Posted on April 28, 2009 by Dr. Kerstin Schmidt, University of Munich
In a recent contribution to Canadian Literature, M.G. Vassanji asked the question that many writers of ethnic origin are concerned about: “Am I a Canadian Writer?” And, true, one could ask whether novelists such as M.G. Vassanji can be labeled Canadian writers, given their multinational and multicultural biographies. In most cases, the story of their lives has been a rather adventurous journey around the globe. Likewise, their fictional characters travel relentlessly; they are far away from home and constantly in foreign countries, while none of the places “abroad” ever turns into a real new home. Vassanji, for example, was born to a Gujarati family, but grew up in Kenya and Tanzania. Before he emigrated to Canada in 1978, he spent many years in the U.S. studying physics at Cambridge’s renowned MIT and at the University of Pennsylvania. During his employment as a scientist at the University of Toronto, he discovered his literary inclinations that were then still focused on India’s Middle Ages and only later diversified into the literature and culture of the whole Indian subcontinent. Among others, his literary interest led to the founding of theToronto South Asian Review, later renamed The Toronto Review of South Asian Writing Abroad. The renaming is crucial because it is precisely the experience “abroad” – “elsewhere” in foreign lands – that has become a fundamental concern of diasporic literatures. How can one, far from home and dispersed into different countries of the Western hemisphere, develop a feeling of home and a sense of belonging? A series of hindrances usually blocks the road “home.” Language is one of the crucial barriers that the newcomer has to deal with, but even after many years of living in a new culture, a tiny remaining accent may readily give away one’s origin. Skin color is, unfortunately, still a decisive factor. But many other social, political, cultural, or economic aspects play an important role for the condition of life that terms such as diaspora, exile, immigration, ethnicity, or hybridity try to capture.
Ethnic writers living in Canada thus find themselves faced with the nagging question whether they really are Canadian authors. True, this is a matter of mere categorization; and one may be tempted to discard the issue quickly, declaring perhaps somewhat pithily: All writers carrying Canadian passports are Canadian writers – and that’s that! But one cannot get away from the debate so lightly; it requires a more qualified argument, a “but”, in face of the long and, more often than not, sad story of diaspora, home, and exile in which racism and discrimination figure so prominently.
Before getting back to Vassanji and his deliberation on Canadianness and the diasporic sense of belonging, let me consider two other writers of Indian origin who live and write in North America. In many novels, short stories, and essays, Rohinton Mistry and Bharati Mukherjee have also responded to the question of diaspora. In their writing, both Mistry and Mukherjee have navigated the unruly terrain of diaspora. They have created a variety of fictional characters that deal with home and exile and experience its many manifestations of racism, while never losing their acute writer’s sense for the nuances of diasporic lives and managing to avoid the pitfalls of too glib allegations.
Rohinton Mistry was born in Mumbai, India, but he has lived in Toronto since the 1970s. His prize-winning novels and collections of short stories such as Family Matters, A Fine Balance, and Tales from Firozsha Baag have been highly successful both in Canada and on an international scale. Mistry’s reception of the renowned Governor General’s Award for Such a Long Journey in 1991 was a trailblazing success. With regard to the rapidly growing number of South Asians living in Canada, it was an outstanding signal that a writer of Indian origin was awarded this prestigious prize. But perhaps more importantly, the prize was given for a novel that does not even take place in Canada.Such a Long Journey is set almost entirely in “Khodadad Building”, a huge apartment complex in Bombay. But as the title announces, the novel is about a very “long journey,” even if this journey does not take place in a strictly geographical sense. “Khodadad Building” is a microcosm in which common people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds live together more or less peacefully until macro-political events (the war and the independence of Bangladesh) thoroughly upset community life. The novel then is about the long journey towards a renewed peaceful and cooperative life of the motley crowd.
In the short story “Lend Me Your Light,” Mistry has substituted “Khodadad Building” for Toronto’s famous “Gerrard Street,” another microcosm and the center of South Asian life in the Canadian metropolis. The story’s protagonist, Kersi, is also on a journey, having embarked upon a trip from India to Canada. In the ‘promised land’, he experiences how he himself and his fellow travelers respond to the diasporic condition of life that determines their feelings towards home and their attitude towards the new country. Once in Toronto, Kersi makes friends with members of the expatriate community. The expatriates prefer the company of “their own” (whatever that means in this situation) and typically welcome newcomers immediately, inviting them to their meetings and integrating them instantly into the ex-pat network. Kersi, however, finds their behavior rather peculiar, if not alienating. At their parties, they regularly go into raptures about India, their country of origin, talking fondly about Indian dishes (that they claim to miss sorely) or about Indian movies. But, in fact, only very few of them actually go to “Gerrard Street” and enjoy home-made bhelpuri,panipuri, batata-wada or kulfi. They apparently prefer to reminisce about things Indian, but actual visits to India are scarce and become even less frequent over time. And upon return from one of their trips, stories of angry and horrid experiences abound: One is appalled by India, complains about how dirty the place had become, how corrupt, poor, even repulsive. For Kersi, their behavior not seldom invokes notions of full-fledged cultural imperialism or colonialism – at least of the stereotypical rich uncle from the West, who, coming “home,” looks down condescendingly on Indian reality.
What remains of “home” is mostly a melancholic feeling that seems to thrive abroad more than it does in “real” India. The imagination of a place called home becomes a self-generative process, severed from India as an actual country. India is frequently reduced to mere scenery, background motifs in front of which the desire for home can be staged. The journey’s destination, it seems, can neither be Canada, nor is it India.
Canada is generally regarded as a liberal country in terms of immigration, especially in comparison to its neighbor to the South. But the standard Canadian model of immigration, the mosaic, should be taken with a grain of salt. A more cautious evaluation would reveal the mosaic as an ideal, an aspiration. According to the structural principle of the mosaic, cultural differences can be retained in the new country, as the mosaic’s single pieces necessarily are different from each other. A country built on the principle of the mosaic thus ideally makes room for the idiosyncrasies and deviations that different ethnic or cultural origins entail.
It is precisely this model that the novelist Bharati Mukherjee heavily criticizes. The author of novels such as Jasmine or The Tiger’s Daughterand the short story collections Darkness or The Middleman and Other Stories, Mukherjee is perhaps the most famous of the group of South-Asian writers in North America and has frequently addressed the topics of immigration and diaspora. Mukherjee was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata); her “journey” took her to Canada first, but the she left the country for the U.S. soon after. The move away from Canada and to the U.S. was programmatic. It is perhaps best expressed by the now famous picture of Mukherjee that shows the writer as she wraps an American flag around her. No text could better articulate her politics than this pose: She wholeheartedly embraces the new – American – culture, absorbs it, immersing herself fully in it. The gesture is conspicuous and provocative against the backdrop of the continuous and severe problems that the U.S. has with immigration, ethnicity, racism, etc. But above all else it presents a strong critique of the Canadian mosaic. In Mukherjee’s view, the model’s advantage, i.e. its emphasis on difference, is precisely its major pitfall. It allows for too many differences to be retained, it actually encourages these differences. This policy, Mukherjee laments, forfeits the creation of national identity and unity and thus ultimately of a new feeling of belonging. In addition to that, perhaps even more importantly, Mukherjee’s pose also insinuates that the praised Canadian mosaic does not work, i.e. that it is only an ideal, a theoretical abstraction, that people may eagerly believe in, but that covers up or denies many sour realities underneath. The American model of the melting pot, to the contrary, frankly calls on newcomers to discard cultural differences and join in the creation of a new, American, identity. This idea is more pragmatic, Mukherjee finds, and perhaps also more honest. It is hardly surprising that her opinion stirred up heated debates and has provoked much criticism. But it has also managed to make the problems of immigration and cultural difference more prominent and shifted them back into the center of public attention.
In stark contrast to Mukherjee’s preference for the American model, Toronto-based novelist Rohinton Mistry tells us about a rather disconcerting and troubling encounter with U.S. immigration and border control. During his reading tour in the U.S., he found that he was subjected to especially thorough safety checks at virtually all the American airports that he passed through. Interestingly, he was told at each and every control post that he was randomly chosen. One should know that Mistry has black hair and grows a dark beard. As he himself readily admits, his appearance correlates to the search pattern according to which potential Muslim terrorist are singled out. This treatment as a second-class citizen had evoked “visions of Guantanamo” in him, and he canceled his reading tour soon after.
At the end of Vassanji’s recent novel The Assassin’s Song (2007), Karsan, the protagonist, comes back to India. But he returns home only after a long journey that took him to the U.S. and Canada, where he lived for the better part of his adult life, and after tragic events had struck his family back home. A huge portion of the novel takes place in India, precisely in Pirbaag where Karsan’s father was the honored guardian of a medieval holy shrine. Karsan was supposed to succeed his father as the shrine’s keeper, but the young boy is interested much more in sports, girls, and the world outside Pirbaag, and desperately tries to escape his destiny. Even though he leaves Pirbaag at a fairly young age, he can never fully leave India and his heritage behind in his adult life. He lives “in-between,” between Pirbaag and Cambridge, between lives and continents that could not be more apart.
The experience of living in diaspora, “in-between worlds,” shapes the literary oeuvre of this group of writers and, more often than not, also determines their personal lives. In the case of Vassanji, for example, almost all places of his personal itinerary appear in his novels as well.The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, for instance, reminds us of the forgotten role of Indians in East-African countries where he also grew up. The book’s title, “the in-between world”, once again underlines the dilemma of diasporic lives: It is a “neither here nor there,” i.e. neither “Khodadad Building” can function as home, nor can “Gerrard Street” take over that role. It is living and writing in hybridity, in the space in-between, oscillating midway different modes of life and experience.
Hence back to the initial question: Can writers such as Vassanji be considered Canadian authors? Do they belong? Isn’t Canadian literature preoccupied with endless prairies and big lakes, at the most also with the traditionally tense relationship between French-speaking Quebec and the English-speaking provinces? And then, in The Assassin’s Song, Vassanji writes about a holy shrine in 16th-century India? And this novel should count as Canadian literature?
Vassanji’s reply to the question is as easy as it is persuasive. As a writer, he naturally resorts to a literary argument: When novelists like he tell the story of an increasing number of Canadians, i.e. Canadians with a South-Asian background, then they tell the story of Canada at the same time. The history of Canada has always been the story of immigrants coming from different countries and continents. The immigration pattern may have changed as, earlier on, immigrants came from predominantly European countries and now they come from Asia and Africa. In this context, Canada figures as an idea that has always been predicated on change, on adaptation processes and the concomitant redefinitions of what Canada is or could be. “New Canadians,” Vassanji writes, “bring their stories with them, and these stories then become Canadian stories.” Needless to add, things are not as simple as that. Writers such as Vassanji are aware that the notion of a constantly changing nation stirs up strong emotions in other Canadian citizens, and fear of foreign ‘infiltration’, even ‘orientalization’, cannot simply be ignored. But even if there are many instances where the transition from “Khodadad Building” to “Gerrard Street” is rather smooth, one must not forget the other cases in which the transition is anything but smooth, where it is highly problematic and traumatic. A growing number of literary works dealing with the experience of life in-between different cultures powerfully demonstrates that the problems of diasporic lives can hardly be solved by a new passport – notwithstanding the advantages it surely has. But there is still a further crucial issue that should not be forgotten: It is easy to see that so-called ethnic literature and culture, above all with an Indian background, has become fashionable. It is “cool” and enjoys increasing popularity. One can approve of this phenomenon, but a more critical perspective leads to a different side of the coin. As a new trend, it also fosters all kinds of neo-colonial appropriations of the “other” and paves the way for a renewed fascination with the so-called “exotic” or “primitive” that is redolent of times when “the other” also was in vogue, created and enjoyed by those in power. Based on the concept of the postcolonial critic Edward Said, one could argue that the desire for and subsequent boom of ethnic literature and culture opens the door to the dangerous grounds of “Orientalism,” the renewed colonial appropriation and exploitation of the Other at the service of dominant Western culture. However much one might wish for a stronger general interest in different cultures that would improve the living situations for people of ethnic backgrounds and contribute to a better understanding in multicultural societies, in a more critical vein, one would have to ask the provocative question: “Has the coolie become cool?”
The essay is a translation of a contribution to the German reader accompanying the program of theMunich Spring Book Fair 2008: Building Bridges – The Literature of Canada