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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 418-425
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"Building Bridges Back to the Past"
An Interview with Fred D'Aguiar
This interview was conducted after Fred D'Aguiar traveled to Ghana (West Africa) where he had been invited by the British Council to lecture at Ghana University--where I was working on a research project on women's slave narratives--and to participate at the conference "The Writer and the Slave Trade," held at Cape Coast University (26-30 November 1997). After a visit to Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle--which hurt too much--we could not but talk about D'Aguiar's The Longest Memory (1994), and Feeding the Ghosts (1997), two powerful and poetical works in which the author both revisits, and rewrites previous stories on a monstrous and barbaric episode: African-American slavery.
FRÍAS: You are widely known as a poet, but you have recently started to write fiction--very poetical fiction, I should say--and you have chosen to give voice to the subaltern and the underprivileged: black slave men, and black slave women. Why? Could you possibly elaborate a bit on your choice?
D'AGUIAR: I've been interested in history, specifically black history, since my first book of poems, Mama Dot, about my grandmother in Guyana who is of African descent. My interest in ancestry beyond those who are alive is really my attempt to fill in the gaps of an eradicated past and to understand history through personality, through people and their experiences rather than by a rehearsal of dates and events. A society is best understood by a study of its treatment of the poor and powerless in it. The seeds for regeneration in society frequently come from the bottom, from the least empowered people as a result of their agitation, hunger and invention, and travels upwards, whereas the decay in that society, a society's decadence, its early signs of death, works its way from the top to the bottom. History is replete with examples of this, the era of slavery in particular. There is an even more personal side to this too. My experience as a black person in a white-majority system predisposed me towards an interest in race since my skin carried this high negative premium whose history I was keen to find out about.
FRÍAS: As with Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose and Toni Morrison's Beloved, is it your intention to re-write, to provocatively re-visit the traditional discourse of slave narratives? I am thinking about the language and the themes. I am thinking of Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, etc. [End Page 418]
D'AGUIAR: Part of my answer is furnished by Ernest Gaines. In his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Mary asks: "What's wrong with them books you already got?" and the protagonist answers, "Miss Jane's not in them." In other words, the record of history in books sharply contrasts with the unrecorded memory of Miss Jane as it does for old Whitechapel in The Longest Memory. Yes, every previous fiction and slave narrative adds to my understanding of black history and my place in that history. And every previous text opens new seams of possibility for exploration. Stories beget stories. The more stories there are the more stories there has to be. Remember we are talking about slavery, a 400-year old institution. How many books are enough? These previous texts gave me permission to write my own.
FRÍAS: In the traditional slave narratives we have mentioned before, reading and writing stood (using Henry Louis Gates' words) "as a complex certificate of humanity" (in Race and Writing). In The Longest Memory, your slave male protagonist worships words and the power of the written word but, overall--because of the way you picture him--he does not need any kind of certificate to verify his humanity. Were you, again, consciously challenging derogatory stereotypes?
D'AGUIAR: Literacy among slaves is illegal on the plantations at this time. Therefore, its ascription to...