David Dabydeen emigrated at an early age to England, where he won a scholarship for Cambridge University. He is now a professor of English literature at the University of Warwick. He lives and works alternately in England and Guyana, and he is his country's ambassador to UNESCO.
Dabydeen published three volumes of poetry: Slave song (1984), Coolie Odyssey (1988) and the epic poem Turner (1993). He also published four novels and two studies on the British artist William Hogarth, notably Hogarth's representation of negroes. Dabydeen is himself a descendant of coolies, i.e., hired labourers recruited from India.
Dabydeen's long poem Turner was inpired by the painting Slave Traders Ditching the Dead and the Dying with Hurricane Approaching by the English painter William Turner (1775-1851). John Ruskin, the famous art critic, possessed this picture for a while, but he found the scene so horrifying that he traded it for another painting. The horror is certainly part of Dabydeen's 600-verse poem. It tells the story of a still- or nearly still-born child of a slave girl and a slave-trader captain, a little boy thrown overboard and either drowning or surviving, either below or above the sea's surface, coming ashore from time to time and living the life of a slave, or joining the followers of an African prophet.
About Turner, Dabydeen himself has this to say: 'My poem focusses on the sunken head of the African in the foreground of Turner's picture. In Turner's seas (and in those of other painters) it has been drowned for centuries. When it wakes up, it can only partially recall the sources of its life, so it invents a body, a biography, and it populates an imaginary landscape.'
The narrative is flowing, hermetic, ambivalent. Turner assumes the role of the captain, or he may be the man keeping count of the number of slaves on board.
Dabydeen writes a superior, almost classical English style, without ever becoming 'English'. He once told an interviewer, 'I'm inclined to think that Britain has heavily depended on us for its material and cultural development. So when I say I want to be part of it, I mean I'm willing to admit that. To admit that I ('I' meaning not just myself but the tribe) have had an important say and influence in their development. The sense of belonging only comes if the British acknowledge this. In this respect there is no strain. At the end of the day one arrives at some kind of outlook: over the centuries our cultures have become so interwoven that you can't be a Guyanese without being a Brit, and you can't be a Brit without being a Guyanese, or a Caribbean.'.
[David Dabydeen took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 1999. This text was written on that occasion.]