When home is an unwelcoming place: Irony in Fred D’Aguiar’s poetry

Home

These days when I’m away too long,
anything I happen to clap eyes on,
that red phone box, somehow makes me
miss here like nothing I can name.
my heart performs its jazz drum solo
when the bared crow’s feet on the 747
scrape down at Heathrow. H.M. Customs . . .

I’m resigned to the usual inquisition,
telling me with Surrey loam caked
on the tongue, home is always elsewhere.
I take it like an English middleweight
with a questionable chin, knowing
my passport photo’s too open-faced,
haircut wrong (an afro) for the decade;
the stamp, British Citizen not bold enough
for my liking and too much for theirs.
The cockney cab driver begins chirpily
but can’t or won’t steer clear of race,
so rounds on Asians. I lock eyes with him
in the rearview when I say I’m one.
He settles to his task, grudgingly,
in a huffed silence. Cha! Drive man!
I have legal tender burning in my pocket
to move on, like a cross in Transylvania.
At my front door, why doesn’t the lock
recognize me and budge? As I fight it,
I think intruder then see with the clarity
of a torture victim the exact detail;
in my case that extra twist necessary,
falling forward over the threshold
then mail or junk felicitations,
into a cool reception in the hall.
Grey light and close skies I love you.
Choky streets, roundabouts and street lamps
with tires round them, I love you.
Police officer, your boots need re-heeling.
Robin Redbreast; special request: burst
with calypso, bring the Michelin-rung worm
winding, carnival-style to the surface.
We must all sing for our supper or else.

Fred D’Aguiar

Fred D’Aguiar

At first glance, this is a regular poem about returning home after a period of absence overseas. The persona is British, the setting London and he narrates the normal routines and observations as he touches down, goes through the airport, travels home by taxi and goes inside. The poem is called “Home” and the persona even indulges in a bit of nostalgia and says he misses “home”.

Going through the narrative, he describes everyday things that he sees and encounters as he makes a journey he has repeated several times. He therefore comes to expect these things, which are part of a routine. It seems they are a part of him or he has become attached to them, to the point where he says he misses them, misses this place that he calls home.

But never trust a poem at first glance. A good, well-crafted poem hardly ever ends with what you see on the surface and can give you a false sense of comfort. Nothing is going to be normal and routine, since poetry tends to eschew the ordinary, the hackneyed and the everyday, working more out of what is startling, new, fresh or even contrary.

The first little red flags against normality, acceptance and comfortableness begin to flutter when it becomes clear that the persona is black. He is not white. He is a minority living in Britain, a white society. (He tells the taxi driver he is Asian, but we don’t believe him, with good reason.) He is not white, though, and clearly, although he is a “British citizen”, all is not well with his belonging to the society that is his home, that he is returning to and that he says he misses. Despite his citizenship, he is treated like an “other”, and belonging becomes an issue.

What “normally” follows in such a poem about home and missing the routine factors of going through immigration, seeing the ordinary things that are a part of the environment at home, is irony. Note some of the other ‘red flags’, like the taxi driver and race, but more interestingly, the way even the inanimate objects seem to reject him. The lock on his door does not want to let him in, does not recognise him as one coming home, just like the “Her Majesty’s Customs” at Heathrow Airport and the suggested near annoyance at the fact that he is a citizen. There are many ironies.

One cannot help but note how, although returning to the place where he lives and to which he belongs, despite his calm reservation and “normal” ease, he betrays anxieties. He expects to be harassed, he seems accustomed to not being accorded hassle-free arrival and passage through the airport. His hairstyle is wrong (“afro”); he

wishes that the “British citizen” stamp in the passport was more prominent, so that he would not be hassled.

The poem can speak for itself, but much more may be revealed when we discover who the poet is. The ironies multiply. Fred D’Aguiar is a British and a Guyanese poet and novelist. He is often called British, but he is a major part of Guyanese literature. He is also a film documentalist, having worked for the BBC. One of his documentaries is about Jonestown.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. On November 18, 1978, the People’s Temple, led by megalomaniac self-styled messiah and cult leader Jim Jones self-destructed. Fearing imminent exposure of his slave-camp cult in the jungle of Guyana’s North West District, Jones and his aides triggered a plan which resulted in the murder and suicide of some 900 followers. The vast majority of these were murdered, while some including the most loyal, committed suicide.

D’Aguiar investigated this for the BBC documentary. But he is best known as a novelist of several successful and prize-winning works. He has contributed to Guyanese literature through works based on African slavery, in addition to both poetry and fiction rooted in the 10 years he spent as a boy growing up in Airy Hall in Guyana. Some of these works, about the Burnham era, with a good deal of satire, humour and the tragic consequences of the race riots of the 1960s, belong to the Guyanese literature.

D’Aguiar is a part of the growing post-colonial literature of the past 30 years. This poem “Home” may be included in that corpus. Here is a poet launching an attack on prejudice in British society. It is a poem in which he also lays claim to his Caribbeanness, where he does express a certain degree of belonging. He claims his right to be British, while in the ironic way in the poem is critical of the “othering” and minority persecution.

Such a poem is topical at a time when the anniversary of the Windrush is still fresh in the UK. The ship called HMT Empire Windrush brought that very significant group of black West Indian immigrants to the UK. It brought 1,029 passengers from the West Indies in 1948. This was an extremely important beginning for post-war migration and the building of the society of black immigrants in the UK.

It is also a stark reminder of the scandalous “error” regarding deportation and denial of rights of several British citizens who belong to or were descended from the Windrush generation. This was only the latest episode of an ongoing history of struggle experienced by blacks in Britain. D’Aguiar’s “Home” questions that word from the point of view of a British citizen.

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