Shifting Cadences

  • Gurjinder Basran
    Everything Was Good-bye. Mother Tongue
  • Proma Tagore
    language is not the only thing that breaks. Arsenal Pulp Press
  • Rishma Dunlop and Suzanne Northcott (Illustrator)
    White Album. Inanna Publications and Education
  • Rishma Dunlop
    Lover Through Departure: New and Selected Poems. Mansfield Press
Reviewed by Ranbir K. Banwait

A coterie of texts draws attention to a growing body of work by South Asian Canadian women writers. Mediating diasporic sensibilities through a gender-specific locale, each of the following texts differently references how minority writing is fraught with expectations about the representation of ethnicity. As Christine Kim notes in her attention to feminist minority writing and the demands of the literary marketplace in “Troubling the Mosaic,” works by ethnic writers often face the risk of being read more for their ethnographic insight into the different communities assigned to them, rather than for their artistic value. When read as “examples of cultural difference,” they can be readily consumed for their representation of otherness; this allows the marketplace to assimilate minoritarian texts in a self-validating gesture that, in turn, consolidates dominant views of ethnic difference vis-à-vis whiteness. It is thus of interest to see how questions of form and “cultural difference” coalesce in the texts of Proma Tagore, Rishma Dunlop, and Gurjinder Basran, given media portrayals of South Asian difference in Canada and its association with the spectacle of patriarchy, religious institutions, and the excessive semiotics of the turban.

Tagore’s language is not the only thing that breaks, a debut collection of poems, refuses to focus on a singular ethnic community, displaying a keen awareness of the global realities of displacement and imperialism through the spatial poetics of the body’s fragmentation. Writing, for instance, for Reena Virk or of “disappeared women / driven under dreams,” Tagore explores the interlacing of news events within quotidian spaces of remembering and forgetting: “in places where memory is impossible, / your story lives resilient.” Tracing the topography of the body through the landscapes that the poet inhabits, language recaps racial discrimination and local histories, as well as cross-cultural social and political alliances: “how other bodies hold up / workers reservations.” The shifting rhythms of the line breaks sift longing in Tagore’s poems, calling for a nuanced reading of “cultural difference” as a part of larger patterns of capital, migration, and labour.

Taking a different approach, Rishma Dunlop’s collections, Lover Through Departure and her collaborative work with artist Suzanne Northcott entitled White Album, scrutinize political and cultural landscapes from the lens of diasporic subjectivities that immigrate, migrate, and travel. White Album reflects on girlhood by featuring the historical backdrop of the 1960s. Northcott’s paintings punctuate this collection along with the lyrics of some of the most popular songs of the time: “I waltz / the waltz from War and Peace amidst the clang . . . / In the kitchen, mother hums through a clatter of dishes / and reports of massacres in Cambodia.” By adding a multimedia dimension to the poetic text, Dunlop stacks her archive of the past alongside her review of global events such as the war in Iraq: “Citizens become aliens / women’s veils become partitions. / Turbaned men drive taxis, / English a raw tangle of verbs.” Indeed, it is precisely Dunlop’s exploration of the loss of the familial through the loss of the father in both poetic texts that is lyrically effective. Rendering images of the turban through the lens of mourning, Dunlop situates the turban in its historical and political contexts: “the / teacher would . . . use her / wooden pointer to show the countries / of the Empire / the . . . / red stain that marked them soft burgundy / like the colour of my father’s turban.”

Conversely, Gurjinder Basran’s novel, Everything Was Good-bye, complicates such a deconstructive move in its portrayal of a troubled ethnic enclave. The novel offers a coming-of-age narrative of a woman who grows up in BC and whose life criss-crosses the borders of both the white and Sikh communities where she subsists on the margins. Raised by her widowed mother, time and again Meena flirts with the now-familiar trope of the forbidden through her attachment to a white boy. When they meet again years later, the two once more test the limits of what is socially and culturally possible (or suicidal). A perpetually melancholic subject who comes up against the patriarchal structures of her ethnic community and whose romance over-determines the course of her life, Meena embodies both the effects and stereotypes of ghettoization. A part of the novel’s appeal to the literary consumer lies in its potential as popular fiction, a testament to an emerging readership of South Asian Canadian narratives.

In negotiating the multiple dimensions of diasporic living, these texts by Tagore, Dunlop, and Basran reflect on the race and gender-nexus in multicultural Canada. In doing so, they ask the reader to be attentive to the punctuating mark of the global on the local and of patriarchy as a pervasive social reality, not one that’s only particular to minority communities.

This review “Shifting Cadences” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 154-55.

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