Neil Bissoondath Critical Essays

Introduction

Neil Bissoondath 1955–

(Full name Neil Devindra Bissoondath) Trinidadian-born Canadian novelist, short story and nonfiction writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Bissoondath's career through 1996.

Neil Bissoondath's writing typically focuses on the lives of characters displaced by political violence. In addition to immigrants and refugees, Bissoondath also explores the lives of those marginalized within their own societies, people alienated by their own culture. As Jim Shephard writes, "That spectrum of human response, from the selfless to the despairing, is what Neil Bissoondath writes about. In doing so, he speaks for the silenced voices that continue to fill the margins of our societies, the voices of those so overworked and under rewarded that the term 'disadvantaged' is inadequate to describe them."

Biographical Information

Born in 1955 in Arima, Trinidad, Bissoondath comes from a literary family: his uncles are V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul. His family lived in the town of Sangre Grande, where his father worked at the family store, until Bissoondath reached the age of fourteen. At that time his father built a house in Port of Spain, to be closer to the high school Bissoondath would attend, St. Mary's College. Although Bissoondath was from a Hindu tradition, he was able to adapt to a Catholic high school. Bissoondath describes himself as not very religious and distrustful of dogma. In the early Seventies, political upheaval and economic collapse had created a climate of chaos and violence in the island nation. In a situation similar to Germany in the Thirties, wherein Jews became a convenient scapegoat for the disintegrating economy, the East Indian merchant class became the target of persecution in Trinidad. In 1973, at the age of eighteen, Bissoondath left Trinidad. He settled in Canada, where he studied at York University, receiving a B. A. in French in 1977. Bissoondath taught English and French at the Inlingua School of Languages and the Toronto Language Workshop. He won the McClelland and Stewart award and the National Magazine award, both in 1986, for the short story "Dancing."

Major Works

Bissoondath's fist book was the short story collection, Dig-ging Up the Mountains (1985). The title story is set on a Caribbean island which recently gained its independence and is in the throes of political and social upheaval. The story's protagonist, Harry Beharry, wants only to work in his garden and die in his own home. But the escalating violence forces him to flee. "Dancing," told in an autobiographical style, is the story of a Caribbean maid who voyages to Canada with the hopes of bettering herself. Through her a bewilderingly different world is revealed, with skyscrapers, automatic doors, and a coldness of climate and spirit. In "An Arrangement of Shadows," a white schoolteacher from England finds herself, after many years in the Caribbean, suddenly made an outcast by political changes. No longer comfortable but unable to leave, she finds herself stereotyped by others with many traits she despises. Bissoondath's first novel, A Casual Brutality (1988), is again set in a troubled Caribbean nation. Casaquemada, the island nation in the book, is a mixture of the politics and history of Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Grenada. Dr. Raj Ramsingh studied and married in Canada. But friends convince him that the intelligentsia owe something to their homeland, and although he knows the political situation is volatile, he returns to Casaquemada. Growing violence claims the lives of his wife and son, and he returns to Canada. Bissoondath's next book is another collection of short stories, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990). In the title story, a group of refugees from various parts of the world wait together in a boarding house for decisions on their requests for political asylum in Canada. "Security" is a sequel to the story "Uncertainty" from Bissoondath's first collection. The principal character of both stories, Mr. Ramgoolam, has become alienated from his family. His wife now works outside the home, and his sons have become accustomed to the Canadian culture, even eating pork and beef. Seeking a sense of belonging, Mr. Ramgoolam retreats into his religion. But the more he immerses himself in his religious practices and listens to the Hindu radio programs (which he does not understand), the more alienated he becomes. In "Goodnight, Mr. Slade," the caretaker of an apartment building is being evicted and placed in a nursing home. The experience reminds him of his previous displacement, when he was sent to Nazi concentration camps. Instead of once again surrendering his life to the will of others, he commits suicide. The culture conflict of the immigrant is also the subject of Bissoondath's novel, The Innocence of Age (1994). The middle-aged Pasco, still grieving over the death of his wife, longs nostalgically for the past. But his son Danny rejects the past, seeing life only in terms of money and power. Danny works for a greedy slumlord whom Pasco despises. Their conflict is brought to a head when Danny begins to renovate Pasco's home, thinking more in terms of future profit than Pasco's comfort. In his nonfiction book, Selling Illusions (1994), Bissoondath argues that governmental promotion of a Multiculturalism policy actually harms those it hopes to protect. He suggests that government intervention focuses on superficial differences, at the expense of the more profound similarities people share. Bissoondath makes the case that cultural heritage is best protected by individual efforts.

Critical Reception

Early criticism of Bissoondath's work often compared his work to the writings of his uncles V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul. Most agreed that he shared their sense of linguistic style and attention to detail. Several critics felt Bissoondath's precise attention to surface details was subverted by an emotional detachment to his characters' inner lives. David Evans referred to this in his criticism of A Casual Brutality, saying that the narrative style is "replacing emotion with a near-photographic rendering of surface detail." Several critics laud Bissoondath's use of contrasting past and present to illuminate a character's inner conflict. As Merna Summers stated, "Present and past repeatedly illuminate each other in Bissoondath's stories, and the meaning often comes out of the tension between them." Although Bissoondath's stories often focus on the themes of the marginalized and dispossessed, he is frequently praised for the broad range of protagonists. Not surprisingly, the controversial thesis of Selling Illusions generated criticism that examined the policy of Multiculturalism more than treating Bissoondath's ideas. However, many critics appreciated Bissoondath's courage for taking on a politically-charged, complex issue.