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Out of Guyana
by Belinda Beaton

As he looks on the last twelve months, Cyril Dabydeen has every reason to be pleased. Ottawa's former poet laureate has produced a new collection of his own poems, Discussing Columbus. He has also edited an anthology of poetry, Another Way to Dance. His story Nighthawk won the 1996 Okanagan Award. And two collections of short stories, Berbice Crossing and Black Jesus, have come out. Black Jesus alone is a selection of work that is varied and accomplished. As with Dabydeen's other fiction, it is informed by his intense sense of exile from his Caribbean homeland mixed with what is, at times, an overwhelming love for his new country. Dabydeen's work is characterized by a sense of being between two places: having left Guyana and become acclimatized to Canada, he cannot re-establish himself in the old country, and is never quite at home in the new. As a young poet, he was driven from his native land by economic dearth and what he calls "social drought": the Guyanese intelligentsia were being down-trodden or pushed out. He came to study at Queen's University in Canada. Now in this country for twenty-five years, he is indeed prolific.
A central theme of the Black Jesus collection is the exile's sense of displacement. The first six stories have the resonance of memoir; Dabydeen explores what he has termed "the bottomless pool of origins". In these initial selections, set in Guyana, the point of view is a child's or an adolescent's. The collection moves through to the more mature, though at times no less confused, perceptions of adults. Dabydeen effectively conveys the moments when illusions or misconceptions are removed, giving his characters a decisive change in attitude or understanding. In "Birth", a young boy, whose father abandoned the family, discovers that his uncle, a patriarchal figure, is neither infallible or reliable.
"Mother of Us All" is a marvellous depiction of a child's imagination as it roams, investigates, and lives with half-comprehended truths. The children's relationships with adults, their independence of spirit and inability to be contained, are beautifully translated for the reader.
Dabydeen's narratives often contain the lyrical consolidations of images that are the mark of a poet. In one scene a young boy who has been reading magazines from Canada and dreaming of living in a country with snow comes down to breakfast one morning and watches his mother making breakfast:
"My mother, against the brightening fire, stood rigid, immobile, oddly expressionless; looking at me. And in her I saw my true self; I understood that deep inside me I nurtured a passion which I couldn't articulate; which lay hidden beneath my skin, yet kept coursing through my blood, in every crevice of my flesh, deep in my bone marrow. This, the self-denying, undenying; this, my future beginning, belonging...to this end and place it would be...without snow-capped mountains. Here with Auntie's laughter still in the air, all her intermittent rage, also; and my mother's inner pain, against the sun. Snow glittering, at the tips of glaciers; and places yet to go to...and to remain, forever."
Passages like this evoke the ever-changing atmosphere of the family and neighbourhood. Mixed with the conviviality of village life is the awareness that the Guyanese youths will be drawn away-by life in the city beyond, by the responsibilities of parenthood, by exterior cultural influences, and, in some cases, by emigration.
The changing character of the country, no longer part of the British Empire and struggling to define itself in the Latin world of South America, provides the backdrop for "Los Toros", a vivid account of a group of adolescent boys toying with ideologies and emerging identities of their own. Their political posturings and the power relationships among them immediately disintegrate when the country, full of genuine racial tensions and social upheavals, is faced with a real political invasion.
In "Going Places", a young man whose child has just been born realizes, when he sees a matriarch's gaze, that the responsibilities of fatherhood will not let him fulfill his dreams of travelling.
The tension of living between two cultures is more clearly depicted in the stories set in Canada. Through some eccentric and sardonic characters, Dabydeen illustrates the irreversible changes wrought by the experience of immigration. Yet his Canadian stories also abound with affection and humour for his new land. "Calabie" is a story that at first seems to be about the sexual awakening of two young girls, when they are confronted by a nude man swimming at a lake. But counterpoised to the fears of the teenagers are the perceptions of the mature male narrator, who, viewing them, is suddenly filled with hope that he can establish an enduring relationship with his new lover in spite of the differences in their backgrounds. In capturing such a rare moment of affirmation and joy in living, Dabydeen's writing is rhapsodic. In another tale, "The Homecoming", a man returns to Guyana with his Canadian fiancée and discovers that the ties that bound him to his family are just as strong as ever. After he honestly tries to remain and help with the family plantation, he discovers that for him Canada is now home.
The quest of leaving one's past in the hope of building a future is a theme that is by no means confined to immigrant writing. Nevertheless, quitting one country's climate and history and endeavouring to carve out a new life in another is a psychic voyage with unique voids and conflicting allegiances. Such experiences are beautifully captured in Cyril Dabydeen's work, which reflects an earnestly searching soul.

 Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.


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