Deconstructing CANLIT: Considering the Other

— No language is neutral

Derek Walcott

To my students at the local university I announced that we would be reading the essay “My Canada,” and, who is the author (I’d told them previously)? “That girl from India,” blared out one student at the back.  That girl from India–I corrected–is Canadian writer Anita Rau Badami; she definitely isn’t the Other; and, indeed, her essay emphasized the positive view of Canada from a new immigrant’s perspective with her intriguing view that Canada is “like a shy coquette.”  Ah, more than a shy coquette, I think, with all our polarities and diversities, in an inexorably changing land:  “the first post-modernist country,” as former Prime Minister Paul Martin called it in his inaugural address a few years back; and, I believe, he really had in mind the contributions made by our artists and writers of diverse backgrounds.  In deconstructing Canlit, if just the conventional view of it with writers like Austin Clarke, Rohinton Ministry, M.G.Vassanji, and Larissa Lai making their mark–in what’s being called the “international” phase of our writing (David Staines)–everything seems tied to identity a la multiculturalism, albeit Michael Ignatieff’s urging us to consider “the narcissism of our small differences” in a country with a “triangular foundation”–English, French, and Aboriginal heritage–as John Ralston Saul describes it.

Not unexpectedly, literature plays a formative or foundational role in nation-building; Aldous Huxley puts it best: “Nations are to a large extent invented by their poets and novelists,” no doubt by just evoking “a sacred memory from childhood” (Dostoevsky), which lots of immigrant writers–so-called–bring to bear in their narrative form and craft. But, I ask: Is the talent coming from multicultural communities be any real surprise? Demographic changes, seen markedly in our cities–where most Canadians now live–lead us to the expectation of a dynamic country as more talented people keep coming to our shores; and, I will argue this is where our new readership (of books) lies because of the changing cultural fabric and the challenge to sustain and foster a viable reading culture, especially among new ethnocultural communities. Of relevance, too, is the view that all our peoples wish to see themselves reflected or actualized in the shaping of the country, beyond mundane nation-building or political terms as we keep coming to grips with what Margaret Atwood calls “the idea of the north” (geography is destiny–as has been said so often). But gone are the days when Indian novelist Bharati Mukherjee (when she’d lived in Montreal) had been told by a CBC interviewer–that you have “to play in snow as a child to be considered Canadian”; or, as I was asked at the University of Miami a few years back that I couldn’t be considered Canadian if I didn’t write about the Franklin Expedition.

New histories, mythologies, are now all before us: burgeoning in our changing imaginative landscape with metonymy and metaphor coming from sources other than the Bible a la Northrop Frye’s the Great Code.  Psychological-cum-artistic expression is integral to who we are, and are becoming, as we go beyond Eurocentric ways of apprehending reality and conceiving our world, though with inchoate or organic  Canadian idioms and simultaneously embrace our humanity, perhaps in more than post-modernist evaluation; and, this should supplant the view of our seeing immigrants as just fodder for economic growth (people as mere utility) in governmental policy frameworks.  Our beingness is an essential paradigm integral to our lives as humans with mind, spirit and emotion as we strive to build communities and social cohesion while sustaining a culture of the arts with reading at the core and keep defining ourselves.

No longer is artistic taste defined in elitist universalist terms, I may argue, by those obsessed with maintaining power-structures and the status quo; this is simply counter-intuitive, in view of where our country is heading as we welcome change; and, salient too, is the fact artists have always tended to be in the forefront of developing new ways of seeing, as it has occurred to me, with an inherent sense of antithesis and paradox. New vision, or just different angles of seeing have helped us interpret our world with new or nascent imaginative streams, as notions of national identity continue to be dynamic. Indeed,  Brazil is a classic example of a country where diversity lends vitality to a culture, as nothing is tied to a soul-destroying homogeneity. And as demographic shifts continue, it will necessarily lead to re-definitions of our cultural and psychic space.

With some of these seminal views in mind, more than two decades ago I edited  A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary  Landscape (Mosaic Press, 1987), and Another Way to Dance: Asian-Canadian Writers in Canada and the USA (TSAR Publications, 1990), to give attention to our writers coming from diverse backgrounds.  Others have done this too in varying ways in promoting what appears to go beyond the traditional cultural phalanx; and, as I see it, it also circumscribes or accommodates Aboriginal writers and artists very much in the mix as we capitalize on the range of myths and traditions stemming from the human spirit’s far reach stretching from the Arctic to the Amazon to Rajasthan. My latest anthology, Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (TSAR) aims to do just this, if only as “a “community service” (as the publisher calls it) in confronting our growing diversity and coming to grips with our identity.

Importantly, our educational institutions must take the lead in broadening the curriculum and embrace a wider canon for us to become more relevant in a genuinely post-modernist world, one with a growing, sometimes deadening, globalization all around. In this context, my dismay stems from the fact that new graduate students at our universities appear unaware of writers like Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, or Wole Soyinka, Nobel-prize winners all, thereby missing out on uniquely original ways of apprehending our world. Publishers and literary-magazine editors too must play an active role by broadening their outlooks, more than they currently do; they must seek out talented writers from the multi-ethnic communities. The aim of fostering new reading publics and extending imaginative horizons should form an underlying raison d’etre, if literary magazines (little as they are read) are to foster their international outreach, perhaps by inviting writers of the aforesaid backgrounds to submit works and thereby tap into the networks many immigrants inevitably bring with them.

Publishers in the Literary Press Group–and others–may be doing this already;  but it should be done more strategically, in order to reach places like India, China, Brazil, not just Europe or America, as we make Canadian literature better known. In achieving this, new aesthetic ways  will come about that incorporate relatively new motifs and tropes,  added to the new linguistic styles tied to orality that many of new writers bring to bear in their creative processes. Unique language-use and expressions, different cadences, with varying  rhythms and inflexions outside of the norm of standard English will result in genuine half-blood blues.

I contend that there are no permanent or fixed aesthetic concepts in view of the  post-modernist and post-colonial world we live in. Different echoes and resonances are all around us even as social media impulses  facilitate different feelings and emotive states that go beyond passe self-reflexive angst. Our writing will be infused with genuinely felt or relevant experience in a changing world.  I think we fail to do this at our peril; more is promised with the vast potentiality at our doorstep as art must indeed thrive on difference and paradox (as I’ve said). To echo Salman Rushdie,  our identity is at once plural and partial: “we straddle two cultures, we fall between two stools,” as immigrant writers; and, in reflecting the so-called mirror of life as reality, it is also what’s behind the mirror, or perceived in the “broken mirror”  with all the discontinuities, dislocations, and ambiguities–Rushdie adds–far beyond imaginary homelands. “It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost,” Rushdie argues.

Cultural memory is also at the core of understanding ourselves, as we reconfigure identity in evaluating accepted notions and standards.  With memory tied to identity and becoming  actualized,  it will likely establish stronger and more coherent communities, I believe. As Edward Said opined,  “our lives teach us who we are”; and, a writer like myself, keeps continually looking for new or different angles tied to a narrative voice associated on occasion with a two-toned English because of my Caribbean-immigrant background; and, you see, there’s nothing of the “enigma” because of our “arrival.”   An evolving Canada is my space as I consciously (or unconsciously) broaden the vision encapsulated in “idea of the North”.  And I will use language to simply interpret the past with sometimes “fractured experiences” stemming from the residues of experience with colonialism. As Canada vaunts its  human rights record, the discourse associated with multiculturalism becomes more relevant, I suspect. This “realism,” as I see it, is closely integrated with overall language-use, added to dialectal and sprung-rhythms at work (as T.S. Eliot puts it,   the aim of the poet is to “purify the dialect of the tribe”). And, as always,  for me,  “literature  is the combination of the alphabet with volatile elements of the soul” (Eldridge Cleaver).

It’s been said that a writer must mythologize the ground– the Great White North–on which he walks, though now there’s what’s being called “the tropicalization of Canada”–Toronto is being described as the “Caribbean of the North” (the same can be said of New York City and  South Florida); and, as a writer I seek to expand my own landscape of the imagination by also recognizing my early years in Canada when I lived in the Lake Superior region; and, I will keep striving to bring the heartland closer to me more than viewing flora and fauna as tropes; in  delineating reality, I will keep seeing the “past as a condition of the present,” as Scottish-Canadian novelist Alistair McLeod describes it.

In my Canada, the imagination helps me shape irony, which  motivated me to entitle one of  my books  North  of the Equator (short-story collection), with concrete places in mind; as Carl Jung puts it, “anything psychic is Janus-faced”–it looks forwards and backwards,  simultaneously; and  maybe  I am a better writer for it for being aware of more than one place: with memory constantly alive with metaphor as the Muse directs it. And I will say and see the word, as in “Sir James Douglas: Father of British Columbia”–one of my better-known poems–since Douglas,  born in British Guiana (Scottish background),  came to Canada via the Hudson Bay Company–which suggests a true multicultural spirit in action, and it allows me to dwell on history in numinous or just tangible ways.  Now living in Ottawa, it is this consciousness of a richer world in my day-to-day experience, as well as my taking part of a horizontal realignment: that is, enabling me to see the Americas not with hierarchies deriving from “the  imperial gaze.”

I will also try to escape the solitude of the labyrinth (Borges), maybe in a true post-modernist sense, maybe more than just checking out one’s groovy karmas stemming from what’s perceived as “exotic,” as I yearn for transcendence and keep envisioning Canada as more than “a shy coquette,” but being a “wanderer across cultures” –as George Steiner puts it–nothing less.


Cyril Dabydeen is a Professor of English at the University of Ottawa and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Caribbean Literatures. He is also the author of several books of poetry and fiction.