The Harem. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Tears of Mehndi. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
A Credit to Your Race. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Set in small neighbourhoods and ethnic enclaves within larger Canadian cities, these three novels tell stories that would otherwise have remained secluded within their respective communities. Truman Green’s A Credit to Your Race, originally published in a tiny press run in 1973 and chosen for re-publication as a “Vancouver 125 legacy book” in 2011, is set in Surrey BC, circa the 1960s. The first person narrator is Billy, Black Canadian boy who has a teenaged romance with a white girl, Mary. Written in a simple, colloquial style, the narration is at times heavy-handed, yet also believable as an adolescent voice. Billy and Mary have an unplanned pregnancy, and the reactions of Mary’s blatantly racist father and the insidiously ignorant townsfolk drive Billy’s and Mary’s stories toward inevitable heartbreak. As the conflict escalates predictably, the reader sees through Billy’s eyes what it is like to grow up surrounded by massive misinformation about race and miscegenation. Green adds a uniquely small-town Canadian perspective to the topic of interracial romance. Billy’s family are the only visible minorities in town, and multiple characters make observations about the large difference between Canada’s cultural, political, and juridical environment and the American racial context they glean from television shows and newspaper headlines.
Meanwhile, Safia Fazlul’s The Harem is set in a fictional Bangladeshi immigrant ghetto in an unnamed city much like Toronto. Also told in the first person, it follows the lives of the narrator Farina and her best friends, Imrana and Sabrina, as they live out their teenaged rebellions against their strict Muslim parents. Obsessed with getting rich and having moved out as soon as they turned eighteen, they hatch a plan to open an escort agency. The Harem is fraught with competing tensions between filial duty and yearning for freedom, class aspirations and allegiance to the downtrodden, and multiple racial desires. It is also full of characters who serve as foils for each other, such as Ali and Clint, Farina’s romantic interests. Ali is the good Muslim boy next door who respects Farina and yet wants to trap her in traditionalism, while Clint is the married white boss who can offer Farina wealth and liberty yet sees her as nothing but a sex object. As one might expect from a story about three young women running an escort agency, things quickly go downhill and Farina is left questioning her place as an ethical being in the world. Like Green’s book, Fazlul’s is full of clichés and unoriginal language, but surprises with its depth of insight from a perspective not common in culture class narratives. Fazlul’s Farina is an incredibly unlikeable character whose moral reflections are nonetheless compelling because they are so nuanced. It would be unfair to dismiss The Harem for its plainness, since it also offers unexpectedly sophisticated considerations of how gender, class, and race intersect as characters find both common ground and disparities in their unique positions. Farina’s unpleasantness is redeemed by her gradual realization of how she is not only a victim but also a perpetrator in cycles of violence.
Raminder Sidhu’s Tears of Mehndi is more formally adventurous thanA Credit to Your Race and The Harem. Spanning from 1976 to 2012, every other chapter of Tears of Mendhi is a third-person narrative about a close-knit Indian Canadian community in Vancouver’s Little India. The third-person chapters are snapshots of gatherings at a Sikh gurdwara, at dinner parties, and at weddings, as characters catch up on gossip with each other. These snapshots are intercut by chapters from the first-person points of view of different women connected to that community. By flipping back and forth, Sidhu shows the differences between what is speculated about and what really goes on in the lives of these characters. One downside of this format is that the resulting dialogue is often implausibly expositional in order to explain what has happened in the intervening years between each snapshot. However, the structure of the book does also give the reader a sense of involvement in the community, as it feels like one has gotten to know a very large group of people after reading all the interconnected stories. These stories explore the various types of oppression and violence experienced by women in a strongly patriarchal society where daughters are seen as a curse, and many of these stories end tragically. Like both Green and Fazlul, though, Sidhu manages to convey tragedy without melodrama. The narratives are true to life and life is often sad, but they are also full of characters who try to make the best of the situation and of themselves. There is also a clear trajectory of progress in Tears of Mehndi as the same background characters age and learn, changing their attitudes over time. It is ultimately an optimistic novel.
Tears of Mehndi comes with a foreword by a Senator of Canada, the Honourable Yonah Martin, who claims that this novel is universalizing and “relevant to us all,” but the exact opposite is also true. The strength of Sidhu’s work is that it does not let the reader forget that things happen to people because of their positions in life, their specific cultural upbringings, their geographic locations, and their gender. Sidhu’s acknowledgements, like the interview with the author included at the end of Green’s novel, reveal a desire to get the story “right,” just as Fazlul’s author biography states that The Harem was inspired by her own work as a “phone girl” for an escort service. All three authors share a similar dedication to authenticity and telling the truth of their experiences.