An Appreciation of Cyril Dabydeen’s Storytelling

BOOK REVIEW: My Multi-Ethnic Friends & Other Stories
April 12, 2014 Updated: April 12, 2014

Cyril Dabydeen is a writer who enhances the reader’s share of the narrative. A story that engages the whole person is what serious readers are always eager to find. Such novels and short stories are the gold standard of literature. 

Once the mood is set and the characters are in place, then the reader can riff to his heart’s content; the reader can perform like Miles Davis transported by a 20-minute set of “All Blues” or “My Funny Valentine.” And if one is not inclined to riff, then one can “listen” to Dabydeen riff. He does that very well, as you might expect from a short story writer with the soul of poet. 

By reader’s share I mean the same sort of thing that the famous art historian and theorist Ernst Gombrich meant when talking about the beholder’s share. The reader’s share describes the grappling or soul searching that the reader is encouraged to do in order to make sense of the text at hand; such deciphering effort only adds to the pleasure of reading. 

The understanding that flows from being in the grip of a good story is rewarding and pleasurable to the same degree that one grapples with it. Dabydeen makes it all the more interesting in that he writes about us while skillfully muting the artist’s touch. 

Good fiction reflects real life in its many pauses and facets, in its dialogue and character sketches. Good fiction should never be about the author’s presence. When certain authors’ signature styles are too obvious then the story risks being lost and the reader risks worshiping at the feet of an idol. 

On the other hand, we know that an author succeeds when we hardly know he is there. When an author “disappears” it is easier to get lost in the flow of the story—we can clearly imagine the setting, hear the inflections of voice, identify with the search for meaning, and be frustrated by the grappling the characters endure. The drama, the anguish, the isolation or the fulfillment that the story, as in real life, confronts us with are essential elements. These elements will not come to life if the reader is distracted by the author’s style. 

An author is successful when the story stays in the reader’s imagination after the reading is done. This is what happened to me after reading “My Multi-Ethnic Friends & Other Stories” (Guernica Editions), Dabydeen’s recent collection of short stories. The host of characters depicted in these stories stayed with me long after the last page was read and the cover closed. Echoing still is the authenticity of the clipped conversations of the beleaguered characters who struggle with dislocation, exile, and doubt. 

Regarding the lives of immigrants and the difficulties of creating new identities while still freighting remembered ones, the depictions are affecting, realistic, and insightful. The simplicity of style belies both the depth of reflection and the authenticity of voice. That these stories all ring true is, in large measure, due to the subtle and understated method that Dabydeen brings to bear on the narrative. The echoing after-life of his stories and their authentic voice set the stage for an unexpected conversation—one that enriched my reader’s share and at the same time validated Dabydeen’s excellence. 

Mavis Gallant, another great Canadian short story writer, observes in her essay, “What is Style”: “Against the sustained tick of a watch, fiction takes the measure of a life, a season, a look exchanged, the turning point, desire as brief as a dream, the grief and terror that after childhood we cease to express. The lie, the look, the grief are without permanence. The watch continues to tick where the story stops.” 

Gallant’ words are a caution for writers to not betray their true voice (that is, to not dress up the structure in order to hide a slipshod or discordant voice). The phrase, “The watch continues to tick where the story stops,” is for me an apt description of what Dabydeen consistently accomplishes in his latest collection of short stories. 

I do not know if Dabydeen has ever read Gallant’s essay, but he surely understands the writer’s craft as well as she did. 

Dabydeen also understands that fate makes pilgrims of us all, some more than others. This is the human condition—to be in exile, to be on the way towards an unknown destiny. I like this most about Dabydeen’s writing; he is a consistent and eloquent witness of the man-on-the-way, the traveller, the pilgrim. 

In this way he captures the spirit of the displaced, the dislocated, and the alien within the Canadian experience. And if we read carefully and listen to the voices he enables, we may recognize our own. There is an unexpected spirituality in his disarmingly simple stories. Surely the Caribbean plays a large role in the lived experience of Dabydeen’s characters; larger still is the human experience of being in exile. 

Dabydeen gives his stories lives of their own; he takes the measure of lives at once amorous, longing, dissonant, displaced, questioning, combative, and clearly in transit. Dislocated, perhaps even feeling alien, but not without voice. This is the gift that I most appreciate in this collection. 

The voices that Dabydeen gives his characters are not from central casting—they are real, immediate and authentic. Most of all, they are not betrayed by his own authorial voice. These characters are real, they are my fellow travellers. They continue to exist whether in the chance encounters I have with my fellow pilgrims or with friends sharing life’s moments over a beer. 

In one of his stories, “Living in Exile,” the reader is personally addressed. It is like receiving a letter from a dear friend. We read with interest, happy to see ourselves referenced, reading on to see, to imagine, from where the letter is sent and the what and why of the letter. In the last few lines of this touching story, the “narrator,” wistful and sad, reflects on what might have been with a loved fellow traveller; she has moved on, she too is living in exile, looking for home: 

“Then the images no longer come. Oh, I want to go back to listen to the open-set poets, the same poseurs, dilettantes … to seek inspiration from them, in their manner and style. I close my eyes and listen to the rhymes, more new rhythms, words, metaphors, everything “yoked.” They will ask me what I think. Oh, what do I really think? I am no longer an exile, I say. Disbelief.” 

The narrator is at a loss for words. He seems desperate for soul-stirring images, for companionship, for a fellow traveller. Aren’t we all? 

The last word of this story and of this collection is “Disbelief.” Disbelief! Disbelief? Not on your life. The irony of that word is all the more stirring given the tone and tenor of this collection. The author gives voice to our inner grapplings toward a sense of self. After all is said and done, we may recognize our better selves when we recognize the nature of our exiles and that this grappling is in itself a perfection. With this ironic “disbelief,” Dabydeen also allows his own grappling to peek through. In a sense it is the artist’s thumbprint.

Dabydeen underscores the spirituality of that theme in the epigraph he chose for “Living in Exile”: “He is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.” — Hugo of St. Victor, 12th C. Saxony monk 

Retired professor Robert Sauvé (M.A., M.Ed.) is an independent scholar and philosopher. He is currently a freelance researcher and lecturer in art-related subjects and gives presentations through the National Gallery of Canada. Email: [email protected]