A licence to tell stories 


Kwame Dawes tells George Ttoouli about international identities, reggae and a new production


Kwame Dawes's latest collection, Impossible Flying, opens with 'Apology', a poem about mistaken identity and childhood trauma. It is addressed to the person for whom the narrator is mistaken:


when I said your mind had unhinged
that your life paused that day and for seven years,
everything stopped, when I told him of my guilt
for not believing that someone did this to you;
he never wrote again.


The tone is accusatory and bitter, but also carries a hint of solidarity – the narrator apologises for not believing the unnamed boy, who, during our interview Dawes reveals to be his brother. "My brother suffered from what can be now understood to have been post-traumatic stress, which emerged from an experience that he had, aged fourteen, in Jamaica," he tells me.

The poem is shocking and makes for an uncomfortable read. Many of the other poems here play with alternative relationships between fathers, sons and brothers; doppelgangers and alternative selves and identities also play through the collection.


I ask him if it was a difficult poem, and collection, to write. Dawes explains that he had to "wrestle with the question of whose story it is and what right you have to tell the story." He sought permission from his family before publication – much to his publisher's chagrin – sending them the manuscript with clear instructions that if they disapproved then the book would not be published. Some of the poems were removed, others reworked, but he has no qualms about it because "that relationship with family – and this appals so many writers – is far more important than a damned book."


Clearly, Dawes has great respect for his family. Listening to him talk about his childhood, I get the feeling that he has been shaped more by his family than by the places he has lived in. And he has lived in a lot of places. He was born in Ghana in 1962, to a Jamaican father and Ghanaian mother, during a time of great political change. Ghanaian independence, under its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was just learning to walk. On the particular day Dawes was born, there was a failed assassination attempt on Nkrumah's life, lending romantic auspices to his birth and upbringing.


Despite the political instability, he remembers his early years fondly. His father used to regale him with stories about life in Jamaica. Jamaica became a "place of wonder and beauty, the home that we'd never visited." But these stories also had the effect of instilling in him the idea that he was always going somewhere else, always on the move.


When he was eight the family headed for Jamaica, stopping off in London for a year and a half on the way. London became a place of stories: Dawes relates anecdotes of Barbadian lodgers and Haitian landlords. He describes his mother then as a hero, holding the family together in the face of poverty and immigrant hardship.


He spent his adolescence in Jamaica before leaving for Canada. "On leaving a place, it became part of that imaginative construct of home," he explains. "When we got to Jamaica, Ghana became home. And once I left Jamaica it was impossible not to think of Jamaica as home. One learns the art of making the place one enters a home, to put roots down."


In an extract from his forthcoming memoir, A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock (in Granta no. 92, Winter 2005), Dawes wrote of having an "absence of home". I ask him if all this moving around left him feeling detached from place, but he is quick to state that his sense of home is not angst-ridden: "It was at once an absence and yet a preponderance of home, knowledge of absence and presence," he says. "Being able to be tied to a place and apart from a place can give a writer an interesting perspective."


He's lived with his wife and children in South Carolina since 1992 and has no qualms about calling it home these days. His latest project to come to the UK is a musical collaboration tackling identities in South Carolina: Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country. The sequence came out of a series of interviews he conducted in 1995, mostly with women who had been alive during the 'Jim Crow' racial segregation laws. Once he started to read about the region he realised that segregation was much more recent history than he had thought. "I needed to understand what happened to these people emotionally and psychically," he explains. "I needed to understand it to become a part of the African-American community in South Carolina."


Unlike with Impossible Flying, the women whose personal histories spilled into Twilight Songs gave permission for the work before Dawes had even started writing – they wanted their stories told. But did he struggle to capture the identities of people who had different experiences, ancestries and gender to him? Dawes responds: "My engagement with African-American history and experience is as old as I am – I grew up very aware of what was happening in the African Diaspora. So the stories of the women were familiar, not unlike the stories that would come out in Jamaica, which also has a history of slavery."


The poems were scored and cast by Kevin Simmonds, a PhD student at South Carolina and the show is coming to the Manchester Literature Festival and the Royal Festival Hall in October. Dawes is no stranger to musical collaboration, having worked with jazz musician John Carpenter on an earlier collection, Requiem. He was also in a reggae band in Canada. "One of things at the core of my work is the idea of reggae", he says. "Reggae is at the point of the evolution of Diaspora, with its own cosmology, ethos and aesthetic. It is no longer dependent on the elements that made it."


I asked him what he thinks about the metaphors of older poets and writers, like Walcott's hybrid flower, cross-pollinating over centuries into a beautiful, multicoloured bloom; or Stuart Hall's food metaphor of the stew with its blend of ingredients. Dawes sees them as "interesting hopes for the future. The realisation of these metaphors is reggae. Because of that I feel less broken by this idea of exile or Diaspora, which someone who was born in colonialism wrestles with."

Dawes refers to this as "a kind of postmodern, or post-postmodern, sensibility because it's not as rooted in nationalism in the old sense of it, but in the more cosmic sense of identity, presence and place and in a funny way it allows so many of us to connect with it and leap from it. It's a larger aesthetic than its roots."


His strong sense of family, his ability to tune into, adapt to and integrate into various societies, no matter the cultural difference, or historical traditions is a sign of someone who has won the struggle for an independent identity and has become more than the sum of his parts. Nationality becomes irrelevant in the face of this, particularly when, Dawes points out, Jamaican and Ghanaian culture, through music, food and so on, is never far away.


Reggae – his "foundational aesthetic" – engages easily with other traditions. Talking about Lee Scratch Perry, as a musical influence, Dawes explains, "what can go into that pot is so varied, you can do funk, jazz, etcetera." Similarly, he has that ability to engage with different identities, traditions and cultures in his poetry, as a licensed experimenter, rather than a trespasser. He has to feel that what he is doing is appropriate before he can step into territories like that of the Twilight Stories, but once given permission to write, his poetry launches into explorations beyond his own experiences. His writing freely blurs boundaries between music and poetry, poetry and song, as well as geographical and social borders.


Dawes's poetry has been compared to Derek Walcott's, for its rich imagery and use of form, but this is an easy comparison to make; the differences in content are more important. Walcott's poems lay foundations for new cultures and identities emerging from colonialism, but Dawes's poetry is the expression of a new postcolonial identity, taking that tradition and forging it into an international aesthetic of his own.


Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country is at the Manchester Literature Festival, 22 October (0161 236 5725) and at Poetry International at the Royal Festival Hall, 24 October (08703 800 400). Impossible Flying and A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock are published by Peepal Tree in October.