My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages
Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in 1945 in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1985 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.
Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”
One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.
Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.
In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.
Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.
His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.
“Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.
“Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?
“Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.
The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming,” he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.
“The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.
The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!