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Current Issue: #218 Of Borders and Bioregions (Autumn 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 218 (Autumn 2013), Of Borders and Bioregions is now available. Guest edited by Anne Kaufman and Robert Thacker, the issue features articles by Tamas Dobozy, Laurie Ricou, Lisa Szabo-Jones, Magali Sperling Beck, and more.

Book Review

Between Borders

Reviewed by Vijay Devadas

How to live between borders, how to live at the edges of two contradictory sites of enunciation, how indeed to frame the migrant’s sense of self, are the messages that come across from both Maniam and Woon in their narratives of the respective conditions of the Indian Malaysian and Chinese Canadian communities. Although the historical exigencies of the two diasporas differ, these allegories have one thing in common; they take us to the paradox of migrancy, the condition of being diasporic, by opening up another discursive space that is potentially disruptive, insofar as this voice produces a diasporic voice from within the panoramic gaze of the nation.

I begin with Maniam’s short stories which centre on the Indian diaspora in Malaysia and attempt to represent the inherent problem of negotiating a multicultural cultural politics that governs the ways in which a collective sense of Malaysianness maybe constructed. For Maniam, these stories attempt to represent the "ignored realities" of migrant awareness and to mobilize an understanding of who migrants are today. His message is straightforward—migrants cannot search for an exclusive racial or cultural space of articulation without confronting the multicultural paradigm of Malaysia: "the self... is open to ... influences [and] learns to view itself in a larger context."

Maniam’s position is pragmatic because for a majority of Indian-Malaysians the notion of a home(land) has dissipated, overtaken by the reality of living in a multicultural nation-state. Survival is now contingent on the capacity to establish a position in the adopted country. This is how Muthu, in "Haunting the Tiger," reacts to his parents’ desire to return to India: ’"They can give up this land for a life they’ve known,.. . But what do I have to give up?’" Indeed this is a dilemma confronting the Indian population for whom India exists only as an imagined home, consumed through various textual representations, while multicultural Malaysia exists as a concrete reminder of home. This is why Muthu recalls, at the time of his death, memories of his adopted country, and not his foundational homeland.

However, a confrontation with the multicultural paradigm should not lead to a forgetting of the migrant’s other self. In "The Pelanduk" we are cautioned by Govindasamy, the pundit, against forgetting. We are also reminded that there are creative possibilities in the Indian community’s origins in "dream-time." Govindasamy’s assertion parallels the Australian-Aboriginal notion of dreamtime (Tjukurpa), which has been employed as a positive metaphor for reclaiming a dispossessed heritage. This is also Maniam’s message, appropriately summed up in the volume’s title which hints at the necessity of haunting the tiger—the national symbol of Malaysia. Much of Maniam’s terms and references are similar to the theoretical emphasis in postcolonial criticism, which often champions the ambivalence of migrant subjectivity, and especially its location between borders.

When Maniam writes "perhaps tensions bring out the best in us," we hear the familiar postcolonial echo that also reverberates in the second text, The Excluded Wife, a novel that developed out of an oral-history project. The intent in this novel is to retrieve and recreate the history of the Chinese-Canadian community through the experience of Sau-Ping, a "grass widow" or excluded wife. Such a gesture forces those of the Chinese diaspora to confront their Canadian sensibilities beyond the shores of the adopted nation through the "logic" oí a diasporic poetic. The earlier part of the novel traces Sau-Ping’s traumatic life in the Chinese village, her marriage to Yik-Man, the bigotry of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the political turmoil in China, and her temporary exodus to Hong Kong. These historical exigencies, which take up a considerable section of the novel, provide an insight into the pre-diasporic condition of the Chinese community and function as an archival resource for the contemporary Chinese Canadian socius.

It is only after Sau-Ping’s departure from her foundational homeland and her eventual arrival "on the foreign floor" of Canada—where she decides "to build a new family on the ashes of her shattered family"—that the narrative "logic" of the diaspora takes hold. This is where idea(l)s of home(land) become problematized and where the self finds itself between borders, straddling different socio-cultural positions. Sau-Ping’s initial sense of displacement on arriving is temporarily quelled when she sees the familiar space of Vancouver Chinatown where "there were signs bearing Chinese symbols and pictures ... like those at home." But the longing for home is quickly overshadowed by the reality of living in Canada, which demands an economic sensibility to produce a discourse of survival for the diaspora.

The rest of the novel replays both the diasporic dilemma and, as Sau-Ping and Yik-Man entrench their lineage in the Canadian landscape, changes in the diasporic imagining; a confrontation between old and new diasporic sensibilities emerges. For instance, when her son informs her of his marital intentions, Sau-Ping accepts the news with a certain sense of discord because his fiancée Jennifer, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian, cannot speak Chinese. Similarly, while her daughter Pauline is unable to come to terms with the silent submission of women in China and their desire lor "second-class citizenship" in Canada, Sau-Ping cannot agree, although she is aware that Pauline’s argument is cogent. For Sau-Ping, such claims can be made only because Pauline is unable to place herself in their position. After all, Sau-Ping had been one of these women and was able to understand their motivations.

Between the Malaysian and Canadian landscapes and between the Indian and Chinese diasporas, the question of how we negotiate our sense of being here and remembering there comes across forcefully; it adjoins the two novels across geographical distance. Although this question drives both novels, neither attempts to provide an answer. Rather, we are left in a state of tension, with the dilemma of (non)belonging epitomizing the state of flux in which diasporic selves find themselves. These stories traverse a multifaceted, multicultural Malaysian and Canadian landscape, continuously shifting between the real, material, everyday lives of Indian and Chinese migrants and their complex relationship to a homeland that is longed for but impossible to reclaim.

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MLA: Devadas, Vijay. Between Borders. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 186 - 187)

***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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