Fred D'Aguiar Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.