Disentangling Narratives

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

In a recent interview, author M. G. Vassanji emphasized how writing a novel is a mysterious process: “you never know where you’re going to end up.” The enigma of origin and destination is shared by readers of both his and Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novels, demanding an investment of time and attention in unraveling multiple stories. However, readers will emerge from these books with a heightened awareness of the material effects of colonization, and of contemporary Canadian issues, along with new ideas about shared responsibility and community. Both books uncover secrets of the past, and simultaneously suggest deeper puzzles worthy of exploration.

Shauna Singh Baldwin’s Selector of Souls (2012) is her third novel; she has also published two collections of fiction and one of non-fiction. In this book, she probes predicaments of family, finances, and cultural and religious issues associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and new technologies. She considers the lives and choices of women—both in India and in Canada—confronting gender discrimination. The “selector of souls” of the title is, in some sections, construed as the medical technology of ultrasound that facilitates the abortion of female fetuses. Elsewhere in the novel, the Hindu midwife Damini adopts the voice of Anamika Devi in leading the people to a new understanding of “soul selection” and its responsibilities. As Baldwin has noted, the convergence of religious and cultural belief—and the pervasiveness of “daughter-aversion”—is evident in justifications for sex-selection abortions, especially in the Indian villages of her settings. In the novel, this perspective comes into conflict with Roman Catholic principles governing the operation of a local clinic: abortion is forbidden, and even contraception is proscribed.

The beauty of Baldwin’s narrative lies in the ease with which she draws these challenges into the stories of individuals, families, and communities; one is not able to judge easily the actions of the characters, even those that might seem heinous from a “Western” or “modern” perspective. Such dilemmas hit very close to home, as the narrative weaves the story of a child sent to live in Canada because of the family’s daughter-aversion; the mother, Anu, believes she has protected this daughter by sending her to her sister, and this choice also enables her to leave her husband and become a nun in a northern clinic. She cannot, however, transcend the past or the tension of political voices enveloping personal ones. The sweep of the narrative results in a tendency to simplify some characters, and particularly Vikas, Anu’s husband, and Damini’s son, Suresh. Vikas is unwavering in abusive, self-serving behaviour, as well as dogmatic Hindu nationalism. It is difficult to empathize with many of the male characters in the book. Baldwin’s endeavour to tackle issues of gender, sexuality, and discrimination is sometimes too transparent. By contrast, her descriptions of people and places—for example, that of the journey from Delhi to the Himalaya—evokes the wealth of stories both inside and outside the train, without overt judgment.

M. G. Vassanji’s The Magic of Saida (2012) is a pithier book—shorter in length but not less complex; it too untangles the complex web of the contemporary global village. An exploration through South Asia, East Africa, and Canada, the book examines the postcolonial enculturation of medical practices and professions. The initial mystery surrounds Kamal Punja, a Canadian doctor hospitalized in Tanzania, discovered by the narrator, a local publisher named Martin Kigoma. Convinced he has been “poisoned” by “black magic,” Kamal has returned to East Africa at a midlife juncture, to unravel the story of Saida, a childhood friend with whom he developed an intimate relationship. Through Kamal’s conversations with Martin, his journey from Edmonton—where he has raised two children and established successful medical practices—to East Africa unfolds with care and complexity, offering only morsels of information in each chapter and alternating among various time periods and places. Just as the story of Saida seems eclipsed by that of Kamal’s own slow journey—from Kilwa, to Dar es Salaam, to Uganda, to the Canadian prairies, and then back to East Africa—it is rapidly brought to an emotionally unsettling finale. The novel leaves us with less probing political questions than does Baldwin’s— apart from its focus on the emigration of medical professionals to Canada—but it again exposes the ambivalent responses to colonialism, the exploitation of African women by Asian men in East Africa, and the resounding impact of family and community. Remarkable in Vassanji’s narrative is his interweaving of rich cultural and literary traditions—Swahili, Gujarati, Persian, and Islamic—the oral and written stories with which he himself grew up.

As Vassanji emphasizes, in the endeavour to untangle the past both reader and writer do not end up where they expected; sometimes, the journey takes them right back to the beginning. Finally, then, both books underscore the power of storytelling itself, in their contemplations of individual and collective lives, cultures, histories, and places. There are no easy judgments, only the rich and complex exploration of character that evokes more questions than it answers.

This review “Disentangling Narratives” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 137-39.

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