Writing Diasporic Lives
- Sandra Pouchet Paquet (Author)
Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation. University of Wisconsin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wenona Giles (Author)
Portugese Women in Toronto: Gender, Immigration, and Nationalism. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Wendy Roy
Thirty years ago, Elizabeth Bruss observed in Autobiographical Acts that “there is no intrinsically autobiographical form.” This observation is essential to Sandra Pouchet Paquet’s recent exploration of anglophone life writing from her home region. Caribbean Autobiography demonstrates the diversity of autobiographical works by Caribbean writers through an examination of two spiritual autobiographies, a dictated slave narrative, travel narratives, memoirs, fiction, poetry, a diary, and elegies. Paquet’s book also demonstrates the diasporic nature of authorship in the Caribbean context. What she calls the “self-conscious, often contentious, cultural diversity” of the Caribbean is evident in works by authors as varied as Antiguan slave Mary Prince, expatriate Jamaican writer Claude McKay (who became part of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States), authors of Indian descent such as Trinidadian V. S. Naipaul, and “white” creole writers such as Jean Rhys of Dominica. Paquet ably argues that while Caribbean autobiography is heterogeneous, some patterns can be discerned, including “displacement and dispossession,” “racial and ethnic self-consciousness,” and “the role of errantry as a site of self-definition and empowerment.”
Paquet makes use of various theoretical perspectives, including autobiographical, postcolonial, and feminist theories, to analyze issues of caste and class, culture and race, and gender and sexuality in Caribbean life writing. The result is twelve discrete essays (each of which focuses on autobiographical texts by one, or at the most two, authors) grouped into four sections. The first section looks at gender and voice in little-known nineteenth-century narratives by the Hart sisters, Prince, and Mary Seacole. The second analyzes exile and otherness in works by well-known twentieth-century male writers Claude McKay, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, and Derek Walcott. The third examines cultural dislocation in autobiographies by Caribbean writers of Indian and “white” creole origins, including Naipaul, Anna Mahase, Yseult Bridges, and Rhys. And the fourth section considers what Paquet calls “cross-gender identification” in elegies by Kamau Brathwaite and Jamaica Kincaid. The essays are for the most part well-written and informative, but because Paquet discusses so many authors she cannot focus on any one in detail, and this overview approach is the book’s major shortcoming. Some stylistic choices are also confusing, such as the way that Paquet consistently refers to both Claude McKay and C. L. R. James by their full names. And I noted a few spelling errors, including the misspelling of Catharine Parr Traill’s name in an endnote.
These are minor problems, though, in a book that provides many fascinating insights into Caribbean autobiography. I was persuaded, for example, by Paquet’s argument that “white” writers should not be interpreted as outsiders to the Caribbean, since “To use their race or color as the cultural or political sign of inferiority or degeneracy is to devalue their contribution on the basis of race and perpetuate their legacy of skin color as a ‘visible and natural’ object of discrimination.” Students will find Paquet’s discussion of well-known writers and texts valuable, but I found the most compelling discussions to be of lesserknown writers and innovative texts. Thus Paquet’s examination of Prince’s narrative, dictated to a young Susanna Strickland (more well-known in Canada by her married name, Susanna Moodie), caught my attention through its cogent discussions of textualized orality. Paquet points out that the text is undeniably shaped by its “coercive or collaborative status” and “the constraints imposed by the genre of the slave narrative.” Yet while inequities of race, class, and gender are only partly recoverable, “even in its mediated form Prince’s narrative endures as a testament to her life and struggle.” I was also fascinated by Paquet’s discussion of Brathwaite’s poetic diary, which began as his private way of mourning the death of his wife and expressing anger at the lack of access for men to the language of mourning. Paquet concludes that the diary works by “installing the deceased other within the self in a dynamic process of cross-gender identification.” This incorporation becomes concrete as well as metaphorical, Paquet argues, when Brathwaite swallows some of his dead wife’s ashes in a parody of the Christian Eucharist and the Haitian ritual of mangé morts.
While Paquet concludes that the “radical instability of the Caribbean as a cultural domain coincides with the radical instability of autobiography as a genre,” Wenona Giles’s book about Portuguese migrants to Toronto demonstrates a completely different way of writing about diasporic lives. Portuguese Women in Toronto is not a study of autobiography, nor indeed an analysis of biographical narratives of any sort. Instead, it provides a discussion of the lives of female immigrants and their daughters that offers only tantalizing glimpses into their life stories. Each of these women is given a pseudonym, and each is allowed to speak only in short quoted passages about limited aspects of her life. Experiences are represented through statistical details and case studies of subjects such as household relations, employment, and education, but the book never provides a picture of its subjects’ lives as wholes.
Portuguese Women in Toronto does focus, though, on an area of current interest to many literary critics: the effects of the nationalist project in Canada on immigrants and their descendents. The book’s basic premise is that Canada’s immigration and multicultural policies “operate to transform a highly heterogeneous group into the homogenous category of ‘immigrant’.” Giles suggests that while multiculturalism was initially introduced as “a means of managing Canadian-born francophones,” it has since become “a means of controlling immigrant groups.” As a result, she argues, “gender and class differences are masked, and ethnic differences are reified, contributing ultimately to racism.” Members of each migrant group are encouraged to continue their identification with their home states, masking the reality “that immigrant workers and their families are indeed part of the nation-state into which they have immigrated.”
When Giles turns to case studies of Portuguese women, these introductory arguments become repetitive and are not always borne out by the illustrations she chooses. She repeatedly concludes, for example, that “immigration and multicultural state policies” are at fault for diffi- culties Portuguese women must overcome, even when the women themselves indicate that other factors, such as traditional family structures, play as significant a role. Giles’s case studies of Portuguese women in Toronto, while often frustratingly abbreviated, sometimes allow her to make astute observations, such as that immigration policy ignores women by defining them as dependents, even though most participate in the workforce after their arrival in Canada, and that immigrant women often do not have access to the Canadian education system, and thus must either be educated in their country of origin or do without. Because of the book’s statistical approach, however, and because it quotes women’s words so sparingly, Portuguese Women in Toronto will be of more interest to social scientists than to literary critics.
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- Canaries in the Coalmine by David Leahy
Books reviewed: Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature by Herb Wyile
- Place-ing Class and Gender by Anne Kaufman
Books reviewed: Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada by Franca Iacovetta and Home/Bodies: Geographies of Self, Place and Space by Wendy Schissel
- Of Cities, Wars, and Food by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond by Yeh Wen-hsin, Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China by J. Y. Wong, and The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in Modern China by Gang Yue
MLA: Roy, Wendy. Writing Diasporic Lives. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 163 - 165)
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