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North of the Equator

by Cyril Dabydeen

Despite the 10 volumes of poetry, three novels, and six books of short fiction that Ottawa author Cyril Dabydeen has to his name, the prolific writer and former poet laureate of Ottawa still remains largely unknown in much of Canada. Born in Guyana, Dabydeen came to Canada in 1970, and since then much of his writing has poignantly addressed the immigrant experience.

North of the Equator, his latest collection of short fiction, can loosely be divided into “island stories” and “Canadian stories,” though many traverse the borders. Dabydeen presents a myriad of lives that range from a young island boy’s obsession with Oliver Twist to an adult immigrant’s dreams of a Canadian cricket league.

The island stories are far more effective. The simple linear narrative of “Bernia” follows a boy’s relationship with a caged
jaguar as he gradually makes up his mind to free the animal against the community’s will. The complexity in the boy’s passionate, even romantic, love for the cat is nicely balanced by Dabydeen’s direct, unadorned prose.

The title story finds Ravi, an immigrant to Canada from the Caribbean, conversing with a woman in an Ottawa sauna. The woman dreams of going south and inundates Ravi with questions that prompt him to ruminate on his past and present life. While the setting is a striking one – the sauna contrasts perfectly with the raging snowstorm outside – most of the story is more concerned with addressing abstract issues of hybridity and otherness than with telling a rich and layered story.

“Faster They Come,” another of the Canadian stories, suffers from a similar lack of internal cohesion. While the main character, Ron, indulges in a humorous fixation on cricket, the story is distracted by repetitive asides from various characters concerning Ron’s level of Canadian-ness. The result is a series of politically charged conversations that seem oddly out of place given Ron’s semi-conscious state, leaving the reader wishing that Dabydeen had not felt the need to hammer home his themes.