The Year of Memory and Discovery

Reviewed by Shao-Pin Luo

Judy Fong Bates’ memoir, The Year of Finding Memory, comes after a novel Midnight at the Dragon Café (2004) and a short-story collection China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry (2007), both critically acclaimed. The book’s beautiful cover of the green Chinese countryside is overlain with Chinese characters that advise “caution” and “care” and with stamps from Canadian immigration documents. The story begins, as many immigrant narratives do, with the proverbial suitcase/cardboard box that contains the author’s father’s Canadian citizenship certificate dated 1950, along with the head tax certificate, that cost its holder five hundred dollars. Unhappiness permeated Fong Bates’ parents’ life in Canada, where they operated a hand-laundry in small town Ontario, a land that, after decades, still remained foreign to them. It is the complex feeling of rage, grief, and a desire to bring together the “two stranded parts” of her parents’ lives that prompts Fong Bates to make two trips in 2006-2007 to China, the ancestral land of her parents.

In her Author’s Note, Fong Bates makes it clear that her memoir is a work of creative non-fiction. Indeed, although perhaps less innovative in experimenting with the genre of memoir, The Year of Finding Memory is written in the tradition of the Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. The word “finding” in the book’s title is an intriguing choice. The author left Mainland China at three years old and arrived in Canada after two years in Hong Kong. She remembers “almost nothing” of China: “My childhood memories of China have a womblike quality to them, free floating and seen through a watery lens.” The act of writing and remembering is a complex process; memory itself for Fong Bates is elusive, fragmentary, and unreliable, embellished by her mother’s stories and those of her relatives whom she encounters in China. These stories that contain contradictions, wilful elisions and outright lies as well as grains of truth. The book is full of phrases such as “I imagined,” “I pictured,” “I can only guess,” “I will never know,” as well as lingering questions: where exactly was the place where the author was born, why did the mother marry the father, and ultimately, what makes a person leave or stay in a place? Having grown up in Canada, the author has “great curiosity but no real emotional attachment” towards China. Once in Kaiping County, in Guangdong Province, southern China, as she explores the villages and towns and meets with her long-lost relatives, the stories her mother told come to life in front of her eyes. To her own surprise, she detects a familiarity in the rhythm of speech in an older sister whom she had not seen in fifty years, and in her niece she finds familiar “the way her eyes crinkled into the shape of crescent moons, the curve of her mouth when she smiled.” She imagines the life of her parents in these places and her mind is brought to the turbulent history of twentieth-century China: the Second World War, the Communist Takeover, the Cultural Revolution, and the more recent modernization. However, Fong Bates’ interest and focus is on personal family history. She yearns to see a China that belonged to her parents’ time, symbolized by the traditional rooftops with the ornamental dragons and the watch towers that have stood still through the centuries that she describes with care and documents through photos.

Finally, the journey becomes a process for the daughter to work through feelings of embarrassment, resentment, and incomprehension towards her parents, to reach, if not epiphanies, then a “richer sort of knowing” and an understanding of the parents’ past, their burdens and hardships, secrets and shame, isolation and bitterness, and the racism and prejudices they suffered in their new country. In language that is vivid and compelling, Fong Bates gives voice to the stories of her parents and the history of that generation of immigrants who struggled to survive and sometimes failed, and the heroism and meaning in that failure. As she watches her husband Michael tending his garden and remembers her father recreating China in his garden full of Chinese vegetables, Fong Bates contemplates the concepts of home and garden, finding “seeds of affinity” with her parents and with China: “We had our seeds, even though we’d come all the way to China to find them.”

An accomplished writer of three collections of short stories and three previous novels, Rabindranath Mararaj has lived for many years in Ajax, Ontario. One could perhaps call his latest novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, “the year of finding Canada,” or more specifically Toronto. The book’s use of the comic-book genre to portray experiences of immigration brings to mind Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—a much grander and more sophisticated novel: not only do both novels begin with a seventeen-year-old, comic-book-obsessed protagonist named Sammy, but more importantly, they also share the common themes of orphanhood and being an immigrant in a metropolitan city.

After his mother’s death, Sam sets off from Trinidad for Toronto in search of his father, who abandoned him and his mother when he was only six. A “nowhereian,” or a wanderer, according to uncle Boysie, Danny Persad is someone who “never got out from his make-believe world and so could never change” and whose life, Sam subsequently discovers, consists of smoking on the balcony and watching Mythbusters and MacGuyver on TV. Like Fong Bates’ memoir, this novel is partly an account of a father’s silent failure in Canada. Sam views his new surroundings with innocence and wonder and as if they were panels in comic-books, full of surprises and dangers. He imagines the people on the subway as “mole people” and runs into characters from comic books such as a “big shaved-head monster that looked exactly like Bane from the Batman comics.” The comic book approach provides the young narrator, who regards himself as a “strange visitor from another planet,” with an immediate way to make sense of an alien landscape. One of the central questions posed in the novel is “What is a regular Canadian?” As Sam wanders around the city, he encounters an assortment of eccentric and fantastic characters. Among them, there is the Christopher Plummer Man, one of the old-timers at the Coffee Time, who greets people in their own languages, be they Japanese or Persian, and from whom Sam learns about Cabbagetown and Brantford, as well as Chinatown and Little Italy: “Just cross the street and you are in a different country. Everybody’s here.” At the gas station where Sam finds temporary work, there is Paul the Petroman who tells him about the cab drivers who “were all doctors and lawyers and inventors and refugees and terrorists and Nazis and escaped criminals from other countries.” Among Paul’s customers, one of the most enigmatic is Dr. Bat, short for Bharanbose Atambee Tulip, who has a pet lizard named Trudeau, is in search of Chinooks or the baby Dalai Lama in Newfoundland, and wants to write a book about ice kangaroos, snow crabs, and a superhero named Captain Hindustani. At the library where immigrants congregate for assorted seminars and resources, Sam meets the Chimera, who has been composing a poem since 1984 but could not advance beyond the first two lines: “the snow piffles / Like orphaned kittens.”

Eventually, Sam signs up for a diploma in Communications and Culture at the college, taking classes in internet films and streaming videos as well as folklore, which allows him to make connections between avatars from video games and shape-shifting lagahoos and ball-of-fire souyoucants in Caribbean folklore. In the process of gathering stories and, as it were, gaining the magic of Caribbean shapeshifters or the powers of superheroes, Sam has himself become the amazing absorbing boy, adroit at “adaptation and improvisation”: “My world wasn’t make-believe but was a patch of every amazing thing that I had touched and absorbed.” So it is in the settings of the coffee shop, the gas station, an antique store, a video shop, the library, and the Station, where there is “a caravan of people, moving and moving,” that Mararaj, through Sam, succeeds in conjuring up with compassion and humour a myriad of immigrant characters and in capturing their voices and accents, their histories and stories, their unfulfilled aspirations and dreams of having a house, a place, a community, and most of all their desire for expression, to tell their stories in poems, novels, movies, and in the end, coming to a composite portrait of a typical Canadian.

This review “The Year of Memory and Discovery” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 130-132.

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