Unpacking Migration

Reviewed by Emily Ballantyne

The collections of migrant writing edited by Welsh Canadian Donald F. Mulcahy—A Second Coming and Coming Here, Being Here—are primarily framed as a celebration of Canada as an adopted homeland, where opportunity and freedom from oppression have allowed peoples from around the world a safe harbour and a fresh start. Both volumes involve a diverse array of authors and perspectives, primarily European, on immigration to Canada and its impact on their descendants. These personal and fictional reflections on the experience of migrant life in Canada are strongest when they nuance and at times challenge Canada as a welcoming land of bounty and multicultural harmony, and when they trouble migration as a linear, progressive narrative.

In A Second Coming, the narrators can sometimes be careful observers and comparative thinkers. Veena Gokhale’s “Fantastic Falafel” contrasts the experience of Keshav with that of his former university mate Vaman; Keshav unexpectedly encounters Vaman and slowly identifies the changes they have each gone through after their long separation. In Michael Mirolla’s “Above El Club El Salvador,” a second-generation Italian Canadian graduate student hunting for an apartment is compelled to take political and social action after renting a space above a social club of raucous guerilla resistance fighters from El Salvador. Many of the authors construct intensely reflective witnesses who nuance the experience of identifying as a Canadian, as a newcomer, and as a resident in conflicting cultural spaces. Changes in identity, by choice and by circumstance, are a common thread in A Second Coming. Where in “I Am Anil,” Romeo Kaseram presents the complexity of a rebel soldier coming to terms with his assumed identity as a war victim, in “Mephisto in the Land of Ice and Snow,” Eileen Lohka beautifully confronts her narrator’s growing dissatisfaction with assimilation. “Mephisto” explores the psychological tolls on Kamla, a young immigrant woman who chooses to assimilate into the expectations of white, masculinist Canadian culture and suffers long-term repercussions as the repressed, but more socially accepted, “Camilla.”

Coming Here, Being Here, the non-fiction companion to A Second Coming, is much more of a pastiche of forms and styles. While some authors offer their own personal memoirs, others contribute newspaper articles, narrative genealogies, and letters. There are a number of highly engaged reflections on language, translation, and identity, including works by Laurent Chabin, H. Masud Taj, and Myrna Kostash. Barbara Janusz offers a moving reflection on providing legal counsel to a Polish refugee who misunderstood the distinction between stores in a mall and departments in a store, accidentally stole a pair of boots, and must navigate the Canadian justice system. Other writers trace their own family genealogies and histories in Canada, and engage in journeys of return through historical research, personal interviews, and travel. Particularly memorable are the ways that found objects feature in Coming Here, Being Here. Vid Ingelevics discovered that his deceased father kept mementos from every time his name was misspelled; Iris Jones uncovers letters from a young immigrant woman in Saskatchewan to her friends in Wales. Carrie-Ann Smith identifies perhaps the most amusing found object of all: cornflakes. This Canadian staple, part of welcome packages offered at the Pier 21 immigration facility and elsewhere, was a first taste of Canadian society. Most often, they were littered on the floors by disapproving newcomers, providing a soundscape for the first crunching steps into Canada. Though the stories and non-fictional accounts vary in style, perspective, and quality, the take-away of these two collections is that “Canadian” continues to be an unsettled identity that requires constant unpacking, reimagining and, hopefully, revising to better account for the diversity of its iterations.

This review “Unpacking Migration” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 171-172.

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