I waded into these short stories with no inkling of what shoreline I was leaving, what stones were underfoot, what spirits were alive in the water. It took me some time to get used to the questions lapping at my ankles in the mysterious shallow waters of the first stories. Why were Cyril Dabydeen’s narrators all making assertions and then calling them into question in such an annoyingly Canadian way? C’mon, man, I just want to be drawn in way over my head!
But Dabydeen follows the pull of his own currents, reflecting the careful insights of the outsider and the multi-layered consciousness that comes from co-habiting many worlds. His narrators bear none of the arrogance of the conqueror, the cocky squint of the predator, the guile of the charmer. They pick their way along the shifting faultlines wracking those of us who wonder where (if anywhere) is our place. And they carry a myriad of places within them, some from a distant past, some dreamed, some from childhood, some imagined. There are ancestral and shamanic forces at play, and it is no coincidence, I think, that the rare moments of connection and bonding take place in the wilderness near Thunder Bay and involve Native characters whose ties to their own ancestral land are still, in some essential way, intact.
This collection of fifteen short stories covers a lot of ground. Guyana-born Dabydeen is an author steeped in ancient and modern history and in the legends and spiritual experiences of the world’s peoples. In his stories, “continents inexorably (are) coming closer”. Africa and Asia, as two of his characters put it, are “places we keep close to us”. But Europe and the Middle East are never far, either. The often obscured course of slavery subtly weaves into this book’s consciousness, as does the onslaught against aboriginal peoples on every continent, stretching far back in time. Parallels are drawn with Beowulf: “Long ago there was a great sadness on the earth.” The death of a young Ojibwa artist who hanged himself in an Ottawa jail is at the heart of one of the most poignant stories in the collection.
There is a kaleidoscopic quality to these short stories, a shifting and colliding of the bits of coloured glass held up to the light. Much to share that is not necessarily easy to render in a short story format. Dabydeen sifts through centuries of racism and eases us effortlessly into post-9-11 Canada. And he does so without rancour, through ironic questions, as when philosophical reflections on love (agape, eros) end in a pointed challenge: “Love of refugees everywhere, maybe?”
Dabydeen recognizes the pioneering spirit of those grappling with a sense of place (and placelessness)* – no victimhood here, but questing and “sensitive souls, as we turn out to be”. Holding their cards close to their chests, perhaps, retreating to the attic or to the wilds when necessary, yet nonetheless pushing for a breakthrough into some unknown freer territory.
Like one of his characters from a tropical island, I too have “a cold north deep in my veins”. Wading into these Visnuvian currents and stumbling at first on the unfamiliar ground, I nonetheless ended up way over my head – just not in the way I expected. I look forward to wherever Dabydeen will take us next.
*concept of place versus placelessness (and the karma of place vs. placelessness) developed by the late Michael Morais