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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013), Contested Migrations is now available! The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Mariam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, Maude Lapierre, J. I. Little, David Williams, and more.

Home Free?

  • Shani Mootoo (Author)
    Cereus Blooms at Night. Press Gang Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Constance Rooke (Author)
    Writing Home: A PEN Canada Anthology. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Joanne Saul

In an age of globalism, transnationalism, and mass migration, definitions of home have become more and more complex, particularly for those who cannot choose their homeland or for those whose homelands have been colonized. In "The Road Home: Meditation on a Theme," Russell Brown suggested that English-Canadian writing has been preoccupied with home—but more as a state of mind than as a physical place. Recent histories of colonization and displacement have meant that writing "home" is not always innocent and idyllic, but often a practice fraught with ambivalence and conflict, yet in a settler colony like Canada, notions of home and home-lessness become central in debates over self-definition.

Home in Shani Mootoo’s first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night (nominated for the Giller Prize), is a fictional island in the Caribbean called Lantanacamara. In this novel, Mootoo explores the intense sense of homelessness that accompanies a history of colonial dispossession and exile. The main characters in the book are descendants of Indian indentured workers who convert to Christianity with the "encouragement" of Christian missionaries from the aptly-named metropolis, the Northern Shivering Wetlands. Although the movement to and from the colonial "centre" recurs throughout much of the novel, the multiple levels of the story unfold in a small town ironically called Paradise.

The primary narrator of the novel, Tyler, a nurse at the Paradise Alms House, tells us his purpose in setting down events is to try to reach Asha Ramchandin, last heard of in Canada. As the novel progresses, the story of Mala, Asha’s sister, slowly and luxuriously unfolds. Mootoo uses a self-conscious narrator, Tyler, in order to remind the reader of the pitfalls of omniscience, and of the difficulties of "fashioning a single garment out of myriad parts." However, the narrative tends to shift rather unconvincingly, so that it is not always clear from where Tyler gathers his "myriad parts."

Nevertheless, Mootoo maintains interest in the storyline through the characterization of Mala, as she grows from a happy, carefree child to an abused and withdrawn adolescent, then to a young woman in love, before finally becoming an archetypal "madwoman," alone and feared by the entire community. An outcast, Mala is a kind of earth mother, at one with the insects, birds and flowers in her garden. And it is her communion with nature that forms a symbolic ideal in the novel. Abandoning her childhood home, the scene of years of abuse at the hands of her father, Mala retreats to a world of fluid and natural identity, a world where she can speak the language of all its creatures. At the centre of Mala’s garden, and of the text, is the Cereus of the title, which is symbolically linked to the main character throughout the novel. Although plain and simple and often overlooked, it blooms into a gorgeous, sensual, intensely aromatic flower, though only for a short time. Even the design of the book, with Mootoo’s own cover illustration and the imprints of snails and moths and ants and beetles that sprinkle its pages, captures Mootoo’s creation of a lush and sensuous and potentially liberating world.

This kind of un- or pre-domeslicaled world allows for a fluidity in sexuality and gender roles. With help from Mala, who, he realizes, is "not one to manacle nature," Tyler comes to embrace his femininity, so that by the end of the novel he presents himself like "a peacock in heat." Otoh, although born Ambrosia (and female), grows up male. Otoh’s mother tells him, "You grow up here and you don’t realize almost everybody in this place wish they could be somebody or something else? That is the story of life here in Lantanacamara." Mootoo’s rendering of life in Lantanacamara explores how, for some of the characters, home can be a place of intense exile, which demands new formulations of identity, family and community.

Although this kind of interrogation of the notion of home is largely absent from PEN Canada’s anthology Writing Home, a few of the pieces do raise questions about sovereignty issues, attacks on arts funding, downsizing, and soon Rohinton Mistry, for example, tells a fable in which a golf-obsessed leader literally hacks away at the bodies of his citizens. "The government has declared war on its people," says Timothy Findley, and Janice Kulyk Keefer is terrified of the homelessness imposed by irresponsible government.

Still, there are absences in this collection. Rooke does acknowledge in her introduction the lack of Franco-Quebec voices and the presence of only one Native voice (Louise Bernice Hälfe). However, given that the idea of home invokes its opposite, it would seem important to have more voices that challenge the idea of a Canadian home. In many of the pieces, the "idea of north" with its ideal of the cottage or cabin as refuge remains a strong presence, both real and imagined. The presence of new immigrant voices in this collection might have served to shift the landscape of home away from an idealised northern environment to the urban centres. Some of Dionne Brand’s willing on diaspora and homelessness, tor example, would have made an appropriate addition to a collection like this.

Despite these absences, the collection does offer a range of perspectives on writing home. Some are more descriptive than others—these tend to focus on actual, physical places. Trevor Ferguson leads us on a tour of his home, Hudson, Quebec, while Marion Botsford Fräser describes her particular corner of downtown Toronto. Rosemary Sullivan’s essay "The Trail that Led to Me" suggests that home is in the blood. Home as family is evoked by Judith Thompson, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Esta Spalding. Connections are made between home and death in a few of the contributions, nowhere more poignantly than in Linda Spalding’s "Providence. And Independence," in which she movingly and lovingly describes her relationship with her brother and the profound sense of loss at his death. The terror of an abusive home comes through in Leon Rooke’s description of his neighbour’s childhood home ruled over by a drunken, violent father.

The proceeds of Writing Home will go to support the important work of PEN Canada. This, in itself, is one reason to buy the book. Another is Constance Rooke’s impeccable editing. Yet another is the fact that all of the contributions are previously unpublished and donated by their authors for this important cause. But, perhaps the most compelling reason is the way a collection like this, in spite of its absences, continues to explore the idea of "home" in a number of its guises and manifestations.

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MLA: Saul, Joanne. Home Free?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 July 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 166 - 167)

***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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