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Hazel Rochman (essay date March-April 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5102

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. “Against Borders.” Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 2 (March-April 1995): 144-57.

[In the following essay, Rochman explores how multicultural literature can introduce readers—particularly young adults—to a diverse range of cultures, transcending social, political, and personal barriers.]

If anyone had told me when I was growing up in South Africa that I would be living in Chicago one day and writing about multiculturalism in children's books, I would have thought they were crazy. I thought my place was really off the map; nothing could happen there that would interest the rest of the world. And I thought there was nothing connecting us. My view of Chicago, in fact of all the United States, came from Hollywood musicals and cowboy movies, and from stories about gangsters like Al Capone. Even today, that's how many South Africans imagine things here.

In the same way, many people in the U.S. imagine that South Africa—the whole of Africa—is a steamy jungle with exotic wild animals and primitive natives and Tarzan and a few people on safari. Recently images of suffering, starving babies and massacre, have gotten mixed in with the stereotypes, but it's all a vague picture of dark, primitive Africa.

Who would have thought that Nelson Mandela would one day be the most famous person in the world? Who would have dreamed South Africa would have multiracial elections and everyone would vote, including the eighteen million black people who had never voted before, and a black government would be elected to rule and the whole world would be watching? My husband went back to Cape Town to work for the African National Congress in the election. He stood with those people we saw on television, people lining up for hours and hours, some with babies on their backs, to vote for the first time in their lives. He brought back a copy of the ballot. My son says it's like having a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Walls were what apartheid was about. Walls and borders.

And now after all the long years of boycotts and sanctions, South Africa is no longer a pariah, but a member of the international community. It's strange to be bragging about my birthplace. I was always ashamed to say I was raised in South Africa. When strangers here told me they liked my accent and asked me where I was from, I usually mumbled something about having spent time in England. Or, if I said South Africa, I quickly went into a long denial about not being part of the apartheid regime.

But it wasn't as simple as that. I was part of it when I was growing up, even though I didn't realize it. I was against apartheid, but it didn't seem to have much to do with me. I grew up in a liberal home. I wasn't allowed to make racist remarks. I thought I was a good person. I didn't see what was going on around me. I never noticed that there were no black kids my age in my neighborhood; not one black student in my school. We weren't rich, but every white family I knew had at least one servant. I just accepted that the woman who cooked and cleaned for us and lived in a room in the backyard—we knew only her first name or referred to her as the “girl”—I never thought that her children lived far away and she was forced to leave them in order to come and look after me. I remember vaguely that one of her children died. I never asked her...

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about her life. I couldn't imagine her story.

I wasn't into politics. My interest has always been in people, in personal relationships. I thought that those who marched with banners and slogans, who picketed and demonstrated, were a bore. I tried to be a “good girl.” To be a loyal and sensitive friend, a decent member of my community, to care about people. But “people” were white. The white South African writer Nadine Gordimer says that she once moved among blacks “as if they were trees or grass.”

It's not just South Africa. The poet Adrienne Rich talks about a similar experience growing up white in this country, about “the apartheid of the imagination.” She was not brought up to hate, she says: she was brought up “within the circumference of white language and metaphor.” Language was with her, like the wind at her back as she ran across a field. Only much later did she realize “how hard, against others, that wind can blow.”

Just as I, a white child in Johannesburg, saw the blacks around me as undifferentiated “natives,” so Maya Angelou growing up in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, couldn't see whites as individuals: “People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn't like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren't considered folks. They were whitefolks.”

They all look alike. We are individuals.

In South Africa that kind of apartness was the law. Racism was the law. This is the fury with which Mandela describes that law “diabolical in its detail … the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives. It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.”

Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison. And during those dark years, it was a crime to quote his words. To keep the apartheid system going you had to have fierce censorship. You had to control what people saw and thought. It was a police state. There were borders and barriers everywhere, barbed wire around our homes and in ourselves. There was blanket censorship of books and newspapers. Radio was state controlled. Until 1976 there was no television at all. The “public” library was for whites only. Most black writers were banned, banished, imprisoned.

The apartheid government with its rigorous censorship was right about one thing: books matter. The stories you read can transform you because they help you imagine beyond yourself. If you read only what mirrors your view of yourself, you get locked in. It's as if you're in a stupor or under a spell. Buried.

As an immigrant, I'm still unable to take for granted the freedoms of the First Amendment. In Johannesburg I worked as a journalist, and over many years I saw freedom of thought and expression whittled away until it was forbidden to criticize the government or even to ask questions about children detained and tortured without trial. The result of that kind of censorship is that most people can shut out, can not know, what is happening all around them.

Apartheid has tried to make us bury our books. The Inquisition and the Nazis burned books. Slaves in the United States were forbidden to read books. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, they've trashed books. But the stories are still here.

I believe that the best books can make a difference in building community. They can break down borders. And the way that they do that is not with role models and recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person—their meanness and their courage—then you've reached beyond stereotype.

When Bill Ott, Editor and Publisher of Booklist, asked me to do a book about promoting multiculturalism, I thought it would be straightforward. Booklist has been publishing fine ethnic bibliographies for years (from “Growing Up Native American” to “World Cultures”), and it seemed a good idea to pull them together, update and expand them, and make a book. ALA Books became co-publishers of Against Borders—my editor there was Bonnie Smothers. From the beginning Bill, Bonnie, and I were vehement that multiculturalism means across cultures, against borders; and multiculturalism doesn't mean only people of color. Multiculturalism isn't a special subject of an anthology or a separate area of a library, or a special month of the year, or a special view of history. It's part of everything we do. It's us.

There's no doubt that some kinds of Eurocentric books have dominated the mainstream for a long time and that some cultures have been largely ignored. But the best way to promote them is together, not patronizingly as something cute and exotic and apart, but as good books. To join stories across cultures in my book, I chose the theme of the perilous journey: stories about heroes and monsters, friends and outsiders, that are part of everyone's search for home.

One of the positive effects of the whole multicultural emphasis is that—even with books that have nothing to do with ethnicity, books about making friends or sibling rivalry or mathematics—you no longer have all-white classrooms and all-white neighborhoods. The multicultural cast is becoming the norm in illustration of concept books, and I seldom comment on it now in a review. But it would be insulting to say that these books are good because they're multicultural.

In fact, one kind of book that doesn't work is the one that deliberately takes multiculturalism, and only multiculturalism, as its subject. That's like making life the theme of a book. What would you leave out?

Underlying much of the debate is the demand that each book must do it all. If you think that the book you're selecting or promoting is the only one kids are ever going to read on a subject—about or with a single-parent family or with a Jewish character or with a gay character or with a grandmother—then there's intense pressure to choose the “right” book with the “right” message. If we don't watch out, reading becomes medicine, therapy. We start to recommend books because they give us the “right” role models, depending on what's considered “right” in the current political climate.

The poet and columnist Katha Pollitt wrote in a brilliant article in The Nation that it's because young people read so little that there's such furious debate about the canon. If they read all kinds of books all the time, particular books wouldn't matter so much. The paradox is that if we give young people didactic tracts, or stories so bland that they offend nobody, or so inclusive that nothing is left out, we're going to make them read even less. There has to be tension and personality, laughter and passionate conflict, if you're going to grab kids and touch them deeply. If you want them to read.

A good story is rich with ambiguity, with uncertainty. You sympathize with people of all kinds, and neither side wins. The Israeli writer Amos Oz talks about the difference between his politics and his fiction: “Each time I agree with myself, I write an essay. When I disagree with myself, I know that I'm pregnant with a short story or a novel. Then I enter the lives of my different characters, giving them all their say fairly.”

A library collection does have to satisfy all kinds of requirements. But each book can't do it all. I once heard Walter Dean Myers speak at a conference in New York City, and someone in the audience asked him why he wrote a book about black kids playing basketball; it's such a stereotype, why was he feeding it? “Every book I write,” he replied, “can't take on the whole African-American experience.” He said he had written other books in which kids did other things. But, he said, he likes basketball; lots of African-American kids like basketball; and this one book is about that world.

What's more, one writer is not the representative of a whole ethnic group. Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote the classic memoir The Woman Warrior, complains about “the expectation among readers and critics that I should represent the race. Each artist has a unique voice.” She says, “What I look forward to is the time when many of us are published and then we will be able to see the range of viewpoints, of visions, of what it is to be Chinese-American.” Phoebe Yeh, a children's book editor at Scholastic, says that she is a reader before she is a Chinese. Cynthia Kadohata says that “being Asian” is not the focus of her writing: “a writer has no special obligation to his or her race unless such obligation resides in the heart.”

I'm a Jew, and I'm a white African American—but I can't speak for all Jews. Nor for all South Africans; not even for all South Africans who are anti-apartheid.

In the same way, every gay or lesbian writer doesn't speak for every gay and lesbian, and doesn't write only about the gay and lesbian experience. We are all part of many communities—whether the community is defined by ethnicity or sexual orientation or age or neighborhood or work or sport or hobby. And what's more, the closer you look, the more diverse each community is.

At the Booklist Open Forum at the last ALA conference in Miami, they discussed translation of books into Spanish. Which Spanish? Whose Spanish? Who's speaking? Spanish in Mexico? In Puerto Rico? Latinos in Chicago? What's a good translation? How colloquial should it be? Correct for whom? I speak three kinds of English—South African, British, American—no, many more kinds than three … The closer you get, the more diversity you see.

One of the big debates at the moment relates to authenticity. Of course accuracy matters. You can get a lot of things wrong as a writer, an artist, or a reviewer when you don't know a place or a culture. I'm from South Africa, so I do know that culture better than the average American does, and reviewing a book about apartheid, I might find things that you might miss. One obvious example is the use of the word native, which is a derogatory term in Africa with overtones of the primitive and uncivilized, quite different from the way it's used here. It makes me realize that I must miss things when I review books about, for example, Japan, or about Appalachia.

Being part of a culture does allow you to take more risks. You don't have to be reverential all the time. When I was choosing the stories for my anthology Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa (Harper), I struggled with a kind of patronizing guilt. I looked for stories that had the right line—brave, good, beautiful people succeeding in the fight for freedom—and I felt a great deal of pressure to include them. But several things stopped me from choosing propaganda stories. First, reviewing the books on South Africa for Booklist, I had seen too many ethnic anthologies with the right balance and the right attitudes that just weren't being read. You can't harangue people into reading, however worthy the cause. Second, I heard Nadine Gordimer speak. She was politically militant, unequivocally committed to the African National Congress and the struggle to overthrow apartheid. But she was just as adamant that the correct attitude doesn't make art. Because I knew the culture and felt at home there, I found the confidence to include all kinds of good stories—about people, not about perfect models of self-esteem.

But what about those who say that an American can never write about Japan, that men can't write about women, that Chinese Ed Young cannot illustrate African-American folklore or that the African-American writer Virginia Hamilton can't retell the story of the Russian witch Baba Yaga? In fact, some take it further. Only Indians can really judge books about Indians, Jews about Jews. And further still, you get the extreme, whites should read about whites, Latinos about Latinos, locking us into smaller and tighter boxes.

What I hear echoing in that sort of talk is the mad drumbeat of apartheidspeak. Apartheid, which means “separate development,” made laws on the basis of so-called immutable differences. Not only should whites and blacks be kept absolutely apart and educated separately; but among blacks, each “tribe” should be separate, so that Zulus should live only with Zulus and be taught in Zulu about Zulus to do things that only Zulus do. The apartheid planners said that blacks were specially suited to simple manual labor, that science and abstract thinking weren't part of their culture, and that their training should prepare them to be good servants. It's so absurd that it's hard to believe that so much of it was carried out, and with untold suffering to millions.

Children's fiction and nonfiction is full of people who don't get beyond stereotype, because the writer cannot imagine them as individuals. Traveling to foreign places—or reading about them—isn't necessarily broadening. Many tourists return from the experience with the same smug stereotypes about “us” and “them.” Too many children's books about other countries, written without knowledge or passion, take the “tourist” approach, stressing the exotic, or presenting a static society with simple categories. Francine Prose, writing in the New York Times Book Review, talks about “picture-book ethnic” where “the faces are sweetly pretty, impassive, with uniformly dark cocker spaniel eyes.” Another kind of sweet stereotype is the nonfiction photo-essay so common in children's literature, where the pictures are arranged so that the child—usually attired in national dress—goes on a “journey” that allows the book to include some colorful scenery and local customs. Such an attitude is really a failure of the imagination. The “others” aren't complex characters, like me, facing conflicting choices. In the popular safari-adventure “Out of Africa” stories, the black people are like the wild creatures, innocent, mysterious primitives offering respite to the jaded sophisticates of the West.

The other side of the savage primitive stereotype is the reverential. It's just as distancing. Just as dehumanizing. And it's the most common form of stereotyping now. Michael Dorris, a member of the Modoc tribe, wrote the introduction for the Native-American list in Against Borders. He says:

As a child, I seldom identified with Indians in books because for the most part they were utterly predictable in their reactions to events. They longed for the past, were solemn paragons of virtue, and were, in short, the last people I would choose to play with. … Indian kids seemed far too busy making pots out of clay or being fascinated by myths about the origin of the universe to be much fun.

It's obvious that for many American young people, books about “other” cultures are not as easy to pick up as YM magazine, or as easy to watch as MTV. And in fact, they shouldn't be. We don't want a homogenized culture. If you're a kid in Miami, then reading about a refugee in North Korea, or a teenager in Soweto, involves some effort, some imagination, some opening up of who you are.

Stories about foreign places risk two extremes: either they can overwhelm the reader with reverential details of idiom, background, and custom; or they can homogenize the culture and turn all the characters into kids hanging out at the mall. There's always that dynamic between the particular and the universal, between making the character and experience and culture too special, and making them too much the same.

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Knopf) by Suzanne Fisher Staples is about a young Muslim girl living with her nomadic family in the desert of Pakistan. Shabanu has spirit and intelligence, dangerous qualities in a girl, especially when at the age of twelve she's promised in marriage to an old man. As we get to care for Shabanu and what happens to her, we imagine what it must be like to be her. At the same time the story is rooted in the particulars of her culture, and the sense of her place is deeply felt. The important thing is that there's no sense of the exotic; the desert is very much there but not as scenery or travelogue.

James Berry's Ajeemah and His Son (Harper) also makes you see the universal by focusing on one person. In a searing combination of fact and fiction, Berry describes what it was like to be a slave, to become someone's property. Ajeemah and his son Atu are kidnapped and sold in West Africa, never to see home or family again. After the bitter journey to Jamaica, they are separated forever, sold off to plantations twenty miles apart. No reader or listener will forget the kidnapping scene in Africa when Ajeemah begs his captors to tell his family what's happened to him: the traders look at him as if he's crazy and we know he will never see his loved ones again.

Special programs on one particular country or ethnic group or historical event can be an important and enriching part of the library and classroom, whether the focus is on the changing patterns of immigration, Black History Month, or any indepth study of one group or event. Kids can recognize their own particular culture and understand their connection with those who appear different.

But as the writer Patricia McKissack says, “Not just for Black History Month.” As well as projects on one culture or one group, I have worked with librarians and teachers to develop all kinds of themes which draw in materials from people across cultures and across the world, whether the subject is the Hero, or the Family, or Autobiography, or Reading for Pleasure. With my friend Darlene McCampbell, an English teacher, I selected short stories for a YA anthology, Who Do You Think You Are?: Stories of Friends and Enemies (Little). We included stories by Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Richard Peck, Gish Jen, and several others. It's not that we self-righteously set out to do a book of multicultural stories. It's that whatever you do—an anthology or a booktalk or a bibliography or an exhibit on any theme or subject—you do it better if you open up your possibilities.

I write the monthly Book Reviewer's Choice column for Sesame Street Parents Magazine. I make sure that I choose great books that preschoolers will enjoy, and I look for books everywhere. I include books that show us in all our diversity. For example, in a recent column on books about food, I included Bread and Jam for Frances (Harper), that wonderful old classic about a picky eater; and Too Many Tamales (Putnam) by Gary Soto, about a Latino family preparing a Christmas feast; and How My Parents Learned to Eat (Houghton), about an American and a Japanese learning each other's table manners; and Dumpling Soup (Little) by Jama Kim Rattigan about a family New Year's Eve party in Hawaii, and lots of others, including Never Take a Pig to Lunch and Other Poems about the Fun of Eating (Orchard), selected and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott.

In talking to groups of kids about books, I use a theme to connect books across cultures. Friendship is a theme of universal interest to young people. There's no more natural way to see across cultures than to recognize in stories from everywhere your own yearning for a friend you can trust or a group you can belong to. Jacqueline Woodson's I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This (Delacorte) is a quiet, beautiful interracial friendship story in which two adolescent girls resist the bigotry in their school and the sorrow in their families and help each other find the strength to go on. You can read that with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's funny, honest books about Alice or with Rachel Vail's Ever After (Orchard), also great stories about growing up female today.

Those friendship stories are also about outsiders. Good books are never about only one theme. You could bring in S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders. Then you can move out to other books and back again. The lone gunfighter in Jack Schaefer's Shane (Houghton) is a strong outsider. So is the high school senior in Cynthia Voigt's The Runner (Atheneum), fierce and alone and determined that no one will box him in. So is Sojourner Truth, who escaped from slavery and fought all her life to free others; she was also one of the first leaders in the struggle for women's rights. Read aloud Sojourner Truth's stirring speech in reply to men who said that women need protection not equality. She was six feet tall, thin, dark, very erect:

Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles … and ain't I a woman? I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns … and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man … and bear the lash as well. And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Just about every coming-of-age story touches in some way on the outsider theme. Gender can make you an outsider. There's a case in the courts at the moment brought by a teenage girl in the Chicago suburbs who wants to be on the school wrestling team. Jerry Spinelli imagines such a scene in a funny YA novel, There's a Girl in My Hammerlock (Simon).

Maisie Brown goes out for junior high wrestling—to the consternation of her brother, the boys on the team, and most of the school. She's not sure why, at 105 pounds, she wants to learn monkey-rolls, double arm tie-ups, and all the other holds and escapes. Maybe it's because she didn't make the cheerleading squad. Maybe she's chasing Eric DeLong, the boy she loves, who's on the team. There are hilarious scenes to read aloud.

Here's how Maisie describes being in love: “Classes? Subjects? Forget it. The capital of Canada is Eric DeLong. Twelve times twelve equals Eric DeLong. The action word in a sentence is called Eric DeLong.”

You can connect that with Sandra Cisneros's rebellious Latina teenager in The House on Mango Street (Arte Publico). “I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for. … I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

From there you can lead to other stories about family. Read aloud “Those Winter Sundays,” a heartbreaking poem about a father. The writer, Robert Hayden, is African American; the situation is universal. You can bring in brothers and sisters. I love reading aloud Mary Hoberman's poem “Brother.” It begins: “I had a little brother / And I brought him to my mother / And I said I want another / Little brother for a change.”

You can talk about that with Michael Dorris's historical novel Morning Girl (Hyperion), set in 1492, which begins with a young Taino Indian girl who can't stand her brother, until, in a moment of shared grief, she suddenly discovers that he's a person. Then Columbus “discovers” them.

In my book Against Borders I have tried to give models and examples of all these kinds of projects: the kinds that focus on one culture at a time, and the kinds that connect books across cultures. At first when I was planning the book, I felt overwhelmed by the demands of political correctness. How was I going to choose the “right” books for the bibliographies and book discussions? What about all the watchdogs from everywhere who would pounce: how could you put that book in? How could you leave that title out? Even with my great editors and lots of wise and committed consultants, there were going to be so many problems. My husband is a longtime apartheid fighter. “Not problems,” he said. “Riches.

And that's really the point about the whole multicultural debate. When I lived under apartheid I thought I was privileged—and compared with the physical suffering of black people I was immeasurably well-off—but my life was impoverished. I was blind, and I was frightened. I was shut in. And I was denied access to the stories and music of the world. Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo were making music right there, and I couldn't hear them. I didn't know that in the streets of Soweto there were people like Nelson Mandela with a vision of a nonracial democracy that would change my life. I was ignorant, and I didn't know I was ignorant. I thought I was better than my mother's black housekeeper because she spoke English with an accent; but she was fluent in four languages. I didn't know anything about most of the people around me. And because of that I didn't know what I could be.

Borders shut us in, in Johannesburg, in Los Angeles, in Eastern Europe, in our own imaginations. The best books can help break down that apartheid. They surprise us—whether they are set close to home or abroad. They change how we see ourselves; they extend that phrase “like me” to include what we thought was strange and foreign.

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere.


Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random, 1970.

Carlson, Lori M., Editor. American Eyes: New Asian-American Short Stories for Young Adults. Holt, 1994.

Gordimer, Nadine. Interview, London Observer, September 18, 1994.

Hamilton, Virginia. Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. Knopf, 1992.

McKissack, Patricia. Panel discussion, Missouri Association of School Librarians, Spring Conference, 1989.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Little, 1994.

Oz, Amos. Interview, New York Times, December 30, 1993.

Pollitt, Katha. “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me …” The Nation, September 23, 1991.

Prose, Francine. New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1994.

Rich, Adrienne. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Norton, 1993.

Sumrall, Amber C., Editor. Write to the Heart: Quotes by Women Writers. Crossing Press, 1992.

Paul Michael Lützeler (essay date summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4319

SOURCE: Lützeler, Paul Michael. “Multiculturalism in Contemporary German Literature.” World Literature Today 168, no. 3 (summer 1995): 452-58.

[In the following excerpt, Lützeler argues that multicultural studies in Germany and Europe have been largely underdeveloped, noting several German authors who have composed works within a multiethnic context.]

A striking feature of today's culture debates is the postmodern criticism of the Modern, of the dire consequences of the Modern, of the frequently catastrophic burden of the legacy of their conceptualization of progress. This criticism, which can also be perceived as self-criticism of the Modern, is expressed in ecological, multicultural, feminist, and postcolonial discourses. The universalistic metanarratives of the Modern—to use Lyotard's terms—are being questioned here. Symptomatic of the postmodern frame of mind is the rejection of models of totality, which became most evident in the implosion of the communist states during the eighties and the early nineties.

If one wants to put a theoretical framework around the international discussion of culture, it is best to start with the theme of identity. According to Joachim Matthes, identity refers to the existence of elementary definitions—shared by a number of people—of truth and constancy as well as the translation of these definitions into regulations governing action and decision-making. A person is subject to multiple identities throughout: one moves in many identity circles. There is subjective participation in the problems or goals of groups like the family, society, of a generation or a belief system, a political party, a religion, of general semipolitical movements (such as those dealing with the environment or peace), of an ethnic association, a nation, a cultural sphere, and, ultimately, the human race and creation as a whole. Friction between subjective and collective identities is a daily occurrence. The individual can leave one identity circle and enter another, either maximizing or minimizing the circle: maximization accentuates the pluralism of identities; minimization emphasizes fundamentalism. It is significant for the postmodern concept in the Western world that the identities of the subject are multiple, fluid, and overlapping. One can hardly speak of “pure” identities; the subjective identity must be continually renegotiated and reconstituted.

In Germany as in Western Europe in general, the migration of workers, which has lasted for decades, and the emigration from Eastern Europe, which has gained strength since 1989, have in fact created a multicultural society. In a number of large West European cities foreigners constitute between one-fourth and one-third of the inhabitants. However, since the immigrants from the southern and eastern countries of Europe, from North Africa, and from the Far East as a rule still have the status of non-integrated minorities, the majority has little inclination to accept the reality of multiculturalism in its own country. People here are seldom ready to perceive themselves as a segment of a culturally fragmented society, to initiate a dialogue about the new circumstances, to urge the majority to promote the acculturation and assimilation of the minority, to practice tolerance toward the culturally different, the stranger. Multicultural thinking and behavior are underdeveloped in Germany, as in all of Europe. Although in many large West European cities there are mass demonstrations against hatred of foreigners, there are only a few rudimentary stirrings toward a positive answer in the form of a discourse on multiculturalism, involving an ever larger circle of the populace.

If one looks for models of multicultural identity, one is more likely to find them in Australia, Canada, and the United States than in Europe. In Australia people have turned away from the traditional ideologies of nationalism. Australia did this in response to the new realities of its continent. Until the end of World War II the orientation of the land was homogeneous, white, racist, British. Instead of relying on the traditional integration model of radical acculturation and integration. Australian intellectuals and politicians worked out the model of a multicultural identity and established it in law. Consideration of the various cultural traditions of the diverse population groups plays an important role in political statements, in the administration of justice, in the politics of immigration, in the educational system, and in the media. In the U.S. there is also a defined discourse on multiculturalism, and here too (in no small measure thanks to the African American civil-rights movement) it has not failed to make its mark on politics, the legal system, education, and the media. The ideology of unity represented by the “melting pot,” which predominated until the early sixties, has given way to cultural models designated as “rainbow” or “salad bowl.” The melting-pot model was based on a representation of an American monoculture dominated by an imaginary white Anglo-Saxon civilization.

In Canada multiculturalism has likewise become a part of the national self-concept. Here the favorite metaphor is the culture mosaic, which designates the progress from English-French biculturalism to multiculturalism. In Canada the philosopher Charles Taylor has animated the international academic discussion with a plea for multiculturalism. He has shown how multiculturalism is caught in the tension between two opposing demands which have been raised by the advocates of ethnic minority groups: the demand for judicial and social equality, and the demand for recognition of the cultural particularities and their consideration. In his reply to Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas has pointed out in reference to the German and West European situation that one must expect from the minorities an acceptance of the democratic political-constitutional and judicial systems, but that the majority can in no way insist on a cultural assimilation of the minority. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Thomas Schmid put forth similar arguments in their book Heimat Babylon. They also make a plea for a framework of legal liability and legal security for all fellow citizens and, at the same time, punishment for discrimination on religious, social, or ethnic grounds.

Underdeveloped as it may be, the multicultural discourse has also been initiated in the German-speaking countries. Whether and to what extent one can speak of a multicultural dimension in contemporary German literature was the question to be clarified during a symposium that I organized at Washington University in St. Louis from 24 to 26 March 1995. The papers by the authors and the reports by the Germanists which appear here in print were presented there for the first time. The twelve invited authors had taught seminars on contemporary literature in their capacity as Max Kade Writers in Residence at the Center for Contemporary German Literature over the past ten years. They lectured about the multicultural aspects of their own literary works, thereby outlining biographical backgrounds and intertextual references to other writings. Their answers to the query regarding the multicultural elements of their own opus turned out to be quite distinctive. Without the authors' having consulted one another previously (some of them were not even personally acquainted prior to the symposium), a dialogue took place in which almost every argument had a counterargument; nevertheless, during the course of this dialogue the topography of a multicultural contemporary German literature took shape.

Barbara Frischmuth, who had spent several years as a student in Turkey, demonstrated in several of her narrative works what was involved in embarking upon writing on a different culture. She asserted that this endeavor was doomed to failure if one persisted in clinging tenaciously to one's own identity or if one fell into the opposite extreme of summarily dismissing one's own heritage in order to devote oneself completely to the foreign culture. Her central question is: “How can I come as close as possible to the Other without losing my own identity?” In the encounter of previously foreign cultures one finds the whole gamut of eagerly learning from each other, of separate interests, of tolerant coexistence, of suspicious distancing, of hostile competition, of potentially long-standing military conflict, and of civil war that can go as far as genocide. The spokespersons of multiculturalism, according to Frischmuth, advocate a peaceful cooperation among the various cultural and linguistic groups. They do so, however, not because they labor under any false illusions about the difficulty of such cooperation but rather because they are only too realistically aware of the danger for explosiveness that the confrontation of divergent mentalities and identities entails.

The author herself—probably without setting out systematically to do so—has shown in her books what positive aspects the Islamic and the Christian cultures owe to each other, and it is her opinion that awareness of this needs to be strengthened. Above all, she writes, the intercultural dialogue brings out the fact that we must live and deal with our own prejudices as well as with those of strangers. Nothing is more deeply ingrained than a cultural stamp, and this identity is determined through prejudices toward one's own culture no less than toward foreign ones. As Yüksel Pazarkaya also believes, tolerance can serve as a common platform for the contact between the European and the Islamic worlds. This virtue, which has a rich tradition in both cultural circles, has again and again been forced to fight against stubbornness and fanaticism. According to Frischmuth, cultures are theses for the operation of the world. Looking over the fence of one's own culture at the premises of another entails changes that can result in identity crises but also in the fortunate expansion of a constricted horizon. Through her writings Frischmuth sees herself as the border crosser and the intermediary between two cultures, and she is justified in claiming that literature is exactly the appropriate instrument for initiating a discussion about the problems of multiculturism, which today is almost universally prevalent.

Lectures on poetics, which belong to the essayistic genre, are themselves a part of literature, not separate from it. Silvio Blatter's discussion of multiculturalism is not based on his own books but rather on the biographical assumptions and conditions within which he moves as an author. He describes graphically his surroundings in District 5 in the city of Zürich, where he lived for many years, as well as the circumstances in Los Angeles, California, where he has spent almost a year. Zürich's District 5 has been settled by people belonging to the most varied social classes from seemingly all the counties adjacent to the Mediterranean; it is a multiracial state in miniature with a multitude of sociolects and as many distinctive behavioral philosophies as languages. He notices here a lack of fit, an ultimately unproductive, strained coexistence of Europeans, Africans, and Near Easterners. One who has not lived in such circumstances, Blatter thinks, can easily speak of tolerance. The limits of tolerance can be reached quickly when shots ring out and motorcycles burn, when educational measures consist primarily of whipping children, and when the relationship with women is characterized by anything but signs of emancipation.

As for himself, Blatter turned his back on District 5, because there the multicultural is too identical with the divided coexistence of the monocultural. Surely there exist more fortuitous multicultural constellations, but according to his experiences, Los Angeles is no model for these either. Here one sees an international monoculture whose mark is its “multiculturelessness,” with McDonald's as the centerpoint of this multicultureless society. Blatter's sympathies belong to a multiculture (more utopian than actual) that he designates with the term salad bowl. Here the most disparate life-styles exist side by side as equals, with respect and readiness to accommodate counting as virtues. Here one is given the impression—which Frischmuth holds dear—that the cultures enrich one another in a positive way. If this were real, it would be wonderful; but formulated as a goal, it raises expectations too high and can only result in disappointment. Since such a multicultural society does not yet exist, according to Blatter, it is not representable in literature.

Erica Pedretti too demonstrates that the feeling of culturelessness is not site-specific; one can experience it during a flight from Zürich to New York, when the demeanor of the stewardess unknowingly imitates that of a character from a mediocre TV series, and one can be overwhelmed by it at home in Switzerland when one hears a broadcast whose placating phrases seem to deride everything admirable about a culture. The fact that today an American student can read enthusiastically Heine's Harzreise appears like a beacon of hope in the author's essay. Evidently there exists a trans- as well as an intercultural dialogue during a time in which a Western, modern, internationalistic civilization seems to consider this dialogue on cultures to be superfluous.

Paul Nizon's lecture is also biographically oriented, but since he has different perceptions of multiculturalism than does Silvio Blatter, he fails to see any problems with their literal representation. Nizon understands the multicultural to be a stimulant, consciously chosen. A Swiss author who writes in German and lives in Paris, he plays, as he puts it, on no literary national team. He has always found the foreign to be alluring, and what he hopes to capture in language is the unknown, not that which is already established. As an author he has always preferred a sort of cultural exile rather than staying home and settling down. The paradox can be expressed thus: for him, home is always a foreign country, the constant in his life is nomadism, and for this reason he has lived only in the major European cities of Rome and, mostly, Paris. He owes everything to his multicultural upbringing, and in his writing he also sees the multicultural as a stylistic catalyst. Nizon illustrates this with references to his own books, such as Das Fahr der Liebe and Im Bauch des Wals, as well as to his Paris journal Die Innenseite des Mantels.

In contrast to Nizon, Jurek Becker stays away from statements about his own books, and he does not wish to comment on the multicultural dimension of his work. Just as the centipede should not and need not think about the mechanics of its marvelous locomotion, so the author should not and need not talk about his work. He has not been charmed by literary works with an urban inspiration; the multicultural does not fascinate him. He likes village authors whose books are monocultural—the more monocultural, the better. Nor does he wish to analyze his cultural identity, although he then allows himself to be carried away by remarks about the East German part of his identity and starts to speak about the identity problem he has encountered as a former GDR writer who has at the same time become a successful author in West Germany. He speaks so readily about his silence on the subject of multiculturalism that he slips in confessions and premises which could have been formulated by Frischmuth or Nizon: namely, that the literature of a country should be accessible to the world and should take advantage of the entire store of knowledge of mankind, and that familiarity with a foreign culture gives one the desirable ability to see the world from a different perspective.

And so Becker cannot altogether deny recognition to the works of authors with multicultural influences. What he opposes is a definite, multiculturally constituted effort which introduces a sociopolitical orientation into the artistic work, turning the author into a kind of activist. Here Becker manifests a sensitivity that is probably associated with his East German experience. Just as those Bitterfeld slogans “Writers into the factories!” and “Grab your pen, chum!” must have seemed to him expressly hostile toward the arts, so today he guards against expectations that prescribe multiculturalism as a theme.

Sten Nadolny belongs to those authors with multicultural influences who can in no way be characterized as “activists.” For years he lived in Berlin, a truly multicultural conglomerate that encompasses—with its Kreuzberg district—one of the largest Turkish communities. In Berlin, Turkish culture is part of the everyday, and thus it is almost self-evident to those authors who write about Berlin that the fate of the Turks is included in their novels; as a matter of fact, it can be viewed as a conscious suppression if foreigners are not present in the contemporary urban literature. Like most of the authors who have contributed to this special issue, Nadolny reflects on the process of overcoming his prejudices toward the cultural Other. In choosing a Turk as the hero of his novel Selim oder die Gabe der Rede, Nadolny himself tried to understand foreigners in order to be able to let the reader see through the eyes of a foreigner. He considers understanding and, above all, respect for the foreign to be one of the abilities that are worth developing in the multicultural society of the present. His essay can be read as a complement to his novel; here it becomes evident how the constraints of the genre and the expectations of the reader cause the cleft between the real-life model and the novelistic hero. In his presentation he uncovers in essayistic form another piece of multicultural reality that had remained concealed in the novel.

Peter Schneider asserts that multicultural reality has progressed much farther than one can gather from contemporary novels. If one refuses to acknowledge foreigners, if one avoids them, if one represses them from one's consciousness, if one has no experience with them, then one cannot describe them. Schneider sees a disparity between the expressly meager representation of foreigners in literature and their large proportion of the population, which continues to swell through migrations, emigration, and the search for asylum. Like Blatter, he describes the community in which he resides as a society in which many cultures live side by side and deal with one another—sometimes well, sometimes badly—without attempting to engage in a real dialogue. In this respect, the notable lack of literarily constructed intercultural conflicts in contemporary literature is a reflection of reality. As in the case of Nadolny, Schneider's presentation is a complement to his narrative work. He talks about the origins of the books Lenz and Paarungen and explains the reasons that foreign characters are either altered or play diminished roles. (Paarungen is actually a novel about a major city in which the multiculturality of Berlin is constantly and pervasively present).

In a manner similar to Frischmuth's, Ursula Krechel develops her conception of the multicultural symbioses surrounding her, with references to her own literary work, in which she depicts the dissonant constellations that arise from the friction between Self and Other. Also like Frischmuth, Krechel feels that time and again the term multiculturalism is used far too euphemistically; often it mutes the enormous problems of adjustment imposed daily upon the migrants. Nevertheless, she herself employs it—as do all the authors who raise objections to it—probably because no comparable term exists that incorporates all its meanings in the same way. Like Nizon, she is familiar with life in a multicultural city—in her case, Frankfurt am Main, a community of which foreigners comprise nearly thirty percent. Krechel draws a remarkable parallel between writing and the migrant: both have too often been denied access to a country; they share the recurrent fate of being turned away, of finding no motherland; and alienation, exile, abandonment, and loneliness are all too familiar experiences for both. Like most authors, Krechel expresses her ambivalent attitude toward the multiculturalism of the present; the Janus-like nature of multiculturalism consists of the fact that whereas for some, trying the unknown results in an auspicious newness, for others the expanded language ability is countered by an abrogation of speech as a result of their adaptation to the language and culture of the foreign country or of the new homeland.

Hanns-Joseph Ortheil's comments, like those of Krechel, are based on his own work. Since it is difficult to build a bridge between his books and the theme of multiculturalism, he invents a letter that poses questions about the reasons for the monoculturalism in his novels. The letter writer, who introduces himself as an old school friend of the author, belongs to the jet-set trendies and does not know how to make a distinction between internationalism and multiculturalism. Internationalism, which the letter writer advocates, stands for the dissemination of the modern Western life-style of politics, commerce, and industry among the metropolitan elites. Ortheil's school friend lives in a uniformly gray global monoculture, in which English is the language of commerce and other cultures are reduced to folkloristic or culinary trivialities, to attributes that are highly welcomed as decorative spots of color in the dreary monotony of daily chores. Thus this feigned letter does not come across as a self-criticism of the author but rather as an indirect defense of his novels, which are circumscribed by a portrayal of an experiential sphere bearing the stamp of German culture. If Ortheil were to write his novels according to the formula recommended by his friend, one would see nothing but a sort of plastic work with no depth. To embark upon the multicultural is psychically and spiritually taxing and is the opposite of the pleasure tour through the international party landscape that Ortheil's letter writer seems to enjoy.

The efforts of wandering among various cultures are not so difficult when one is born into a social situation that bears the stamp of multiculturalism, as was Yüksel Pazarkaya. In his Turkish birthplace of Izmir, he learned from childhood to think and feel as an Ionian, a Lydian, a Trojan, a Lykian, a Hittite, a Byzantine, a Selchuk, an Ottoman, a shaman, a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim as well as a citizen, an anarchist, a bohemian, and an ascetic. This upbringing in a district with multiple populations on the border between Europe and Asia sharpened his perception mostly for the similarities among the cultures surrounding him. Like Frischmuth, Pazarkaya speaks of the traditions anchored in cultures with a Christian as well as a Muslim stamp, of the practice of tolerance and the search for recognition. Here he detects the aftereffects of the prophet Mohammed's demands and of Lessing's enlightened postulates. The appropriation of knowledge, the search for recognition, the exploration of the alien and the unknown tend to mitigate a misgiving about the Other and thereby bring about an understanding of one's own situation.

Whereas Pazarkaya documents in autobiographic references the positive value of growing up in a multicultural setting, Barbara Honigmann's biographical record reflects an increasing cultural alienation. Her great-grandfather tried to live as a Jew and at the same time as a Prussian, and he was still able to fight simultaneously for the emancipation of the Jews and the national German interests of the revolutionaries of 1848; her grandfather was already fully assimilated, having for the most part broken his ties to Judaism. Her father was driven into exile by the racial delusions of the National Socialists; however, rather than finding his way back to Judaism, he—as a citizen of the GDR—looked to socialistic internationalism for his identity. Honigmann writes that the generations of her ancestors represent the shattered hopes of the Jews in Germany. She has rediscovered Judaism for herself, and it provides her with support in her craft as an author. She admits to three related components of her identity: she is a Jew, she is a German-speaking author, and she lives in voluntary exile in Strasbourg, in the border region between German and French culture. In doing so, she does not wish to miss out on a multicultural environment, which also encompasses the Turkish immigrants; she does not want to become isolated in a monoculture. She wishes to live in proximity to the Other without sacrificing her Judaism.

While Honigmann has found in Judaism a direction with regard to her identity, Klaus Hoffer describes his sense of life as one of disorientation. Inspired by Kafka, Hoffer created with “the Bieresch” a set of novelistic characters who give expression to his sense of life, who act according to laws that they do not comprehend, who lose themselves in a labyrinth of change. The homeland and the foreign land are transposed, resemble each other, and become identical.

The twelve presentations by the German-speaking authors mirror the multitude of possible literary contributions to the multicultural discourse. These subjective reflections by the authors are supplemented by scholarly survey lectures which should serve to convey an impression of the quantity of literature produced by minority groups living in German-speaking countries. Since Germanistik has ignored this aspect of contemporary literature far too long, these essays should remedy the resulting deficiency of information. The Arabic, Turkish, Jewish, and Afro-German presence in German-language literature is an indication of its genuinely multicultural makeup. But just as in the social realm awareness always lags behind reality, recognition of the reality of multicultural literature leaves much to be desired. During the symposium, Ülker Gökberk reported on aspects of Turkish-German literature with examples from the works of Aysel Özakin, Aras Ören, and Yüksel Pazarkaya. Since there is already an abundance of studies and anthologies on Turkish-German literature, we will refrain from presenting another synopsis here. Furthermore, one article depicts how Germans are perceived in the literature of authors who immigrated from other lands; another summarizes the experiences of German writers traveling in Third World countries. This demonstrates just how beneficial the practice of multicultural thinking at home can be for an understanding of foreign cultures in other domains.

Works Consulted

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel, and Thomas Schmid. Heimat Babylon: Das Wagnis der multikulturellen Demokratie. Hamburg. Hoffmann & Campe. 1992.

Löffler, Sigrid. “Literatur der Fremde—Literatur in der Fremde.” In Gegenwartsliteratur seit 1968. Klaus Briegleb, Sigrid Weigel, eds. Munich. Hanser. 1992. Pp. 182-229.

Lützeler, Paul Michael. “Vom Ethnozentrismus zur Multikultur: Europäische Identität heute.” In Paradigma Multikultur. Michael Kessler, Jürgen Wertheimer, eds. Tübingen. Stauffenburg. 1995.

Lyotard, Jean-François. La condition postmoderne. Paris. Minuit. 1979.

Mathes, Joachim, ed. Zwischen den Kulturen? Die Sozialwissenschaften vor dem Problem des Kulturvergleichs. Göttingen. Schwartz. 1992.

Taylor, Charles. Multikulturalismus und die Politik der Anerkennung. With a contribution by Jürgen Habermas. Frankfurt a.M. S. Fischer. 1993.

Wierlacher, Alois, ed. Fremdheit: Leitbegriffe und Problemfelder kulturwissenschaftlicher Fremdheitsforschung. Munich. Iudicium. 1993.

Qun Wang (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Wang, Qun. “‘Double Consciousness,’ Sociological Imagination, and the Asian American Experience.” Race, Gender & Class: Asian American Voices 4, no. 3 (1997): 88-94.

[In the following essay, Wang examines the theme of personal identity in several works by Asian American writers, noting that the characters' emotional turmoil often stems from their struggle to harmonize two different social roles.]

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues (C. Wright Mills, 1959).

The term “double consciousness” was first used by African American sociologist and educator W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) Du Bois in his much celebrated book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). It describes the experience of African Americans who are caught in the clash of two cultures: “an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” According to Du Bois, such an experience possesses the potential for undermining a person's sense of identity, especially when that person has to look “at one's self through the eyes of others” and measure “one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois, 1903:45).

In Black Theatre: Premise and Presentation, Barbara Molette and Carlton Molette observe that, although Du Bois's theory “describes a phenomenon as it existed in the very early 1900's” and “some evolutionary progress” has been made since 1903, “the phenomenon of double consciousness remains a painfully persistent force in African-American reality and in the art that grows out of that reality” (1986:9). Indeed, throughout the history of the United States, the double consciousness “phenomenon” has demonstrated not only its persistence, but also relevancy to millions of Americans' lives, especially those who are first generation immigrants and those who struggle to identify their ontological and cultural relationship with both the mainstream culture as well as with their ethnic heritage.

To survey Asian American literature, for instance, is to discover a large group of works in which characters' psychological confusion, emotional frustration, and cultural alienation are occasioned by what C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination calls people's false consciousness “of their social positions.” These characters' emotional struggle often results from their having to look at themselves “through the eyes of others” and measure their souls “by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

In China Men (1980), Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston creates four characters whose eagerness to adopt a new culture brings into question their understanding of the ontological significance of their relationship with their own heritage. Ed, Woodrow, Roosevelt, and Worldster are first generation immigrants from China. They can barely speak English. But Worldster has “a thick moustache” and tries “to look like Clark Gable”; Ed dresses “like Fred Astaire”; Ed and Woodrow once “caught sight of themselves in windows and hubcaps” on Fifth Avenue in New York City and thought “they looked all the same American” (Kingston 1980: 60-64).

The four characters used to be close friends and partners in business. But Woodrow, Roosevelt, and Worldster have completed their cultural metamorphosis by closing Ed out of a partnership contract for a laundromat. In doing so, they have betrayed a well-honored traditional Chinese ethical code once cheerfully chanted by Ed, the dupe in the money game, “Friends were fairer than brothers; there was an equality” (Kingston 1980: 61). Woodrow, Roosevelt, and Worldster's betrayal of their friendship with Ed, thus, is skillfully juxtaposed by the writer with their betrayal of their own culture.

Japanese American writer John Okada's No-No Boy (1976) takes a realistic look at how the relocation camps have affected and changed the Japanese American community. Ichiro Yamada is a Nisei, a second generation Japanese American. He refuses to join the army during World War II and is treated by people as a traitor to the country. In his search for his true identity, Ichiro feels he is caught in an imbroglio, a dilemma that resembles the “double consciousness” experience. His confusion is revealed in his imaginary conversation with his mother:

There was a time that I no longer remember when you used to smile a mother's smile and tell me stories about gallant and fierce warriors who protected their lords with blades of shining steel and about the old woman who found a peach in the stream and took it home and, when her husband split it in half, a husky little boy tumbled out to fill their hearts with boundless joy. I was that boy in the peach and you were the old woman and we were Japanese with Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was all right then to be Japanese and feel and think all the things that Japanese do even if we lived in America. Then there came a time when I was only half Japanese because one is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America and one does not speak and swear and drink and smoke and play and fight and see and hear in America among Americans in American streets and houses without becoming American and loving it.

(Okada, 1976: 15-16)

In Japanese, the word Ichiro means “firstborn.” Ichiro's experience both during and after the war, however, adds an ironical ring to his name. It is suggested in the way the country mistreated its own firstborn second generation immigrants: the relocation camps had plummeted both Issei (first generation immigrants from Japan) and Nisei into an emotional abyss, reminding them of their physical and cultural differences from other Americans, forcing them to reassess their relationship with the Japanese culture and, as a result, alienating many of them from both their ethnic culture and the mainstream American culture.

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills (1959) posits that to broaden the sociological imagination is to develop

the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self—and to see the relations between the two.

By underlining the importance of the capability “to shift from one perspective to another,” Mills is calling our attention to the dynamics of a process through which “the cultural meaning of the social sciences” (p. 8) is generated. It is a process which accentuates the dialectical relationship between individual and society, between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure,” and between biography and history. For, as Mills points out, “older decisions that once appeared sound” now may seem “products of a mind unaccountably dense.” We need to “acquire a new way of thinking” and “experience a transvaluation of values” (Wright, 1959:8).

It is true that the experience of “double consciousness” has tormented many Americans for centuries. To celebrate the culturally diverse nature of American society is to accept the “double consciousness” experience as both the source for stress and creativity. For those same people who have been struggling to find balance in between the mainstream culture and their own heritage are also blessed with choices. In other words, to be hyphenated Americans is to possess the luxury of being able to choose from different cultures. Or as Brave Orchid, the dynamic mother in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), puts it: “When you come to America, it's a chance to forget some of the bad Chinese habits” (Kingston, 1976:139).

Confucianism, for instance, with its emphasis on courtesy, individual responsibility, and familial and social harmony, has played an instrumental role in maintaining stability and peace in China which, for centuries, had been torn by endless wars and meaningless deaths. But the kind of “harmony” Confucius had envisioned was built on the feudal ethical code of the three cardinal guides (ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife) and the five constant virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and fidelity) and its infrastructure supported by patriarchy and primogeniture.

In Articulate Silences (1993), Chinese American scholar King-Kok Cheung suggests that the “two-toned language” used by many Asian American writers results from the distrust of inherited language and that of traditional myth with patriarchal ethos. This distrust brings many Asian American writers to the conclusion that they must cross cultural borders in search of ways to not only “revise history,” but also “transfigure ethnicity,” for “the point is never to return to the original but to tell it with a difference.” The use of “two-toned language,” thus, concretely objectifies Asian American writers' attempt to negotiate a ground on which they can find their own identity.

In appearance, Fukunaga, the protagonist in Japanese American writer Toshio Mori's short story “Japanese Hamlet” is caught in the clash between American culture (boundless optimism and individual freedom of choice) and traditional Japanese culture which places practicality above ideals and dictates that in the collision between individual aspiration for self-fulfillment and a person's social and familial obligation, the person should forfeit his/her claim to individual freedom in exchange for communal harmony. But Fukunaga's ambition of becoming a ranking Shakespearean actor and the identifiability of his experience and that of Hamlet suggest that the story's thematic appeal is as specific as universal.

Both Fukunaga and Hamlet are mediocre actors; both are trapped in the world of inaction and procrastination, wasting a lot of time and energy in fantasizing about what might and could happen instead of making things happen; both are “play-acting,” but not “acting”—their self-created unreality impugn the ontological significance of their relationship with reality. If, in the article “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” Frank Kermode is right in suggesting that it is in the perplexed figure of Hamlet, “just because of our sense that his mind lacks definite boundaries, we find ourselves” (1974:1135), Fukunaga's experience is indeed as Japanese as American. For the tragicomic power of the story is generated by conflicts between dream and reality, between commitment and effort, and between individual choice and communal pressure, conflicts which are as indigenous to the Japanese American community as to the United States.

In The Joy Luck Club (1989), Chinese American novelist Amy Tan intermingles the thematic treatment of intercultural conflict with that of intergenerational conflict. The mothers who immigrated to the United States from China and still have very strong cultural ties to the country want to raise their children in the traditional Chinese way. But the daughters who are second generation Chinese Americans (people born in the United States of parents who were first generation Chinese immigrants) feel that they are trapped in the conflict between traditional Chinese culture and the mainstream American culture, between their aspiration for individual freedom and their sense of familial and social obligations, and between their false and true identity. Paradoxically, however, the daughters' experience of struggle between values of their parents' generation and those of their own and between traditional Chinese values and modern American values is as frustrating as constructive. For it eventually brings the daughters to the conclusion that they must ontologically embrace what they cannot culturally reject: they are just as American as they are Chinese.

During her interview with Angels Carabi, Tan divulged that her constant search was “to find a harmony between the self and the world”: “harmony” and “unity” were the ways she perceived the world and they were the ways she felt the world should be (1991:17). Tan's thematic preoccupation with balance and harmony in The Joy Luck Club is not only revealed by chapter titles such as “Half and Half,” “Two Kinds,” “Four Directions,” “Without Wood,” “Best Quality,” “Double Face,” and “A Pair of Tickets,” but also accentuated by the writer's skillful use of structure. The book starts with the mothers' telling stories about their experience in China and their journey to the United States and it ends with them coming to the conclusion that, as much as they would like to believe they are still a hundred percent Chinese, they all have two faces: one Chinese and one American.

The daughters, through the experience of intercultural conflict, have also come to the realization that “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese.” When Jing-mei Woo is asked to join the Joy Luck Club, she is reluctant. Although she half-heartedly accepts her Chinese name and tells her aunties that it is “becoming fashionable for American-born Chinese to use their Chinese names,” she is not aware of the fact that it was impossible for her to find her true identity without reclaiming her relationship with her ethnic cultural heritage. After joining the Joy Luck Club, Jing-mei starts to understand her mother. The trip to China finally has enabled her to see that together with her sisters, they look just like their mother: her “same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish.”

As is demonstrated in Asian American literature, what many writers are searching for is a ground on which they can find their own identity, whether the identity is Asian or American, or American Chinese or Chinese American. In Chinese American Amy Ling's article, “Creating One's Self: The Eaton Sisters,” the author reiterates “what has by now become almost a truism”: “the self is not a fixed entity but a fluid, changing construct or creation determined by context or historical conditions and particularly by power relationships” (1993:306). By using the example of the Eaton Sisters who had adopted identities of their choice in creative writing, Ling convincingly reveals the dialectical relationship between creation and recreation and between the permeability of the boundaries of the self and the influence of historical conditions. To understand Asian American literature in the postcolonial period is, indeed, to resist the temptation of totalization, to accept the plurality of the Asian American experience, and to appreciate Asian American writers' effort to democratize American literary voice by (re)presenting what has been mis(sing)-represented, by celebrating the cultural diversity of American society, and by calling readers' attention to the peculiarity and uniqueness of the Asian American experience.


Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New American Library.

Cheung, K. K. 1993. Articulate Silences. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Kingston, M. H. 1975. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage.

Kingston, M. H. 1980. China Men. New York: Vintage.

Ling, A. 1990. Between Worlds. New York: Pergamon.

Ling, A. 1992. “Creating One's Self: The Eaton Sisters.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. S. Geok-lin Lim and A. Ling. Philadelphia: Temple UP. 305-18.

Mills, C. W. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Molette, C. W. and Molette, B. J. 1986. Black Theatre: Premise and Presentation. Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall. 10.

Mori, T. 1991. “Japanese Hamlet.” Pp. 125-27 in Imagining America. Ed. Wesley Brown and Amy L. NY: Persea Books.

O'Kada, J. 1979. No-No Boy. Seattle: U of Washington P.

Tan, A. 1989. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books.

Cyril Dabydeen (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Dabydeen, Cyril. “Places We Come From: Voices of Caribbean Canadian Writers (in English) and Multicultural Contexts.” World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 231-37.

[In the following essay, Dabydeen comments on the works of several multiethnic Caribbean Canadian writers, analyzing how their unique cross-cultural perspectives are changing the body of Canadian literature.]


The recent special “Canadian Caribbean Issue” of Descant (Summer 1998) suggests a journey and a maturing of Canadian literature in terms of the latter's flexibility and capacity to be all-embracing, without undermining Canada's identity; moreover, this attitude strengthens the nation's spirit and sense of continuing possibilities in a land which, since its inception, has been formed by immigration and continuing to grow on its “triangular foundation” (John Ralston Saul) of First Nations Peoples and English Canadian and French Canadian heritages. Caribbean links and correspondences with Canada, of course, have been manifold, varied, down through the ages and associated early with the Maroons and with the Atlantic trade and mercantilism. Salted cod from Newfoundland exported to the Caribbean is still special to the palate, for instance. And whenever I contribute material to the three main literary magazines in Canada's Maritime—The Fiddlehead,The Dalhousie Review, and The Antigonish Review—these contexts and influences often come into play in my psyche, all part of the polarities and simultaneous evolution of culture and cultural norms that occur in the numinous sense of the spirit of place. Naturally, paradox and irony are integrated in the ongoing flux, and ingrained in one's developing sense of poetics, living in a land becoming less strange or foreign in the widening context of the self, and as the dynamics associated with adaptation dictate.

The early interactions and connections, of course, inevitably resulted in art and literature, some of it oral, undocumented; at other times, as we have seen, much of it written and fully expressed, or in the process of being so, but now especially manifest in the esthetic energy of a range of writers, some relatively new like Andre Alexis and Shani Mootoo with recent first-novel publications, and others—like Austin Clarke—writing for two or three decades and more in Canada, sustaining their reputations as their sensibilities continue to define the Canadian identity. Interestingly, the seminal or inchoate point of reference in my own assessment and appreciation of Canadian Caribbean literature stems from an awareness of a process that goes back to the 1960 issue of Tamarack magazine embracing West Indian writers, edited by Robert Weaver—the first Canadian magazine's special issue on this subject, which I nostalgically reflected on while reading the recent Descant issue. At that time I was living in Guyana, and Tamarack, in a sense, contributed to my view of Canada as an intrinsic place to fashion dreams, all conceived despite the overwhelming, even forbidding, sense of the Great White North, far different from the tropical milieu I grew up in; and, increasingly, Canada became the place of possibilities, unlike the U.K. or the U.S. in my formative years toward acquiring experience akin to what W. H. New calls “a shaping of connections … setting dreams into motion” (154), albeit far from a mundane organizational context. Later, I would reflect on less numinous experience as I considered the impact of Liberal prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and, later, Pierre Elliot Trudeau in sustaining one's faith and vision while simultaneously contemplating Canada in the context of geography and climate as influencing destiny. Now, almost four decades later, with the aforementioned special Descant issue, Edward T. Chamberlin would write in the introduction about reconciling “attachments to place with allegiances to language, and how to accommodate different allegiances and attachments, different lands and languages, within a single community” (8). Could all this perhaps lead to formation of a world community of literature(s) without imposing artificial boundaries on the creative spirit?

The rubric “Canadian Literature” naturally becomes elastic and simultaneously dynamic as much as arguments in favor of multiculturalism when Caribbean Canadian writing is juxtaposed with, say, Jewish Canadian, Italian Canadian, Hispanic Canadian, South Asian Canadian, and other forms of nascent and/or maturing “ethnic” literatures—including regionally formed literatures—in a changing world of the arts and the humanities. As the scholar Joseph Pivato says in the Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad, in advocating recognition of multiculturalism as intrinsic to Canadian writing: “The work of Italian Canadian writers and other ethnic minority authors demonstrates that ‘there is setting into shape a nation’ of great diversity” (42). And does all this take away from Canadian identity or nativism (so-called), as some have argued? No less a commentator of the liberal imagination than Michael Ignatieff remarks: “Living with racial, religious, ethnic difference is a challenge, but conservative critics are simply wrong when they argue that immigration and the proliferation of multicultural identity threatens us with cultural and social fragmentation” (Ottawa Citizen, B7). It is interesting to posit this view against that of the novelist and short-story writer Neil Bissoondath (Trinidadian-born), in some quarters better known for his egregious “cult of multiculturalism” reflected in his Selling Illusions (1994) than for his belletristic work. Ironically, Bissoondath has sometimes referred to the philosophically astute Ignatieff to shore up his assertions in decrying identity politics and ethnicity—all part, no doubt, of the Yeatsian “quarrel with ourselves” and bordering on mundane discourse about nationhood in a Canada irrevocably evolving as an adaptive immigrant and multicultural society as the Caribbean-born writers' presence is manifested and formed by the spirit of the place.

Seminal voices such as that of the novelist Austin Clarke, sometimes viewed as “the dean of Caribbean writing in Canada,” have challenged, implicitly and explicitly, the sense of the Great White North as the overwhelming paradigm with all its attendant symbolism in asserting his indubitable Canadian literary presence. And in the flux of shaping connection, it is relevant to juxtapose other early Caribbean influences on Canada, such as that of the novelist George Lamming, who would reveal that in contributing to the 1960 Tamarack Review special issue, his writing of The Pleasures of Exile (an acknowledged postcolonial text) came about at this time, giving voice and nuance to migration and consciousness of the Caribbean while wrestling with the angst of colonialism through his imaginative prism. Significantly, when Lamming first came to Canada and interacted with Canadian writers, not least the novelist Margaret Laurence, it is reasonable to assume that his impact upon them (and vice versa) was immediate; Laurence, for one, would describe Lamming as “not only a talented writer, but the kind of personality that hits you like the spirit of God between the eyes” (King, 168). Of course, other Caribbean writers' voices have also been heard in Canada over the years, some as specially invited guests at conferences and to give readings, all adding to the ongoing influence and cross-fertilization of taste, style, and meaning in setting the stage for the more home-grown Canadian writers of Caribbean background to influence an evolving literature accommodating themes and argot often appearing unaccustomed to their Canadian readership only a few years ago but now gaining acceptance.

Interestingly, Austin Clarke, with his latest book, Origin of Waves (1997), has consolidated his particular vision, following on the uncompromising themes of his earlier works, including the classic trilogy (The Meeting Point,Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) chronicling West Indian immigrants' lives in the 1960s, followed by other works such as Growing Up Stupid under the Union (1980). As the Barbadian-born Clarke recently stated in a “Black Writers” pamphlet: “The social and cultural landscape of Canada has changed fundamentally from the 1960's when I wrote the Toronto Trilogy. And even at that time, there was notice being given to the literary establishment, that we had in our midst, the traditional one—albeit an English sensibility—and that this non-traditional perspective could no longer be viewed as a ‘minority’ point of view.”

Clarke's influence on my own early work, for instance, I have acknowledged (cf. Stella Algoo-Baksh, Austin Clarke: A Biography, 1994), much as I have heard other writers such as Cecil Foster (Barbadian-born) and the anthologist Ayanna Black (Jamaican background) make similar acknowledgments, while simultaneously recognizing influences of other writers: those referred to as the “first generation” such as Lamming himself, V. S. Naipaul, Roger Mais, John Hearne, Jan Carew, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Winters, Sam Selvon, Kamau Brathwaite, and Derek Walcott—many of whom have lived in the U.K. or in the U.S. for decades at a time when “exile” was the norm, and who have contributed to the steadily shifting grounds and polarities of place with inherent paradoxes stemming from the sense of the hurts of history (slavery and indentured labor), colonialism, and immigrant marginality, while grappling with the politics of race, ethnicity, and class. Language formations as dialectal expression of authentic inner rhythms of voice and place expressed in individual ways, such as Sam Selvon's, continue to form part of the assertion of identity, even with the intent to subvert because of the underpinning or immanent sense of the “outsider” and the sense of alienation, albeit contiguous with the desire for adaptation. In Canada, the irony of the “other” responds to the challenge of citizenship in a country now being described by some as “the Caribbean of the North.”

The themes, motifs, and images already referred to are reflected in varying ways and styles by older and many newer Caribbean Canadian writers, each with his or her own unique and personal perspective, such as Dionne Brand, Foster, Bissoondath, Nigel Thomas, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, the dub poets Lillian Allen and Clifton Joseph, Dany Laferrière (writing in French but translated in English), by the late novelists Sam Selvon and Harold Sonny Ladoo, and others. Many of these writers live in Canada's major urban center of Toronto, the “meeting place,” once known as Hogtown and still associated with Governor Simcoe, yet with little of the writing, it has been said, reflecting the heartland by focusing on experience in the Prairies or the East and West Coast regions, though one suspects this is beginning to change. Albeit, the writers continue to make their presences felt, including relatively recent ones like Rabindranath Maharaj and Sasenarine Persaud (Trinidadian- and Guyanese-born respectively); and there are others, perhaps seen as singular but lonely voices, like Madeline Coopsammy's in Winnipeg, striving to achieve immediacy by reconciling the breadth of the Prairie and its Red and Assiniboine Rivers with the angst of small-state experiences (often Trinidad) by extension and criss-crossing metaphorical boundaries. Because inevitably all these writers are gifted with their particular visions informing their work, they necessarily call attention to the fluid stream of creativity in Canadian literature, invariably in their verbal reaction to the fluctuating sense of place, even with the dislocated self seen in the voice of someone like the writer Arnold Itwaru (Guyanese-born), or the dissembled presence of Horace Goddard (Barbadian-born) in Québec in view of the unique political and social dynamics in the latter province.

By focusing attention on an orientation of Canada in terms of binaries such as “outsider” and “insider” while mediating experience in a country that is “huge, frightening, beautiful” (as the late Irish-Canadian novelist Brian Moore, himself an immigrant, described it), this forms an integral part of the paradoxical nature of the creative act in bringing polarities, real and imagined, closer to a common yet universal meeting ground in Canada.

In my edition of A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape, I brought together twenty relatively active Caribbean-born writers (of fiction, poetry, and drama) living in Canada, while considering the evolving literary canon toward a redefinition of the norm of what is considered “Canadian” and “Canadian literature”; in so doing, I was hoping for newer contexts while also attempting to go beyond the merely promising literature in English, including that of writers of French-speaking background (such as Gérard Etienne and Anthony Phelps, both Haitian in origin and both translated in this book), the aim being to help prepare the way for what was yet to come: the nascent or new human possibilities and movement to the literary foreground with the sense or belief in a country with rootedness embedded. Thus I wrote in the introduction: “For these latter-day newcomers, the frontier took a different meaning: like their European counterparts of an earlier period, they too were drawers of water and hewers of wood, roughing it as domestic servants, factory and farm-workers, security guards, railway conductors, and more recently as teachers and doctors—all the while expressing a vitality of spirit stemming from the active imagination that is the birthright of all” (9). I further suggested an interpretation beyond a conventional definition of nationhood, with the construct of the “landscape of the imagination,” arguing that Canada could be conceived as the imagined place—not viewed solely in phenomenological terms of physical space or geographic boundary associated singularly with the “idea of the north” (à la Margaret Atwood) in apprehending Canadian reality. Indeed, as I asserted, identity would be

… based on a concept associated with the landscape of the mind, wherein place and psyche become intertwined in nation-building terms through the creative outpouring and meshing of the spirit. In this context, a real shaping is constantly taking place: the collective Canadian spirit is enhanced and enriched by the varied cultural streams in the fusion of old and new traditions towards a vital celebration of the oneness of the evolving Canadian consciousness.

(Shapely Fire, 10)

Now in Canada's major urban center we are hearing voices continuing to express the palpability of the “the Caribbean of the North,” inspired no doubt by the critical mass of a Caribbean-born immigrant population seeking to validate their diverse heritage and black experiences—for instance, in festival extravaganzas like Caribana, which a writer like Cecil Foster strongly locates in his writings as the new sensibility gains momentum (reflected, for instance, in his 1996 book A Place Called Heaven). Moreover, rap music and dub poetry in Toronto have energized the local scene, which scholar Brenda Carr describes as “dub-aesthetics-in-the-diaspora and which necessitates a reconsideration of Western notions of the aesthetic, the literary, and the poetic” (12). Thus the impulses of urbanization invariably add to the unfolding destiny and esthetics circumscribing the immigrant and indigenous energies as the writers continue to cross numinous boundaries, sometimes seen in my own work as I would write about experiences of living close to Lake Superior in the Lakehead with a Great Spirit ambience, while evoking memory with present experience, all in a place Margaret Atwood, because of her own early years living close to the world's largest lake, viewed as “an excellent place to spend your formative years” (14).

Many other writers also re-create the Caribbean past, sometimes combined with the present, such as the Jamaican-born Rachel Manley, Olive Senior, and Louise Bennet, and the Trinidadian-born poet Ramabai Espinet in Nuclear Seasons (1991). This is sometimes inevitably contexted by a forceful African Canadian consciousness and presence, as seen in such writers as Marlene Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, Makeda Silvera, and Althea Prince. In Mairuth Sarsfield, Montréal-born but with a Guyanese father, we see a first-novel appearance in No Crystal Stair (1997), which intersects the American Langston Hughes's poem of the same name and other U.S. reference points with other ethno-specific cultures and singular Afrocentric images associated with Montréal in the “Black pioneering days”: the forties, fifties, and onward. Worthy of note is George Elliot Clarke's warning that “African Canadians appear blithely acquiescent to the forces of a homogenizing African Americanism,” while admitting that this consciousness “is not simply dualistic” (Essays, 15, 16). Unique strains of womanhood, in pursuing individual truths, it should be added, are seen in many of the aforementioned writers, mainly Harris, Philip, and Brand, in asserting female identity with African presence in Canada—in the case of Philip, sometimes with blood and/or menstrual experience in fundamental association with Mother Earth as a driving force.


The recognition and appreciation of many relatively newer Canadian writers—many Caribbean-born but many more from other parts of the developing world, like Rohinton Mistry (Indian-born) and M. G. Vassanji (Tanzanian-born), Denise Chong (Chinese background), and Joy Kogawa and Keri Sakamoto with their Japanese roots—are persuading scholars like David Staines to refer to it as the current “international phase” in Canadian writing; however, perhaps one could argue that Canadian literature has always been international, albeit influenced mainly by British and American sources from the time of the early pioneering period, with writers like Frances Brooke, Susanna Moodie, and others in the Confederation and post-Confederation periods. In the modern or contemporary period, one finds Earle Birney's poems “Bear on the Delhi Road” and “To George Lamming,” with their sense of visions afar. And indeed, Margaret Laurence wrote authentically about Africa when she lived there, and Atwood's novel Bodily Harm (1981) has a Caribbean setting. Further examples abound, all as part of the flux of ongoing shaping of connection in a seemingly globalized world. In fundamentally responding to the prevailing sense of the Great White North—the “twin bars” implying the sense of solitude and beauty of the vast landscape and inspiring awe while simultaneously evoking beauty, manifested in such classic twentieth-century Canadian poets as A. M. Klein and E. J. Pratt—all contemporary writers, like Irving Layton, have described it ad nauseam. Northrop Frye would add a new dimension, “satire and exuberance,” making for a more interesting if not complex critical context in the enrichment of Canadian literature and culture with other people coming to Canada's shores, all with minds, memories, and emotions from nontraditional immigrant sources eager to establish a niche in the seemingly overwhelming landscape. It is a context particularly significant for the Caribbean-born writers' contribution, leading to what Austin Clarke called giving voice “to the actual putting down of the ‘other’ side—though not always a vindictive sensibility—to the former ‘national’ prism. National in the sense, that before the landscape of these writers, the point of view was not intended to express, and did not in fact include a way of seeing that was different from the status quo” (“Black Writers”).

Essentially, the way of seeing is enhanced by the use of variations of mother-tongue language and the storyteller's sometimes unconventional technique of combining social consciousness and realism, as in Cecil Foster's latest novel, Slammin' Tar (1997), dramatizing Brer Anancy as trickster-cum-story-teller of Caribbean farm workers' experiences in Canada, a form of “putting down” that is very close to magic realism. As one critic observes of Slammin' Tar:

North American readers might feel justifiably guilty while reading this novel, but that's hardly Foster's project. The inequities of the farm labor programs don't need Foster's analysis; they're obvious enough. Instead, his narrator spider simply reports on lives, telling it like it is, or at least how he sees it. … A good portion of the book goes to the narrator's own ruminations about himself and his task, how the role of storyteller is changing in these modern times, how quality and experience are being shunted aside by youth and attitude, how one teller's hero is another's clown.

(Paragraph, 55)

It is significant to point out cross-references and juxtapositions of the trickster that permeate Native writing and the Native weltanschauung—one perhaps truly Canadian—as parallel with innate West Indian narrative and verbal structure. The Native writer Tomson Highway, in his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), contends that the trickster is Weesageeclak (Cree) and Nanabush (Ojibway), or Raven of other tribes, and that it is familiarly the coyote in North American Indian mythology and is sometimes consciousness of man, God, the Great Spirit, or the existence of the Earth itself. Narrative technique and use of language associated with origins and social history form part of the discourse of evolving identity within prevailing Great White North norms. And haven't I been told that I must write about the Franklin Expedition (finding a Northwest Passage) to be considered Canadian when I discussed Canadian Caribbean literature at the University of Miami not so long ago? The metaphysic of “the north” as a defining consideration continues as an underpinning despite changing times, within a metropolitan consciousness shaping sensibilities, compelling as concept for “outsiders” to sustain irony within multicultural landscapes. Thus, Brand, in her prizewinning poetry collection Land to Light On, begins: “Out here I am like someone without a street / without a branch but not even safe as the sea, / without the relief of the sky or good graces of a door” (3). Sections such as “Islands Vanish,” “I Have Been Losing Roads,” and “All That Has Happened Since” reflect the attitude of irony with language rhythms of protest that are Caribbean-based, while the voice is paradoxically concerned with here. Here-and-there juxtapositions and polarities are relevant as a kind of continuum in view of historical, social, and esthetic factors.

In a previous collection, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, largely about reactions to the American invasion of Grenada, Brand (who has attested to the influences of African poets, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, and the American Adrienne Rich), both asserting and longing for “place,” writes in the poem “For Stuart”:

I am a refugee,
I have my papers,
I was born in the Caribbean,
practical in the sea,
fifteen degrees above the equator,
I have a Canadian passport,
I have lived here all my adult life,
I am stateless anyway.


An intersecting of the longing for place with memory is seen, for example, in Neil Bissoondath's recent novel, The Worlds within Her (1998), where the female character, Yasmin, travels from Canada to return her mother's ashes to the Caribbean, in the process meeting formerly unknown or unheard-of relatives who help her become aware of larger truths about herself while reclaiming her Indian background and thereby fulfilling her self and identity. In Bissoondath's very first book, Digging Up the Mountains (1985), especially in the often-anthologized story “Insecurity,” we see the symbolic escape from a less-than-proverbial Trinidad because of social and political events as leading to spiritual confinement and constraint; however, in this latest novel a reversal occurs, as Yasmin returns to the island and completes her self through a renewed awareness of kin and ethnicity. Austin Clarke, as critic, however, says of this novel: “All the characters seem to me to be irreconcilably and irredeemably negative. They all want to be somewhere else, something else, somebody else. … It is this dependency upon whiteness that expresses Bissoondath's bleating request for cultural acceptance, that drives his characters' unrelenting nihilism” (Ottawa Citizen, E3). Is this too political a reading of Bissoondath, without recognizing memory or the force of irony as a way of formalizing affirmation through authentic imaginative experience? Memory, as “mother of the Muse,” is seen at work also in Andre Alexis's Childhood (1997), the story of forty-year-old Thomas MacMillan's efforts to piece together the elements of his conflicted past and questionable parentage by sifting through layers of memory in a narrative that is self-reflexive almost to the point of being surrealistic; it is a book that “examines lives in ways so subtle that they defy analysis,” as Bissoondath himself acknowledges (Globe and Mail, A12). Interestingly, both of these two writers came to Canada at a relatively young age—in Alexis's case before he was ten, Bissoondath before he was twenty—which no doubt influenced their fictional mode and its tendency to veer away from conventional realism to explore different forms of self-reflexiveness, influenced no doubt by other trends in Canada and contemporary literature as a whole.

Shani Mootoo (Irish and Trinidadian background) in Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), a work viewed as her “multigenerational novel” depicting life in a small town in Lantanacamara (in the Caribbean), portrays the complex but tragic figure of Mala Ramchandin in the Paradise Alms House as narrator Tyler (her attendant) assists in exploring. Awareness of Indianness as palpably integral to Caribbean experience is seen in other writers, including myself, and notably in such as Sasenarine Persaud, Itwaru, Maharaj, Ladoo, and Selvon, adding multicultural vigor to Caribbean writers' contribution, one juxtaposed and fully expressed with Afrocentric experiences and angst, while voicing a range of feelings, expressions, and attitudes, as well as ways of viewing the world, including through Hinduist, Zen Buddhist, and Muslim prisms, sometimes in purely creolized situations—or, as Mootoo calls it, her “bastardized Indian” self.

The new esthetic energies being released are counterpointed with the singularly or homogenous larger community attitudes, generating the sense of possibilities, yet with an accompanying “identity crisis,” as described by Canadian nationalists (not least driven by threats of French Canadian separatism). But as Marshall McLuhan once lamented, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity”; and, for stronger emotion, Robertson Davies would reputedly say to Mavis Gallant, “You never ask if you love Canada; you only question Canada” (Dabydeen, A17). This attitude also seems to grow from the “strong undercurrents of passion and emotion hidden beneath a thick crust of reticent puritanism,” which Henry Kreissel observed more than two decades ago in defining his own “double experience” as a European-immigrant Jewish writer. “To the man who comes from abroad, Canada is not an easy country to come to know and to write about,” he adds (Neuman, 139), with the “outsider” capitalizing on self-dramatizing moments in creating the new literature, often with the force of his or her unique language, I suggest.

The Caribbean-Canadian writer's use of language is generally conceived as a two-toned English striving to extract from subjective reality imaginative truths in order to maintain integrity, famously encapsulated in the phrase “No language is neutral” (Derek Walcott, later perhaps a not infrequent visitor to Canada). Undoubtedly, most Caribbean Canadian writers have in one form or another engaged in varying use of demotic or dialectal English as legitimate forms of self-expression stemming from an ongoing, even as yet unleavened oral tradition (in Brer Anancy and the trickster vision at work), or veering off in new directions in Dionne Brand's novel In Another Place, Not Here (1997), a book about Verlia and Elizete's lesbian relationship upon shifting grounds within Oliviere's sugar-plantation and island-upheaval ambience, with revolution and survival memories foregrounded in Canada.

Assumptions of the nature and function of immigrant and culture-based writers are often in respect to questions such as: Whom does the writer write for, the community or himself? Or should one label oneself simply as a “Canadian writer” or “Caribbean writer,” or as a hyphenated or hybridized one (perhaps as said of myself)? The newer writers (apologies to those not mentioned) are inclined to view radical issues relating to themes and social issues in evoking images and concepts tied to colonialism and the hurts of history (not least, slavery's legacy), plantation society experience to challenge European-based forms of knowledge and dispensation of this knowledge and esthetics in universalist contexts, to one now perhaps not exclusively African, Asian, or European, but perhaps genuinely Canadian, bearing in mind Native experiences of oppression. These resonances go beyond mere Derrida-like deconstruction, to “reconstruction” (as the poet Kamau Brathwaite and others describe it), perhaps in reaction to place of origin—a Caribbean region seen merely in exotic terms with a vision of ochered beachen, ubiquitous palm trees, and bright sunshine.

The new energies of the changing Canadian literature—gender, racial, sexual, and other social and personal factors—come into play, including the time of settlement in Canada, and associations with the baggage of the postcolonial in purely academic parameters. Binaries related to margin-hinterland, majority-minority, hybridity, multiplicity, creolization, cross-nationalism, diaspora, reflection of the Other, and notions of imagined societies are all integral to the discourse associated with the purportedly “international” in Canadian literature. This has also lent itself to reevaluation by some scholars and thinkers; as the critic Diana Brydon said at a Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies conference: “Deconstruction imperialism keeps us within imperialism's orbit. … As a white Canadian, I speak as heir to an invading culture and beleaguered citizens of a colonized one, to an audience whose own participation in these processes is far from simple” (8).

There have been a shaping of connections and an apprehending of correspondences since the Tamarack Review West Indian writers issue, and a recognizing of cross-national influences, not least beginning and ending with the image of pan-Caribbean merging with essentially a unique Canadian or Canadian-influenced writing. As Austin Clarke suggests, “This writing, emerging into a kind of literary renaissance, stands on its own legs, so to speak, and will be judged harshly when it is flawed: but processionally when it compares with the high standard of Canadian literature” (“Black Writers”).

If indeed, in the words of Michael Ondaatje, “we own the country we grow up in, or else we become aliens,” then as West Indian-born writers inhabiting Canada we will continue to fashion our own dreams in unique ways as we react to a complex Canadian social and cultural landscape in invoking memory and forming dreams, even as we wrestle with commitment in pursuing individual visions, sometimes in strident or uncompromising ways over issues such as discrimination while simultaneously striving to maintain integrity as artists above all else. I confess that when the writer Earl Lovelace suggested to me (at a University of Miami Caribbean writers' retreat) that Canada is “a mediocre place,” I bristled, because of the instinct informing me of the ongoing effort to shape drama, all in possessing and simultaneously learning “to love the land” as more than mere counterpoint—concerned as I am with exploring my own psyche and human fragility while trying to understand or apprehend truths in the particular and the “primordial”; for I believe strongly that art, above all else, as Carl Jung has said, is “nothing but a tremendous intuition striving for expression” (198).

This expression is also longing for perfection, concerned as I have been with finding a voice for my own sometimes amorphous, changing, and perhaps changeable ideas and feelings; all this while engaged in self-exploration and identification in the now ubiquitous or self-same Great White North with Guyanese-formed inner experiences. These experiences, while encompassing elements of metaphysics or mysticism tied to hinterland resonances of the “pool of origins” (Wilson Harris), I now see reflected in my first-ever written story, “Tide at Beachhead,” formed while living in Guyana and significantly included in the special Canadian Caribbean issue of Descant, as engaging in memory as the deepest possible creative experience toward defining literature, with Eldridge Cleaver, as the combining of the alphabet “with volatile elements of the soul” (97).

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood Speaks to the Class of '98.” Nor'Wester, Fall 1998, pp. 14-15.

Brand, Dionne. Chronicles of the Hostile Sun. Toronto. Williams-Wallace. 1984.

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Multicultural Themes In Specific Contemporary Works