Fred D'Aguiar Criticism - Essay

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Abdulrazak Gurnah (review date 15 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 that the apartheid of the fragmented narrations is cunningly transcended by this common idiom. The separate testimonies unravel, in all its tragic poignancy, a story of interracial rape in one generation balanced by doomed interracial love in the next. The black father's misplaced faith in liberalism is inverted in his son's resistance.

This deceptively simple book resonates long after it is finished; it addresses not only the dilemmas of the past but also today's generation gap in racial attitudes. D'Aguiar brings off the difficult feat of embracing, sincerely, both black militancy and a forgiving pluralism. “Memory is pain trying to resurrect itself,” concludes his old man. …

Andrew Salkey (review date Autumn 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Paula Burnett (review date 22 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Bruce King (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Gary Amdahl (review date 13-20 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Heather Hathaway (review date Fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)