innovative (Moby-Dick, for one, makes much of the Pequod's cannibalized shipwork), here it allows the author a base for what turns out to be an extended meditation—often harrowing, sometimes a little self-regarding—on the persistence, necessity and attendant costs of remembering. After all, one reason why ghosts are such fertile subjects for novelists is that they share with novels a particular way of combining different temporal dimensions; and Feeding the Ghosts, as its title suggests, punctuates its main narrative with flashbacks, not only as stylistic effects but as central motifs.
Taking his cue from Derek Walcott's “The Sea is History”—adapted here into “The sea is slavery”—D'Aguiar tells of a disease-ridden slave-ship returning from its dirty work in Africa. Captain Cunningham, his own motives all too manifest, strong-arms his crew into summarily dumping all...
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SOURCE: A review of Dear Future, in African-American Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 506-8.
[In the following review, Hathaway provides a positive evaluation of Dear Future.]
In a 1992 interview (Ariel 24.1 ), Guyanese author and editor Frank Birbalsingh discussed with his countryman Fred D'Aguiar the relationship between art and politics in D'Aguiar's first two volumes of poetry, Mama Dot (1985) and Airy Hall (1989). Birbalsingh remarked on D'Aguiar's ability to “record the continuing suffering and deprivation of the Guyanese” people, but he was particularly struck by “the absence of any instinct to blame. Your quiet recording of the human toll of Guyanese politics suggests deep and genuine affection for the victims—a firm bond of unspoken solidarity with them. But you don't cry out.” D'Aguiar replied that, “in writing about politics, I felt I should try and step back from any emotional attempt to lay blame or responsibility. I felt there are other forms of writing where that could be done more properly.” His most recent novel, Dear Future, appears to embody that form. This prose work does indeed record the human toll of Guyanese politics as it chronicles the activities of one extended family suffering under the reign of a corrupt government, but it also “cries out” against such oppression, particularly in the final section of the novel,...
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SOURCE: A review of Feeding the Ghosts, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1999, p. 796.
[In the following review of Feeding the Ghosts, Beck finds D'Aguiar's evocation of the slave trade interesting but unexceptional.]
In 1781 a fatal malady broke out on the slave ship Zong, killing seven crew members and many of the slaves. Fearing that sick slaves would lose all their value in Jamaica, Captain Cunningham commanded very ill slaves to be thrown overboard, in order to collect insurance on their deaths and to prevent the plague from spreading further on the ship. In a court trial in Liverpool, brought by the insurers against the investors, the judge sided with the investors, confirming once more the law that Africans are only “stock” to be bought and sold.
The main character in Fred D'Aguiar's latest novel is Mintah, a young African woman who had been taught English in a Danish Christian mission. When she is thrown overboard, for insubordination rather than for ill health, she almost miraculously climbs back on board, unnoticed, and, while in hiding, begins writing the story of her experience on the Zong. Based on a historical event, Feeding the Ghosts is a kind of documentary fiction, which re-creates one version of the Middle Passage. It may find its widest audience among young readers in schools, since its hero and heroine are...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry Gets the Last Laugh,” in Spectator, September 2, 2000, pp. 34-5.
[In the following review, Scammell offers a negative assessment of Bloodlines.]
The last big poem on black history was Derek Walcott's Omeros, which mixed up Homer with the textures of Caribbean life, and probably helped him to clinch the Nobel Prize in 1992. Some people thought it wonderful; others never got past the pomp and circumstance of the opening chapters. Fred D'Aguiar's Bloodlines takes its formal inspiration not from the epic but from the verse-novels of Byron and Pushkin, or so at least the blurb assures us: ‘Read this book fast like a novel, savour every word like a poem.’
It begins with the rape of a slave, Faith, by her white owner's son, Christy. This brutal act results, paradoxically, in true love, more passionate lovemaking, and in the pair's banishment by the outraged father:
‘My son, the very thing I feared you'd do you've gone and done. You've fallen in love with one when all you were supposed to do was fuck as many as you liked, not love.’ ‘Father, everything you say is true, except the dirty part. Negroes love like us and fuss like us and wash the same as us. That's why I'm proud to take the blame.’
‘How dare you stand in front of me and say such things. I will not allow you to blacken this family's name. Leave my house...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
SOURCE: “Fast Like a Novel,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 22, 2000, p. 22.
[In the following review, Greening offers an unfavorable assessment of Bloodlines.]
The verse novel is becoming a popular genre. From Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate to Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie to Les Murray's Fredy Neptune, publishers have had to find ingenious ways of marketing what has generally been considered unmarketable—the Long Poem. Some have kept the v-word well clear of the front cover; others blazon it like a health warning. And so it is with Fred D'Aguiar's new “novel-in-verse”: we are advised to “Read this book fast like a novel, savour every word like a poem.” But by the end of Bloodlines, I had still not found a satisfactory way of reading it. D'Aguiar writes in ottava rima, which can certainly be used to tell a story, but it is a tricky form to control, makes a heavy demand on rhyme words and is most effective when the writer is as witty as Byron or Auden. D'Aguiar is not a witty writer (although he tries once or twice), nor is his subject funny.
Bloodlines is set in the American South of 1861 and narrated by the child of Faith and Christy. Faith is a slave, who after being viciously raped by the plantation owner's son, falls in love with him. They elope and are helped by a mysterious, idealistic old man, Tom, who deliberately...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
Atamian, Christopher. Review of Dear Future, by Fred D’Aguiar. New York Times Book Review (10 November 1996): 56.
A mixed review of Dear Future. Atamian compliments D'Aguiar's prose, but faults the author's character development.
D'Aguiar, Fred with Frank Birbalsingh. “An Interview with Fred D'Aguiar.” Ariel 24, No. 1 (January 1993) 133-45.
An interview originally conducted on April 11, 1992, in which D'Aguiar discusses his Guyanese background, English education, literary influences, and cultural, political, and aesthetic concerns in Mama Dot, Airy Hall, and British Subjects.
Dwyer, Janet Ingraham. Review of Feeding the Ghosts, by Fred D’Aguiar. Library Journal 124, No. 1 (January 1999): 147.
A positive review of Feeding the Ghosts. Dwyer calls the novel “gripping” and “poetic.”
Review of Feeding the Ghosts, by Fred D’Aguiar. Publishers Weekly (23 November 1998): 58.
A positive review of Feeding the Ghosts, in which the reviewer calls the novel “a unique work of fiction.”
Hooper, Brad. Review of Dear Future, by Fred D’Aguiar. Booklist 92, No. 22 (August 1996): 1880.
In this review, Hooper offers a positive assessment...
(The entire section is 412 words.)