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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

"An Alien Soil"

  • Cecil Foster (Author)
    Slammin' Tar. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Austin Clarke (Author)
    The Origin of Waves. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

These two new novels by Caribbean-Canadian writers reflect the spatial and temporal dislocations that result from emigration. Focusing primarily on Caribbean men and their stories, they explore the unique spirit of specific places, presenting the reader with vivid images of a Canadian landscape glimpsed through the eyes of the emigrant. Both, while creating distinct voices—making specific narrative choices— are rich in their creation of characters and their language. In the end, both novels conclude by retracing connections with the past and among various experiences.

Born in Barbados in 1954, Cecil Foster came to Canada in the late 1970s. He has published longer works of fiction and non-fiction, including a sociological study, Distorted Mirror. Canada’s Racist Face (1991), and novels such as No Man in the House (1991) and Sleep On, Beloved (1995). His study of Caribbean and African immigrants titled A Place Called Heaven: Notes from the Black Immigrant Diaspora (1996) won the Gordon Montador Award for Best Canadian Non-fiction on Social Issues. Both his fiction and non-fiction, then, often focus on experiences of emigration. In Slammin’ Tar, Foster explores the lives of Caribbean migrant workers on a tobacco farm near Toronto. Through these stories, he suggests the problems of dislocation; the men are technically natives of the Caribbean, but they spend ten months of each year working on the farm. When they return "home" they are not accepted by their families or friends; in many cases, their wives have found other partners for emotional support. They are also not accepted as Canadians. Foster’s novel suggests the limited choices available to these workers: "slam tar" and escape illegally; wait for immigration papers; or accept the situation.

While the main character in the novel is ostensibly Johnny Franklin, the 42-year-old veteran of migrant farm work, the focus shifts to the collective of faces and voices that are vivid throughout the work: Tommy, who becomes gravely ill; Albert, who awaits his papers; Preacher Man and Smokie; and even the rookie, Winston, who becomes romantically involved with the farmer’s daughter. Foster’s narrative choices allow him to relate these many experiences: his interweaving of the narrative with Bajan folklore, and especially his choice of "Brer Anansi" as narrator. The narrator’s voice, in fact, comes through as vividly as those of the men on the farm. There is no illusion of objectivity in this narrative; the storyteller’s personality is explicit, fascinating, and often comical. While he is initially interested primarily in telling the story he has been assigned, he soon becomes drawn to the "invisible luggage" that each man carries in his head: their hopes, fears, frustrations, and dreams. He admits his jealousy when Winston brings along ins own sloi ylcllci, and idcnli fies himself as "a chauvinistic type of guy" when he learns that the other storyteller is female. He also feels threatened by Johnny’s interest in the journal kept by his grandfather, a migrant worker on the Panama Canal in 1902. As Johnny reads passages from this journal to Tommy, the storyteller winces, complaining that "badly written diaries can sidetrack a weak and insecure leader." At one point, he even shifts his attention from the migrant workers to George Stewart, the owner of the farm; he is also not above treading on the other storyteller’s territory.

In the end, connections between previous Caribbean migrations—to Panama, Cuba, England, the United States, and Africa— and this one become quite significant. It is Tommy who repeatedly comments on the similarities between Johnny’s grandfather’s experiences and their own. Moreover, the storyteller’s previous connection with Marcus Garvey, the "Prophet" of the Pan-African movement, suggests that a story’s ending can never be known. This storyteller was "demoted" for falsely reporting on Garvey’s exile to Jamaica, but he returns to tell the stories of these unsung prophets on the tobacco farm.

The figure of the web that interweaves lives through places and generations re-emerges in Austin Clarke’s The Origin of Waves. Clarke left Barbados for Canada about a generation earlier than Foster; after studying at Toronto’s Trinity College, he taught at several universities in both Canada and the United States. Again, his works are fictional and non-fictional, including his autobiography, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), and novels such as Survivors of the Crossing (1964) and Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965). Most of his writings focus on Caribbean emigrants in Canada; The Origin of Waves begins at Christmas in Toronto, although the first chapter actually flashes back to the Caribbean, where Tim (the narrator) and John grew up. In ihc second chapter, the disloca tion becomes tangible, with the sun and sand of the opening replaced by the snow of Toronto. The two, now-elderly men accidentally meet in a snowstorm and decide to get together for drinks at a local bar. The remainder of the novel relates the dialogue, along with Tim’s reflections on the conversation. Both ostensibly share memories and stories about how they have spent the past forty years; both, however, also skirt around important issues such as why Tim has quit his job, who the mysterious Chinese woman was, why Tim now spends his time killing ants, and why John is visiting Toronto. John seeks to engage Tim in self-analysis regarding his sexuality, but Tim repeatedly eludes his efforts. We also learn much about their friendship and assumed roles: for example, John was an excellent swimmer while Tim could not swim; John was head chorister; in their informal reading competitions, John always seemed to win. That apparent superiority is played out in the current meeting, with John playing therapist to Tim. It is not until the end of the novel that we glimpse John’s own vulnerability, and it appears that Tim can gain a new perspective on his friend through that very spatial dislocation that ruptured their childhood friendship.

While Clarke chooses a single first-person narrator for his novel, his focus on the conversation of the two men helps to build an intriguing and ambiguous narrative. There are countless repetitions and contradictions, and the voices of the two men vividly communicate their personalities: John’s obscenities and appropriation of a southern American accent; Tim’s avoidance; and the banter that often results. The narrative is also remarkably poetic, creating repeated images that become evocative of place and character. For instance, the black cobbler on which John accidentally steps as a boy is vividly depicted as "black against the rich pink of his heel." The recurring image of Tim’s uncle who drowned is also interwoven with the landscape of Toronto.

As in Slammin Tar, the winter setting of The Origin of Waves heightens the contrast between Caribbean and Canadian spaces; in Foster’s novel, that image of the sun of the Caribbean as enemy, and yet of the snow as an alien and alienating feature of the landscape, comes through intensely. The men see "an alien soil in so many ways, with this beastly weather topping the list." However, both also present Canada as a location from which to gain a perspective on their Caribbean lives; John, for instance, tells Tim as a boy: "The meaning of a’ island ... is that you have to swim-out from it, seeing as how it is surrounded by water ... [And] then you would know the measurements of the place." Both novels present readers with a unique perspective on Canada and its often-unknown or forgotten stories; they also, however, explore how leaving a place helps one "measure" it. Finally, both resound with a profound sense of sadness and loss; the redemption lies in their upholding of male friendship and creative humour.

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MLA: Lane, Dorothy F. "An Alien Soil". canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 150 - 152)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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