Fred D'Aguiar Essay - Critical Essays

D'Aguiar, Fred


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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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Sean O'Brien (review date 7-13 July 1989)

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...

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Maya Jaggi (review date 19 April 1991)

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...

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Paula Burnett (review date 12 November 1993)

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...

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Ian Sansom (review date 7 January 1994)

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...

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Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 15 July 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Paula Burnett (review date 2 September 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Andrew Salkey (review date Autumn 1994)

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...

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Angelyn Mitchell (review date 13 August 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

A. L. McLeod (review date Autumn 1995)

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...

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Paula Burnett (review date 22 March 1996)

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...

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Sean O'Brien (review date 6 June 1996)

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...

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Michael Upchurch (review date 17 November 1996)

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...

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Bruce King (review date Winter 1997)

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...

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Gary Amdahl (review date 13-20 January 1997)

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...

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Bharat Tandon (review 22 August 1997)

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...

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Heather Hathaway (review date Fall 1998)

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 [1993]), 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...

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Ervin Beck (review date Autumn 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

William Scammell (review date 2 September 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

John Greening (review date 22 December 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 412 words.)