Juggling Ghosts

Reviewed by Margaret Steffler

In The Juggler’s Children and The Hungry Ghosts, finalists for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the categories of non-fiction and fiction, Carolyn Abraham and Shyam Selvadurai offer personal family stories within the context of larger public narratives of colonialism, diaspora, and immigration. The incorporation of storytelling in Abraham’s work and the autobiographical elements in Selvadurai’s novel blur the distinctions between memoir and fiction in ways that enhance the overlapping of the intimate stories with the more public backdrops. Abraham, a medical journalist, concentrates on the mysteries unlocked by DNA and genomics, integrating her discoveries about her own ancestry with a story about the science and ethics of DNA decoding. Novelist Selvadurai incorporates the Sri Lankan myth of the peréthaya, the ancestor reborn as a hungry ghost, using the spectral figure as a parallel for haunting memories of violence, violation, and guilt. Both science and myth lead to insights into origins and human connections. This insight includes the recognition of inclusivity in Abraham’s daughter, Jade, who, as a result of learning about her ancestry, declares that she can “cheer for everybody” in the Beijing Olympics in a world where genes prove that “no one is any one thing.” A commitment of selflessness is the result for Selvadurai’s first person narrator, Shivan, who learns from the peréthaya that he will “find release only by offering it to another, by putting another before [him]self.”

Both journeys, told from Toronto, begin with eccentric grandmothers, reminiscent in some ways of Michael Ondaatje’s Lalla in Running in the Family. Abraham’s inability to fill in glaring gaps in her maternal grandmother’s eulogy was a major factor in the initiation of her genetic search. Nana Gladys, who created havoc with factual accounts and origins by whimsically moving birthdays to coincide with major holidays, becomes a person of key interest in Abraham’s sleuthing. During the process of writing, Abraham considers the possibility that she is feeling the “presence” of Nana Gladys just as her grandmother, a “true believer,” used to feel the presence of her dead husband. At one point Abraham facetiously refers to the popularity and intensity of the “march into the genetic past” in religious terms as a “pilgrimage” of the “faithful,” but it is a journey that Abraham claims “changed the way I see others,” giving her the status of a faithful pilgrim as well as a determined scientific journalist.

Shivan’s relationship with his powerful maternal grandmother (Aachi) in The Hungry Ghosts forces him to face the troubled liminal spaces in which he lives—between Tamil and Sinhalese, privileged and marginal, child and adult, Canada and Sri Lanka. Manipulated by Aachi’s demonstrations of power and need for devotion, Shivan, in retrospect, rages against “that malformed thing she calls love,” acknowledging, however, that “love always comes with its dark twin—the spectre of loss, which drives us to do such terrible things.” Shivan’s loyalty to Aachi becomes aligned with his attachment to Sri Lanka, both loves deeply marked by violence, betrayal, and evil. From the Scarborough home where he prepares himself for his return to Colombo to bring his “ailing grandmother back here to Toronto,” Shivan pictures the inevitable destruction by bulldozers of the “carved teak pillars and lattice panels,” the “turquoise-and-grey mosaic,” the “intricately wrought antique doors, with their images of lotuses and peacocks” of his childhood home, the seat of horror and corruption presided over by the matriarch. The preparation and the image supposedly reassure him that “the life we knew there [in Colombo], the life that has haunted and misshaped us all, will come to a close.”

Abraham’s journey into multiple countries, including India, Jamaica, England, the United States and China, also takes her into dark spaces inhabited by her ancestors, challenging expectations and clear storylines of colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. The corruption of the past, albeit removed, is as disturbing as that witnessed firsthand by Shivan in his adolescence and early adulthood. Abraham talks of the “in-between” world of her “Eurasian” ancestors, who passed down the “Anglo-Indian identity crisis” from “the railway colonies of India to the cold of postwar England and all the way across to Canada.” Like Fred Wah in Diamond Grill who points out the ridiculous futility of attempting to measure background and race, Abraham carefully ensures that the genetic answers she receives do not define her identity. She uses instead the juggling of her great grandfather as a metaphor for the “millions of nucleotides in continuous motion, tossed up, generation after generation, and scattered by the wind and by warriors, by the kidnapped and the curious, the hungry, the greedy, the pious, the scared and the lovesick.” Abraham’s search originates in her sense of herself as a “brown girl with a Jewish last name who went to a Catholic school” in St. Catharines. Fueled by curiosity and fed by science and the imagination, the search confirms a background that spans the globe.

Shivan, on the other hand, in the Sri Lanka of the 1970s and 1980s, is more rigidly defined by his Tamil-Sinhalese parentage, which, along with his homosexual relationship, places him in danger. Immigration to Canada does not provide freedom from fear or memory. In the pioneer cemetery in the parking lot of the Bridlewood Mall in Scarborough (both cemetery and mall actually exist), Shivan experiences “two irreconcilable feelings pressed tight against each other”—“a great longing to be back in Sri Lanka and also, paradoxically, a revulsion against being there.” The detailed and vivid inclusion of Toronto, and specifically Scarborough, in this novel is one of its strengths, as is the back and forth literal and emotional movement between Canada and Sri Lanka. The contrast between the grandmother’s bedroom in Sri Lanka, filled with teak, camphor, cloves, ebony, brass, lace, and the sea breeze, and the room awaiting her in Scarborough speaks of losses too acute to bear. Selvadurai evocatively conveys the sense of loss that accompanies immigration journeys. Shivan’s homesickness is haunted by the pain of a lost love and the wretched compassion for a grandmother who shared with him, “the secret that had contorted her life.”

The conclusion of The Juggler’s Children is not entirely convincing in its idealistic proclamation of the inclusivity of difference. The resolution glosses over the troubling complexities of the past, which have not simply disappeared in an ’enlightened’ present. The detailed information about taking and testing DNA samples from the Abraham and Crooks families can become tedious at times, but for the most part the narrative is both engaging and informative. The conclusion of Selvadurai’s novel introduces the potential release that could be granted to a terrified Shivan through an intended act of sacrificial compassion. The intention emerges from the peréthaya narratives, which have seemed somewhat artificial and forced to this point in an otherwise compelling and carefully constructed novel. Aachi’s story of how Nandaka, a king, learns from a peréthaya that “in front of us the way is seen, but behind us the road is gone” becomes a guide for Shivan, pushing him forward from fears and hauntings in way that is similar to the ideal approach and attitude envisioned by Abraham for her daughter, Jade, and the next generation.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.