David Dabydeen is much garlanded within and without his native land — Guyana. Thrice the winner of the Guyana Prize, he has just won the biggest prize of his life, the ANSA/Sabga Award for Caribbean Excellence in Arts and Letters, the ‘Caribbean Nobel Prize’.
The announcement was made on Friday in Port of Spain and Professor Dabydeen will collect the TT$500,000 prize in April.
The Stabroek News caught up with him for an exclusive interview in his Coventry home in the English Midlands on the day of the announcement.
SN: How did you find out you had won?
DD: I took a phone call one mid-morning, when I was lazing in bed, wondering whether to get up and face the bleak wintry day. The phone call was the warm, lyrical voice of the Director of the Sabga Awards, telling me that I was their Arts and Literature laureate for 2008. Needless to say, England suddenly felt tropical, and I arose from my bed.
SN: How do you feel about being given this ‘Caribbean Nobel’?
DD: It’s a great honour bestowed upon me, particularly special because it is a regional decision. The Sabga Awards Project is one of only a handful of activities and institutions (cricket, University of the West Indies, Caricom) which are genuinely regional.
I should also add that I am happy that the award went to a Guyanese. On many occasions in the past years I have become so depressed by idiotic actions in Guyana (from banditry to the withholding of ads to Stabroek News) that I decided to abandon the country to its own global insignificance. I thought I would relocate, imaginatively and physically, to India, which is a place, to some degree, of cultural greatness and splendour.
But I changed my mind and became even more determined to stay with Guyana, because writers should not abandon their countries to politicians and bandits, especially when the distinction between the two groups threatens to blur.
And, in moments of despair I remembered the countless intelligent, compassionate, truly decent Guyanese whom I would meet on my various visits, people who care deeply about the future of the country, and whose shining character represented the highest values of Guyanese society. My duty as a writer is to keep company with such people, against the petty and the idiotic. And I see my role too as reminding people that they should not surrender to cynicism and self-abasement, that there are many, many examples of economic, social and cultural progress in Guyana.
Our bounty is of course the rainforest, which has to be preserved from human greed. It was truly wonderful when President Jagdeo announced a willingness to extend Desmond Hoyte’s magnificent Iwokrama initiative, I thought Jagdeo was being visionary and global as very few leaders are.
My latest novels are partly set in Guyana’s rainforest, so I am very conscious of its preciousness. Another visionary act was to name the National Archives after Walter Rodney, whose intellect and moral courage were an inspiration to me as a student, a truly great man who fell victim to the petty and idiotic behaviour of politicians.
Of course the final duty of the writer is to write beautifully, in terms of imaginative depth and complexity, which is another kind of struggle against the petty and the idiotic.
SN: What does getting this award mean to you?
DD: It means that I can have a greater regional presence, in terms of access to media, individuals etc. It will also encourage me to visit more of the islands. It offers me a degree of protection against acts of malice. And I can buy crates of red wine as well.
The money will be spent on paying off some of my mortgage, so I can have a secure home on earth; some will be spent on the poor in Guyana, a kind of bribe to get to heaven.
SN: How do you see the future of Caribbean writing?
DD: Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement of Caribbean peoples have been their production of globally applauded literature. The world respects us not because of our sugar and rum, but because of our writers, Nobel Laureates like Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul, poets of acclaim like Kamau Brathwaite; visionary novelists like Wilson Harris. These figures have inspired another generation of poets and novelists, like Pauline Melville, Olive Senior, Lakshmi Persaud, Fred D’Aguiar, who in turn have influenced succeeding talent. So the future is bright. And, given global warming, the future is green,
I am sure the writers will be at the forefront of ecological struggle. This will not be new, for Walcott is the muse of the sea, and Harris is the spirit of the rainforest, and at the heart of Aubrey Williams’ art and writing was the idea of catastrophe.
I should also add that when events and personalities fade into history and then disappear from memory, it is the writing that remains. For example, only a handful of people remember the names of Victorian politicians, but millions globally know the works of Charles Dickens.
SN: What are you working on at present?
DD: Happily, my new novel, Molly and the Muslim Stick, comes out with Macmillan next month in the UK, so I will go to Guyana, after the prize-giving ceremony in Trinidad in April, to launch the book there. I am writing now a book of short stories, which I hope to finish in 2009. Apart from that, it’s the normal teaching at the University of Warwick.