Strange Encounters

Staging Strangers and Extended Families are both non-fictional texts that acknowledge the gap between the self and the other. In Staging Strangers, Barry Freeman carefully develops his terminology around global ethics and selectively documents a history of Canadian theatre with his focus on multicultural theatre. In contrast, Ven Begamudré gestures at difference and pays particular attention to individuals in his family both immediate and extended. Unlike Freeman’s very scholarly and convincing discourse that unifies his argument, Begamudré’s more loosely constructed memoir plays with form through its inclusion of photographs, notes, interviews, and excerpts from journal articles, as well as a scholarly book, personal journal entries, self-written fiction, and mythology. In form and in storytelling style, Begamudré’s text brings to mind Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family—a fictional memoir that also combines photographs, poems, quotations, and notes.

In his prologue, Freeman defines the concept of the “stranger” in contrast to the “neighbour.” In Chapter One, he traces the development of multiculturalism in Canada beginning with Toronto as a “world city.” He focuses on multiculturalism as an “ethical project” rather than a “political project” and emphasizes the “politics of recognition.” Furthermore, he “distinguish[es] the ethical from the moral.” Consequently, Freeman “analyze[s] theatrical poetics and strategies for how they configure the audience in an ethics of difference” and “provide[s] a language for understanding theatre as an intercultural, intersubjective, ethical encounter.” He does this in his following chapters through a close examination of a particular theatre company, Toronto’s Czech and Slovak Nové divadlo (New Theatre), and through the following plays: Betty Quan’s Mother Tongue, Catherine Hernandez’s Singkil, Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, Ahmed Ghazali’s The Sheep and the Whale, Matthew McKenzie’s SIA, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s Nightmare/Dream, and Debajehmujig Storytellers’ The Global Savages. In his epilogue, Freeman concludes that

[i]n addition to working up a skeptical perspective on ethics, [he] hope[s] the book has also demonstrated positive ways in which strangers positioned at the threshold often exhibit a kind of psychic dual citizenship that can challenge calcified or stagnant notions of community.

Freeman also comments on his

discovery that in discussing the ethics of staging strangers [he] was necessarily discussing audiences, both in the sense of individual viewing subjects and as a viewing ‘public’ that constitutes larger ‘circles of the “we,”’ including the multicultural nation, the West, or humanity.

Finally, he also “hope[s] the book has made clear the need for a difficult and indeterminate ethics.”

On a more personal note, Begamudré asks, “Am I Indian or Canadian?” and answers “I was neither; I was both.” He also confesses, “It’s not that I feel like a stranger. A lot of this seems familiar to me. I’ve come back, but I want to go back farther.” He carries on speaking to himself in italics quoting “people,” “Don’t write because you have to tell a story; write because you have a story to tell.” Begamudré’s inner dialogue reflects other parts of his memoir where he further reveals his fragmented self by speaking of himself in the third person: “In 1963 or ’64, the boy who disliked small, dim places was living in Canada.” In his memoir, Begamudré explores his sense of Freeman’s “psychic dual citizenship” by reaching into his Indian past and trying to connect it to his Canadian present, by voicing and trying to understand his feelings of being in-between his estranged parents as well as other estranged members of his extended family, and by determining his identity as a writer and a non-writer of fiction and non-fiction. He includes unfinished fictional stories that follow from actual events in his family’s history. He also acknowledges, “My father . . . would have told parts of this story differently. He did, in fact, tell parts of it differently.” However, in spite of its fragmentation, fictionalization, and diverse forms, Begamudré’s account is unified by its search for Ananda (also the name of his uncle): “Whether it means happiness or joy, Ananda is a feature of self-realization. Ananda also means bliss.”

Both Begamudré and Freeman consider the multicultural nature of Canada. Their strange encounters with the estranged create spaces for reflection on a journey that is national, global, and potentially very hopeful.

This review “Strange Encounters” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 142-143.

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