Neil Bissoondath Criticism - Essay

Douglas Glover (review date May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Continental Drifters," in Books in Canada, Vol. 14, No. 4, May, 1985, p. 14.

[In the review below, Glover praises Digging Up the Mountains and comments on several of the stories.]

In his first story collection, Digging Up the Mountains, Neil Bissoondath reveals an impressive gift for writing prose that is precise and vivid, full of striking turns of phrase and exciting, many-fingered images.

Take, for example, the opening of his story "An Arrangement Of Shadows":

The clock struck once and it was eight o'clock.

Two pigeons, symmetrical slices of black on the blue sky, swooped and touched down abruptly on the red roof of the clock tower. The hands of the clock—broadswords of a brass long tarnished—were locked as always at four seventeen.

"All fine prose," in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "is based on the verbs carrying the sentences." These lines of Bissoondath's are so alive that you race through them, scarcely noticing their technical virtuosity, yet they have colored the whole story—the striking, slicing, swooping, tarnishing, and locking is going on before your eyes.

Born in Trinidad in 1955, Bissoondath came to Canada 12 years ago as a university student. While his style bespeaks a sound British colonial school education, his stories reflect what one assumes is a personal sense of uprootedness and betrayal at the economic decline and social and ideological turmoil of post-independence Trinidad.

In "There Are a Lot of Ways to Die" Joseph Heaven, a successful immigrant with a rug installation business in Toronto, returns' to Port of Spain expecting "a kind of fame, a continual welcome, the prodigal son having made good, having acquired skills, returning...

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John Sutherland (review date 19 June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fuentes the Memorious," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 11, June 19, 1986, pp. 19-20.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland lauds Bissoondath's writing but criticizes the "radical anger" that infuses several of his stories.]

Neil Bissoondath's Digging Up the Mountains is a first book and a collection of short stories. The separate pieces are linked by an embittered sense of expatriation. Bissoondath himself was born in colonial Trinidad in 1955 and emigrated to Canada in 1973 after Independence. The title story records the government campaign against the Indian middle class which sanctioned murder, Bissoondath alleges, and eventually drove people like him into exile. The ruling West Indian blacks are generally portrayed by Bissoondath as arrogant and brutal. At home they are grossly incompetent and violent. Abroad they are vulgar and absurd. "Dancing" is the autobiographical account of a former fifty-dollar-a-month black maid, Sheila. She comes to Toronto, where she is picked up by a sponsoring relative who takes her to a blues party. A white neighbor complains at the din, and the West Indians insult and threaten him with the "Untarryo Human Right Commission." The "racialists," they explain, "owe us. And we going to collect." Another more spiteful story portrays a black "revolutionary" studying in Canada who cannot read the name "Lenin" or spell "proletariat." More effective is the gentler piece "Insecurity," the comic portrait of an Indian merchant vacillating about whether to buy a house in distant Canada. When Bissoondath comes to terms with his racial anger he will be a writer worth watching.

Hanif Kureishi (review date 17 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Allistair Ramgoolam Does Well to be Uneasy," in New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1986, Sec. 7, p. 10.

[Below, Kureishi favorably assesses the collection Digging up the Mountain, describing his favorite stories in the book.]

The superb short stories in Neil Bissoondath's first collection are alive with movement and flight, leaving and returning, insecurity and impermanence. Peopled by exiles and immigrants, deracines and runaways—perhaps the true representatives of the mobile 20th century—these are tales of two worlds, usually the Caribbean and Canada—and of those who are stretched between the two.

Like his uncles, V. S....

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Bob Shacochis (review date 19 October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Neil Bissoondath: Tales of the New World," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVI, No. 16, October 19, 1986, p. 6.

[Shacochis is an American writer and the 1985 winner of the American Book Award. Below, he examines the thematic relations of the stories in Digging Up the Mountains.]

Bloodlines can function like a diplomatic passport for a writer making his or her debut, but they can just as easily be excess baggage, the constant unwanted weight of a destiny preordained for shortcomings. Neil Bissoondath, a Trinidad-born writer who emigrated to Toronto in 1973 at the age of 18, is the second-generation prince of an island-bred literary aristocracy, and thus is...

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Michael Gorra (review date Spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Digging Up the Mountains, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 40, Spring, 1987, pp. 139-40.

[Below, Gorra feels some of Bissoondath's stories reach too far in an attempt to create personae different from himself, but lauds the writing and Bissoondath's potential.]

Many of the stories in the Trinidadian writer Neil Bissoondath's first collection are also cast as dramatic monologues, often in the voices of those who are for one reason or another exiled from or disenfranchised by their homelands. But his attempts to speak in the voice of a peasant girl living under a Latin American dictatorship in "In the Kingdom of the Golden Dust," or in that of a...

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Evelyn J. Hawthorne (review date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Digging Up the Mountains, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, pp. 673-4.

[Below, Hawthorne lauds Bissoondath as a voice of marginalized peoples.]

Digging Up the Mountains, a collection of fourteen short stories by the Trinidadian-born Canadian writer Neil Bissoondath, focuses with narrative urgency on themes of displacement, marginality, and political victimization. The protagonists of the stories are racially and ethnically diverse, such as the Japanese heroine of "The Cage" and the Latin Americans of "In the Kingdom of the Golden Dust" and "Counting the Wind." The majority of them however, are East...

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Hanif Kureishi (review date 16 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Return to Casaquemada," in New Statesman and Society, September 16, 1988, p. 42.

[In the following, Kureishi gives a mixed review of the novel.]

I thought Neil Bissoondath's first collection of short stories, Digging Up the Mountains, was excellent. So it fascinated me to see whether this writer who had attained such cool ease over 200 meters could raise the stamina, distance and kicks of speed required for the 10,000 meters of his first novel. The answer is yes and no.

A Casual Brutality is the story, told in carefully assembled fragments, of Raj Ramsingh, a young and intelligent man of Indian extraction, growing up on the...

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John Lanchester (review date 5 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Foreigners," in London Review of Books, January 5, 1989, p. 22.

[In the following excerpt, Lanchester feels the narrative style in A Casual Brutality occasionally rings false, but generally praises the novel.]

Admirers of Neil Bissoondath's collection of stories, Digging Up the Mountains, who were eagerly scanning their newspapers for tidings of his first novel might be forgiven for not noticing that it had been published. But it has: and A Casual Brutality is a very impressive debut. Perhaps Bissoondath will have been warned not to expect too much attention by his uncle, V. S. Naipaul.

A Casual Brutality is...

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Mervyn Morris (review date 22 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Going to Extremes and Other Tales of the New World," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XIX, No. 5, January 22, 1989, p. 4.

[In the following excerpt, Morris gives qualified praise for A Casual Brutality.]

The narrator of A Casual Brutality is Raj Ramsingh, an "East Indian" born in Casaquemada (a fictional island not far from Trinidad). He has qualified as a doctor in Canada, and has married a white Canadian. Although he knows that the socio-political situation in Casaquemada (Spanish for burnt house) is unstable, Ramsingh persuades himself he must return. He goes back to the island, with his Canadian wife, Jan, and their infant son. Jan must adapt to...

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Thomas Keneally (review date 26 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Home is Where the Death Squads Are," in The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1989, Sec. 7, p. 14.

[Keneally is the best-selling author of numerous books, including the widely acclaimed Schindler's List. Below, he finds A Casual Brutality's language sometimes strained and stilted, but feels Bissoondath is a writer of great potential.]

Neil Bissoondath is a Canadian writer, born in Trinidad. He is also a nephew of the brothers V. S. and Shiva Naipaul, though he makes little of it. After all, this first novel shows he has his own fish to fry, even though they might derive from that same broad, blue, troubled sea, the Caribbean.

...

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Marc Côté (review date February/March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hopes or Illusions," in The Canadian Forum, February/March, 1989, pp. 31-2.

[Below, Côté gives strong praise for the tone and content of A Casual Brutality.]

In his first novel published three years after the remarkable collection of short stories Digging Up the Mountains, Neil Bissoondath has forged a powerful story of exploitation and violence set on a West Indian colonial island, recently proclaimed independent. First novels often show the greatest strengths and weaknesses of writers: often the style is uneven, the content overworked. A Casual Brutality carries none of these flaws; it is the work of a sure hand and disciplined mind.

...

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Merna Summers (review date October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Safe Place," in Books in Canada, Vol. XIX, No. 7, October 1990, p. 35.

[Below, Summers reviews On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, praising all but two of the stories.]

A flock of pigeons flutters down toward the balcony of a Toronto apartment. An aging man, whose family duty it is to shoo them away, lets them settle, even though he knows they will foul the balcony.

Mr. Ramgoolam figured that everybody—even birds—needed a safe place to land. Surely their wings would tire, he thought. Surely even pigeons, with their innate sense of direction, occasionally needed a point of reference from which they could reassure...

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Branko Gorjup (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 353-54.

[Below, Gorjup favorably assesses On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. He notes that Bissoondath expands the concept of "immigrant" to include the "internal immigrant," defined as the individual isolated from a sense of belonging in his or her own land.]

Immigrant writing has long been a staple of North American literature, enjoyed and studied for its wealth of powerful drama. Originating in the individual's conflict between a haunting memory of the past and an uncertain vision of the future, this drama has assumed different...

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Janice Vaudry (review date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, in A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People, March, 1991, p. 114.

[Below, Vaudry praises On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows as a compendium of the immigrant experience.]

"It is the violence of beating wings that attracts Joaquin's attentions"; and so begins On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, Neil Bissoondath's third fictional work. It is, however, the solid, consistent and moving writing that attracts our attention and holds it through this collection of short stories. The ten stories included cover a wide range geographically, emotionally and experientially. While one...

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Jim Shephard (review date 26 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keeping It Short: A Season of Stories; Trading One World for Another," in New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, p. 3.

[Below, Shephard feels that Bissoondath's sensibilities intrude too much into the narrative of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, but the stories are important statements about the disenfranchised.]

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, in his poem "Song of an Emigre," has his exiles begin their address to us in this way: "We come into being in alien cities. / We call them native but not for long. / We are allowed to admire their walls and spires. / From east to west we go, and in front of us / rolls the huge circle of a flaming / sun...

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Edward Hower (review date 30 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "By the Rivers of Babylon," in Washington Post Book World, June 30, 1991, p. 10.

[Edward Hower is the author of three novels and of The Pomegranate Princess, a book of Indian folktales. Below, he favorably reviews On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows.]

Displaced persons, the exiles among us, have always been popular figures in fiction. Looking through their eyes, we are given a vivid, unfamiliar perspective on our familiar world that forces us to evaluate our lives in ways we have never considered before.

Most of the characters in Neil Bissoondath's superb collection of 10 stories, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, are outsiders of...

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Frank Birbalsingh (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of the author's writing in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 101-02.

[In the following review, Birbalsingh gives a concise overview of Bissoondath's fiction.]

One writer who should have no complaints about being neglected is Neil Bissoondath from Trinidad. From the appearance of his first book Digging up the Mountains, (1985) a collection of stories, Bissoondath has established himself as the most important South Asian writer of Indo-Caribbean origin, although he would reject such a label of himself, and claim that he is merely a Canadian writer. Since Digging up the Mountains, Bissoondath has written a novel A Casual...

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Thomas Hastings (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Uncertainty," in Canadian Literature, Spring 1993, pp. 146-7.

[In the following, Hastings reviews several stories from On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows.]

In "Cracks and Keyholes," perhaps the best story in Neil Bissoondath's recent collection of short fiction, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, Lenny, a Caribbean immigrant who has lived in Canada for fifteen years and presently finds himself washing beer mugs at a run-down strip-joint in Toronto, proclaims, "I's livin' proof that not every immigrant is a multicultural success story." For Lenny, as for a number of characters in this uneven collection of ten stories, life doesn't always work out the way...

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Carole Giangrande (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Urban Logos," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 43-4.

[In the following review, Giangrande describes The Innocence of Age as "a book with a strangely engrossing mix of banality and wisdom."]

Faced with the distressing truths of racism, poverty, and crime, city dwellers find insight and wisdom in short supply these days. Neil Bissoondath's latest novel, The Innocence of Age, appears to offer some of both. It tells the story of a father-son conflict that embodies the clash of old, genteel Toronto and the new multicultural city of cold glitz and destitution.

It's a good, readable tale, and Bissoondath tells it...

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Sandra Martin (review date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Debating the M-Word," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 60, No. 11, November, 1994, p. 27.

[In the following review, Martin praises Bissoondath for having the courage to speak against the politically correct dogma of multiculturalism in his book Selling Illusions.]

Some people will say that Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada is a brave book. Many will say that only somebody like Bissoondath—a writer of color—could get away with writing it. Both of those statements should be irrelevant to any discussion of the merits of Bissoondath's thesis and its articulation. The fact that they aren't is an indication of the fear...

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Janice Kulyk Keefer (review date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Center: Can it Hold?" in Books in Canada, Vol. XXIII, No. 8, November, 1994, pp. 32-3.

[Below, Keefer argues against the premise of Bissoondath's Selling Illusions.]

Neil Bissoondath has discovered the root of all evil in contemporary Canada: not economic collapse or the devastation of our environment, but multiculturalism. Bissoondath contends that multiculturalism has cost Canadians any fixed sense of who we collectively are by eradicating that center that we yearn to have "bind" us. Equating multiculturalism with apartheid, racialism, and ethnic ghettoization, he accuses it of destroying that unifying, Anglo-centric "old Canada" so many of us supposedly...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

John Stanley (review date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, in Canadian Book Review Annual, edited by Joyce M. Wilson, 1994, pp. 354-55.

[In the following, Stanley negatively critiques the premise of Selling Illusions.]

Multiculturalism has been an object of attack since its conception in 1967, in the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. As an important literary figure, and as one of the "ethnics" who presumably benefits from multicultural policies and programs, Neil Bissoondath carries weight as a critic.

Unfortunately, his book is marred by minor slips (Elaine, not Diane, Ziemba is the Ontario...

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Penny Van Toorn (interview date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Building on Common Ground: An interview with Neil Bissondath," in Canadian Literature, No. 147, Winter, 1995, pp. 127-35.

[In the interview below, Bisoondath discusses his family history and other influences on his writing.]

[Van Toorn:] Tell me about your family history.

[Bissoondath]: Both sides of the family left India to come to Trinidad as indentured laborers to work in the sugar cane plantations. It would have been my great grandparents, around the turn of the century. And they decided to stay. The Naipaul side were from the state of Madhya Pradesh. My uncle [V. S. Naipaul] has written about a sad trip he made to the village in...

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Marilyn Iwama (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shaping Ethnicity," in Canadian Literature, No. 151, Winter 1996, pp. 171-72.

[Below, Iwama criticizes the logic of Selling Illusions.]

Neil Bissoondath describes Selling Illusions as his "personal attempt to grapple with" the policy of multiculturalism in Canada. The personal nature of this text is palpable. Complementing Bissoondath's views on multiculturalism are the story of his immigration to Canada from Trinidad, a chat about his family and friends, and a detailed rendering of the "creative process" of his writing. The reader learns Bissoondath's opinions on a constellation of topics surrounding politics and art, including his lengthy rebuttal of...

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