Interview With Dr. Kwame Dawes, Poet, Scholar, Novelist

Kwame Dawes

Dr. Kwame Senu Neville Dawes is the Distinguished Poet in Residence, former Louis Frye Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts (University of South Carolina). He is now Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor-in-chief at Prairie Schooner magazine. He was born in Ghana but grew up in Jamaica where he attended Jamaica College and U.W.I. (Mona Campus). He also studied abroad on a Commonwealth Scholarship to Canada. He’s the author of thirteen books of poetry, several books of fiction and non-fiction and numerous plays. His essays have appeared in many journals and his book ‘Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius’ remains the authoritative study of the lyrics of Bob Marley.

You are termed ‘the busiest man in literature today’… Poet, Scholar, Novelist, Musician, Critic, Husband, Father. There are 24 hours in my day. How many in yours?

I think people often underestimate just how much they can get done in a day. It is understandable that we do, as it is important to allow time to relax, to take things easy and to replenish strength. But I think there is more time than we think and I make use of all the time I have. I am constantly thinking, creating in my head, considering things, and wherever I can I write. I am also a fast drafter and so that is a gift I appreciate. To be honest, I don’t really feel like a busy person most of the time. Most of my time is spent with my family, and I am fully committed to the family. I am very clear about that, Everything else has to be worked out around that simple fact.

Must be the South Carolina water! There is so much to discuss, but lets 1st talk about your new novel ‘She’s Gone’. Tell us about the moment when you said to yourself – ‘you know what, I must write this book.’

I decided to write the novel as a challenge to myself. I wanted to see if I could pull off a romance novel. It began with that basic premise in mind and soon I was running along with it, enjoying the characters and finding myself writing a romantic novel in the way that only I could write it – where romance is not cliche, but a complex of human emotion.

You’re not kidding about romance being a complex of human emotion. The book is about love, and all its machinations, between a lead vocalist for a reggae band and a ‘country ting’ from South Carolina. Love is difficult enough, but you also crossed cultures. How much research went into that aspect or was this mostly drawn from personal knowledge and experiences?

I will go back to something I said before to answer this question. I am constantly doing research as a writer. I ask people questions, try to find out how they are living, try to find out about the way they think and I collect these things. I don’t do all of this consciously or with the idea that I am actually going to use the answers to write a novel or poems. But I am collecting, not only in what I hear but in what I see and what I feel. They will emerge in my work, in different forms, usually, but with a sense of the details. I do some more conventional research in my writing – reading historical texts, reading texts on music and culture and that kind of thing. ‘She’s Gone’, though, grows out of what I know about the places I have been to. Whenever I am in doubt, I ask questions or do some quick checking on details like the geography of a place or the kinds of things that people do. The characters are all fictional creations, but I suspect that there are a complex mixing of many ideas that I have about people I know. I don’t try to create characters based on people I know, but I do borrow.

The book was an easy read for me, but I was not sure if it was because I am Jamaican. Your flowing prose certainly brought me back to a place, time & smell! How has the feedback been from others?

The book has sold well. It has sold out its first run already and the publishers are working on a new printing. The folks in SC have been very positive about it – the readers, that is. They talk about how accurately it captures their world. The feedback has been very positive. A few people complained that they just wanted something soft and sweet for the work, but had to contend with the tough issues that the book explores. I am glad that the book challenges that way. But I have been pleased with the response.

Great! Speaking of tough issues and this is clearly cultural, I was struck by the 1st love scene between the two lead characters reggae vocalist Kofi & Keisha. As a musician yourself, you well know that the dancehall reggae vibe ‘throw fire’ on certain forms of sex. Yet your scene was explicit and sensual. As an author raised in the Jamaican culture, did you have any trepidation or thoughts of self censorship?

No. None at all! At least not for that reason, anyway. I edit my work, think carefully about what I write and I try to make sure that the actions of the characters are consistent with the personalities I create for them. That a man who is a reggae singer from a relatively well-off Jamaican background would have sex the way that Kofi does makes complete sense and that is my only obligation in the work—to make sense and to make my characters believable. Incidentally, I have no complaints from any women, Jamaican or otherwise, about the scenes depicted..

When can we expect ‘She’s Gone’ to be featured in Oprah’s Book Club?

That is a question for Oprah. Actually, I don’t anticipate that happening, nor is it an aspiration of mine. Oprah’s club sells books and that is a good thing. But I am a poet, not a novelist. I write novels. When I have written as many novels as I have books of poems, I will then start to call myself a novelist and then, maybe I will have an appearance on the Oprah show as a priority. But I am joking about the novelist thing I will always be a poet.

Your novel touched on some aspects of a cultural divide. i.e. Caribbean Black Vs. American Black. Is this cultural divide real or is it only in the imagination of self interest groups drumming up noise?

It is real. The fact is that one of the tragedies of the African Diasporal experience has been the way in which people of African heritage have been separated from each other in thought and experience. The slave trade was designed to perpetuate that divide as it ensured that the African people wherever they were enslaved, would somehow never find the kind of solidarity of experience and vision to resist the system of slavery. Well, in many instances this did not work, but in some larger ways, it did. The result in the long term was to make these islands of black people around the world, and the natural inclination towards ignorance that afflicts humans in general, did not help matters. So it is not automatic that Caribbean people will find solidarity with African Americans.

And when white culture is intent on dividing the people of African descent to suit its own needs, this problem becomes even more acute. But this divide can be healed. Just think of the way in which African Americans have influenced Caribbean people. Think of all the great musicians that helped to give shape to our own reggae music – musicians singing about the African American experience. Think about Martin Luther King Jr., think about Malcolm X. And in the other direction, think of the ways in which folks like Stokely Carmichael (AKA Kwame Toure), Claude McKay, Marcus Garvey, and so many more have come to shape and define a positive relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

In my own experience, I have found that we can overcome these biases and prejudices within the race by communicating, by learning each other’s history, and by finding points at which our common narratives intersect. Kofi and Keisha struggle with their differences. But they will find some point of affinity. It is at once human, and it is also a demonstration that the worlds they come from are inextricably connected by the history of oppression, resistance and survival.

So are you saying that Africans/Blacks have in some respects gone thru some kind of Darwinian/Galapagos experience of cultural evolution? If we are cut-off from each other we become naturally different from a cultural perspective, but our common humanity should overcome the differences?

No, I am saying that slavery was designed to divide Africans. It was designed to separate Africans from plantation to plantation, from island to island, from country to country. How much do we know about Africans in Brazil? How much do we know about Africans in Cuba or Honduras or Costa Rica or Bolivia? Slavery was designed to create a rift. Yes, humanity does bring us together, but I am saying more than that. The realization that there is a shared history has constantly brought us together. I was moved by the image and words of Angela Davis when I was a teen in Jamaica. I was touched by the series Roots, in the 1970s and I saw that story as my story as well. And it was. Reggae music has constantly reminded us of this connection. Peter Tosh singing, “African” or Bob Marley singing “Africa Unite”. These are all narratives of the connectedness that we have. But ignorance can jeopardize that connection. It is ignorance that causes the rifts that we see in ‘She’s Gone.’

We’ll get to Bob in a second, but to stay on the Africa theme, you’ve written critical essays on Caribbean and African Literature. To do so you must have a strong command of the respective cultures and sub-cultures. My sense is that many western cultures think of Africa as a monolith. That all its peoples think and may be even look the same. What striking differences can you enlighten us about, regarding the different African cultures you’ve experienced?

This would take forever. The truth is that I think that all people have to do is Google five different nations of Africa and read a basic entry on each of them. They will know how distinctive these different cultures are. But the idea of a united Africa is a geo-political project which is an important one simply because when a culture has shared in a system of oppression and exploitation, and further, when it has shared in the internal horrors that its traumatized self has foisted on its own self as a result of the terrible problems of colonialism, all of these are elements that make the need for a shared process out of this morass necessary, and a good thing. No one would begrudge Europe from uniting, despite the fact that European nations are so distinct. In the end, our capacity to understand the idea of Europe should inform our capacity to understand the idea of Africa. People choose not to – for their own reasons. I can’t change that.

Not to get too political, but recently Libyan leader Khaddafi made American newspapers by promoting the concept of a ‘United States of Africa.’ So to the point, you would be in favor of such a political set up – for at least the sub-Saharan African countries?

Before Khaddafi, Kwame Nkrumah had long proposed this, and with him folks like Haile Selassie held to the value of such a concept. Nothing new here. It is called Pan Africanism, and it makes its own sense. There is an organization of African States and increasingly, collaboration between African states is seen as desirable and a good thing. So yes, I think this makes sense. Khaddafi is simply saying something that many others have said and that many others have been working towards.

One more thing on this topic – Are you optimistic we could see this to fruition in our lifetimes?

I am optimistic, but I don’t know. It will begin with an economic construction and that is not so far away. I don’t envisage a situation like the US, of course. I am speaking of a model more akin to the European Union and its strong economic, cultural and industrial collaborations. I think that things are already moving in that direction. But to have an advanced economic system of unity, the individual nations have to stop failing as economies and that is a long term project, frankly. So the future will entail a long march. I am not convinced that the US or Europe or China want that for Africa. And there in lies the rub.

Lets talk Bob. Your book ‘Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius’ established you as one of the most respected authorities on all things Bob. You may know more about Bob than Queen Rita! Was there a defining incident or moment in Bob’s life that characterized the general path his lyrics took? In other words, what made Bob, Bob?

Not even my book attempts to answer that question. I am interested in Bob the person, but mostly in the artist that emerged and the art that has come from that person. In the same way that you can’t find a defining moment in your life that would help us understand you, I don’t think such a thing exists for Bob. And why should it? Bob was shaped by the same things that shape all of us – who his father was, who his mother was, who his community of family and friends were, where he was born, where he was raised, who he encountered in his living, and what historical moment was unfolding around him. We are all shaped by those things. Truth be told, Bob’s music did not necessarily tell us all we wanted to know about him. Art is limited in that sense. He was a complex man.

Among the two thousand other things, as we mentioned you are also a musician. Do you see any contemporary artists out there who approach Bob’s lyrical abilities? (We know the charisma will remain unmatched).

This is hard. I think the answer has to be no. The reason is basic. I think a songwriter and artist like Bob Marley comes once in a hundred years or so, and we should not expect more than that. Having said that, I should add that I really have admired the work of artists like Joseph Hill, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, Beres Hammond – these are all amazingly gifted songwriters and they have produced a complex body of work. Now it won’t match Bob Marley’s work for importance and for the range, but their work is very important. Ironically, Damien Marley is probably the closest in spirit and potential to producing work that we might pay attention to for a long time. I say ironically, because I never wanted to see a young Marley put in that position. But I think he is a unique talent.

Richey Stevens is a smart singer/songwriter as well. And the dance hall artists like Bounty Killer are strong lyricists and many have done things that Bob never quite achieved. Still, I don’t like these comparisons. They assume that successors are possible. I don’t think that they are. I think that we will always look for new artists to do new and distinctive work and that is the important thing.

The motto to your website has the phrase “all memory is fiction.” Please explain what this means.

I have always been fascinated by the function of memory. This makes sense, I suppose, because I am a writer and I have found great pleasure and richness in the way that I manage or exploit memory. Often, members of my family will read some work of mine and be startled by how much I seem to remember – the details, the sense of place and that kind of thing. But I don’t regard myself as someone who has a strong memory. I do know that when I come to write, I find that I am able to draw on memories that are not even consciously at the fore of my mind. I have concluded that much of my life is spent collecting information and somehow storing it in a place in my brain that allows me to find literary use for these thoughts and memories in my writing. This, of course, does not explain the phrase, though. The phrase is best understood if one understands what I mean by fiction. I do not mean fiction writing, nor do I mean falsehood as in untrue – although at some level it is true that memory is not reliable in the retrieval of facts. Here fiction is the way in which we construct experience (or reconstruct experience) through narrative. The truth is that when we think we have remembered, we are actually not remembering as things were, but as we have reconstructed what we can make of what things were. The reason is that actual experience is quite dull and does not have meaning in and of itself. The act of remembering is the act of seeking to give meaning to that memory. We do that by giving dimension to experience – beginnings, middles, ends, etc. And it is in this sense that memory is fiction. Yet I am not attempting to lament the unreliability of memory, but to celebrate the possibilities inherent in memory, in the act of turning it into narrative. So as a poet, I am actually describing the way memory works as a kind of fiction. There is yet another dimension to this motto. It’s that all memory is fodder for art. I.e. it is available for art and for the artist’s use and that is important to keep in mind.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I have just completed a very intense set of visits to Jamaica to research HIV/AIDS on the island. It has involved interviewing many, many people and writing several major articles on the subject, writing a suite of poems on the subject and working with a documentary crew to develop a series of short documentaries on the subject. The work is now being set to music in preparation for a major production. This work has consumed my time and energy in meaningful ways. I am also working on a new novel which is almost done. I am actually cleaning things up now. I am working on a quite massive multi book poetry project that is exciting to me. We will see how it goes. I continue to promote and facilitate the work of other artists through two large organizations that I run – the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and the University of South Carolina’s Arts Institute. I am working on two non-fiction books on reggae, as well. I can’t give too many details, but these are shaping up well. It is normal for me to juggle many things at the same time. In general, people can check my website at to track the progress of these projects.

I am grateful for your time. Any final words for visitors to the website?

I just want to encourage people to continue to support the arts in Jamaica. We still do not have a culture in which wealthy and successful people become active benefactors for the arts by setting up major arts foundations in the style of the Rockefellers, Ruth Lillys or Guggenheims in America. I think that if such gestures were made, the arts in Jamaica could bloom beautifully. So my hope is to encourage people to seriously look at how they can enhance the experience of people in Jamaica through their support of the arts, through the serious patronage of the arts. Then we can have such amazing events in Jamaica like the Calabash International Literary Festival that happens every May in Treasure Beach in Jamaica. I have been programming this festival since Colin Channer, Justine Henzel and myself started it eight years ago. We continue to struggle to find funding to make this free event – that hosts some four thousand people – happen in Jamaica every year.

(Updated 2019 – He is now Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor-in-chief at Prairie Schooner magazine)

About the author