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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 home to share the wealth." Instead, he finds that the shantytown workers don't want regular employment, that the new politics have endowed a class of insufferable nouveau bureaucrats, that old friends have died or lapsed into despair, that even the humid, rainy climate gives the lie to his memories of an idyllic island paradise.
"Might it not," thinks Joseph, referring to the story's central image, a dilapidated mansion symbolic of Trinidad itself, "have been always a big, open, empty house, with rooms destined to no purpose, with a façade that promised mystery but an interior that took away all hope." Finally, he decides to return to Canada, fearing that, in his absence, his memories of Toronto's civility may have turned into lies as well.
Joseph Heaven is the quintessential Bissoondath protagonist, with a foot in two continents, two worlds, each shifting subtly away from him as time passes, as memory becomes hallucination. In lesser souls, this alienation can cause bitterness, a theme that Bissoondath explores in several stories: "The Revolutionary" with its shambling, scarecrow ideologue; "A Short Visit to a Failed Artist," a savage caricature of a woman-hating ("Women are shit") self-styled artist (who photocopies his face) living in a crowded, subsidized Toronto apartment; and "Dancing," which ends in an explosion of anti-white, anti-Canadian racism.
Fearlessly, Bissoondath moves off his own turf, trying his themes on other nationalities—Japanese, Russian, Anglo-Canadian—but with less success than in his Trinidad stories. In "Continental Drift" a young Canadian hitch-hiking in Europe meets two Spanish migrant laborers in a hostel and feels "life suddenly electrified." Although the author's craftsmanship is evident, it seems wasted here on a trivial cliché about "real" experience and the noble working man. (This tepid effort is balanced by a couple of striking Central American atrocity stories "In The Kingdom Of The Golden Dust" and "Counting The Wind" which, though thematically unrelated, are among the best in the book.)
Sometimes, too, a certain stridency or one-sidedness invades Bissoondath's prevailing tone of bewildered fatalism. This is especially evident when he lapses into the old authorial lie of the uninvolved narrator. In "Christmas Lunch" the "I" narrator watches an immigrant man basely torment an unwitting white woman from Newfoundland. The "I" doesn't protest, doesn't attempt to intervene; he flees as soon as politeness permits.
The strength of this fiction (and others like it) trades on the narrator's supposed detachment, his objectivity. Appalled by the cruelty, yet secure in his superior courtesy (smug, bourgeois) and narrative neutrality, he makes a subtly insidious pact with the reader that, yes, man, these are awful degenerate people, not like us. Yet this easy verdict betrays a moral ambiguity, a failure on the part of the "I" to engage his own demons. Silence is complicity.
These reservations aside, however, the publication of Digging Up the Mountains ushers in a ripe, new talent, a welcome addition to the CanLit émigré pantheon. Bissoondath combines deft prose, major themes, exotic peoples and locales to create a work of surpassing emotional impact.
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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.
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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. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul, he has much to tell us about areas that have not been written about before. His stories recall theirs in subject matter, though he promises to have more range than V. S. Naipaul, and he can write plausible women characters.
The title story, "Digging Up the Mountains," is set on a recently independent Caribbean island during a state of emergency. Hari Beharry is a successful businessman who wants nothing more than to tend his garden and die in his own house. But the island's former simplicity "had been replaced by the cynical politics of corruption that plagued all the urchin nations scrambling in the larger world." Friends are inexplicably taken away; others are shot; there are anonymous phone calls and letters. Finally there is more violence, followed by flight.
In another story, "Insecurity," Alistair Ramgoolam, a similar self-made businessman, the sort who had attended the farewell ball for the last British Governor, is trying to escape by buying a house in Toronto through his son. On this island there are policemen with guns and "students parading Marx and Castro." The walls of his store have been daubed with slogans: "Socialism" and "Black Communism." "His life at the fringe of events, he felt, had given him a certain authority over and comprehension of the past. But the present, with its confusion and corruption, eluded him. The sense of drift nurtured unease." Here the pattern is like that of the title story: decent people who have worked hard are threatened by the smoldering volcano of colonial resentment and disorder. Once more the wrong people will be in charge: independence will have failed and one tyranny, usually the British variety, will be replaced by the Caribbean kind of autocracy.
What is missing in both stories is also the same: an attempt to explain and understand the revolutionaries and what their grievances and politics are, and to say how their bitter resentments came to be forged.
The shorter piece called "The Revolutionary" does present us with Eugene Williamson, a militant student from Trinidad attending a university someplace else. Williamson has a baby son called Tarot, admires Che and Fidel and speaks of "the glorious, liberating path" of what he calls "socialist-proletarian" revolution. But Mr. Bissoondath's contempt for his character is too obvious and the caricature too grotesque for the story to succeed. This is partly because the shorter pieces in the book often drift; they are even more pointless than the lives of his characters. Mr. Bissoondath is a better writer when he is more expansive, when he can combine his marvelous gift for mood and detail with his ability to create character and drama.
These gifts coincide in the long story "An Arrangement of Shadows." Miss Victoria Jackson, a white teacher, leaves factory-gray England for the Caribbean only to find herself, years later, marooned on a stifling island where she cannot stay and which she cannot leave. Hemmed in by nationalist resentment, a rejected lover and provincial sexual hypocrisy, she suddenly finds herself an objective enemy of the island: an unwilling representative of everything she hates. She hears a dead colleague's voice say: "Our time is long gone. We are of a different age. We are not, none of us, wanted here. We are not required. We don't belong." Scrupulously selecting details of light, landscape and personality, Mr. Bissoondath builds his story relentlessly to a shattering climax.
In "Dancing" he once more tells us what it is like to be a harried stranger. An uneducated Caribbean woman, "just a ordinary fifty-dollar-a-month maid" in Trinidad, suffering from uppityness, joins her relatives in Canada. We get a terrifying, dizzy sense of what our own surroundings—automatic doors, high-rise apartment blocks, subways—are like to the uninitiated.
Mr. Bissoondath left Trinidad to study French at York University in Toronto and has taught both English and French. His scrupulousness and control mean much can be said quickly. Thus each of the longer stories seems full but not crowded, giving the sense of an embryo novel. And the novel will, I think, suit his talent.
In much recent North American writing the tone is insular, self-regarding, even self-obsessed. It is a relief then to run up against Neil Bissoondath's broad outlook and seriousness. He has startling news from a changing world to tell us. At ease writing about France and Japan, as well as about the Caribbean and Canada, he has the fresh catholicity that is a welcome feature of third-world writing today.
It is also his ability to build the pressures of political context into the attempt of ordinary people to live reasonable lives that gives his work its power, its complexity and its contemporary relevance.
At the age of 10, Neil Bissoondath made a startling discovery—his uncle V. S. Naipaul was a writer. "I started reading when I was very young, but it hadn't occurred to me before then that all those people I enjoyed reading were professional writers," he said. "I saw V. S. as a kind of role model. I started writing stories and I realized that what I was doing could be a profession."
Those first stories, written as he grew up in Trinidad, were "usually pretty bad." But he didn't feel intimidated by being a member of a literary family that also included V. S. Naipaul's brother, Shiva, who died last year. "I don't carry the name Naipaul and that's a blessing," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Toronto. "And I don't view writing as a competition. Shiva's writing was very different from V. S.'s and mine is different from theirs." The short stories in Digging Up the Mountains, his first book, present a dark picture of life in the third world. Yet his own childhood in the West Indies was happy. "There wasn't a sense of threat," he said, "just a feeling that there was more to the world."
His tales also tell of demons, real or imagined, facing strangers in strange lands. But he adapted easily when he moved to Toronto 13 years ago at the age of 18 to attend York University. "As soon as I arrived I felt at home," he said, adding that V. S. Naipaul had warned him, "England was a place without a future" and the United States "was too big and would swallow me up."
He is working now on a novel. "It's nice to have so much space to explore. With a short story I'm always reining myself in."
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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 in the ostensible position of upholding a family's reputation. As nephew of V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul, Bissoondath is de facto an object of our curiosity. We want to know if he has inherited the gift, and the courage to develop it into a talent worthy of his genes. The answer is yes; Bissoondath is as deserving of praise as his uncles. He shares their fearless regard for complexity, and their inability to fool around. His psychological and historical insights are similarly dark, and as accurate as a laser scalpel.
So much for genetic luggage. Perhaps it is ultimately trivial, akin to eye color or shoe size. And yet I hesitate to say that because these stories have too much authority to be thought of as coincidental or derivative, and I realize that as I attempt to isolate the unique strength's of Bissoondath's work, I am identifying family trademarks as well.
The first recognizable trait to impress itself upon the reader is an extraordinary range of mobility. Digging Up the Mountains, Bissoondath's first publication, is a frustrating book to discuss in this respect. Its 14 stories seem to be the combined effort of a half-dozen authors, each writing from and about different parts of the planet. There are, of course, stories about life in contemporary Trinidad and the experiences of West Indian immigrants in Canada, powerfully compressed tales of distorted nationalism and cultural divorce. But Bissoondath assumes the freedom to kidnap any culture that intrigues him. Consequently, we have the first-person accounts of Mishi, a young Japanese woman suffocating in the thin male-dominated atmosphere of her ancestors, and Maria Luisa, a Central American teen-age girl about to be crowned Police Queen in the story "In the Kingdom of Golden Dust." In a tone of stunned passivity that may momentarily burst into hysteria, Maria Luisa daydreams of her dead boyfriends as their murderer emcees the bleak pageant, hallucinating their bloody resurrection. In "An Arrangement of Shadows," Bissoondath dredges the enigmatic depths of the misguided and doomed Victoria Jackson, an expatriate schoolteacher from North America who sexually colonizes her black students. "Continental Drift" chronicles the sad fellowship of European migrant workers in France, and in "Counting the Wind," the collection's end piece, a good-hearted graveyard keeper and his family become the unwilling hosts to daily executions during a conflict reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War.
Bissoondath sets loose enough diverse personalities and voices to turn any book into a self-contained Babylon, yet the collection is quietly unified by its underlying concerns. There is a clear sense of a central command post, an overriding omniscience that continuously braids disparate realities into one hard, glistening cable of universal humanity. By not allowing his vision to anchor in one class, one race, one nation, or one ideology, Bissoondath has freed his imagination for the challenge of heterogeneity, the myths and frontiers of the other. It's not the only way, this global embrace of experience, for a writer to make big connections, but it is unquestionably the richest. The novelist Russell Banks has spoken of New World Writers, syncretic artists who feel entirely at ease borrowing from and transforming all the cultural traditions they can get their hands on—European, African, Latin, Caribbean, Indian, Asian, rural and urban, high and low. Bissoondath matches the description. Blending a variety of elements to construct an ecumenical and truly American literature, these are writers, in Banks' words, with "a powerful belief in fiction's essential role in the creation of a moral history of the hemisphere."
The profound thematic structuring of the stories in Digging Up the Mountains is an extension of this belief. The most poignant and disturbing pieces in the collection are the Trinidad/Canada set, which dramatize the bitter Third World landscape of post-colonial muddle. In the title story, Hari Beharry, son of an immigrant to the island and owner of a chain of profitable boutiques, has built himself a luxurious house. The house, and its view of the mountains, is Hari's tangible symbol of permanence: here he will entertain his grandchildren and their children, and from here, when the time comes, he will be buried.
"The island, however, was no longer that in which his father had lived. Its simplicity, its unsophistication, had vanished over the years and had been replaced by the cynical politics of corruption that plagued all the urchin nations scrambling in the larger world. Independence—written ever since with a capital I, small I being considered a spelling mistake at best, treason at worst—had promised the world. It had failed to deliver, and the island, in its isolation, blamed the world."
Hari, like the majority of Bissoondath's characters, is a member of a transitional generation, torn and without peace, unable to gather any meaningful sense of cultural identity out of "the black hole" of the island's history. They are nostalgic for an idealized past, victims of a volatile present, and outcasts, from a future that's already begun to shut them out from the tradition-laden lives of their parents and the new lives of their children. They represent a fall from consciousness that produces moral confusion and a society at the mercy of political opportunism. They become a parody of stability and status, not only people without virtue, but without an awareness of its existence in the world.
On Hari's island, suffering becomes a political craft. He gives up trying to determine which way the wind blows—it blows, like a hurricane, from contrary directions. The only recourse is to evacuate: "Flight had become necessary, and it would be penniless flight … he could leave with nothing. It was the price for years of opulent celebrity in a little place going wrong."
We can pity Hari, but that's about it. He is guilty of taking his success, and others' lack of it, for granted. He has, in his blindness, emulated the old colonial sins, a legacy adopted by the elite classes and cynically admired by too many of its victims who aspire to power.
Bissoondath is wise to make the causes and effects of dislocation his primary concern. We are largely a hemisphere of immigrants and refugees, the difference between the two categories sometimes less one of motivation than a degree of urgency. Something has happened, however, that's altered the dynamics of the flow. The cities of the Western world, destinations of hope, are gradually becoming Third World mini-states approaching critical mass. In "Veins Visible," the most alarmingly prophetic story in the collection, Vern, a West Indian immigrant in Canada, has endured a winter witnessing the slow deaths of his friends from alienation and dissipation, lethally homesick for a place and a time that no longer exist. Vern concludes that "the whole world, everybody's a refugee, everybody's running from one thing or another."
This is revelation as over-simplification, but Bissoondath permits his character to make the more fundamental connection: "And then another thought chilled him; But it's happening here too. This country around him was beginning to crack. The angry words, the petty hatreds, the attitude not of living off the land but of raping it. He had seen it before, been through it before, and much more, more that was still to come, until a time when, even from here, the haven now, people would begin to flee…. He thought, Where to next, Refugee?"
There is, believe it or not, smart humor in some of these stories, but they are never merry journeys. I suppose Bissoondath will be criticized for his dark reports, and for his fascination with spiritual ugliness. More important, I think, is that he cannot be counted among those writers—and those readers—who have abandoned issues and values for posturing or moral fatigue. A Naipaul to his esthetic bones, he has engaged his art to the dangerous forces that sweep the world. If there are any more writers in the family I wish they'd hurry along.
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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 Japanese girl from a traditional family in "The Cage," ring false to me: Here is the latter story's first paragraph:
My father is an architect. Architects are good at designing things: stores, houses, apartments, prisons. For my mother, my father, not an unkind man, designed a house. For me, my father, not a kind man, designed a cage.
Too neat, too carefully calculated, this attempt to be Japanese; the writer is too conscious of trying this particular voice on to see how it feels. But sometimes one's new clothes don't fit, and I don't believe in this voice any more than I'd believe in Cary Grant in overalls.
But what an anxiety of influence Bissoondath must work under! He is the nephew of V. S. Naipaul, and so often in reading these stories, one is aware, too aware, of the uncle's work, whose prose Bissoondath's echoes:
At first it had seemed like a joke: simple people—simplicity then viewed as a virtue, when they were truly simple, playing at the world until the wider corruption inexorably attracted them—eager to be duped by a greater sophistication. Yet Vernon had always felt that more than a simplicity had been involved, more than an island naivety.
This passage from "Veins Visible" feels like a footnote to the uncle's work, to The Mimic Men in particular, an exploration of territory he has already fully mapped, and which Bissoondath has not yet been able to make fully his own. Like most of the stories in the volume, it is neatly crafted, but I feel I've read it before, and not as I've read the latest New Yorker story before. For Bissoondath writes in that window of time in which such an attitude toward history and toward the psychic region of exile that history creates is still the property of an individual writer, and not of the house of fiction as a whole. And I suspect he's tried to compensate for that by attempting to extend that sense, in stories like "The Cage," to situations that are quite different, perhaps too different, from his own.
Maybe this is unfair. Perhaps if the book came without a biographical note I wouldn't think these stories so derivative; perhaps, too, a summer-long saturation in Naipaul of my own has made me too conscious of any such echoes. Bissoondath works best in charting the lives of Trinidadians now living in Canada, as he does himself, writing about those who've traded the warmth of the islands, in every sense, for an economic opportunity whose cost in dislocation seems increasingly not worth paying; one such story, "Dancing," told in the voice of a black Trinidadian housemaid newly come to Toronto, is far and away the most successful of the collection's dramatic monologues. And yet in one piece with the grandiose title "Man as Plaything, Life as Mockery," Bissoondath does succeed not only in making his uncle's sense of placelessness his own, but in providing the sort of generalized statement about modern history that Naipaul only reached with In a Free State, after a decade and a half of work. In it a doctor of unspecified—one suspects East Asian—origin waits in a North American airport for the wife he left behind twenty years ago, and in remembering how he and his infant daughter had escaped the revolution that had caught his wife, comes to see his family in the terms the title suggests. The highest praise I know for this story is that it justifies that title, and makes one think that Bissoondath might, in the end, create a world of his own to write about.
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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 Indian-Caribbeans who in many respects are the twentieth century's Wandering Jews. The stories about them put on view their status, actual and metaphorical, as exiles, especially their more recent evictions from (or pressured abandonment of) the Caribbean homeland. Bissoondath clearly blames politics and revolutionary ideas of the post-colonial, independent West Indies for the social disruptions.
In the stories "Digging Up the Mountains," "Insecurity," and "There Are a Lot of Ways to Die" Bissoondath reveals the East Indian character under siege. His characters are dramatized as victims of ruthless and violent island politics which force them to flee the islands for their safety. One protagonist is bullied into a decision to leave Trinidad; he will thus forfeit rights to his considerable property. Another, gradually unhinged by political occurrences, marks time before he will need to leave the island but miserably hordes his money and unlawfully deposits it in a Canadian bank abroad. A third East Indian protagonist ill-advisedly returns to his island home; after becoming acutely aware of his isolation, however, and fearful about the future, he quickly decides to abandon the island for northern societies.
Migration does not provide the secure haven that East Indians and other racial groups hope for. Several stories reveal the disillusionment of these new immigrants. East Indians find that their feelings of insecurity and displacement have not abated and that, moreover, their spiritual disintegration has been hastened. Afro-Caribbeans are shown to react to their new situation with belligerence, though their stories seem less able to present their characters empathetically, their behavior made largely to seem headstrong and antisocial.
Exploring the condition of rootlessness and alienation felt by a new vintage of displaced persons, Bissoondath's stories are important to an understanding of these marginalized groups. Important too is their attempt to unmask the efficient cause of this problem—Third World political violence and turmoil, First World indifference—and thus to open a way to a dialogue. Though Bissoondath's judgments hamper narrative development and intrude upon his characterizations, his book is a thoughtful literary contribution.
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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 Caribbean island—"shaped like an inverted tear drop"—of Casaquemada. As a sort of wild suburb of the first world after years of colonial rule, Casaquemada is a place to leave, not a place to take over your grandfather's store. Raj, brought up by his grandparents (beautifully drawn by Bissoondath) decides to go west, to Canada, and learn to be a doctor.
It was to Toronto that Bissoondath himself went, on his uncle Vidia's advice; and it is with V. S. Naipaul's imprimatur that his nephew's book unsurprisingly comes. Apparently uncle Vidia warned young Neil against England as "a place without a future" and said "the United States is too big and will swallow you up."
In Canada Raj lives in the house of a French-Canadian woman neglected by her racist children. In this prosperous, democratic country, the old are criminally neglected. There is a powerful, moving scene in the Pleasure Dome, a glorified old people's home, where the old woman ends up, when Raj goes to visit her. He is jolted by how unfeeling the west is, by how merely functional people are.
Nearby, in a girlie bar, Raj meets his future wife Jan and she seduces him at a party. Raj himself seems to want nothing; things just happen to him. Consequently he never has much feeling for Jan and she has little for him; in fact Raj never has much feeling for anyone and is an irritatingly reserved person.
Raj fails, as well, to connect with Canada and, under the influence of a reformer who argues that the intelligent should return and do what they can for the nascent nation, the native returns to Casaquemada with wife and child. A once flourishing place, after a sugar and then an oil boom, the island is now firmly in the throes of a bad case of Naipaulitis: there is decay, corruption, sordor, filth and revolution everywhere.
Bissoondath brilliantly brings this alive through a range of characters: the old school friend now turned policeman and connoisseur of torture; Grappler, his much loved disillusioned uncle and member of the oddly absent government, once a man of independence who now says, "maybe independence for us just meant the right to loot ourselves"; and an assortment of no-good gun-toters, amateur astrologers and politicians fond of electric sex-dolls. The island, perhaps "a failed experiment in nationhood", is a sinister place, violent and out of control due to an army revolt. Things start to close in on Raj and his family. In this burning place where to have integrity is to be radically foolish, where honesty is impossible, not required, the book builds to a shattering climax.
Like Naipaul, Bissoondath is excellent at atmosphere, at place, at detail, but—again like Naipaul—he is not good at creating convincing women. This is unfortunate: a terrible marriage getting worse is bang at the center of this novel and Bissoondath just lacks, say, Updike's ability to give the tedious intricacies of love's failure some resonance and humor. (It's interesting that in an essay on Naipaul, Updike points out that "love affairs in Naipaul's fiction tend to culminate in some physical abuse of the woman", which is precisely what happens here too.)
The foreground of A Casual Brutality is curiously unpeopled and flat, the writing stern and overcontrolled, but the background teems with life. As a result, this novel, so full, so dramatic and necessary, seems too long and frequently unfocused.
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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 narrated by Dr Raj Ramsingh, an Indian from the Caribbean island of Casaquemada, who has returned home after qualifying in Toronto. He brings with him his wife Jan—who rapidly starts to dislike the island and the extended-family life in which she is immersed—and his son. Dr Ramsingh's motives for returning to Casaquemada aren't entirely pure: the country is enjoying an oil boom, and some people are starting to make a lot of money. "Economics as buying spree," comments Ramsingh's uncle. "All the money did was sharpen our evils." The social structure of the island is fragile, and compromised by its history: the British who colonized Casaquemada "had other, more valuable lessons to teach, but they had paid only lip-service to their voiced ideals, had offered in the end but the evils of their actions, had propagated but the baser instincts, which took root and flourished so effortlessly in this world they called, with a kind of black humor, new." The polity of Casaquemada begins to collapse and violence, both random and politically-motivated, becomes common.
Bissoondath's delightful talent for the evocation of character and place carries the story along rapidly, and he displays an ability for elegant encapsulation—Ramsingh's shop-owning grandfather is, "in his taciturn way, a happy victim of the dictatorship of small business"—as well as for vivid oratio recta. (I liked the grandmother, forever boasting about her diabetes: "I sufferin from sugar.") He does, however, have another manner—a much less successful one—in which an impulse towards aphorism is given full reign. "There are times," runs the first line of the novel, "when the word hope is but a synonym for illusion: it is the most virile of perils." In the attempt to be lapidary that sentence has become tangled and fussy: nor does it help to establish an impression of Ramsingh's character. Compare the opening of a novel with which A Casual Brutality—deliberately?—has much in common, V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River: "The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
There the manner is a voice and the voice is a character. In A Casual Brutality I sometimes felt that the tragic events of the narrative, and the background chaos of Casaquemada, were being used as a way of setting up another excursion into world-weary sententiousness. "I have spent my life polishing shadows," the doctor says, after he has suffered the novel's central catastrophe. These unsuccessful episodes, however, are concentrated at the beginning and end of the book, when its view of life is at its bleakest and most explicit; for the most part Ramsingh-passive, weak, intelligent-is a memorable example of that tricky breed, the likeable unlikeable narrator. And anyone in this country who does read first novels will find, if they read this one, that its portrayal of a greedy, violent society, squandering once-and-for-all oil revenue, has a certain resonance.
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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 an unfamiliar culture, which includes her husband's extended family; and Raj Ramsingh finds himself increasingly entangled in the racial and political complications of Casaquemada, a society on the edge of anarchy.
Neil Bissoondath was born in Trinidad in 1955 but left in 1973 and is now a Canadian citizen. His first book, Digging Up the Mountains, a collection of short stories, was published some three years ago, with a promotional quote from his uncle, V. S. Naipaul, who professed himself "staggered by the talent … already so developed."
A Casual Brutality, Bissoondath's first novel, captures and holds our interest through the carefully handled suspense of an eventful storyline, the emotional force of many episodes, and the sensitive presentation of several characters and various worlds.
Through the intricate structure of the work, Casaquemada gradually unfolds in historical depth and social detail. People on this island—mostly Indian or black—interact with varying degrees of tolerance, affection, hostility; and, as one character remarks, "sometimes you just can't tell who is your enemy and who is your friend." With the oil boom ended and the country in economic trouble, some who are well-off are resented by some who are not. Corruption spreads, internal authority disintegrates.
But this is not only a novel about political trouble in a third-world country. It is about the personal formation of Raj Ramsingh, about his family and other aspects of his Casaquemadan context and also about his Canadian experience. There is critical comment on Canada as well as on Casaquemada; and, like the island, Toronto is vividly presented: student lodgings, a girlie club, snow, an overnight dance party, the menace of racism, the desolation of an old people's home—all are made memorable.
Giving many instances, some of them in Canada, the novel implies that casual brutality is a regrettable constant in human experience and that self-deception will be punished. The narrative begins:
There are times when the word hope is but a synonym for illusion: it is the most virile of perils. He who cannot discern the difference—he whose perception of reality has slipped from him, whose appreciation of honesty has withered from within—will face, at the end, a fine levied, with no appeal, with only regret coating the memory like ash.
But the novel is at its least convincing in passages such as this, when Ramsingh presents himself as having learned something generally meaningful about his profession or life, small countries or the world. Much to Bissoondath's disadvantage, they recall V. S. Naipaul narrators such as Kripalsingh or Salim. For instance, Salim begins A Bend in the River: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." Though the strategy is similar in the opening paragraph of A Casual Brutality, Ramsingh—unlike Salim—sounds mannered and self-important, and noticeably different from the Ramsingh we hear in most of the book.
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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.
And like his uncles, Mr. Bissoondath writes well about the contingencies that brought Indians as indentured laborers to the West Indies, that saw the more enterprising of them become small businessmen living in awkward conjunction with former African slaves. "So there we were, African and Indian, a curious hybrid living in Spanish Casaquemada, using French poignards, dealing in offices with English clerks, driving along American highways." The children of successful Indians sent their children off to Britain, America, Canada for university education, but then the islands soured and the children became exiles abroad. It's an old story, but one that never ceases to tease the mind, especially the mind of a creative exile like Neil Bissoondath.
Casaquemada (in Spanish, burnt house) is the ominously named, fictional, exquisite island in which Dr. Raj Ramsingh, grandson of a self-improved Indian cane laborer, spends his childhood. He travels to Canada to study medicine, marries a Canadian under the pressure of having made her pregnant, has a son. "I am, by birth, Casaquemadan; by necessity disguised as choice, Canadian." His marriage is not as passionate as that of his aging Casaquemadan grandparents; it is in fact a model of what he sees as Canada's detachment and strange inverse probity: "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you." Out of an amalgam of family loyalty, self-interest and the implorings of his friends, Raj returns to Casaquemada just when all its peculiarly Caribbean problems are coming to a head.
The British are long gone. "On the day that Marilyn Monroe died and Nelson Mandela was arrested, Casaquemada received its independence." The Casaquemadan prime minister is a shadowy old man who may not even be alive; the cabinet members are venal; death squads, their ranks including Raj Ramsingh's old schoolmate, summarily execute the restless. Sugar no longer commands a price, tourism has been undermined by civil unrest and the oil that gave all these grandchildren of African slaves and Indian laborers a brisk flush of affluence has also gone sour. Smoke rises from businesses torched by the mob. The air is alive with rumors that the British will send warships, the Americans the Marines, the Cubans paratroopers. Florida, so close, and Canada, so safe, seem to be the foreordained destinations on which every Casaquemadan with the price of a plane fare has his attention fixed. Yet in Toronto's steely seasons, even illegal immigrants grow wistful about the lost sweetness of Caribbean life.
In A Casual Brutality the equation seems to be: you can have safety, but the cost is Canadian chilliness and dispassion.
Again, Mr. Bissoondath has a wonderful sensibility for capturing the complexities and paradoxes of island life. Who could think that so many subtleties could be fitted within the boundaries of one small Caribbean island? Raj is educated by priests but performs Hindu prayers in his grandfather's garden. He is taught subtly by his grandparents, who have raised him since the death of his parents, to treasure his uncharacteristically lighter, "fair-fair" complexion and to despise those Indians who have not risen above the laborer status of their ancestors: the status, that is, of the black West Indians. He learns through the pores of his skin how to push black gardeners around. Yet he venerates the international champion West Indian cricket team, in which Indians are barely represented and in which all the cleverness is African.
Raj's complicated childhood is very appropriately brought into play as supporting evidence for the terrors of the present, as a foreshadowing of the contemporary crisis and tragedy of Casaquemada.
Yet, in the face of all the vigor and talent of this book, Mr. Bissoondath is a young writer and displays to wholehearted excess a lot of the problems of the young writer. It is specifically because this book will generate a lot of justifiable attention in the English-speaking world that these problems ought to be acknowledged.
When the narrator turns portentous, he's frightful. "The threshold between remembering and forgetting is but a membrane of transience. Yesterday was. Now is—but only for a second." Raj's admirable uncle, Grappler, an island bureaucrat, sometimes has the most awesomely wooden dialogue placed in his mouth. "Even with all the development expertise available here or abroad, we acted like a nouveau-riche nation…. We're a failed experiment in nationhood, Raj, one among many. We haven't matured, we still view criticism as attack." Raj's Canadian wife, Jan, is so consistently and wrongheadedly cold toward his Casaquemadan family that she becomes—to an extent far greater than the book's argument about island warmth and North American coldness demands—hateful. When the death squads come calling on her, however intellectually appalled we might be, we find it hard to weep for her.
Then there are the frankly irksome aspects of Mr. Bissoondath's energy. For example, we find occasional disorienting blasts of alliteration. "The pigeons strutted stiffly, collapsed in clucking confusion in their confining wire cages."
All these weaknesses are consistent throughout the book. They are—unhappily—as habitual as Mr. Bissoondath's powerful literary imagination. Yet, once more, when he writes of the genuinely complicated human phenomenon, he is as impeccable as any reader could desire. Raj's friend and relative Kayso, a crusading lawyer, is found dead, electrocuted in apparent commerce with a life-size sex doll. Even members of the family take the story as a viable version, one that exempts them from further action, one that settles the ghost. And as for the general population of Casaquemada, Raj reflects, "The man was dead, and the manner of his death had importance now only in its entertainment value."
The problem in this novel is that we know we have been in these tropics already, and in the hands of experts, including those of Neil Bissoondath's kinsmen and of Graham Greene. Through the egregious flaws of "A Casual Brutality," Mr. Bissoondath goes to undue trouble to remind us of that fact. But through his rough talent he fills us with hope for his future books.
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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.
A kind of double helix forms the structure of the novel beginning with the end of the novel in the departures room of the small Casaquemada airport. The first storyline is the present: a story without hope of the last days the narrative character, Raj Ramsingh, spends on Casaquemada. In counterpoint to this, the second storyline recounts the history of young Raj, growing up an orphan in the comfortable upperclass home of his grandparents and going to university in Toronto. Alternating between these two halves of the novel, Bissoondath compares the innocence of the boy with the alienation from self and the surrender to outside forces of the man.
Departure, alienation and surrender are not weak positions—as is cynicism which implies involvement in a conflict—these are the signifiers of defeat, of a loss of hope. From the first line of the novel, Bissoondath makes clear what hope means to his characters and story: "There are times when the word hope is but a synonym for illusion: it is the most virile of perils." Writing about people without hope, a story about "regret coating the memory like ash" is dangerous and difficult, even for the most experienced of writers. What saves A Casual Brutality from possible drone of boredom is the back and forth between past and present, the shifts in tone from innocence to experience.
Raj's story can be divided up into even thirds: life as a child in Casaquemada, pre- and medical school in Toronto, life as a husband and father back in the Caribbean.
In the Canadian section Bissoondath is extremely perceptive about our nation and its people. Raj boards with Mrs. Perroquet, widowed mother of two grown sons, in the first of several makeshift homes. The married son who lives in Guelph is good; the other is ne'er do well Andy who calls Raj a "nigger" and who forces Raj out of his mother's home when she has a stroke. Both sons, both good and bad, show little respect or concern for their mother, something Raj does not understand. While in medschool, Raj hangs out occasionally at a stripper bar and there he meets Jan, who after one night with Raj—against his will, in a way—gets pregnant and marries him. The child is miscarried, but the marriage continues of its own involuntary inertia. Through Jan, Raj is given insights into the people of his new home: "Hey, my folks are typical Canadians, man. You know, do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. My mum and I once went to get tickets to a show at the O'Keefe. Two windows were open. There was nobody at one, and a line of about thirty people at the other. Mum joined the line. I couldn't believe it, she joined the fucking line. I grabbed the money from her, went up to the other window. Had the tickets in a minute. You should've seen the dirty looks I got from the people in the line. And not one of them moved". In the same way, Raj and Jan remain married and Jan becomes pregnant again.
At the time of the second pregnancy the couple decide, without saying so that they are moving to Casaquemada. That nation, which received its independence "on the day that Marilyn Monroe died and Nelson Mandela was arrested", has for the years Raj has been living in Toronto experienced a false economic boom based entirely on foreign money invested in oil. Corruption isn't rampant, it's common and accepted. When one of Raj's friends—risen to the heights of fame as a civil rights lawyer—challenges a ministry of the government, he is murdered. The comment passed: the fellow was getting too big for his britches. Not sarcasm but common sense under the circumstances. All the more frightening because of the understatement.
Casaquemada's economic boom collapses just before Raj arrives with his family and the country begins its descent into the unrest of citizens suddenly expelled from paradise. Not a Caribbean problem: Algeria in October of 1988 had identical riots in the streets because its economy, based 97% on foreign investment in oil, has faltered. By a little extrapolation, the observation of what happens in fictitious Casaquemada and real Algeria can be extended to a possibility of the United States in a time when the American government has created an unreal boom based entirely on borrowed money.
Although it may seem that the politics of Casaquemada are at the core of this novel, the story never gives way to tract or heavy didactic passages. Nothing about A Casual Brutality is obvious or predictable: it is full of twists and turns. The characters are all likeable in indefinable ways. Raj is not a wimp, though he's powerless; Jan is not a conniving bitch, though she has manipulated Raj into marriage.
In the dedication to Anne Marcoux, Bissoondath thanks her for teaching him "among many other things/perspective"—and it is this that is Bissoondath's greatest talent.
Few successful authors are able to bring together politics, economics and creative talent to write fiction well worth reading. Neil Bissoondath is, however, a rare author who is able to write unforgettably well about a political situation without the sacrifice of his art to his beliefs. In the case of many political writers, Right and Wrong are writ large, loud and clear, beyond the reason of didactic purpose, characters and situations are made too simple; Bissoondath's story contains the complexities of good and evil as they exist everyday, mundane, soft and cloudy.
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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 themselves of their place in the world.
This need for a place in the world, both physical and psychic, is a question that recurs in several of the 10 stories in Neil Bissoondath's new collection. It is seen in its most basic aspect in the title story, which concerns the world of the political refugee. A torture victim awaiting his Canadian immigration hearing, the main character visits a restaurant frequented by illegal immigrants. He thinks of the restaurant:
It is like a closet for the soul, built for containing dusty memories of lives long past, for perpetuating the resentments of politics long past. Here, he thinks, there is no tomorrow; here, yesterday becomes forever.
The difficulty of creating a tomorrow also troubles Mr. Ramgoolam, the main character of "Security." Once a respected businessman in the Caribbean, he has come to Toronto to live with sons who have become "Canadian to the point of strangeness," and a wife who changes when she takes a job in an Indian restaurant, "stirring pots not her own." Mr. Ramgoolam has been unable to find work.
Most frightening of all, though, was the realization that he too had grown away, not just from his sons, not just from his wife, but from himself. He no longer recognized himself, no longer knew who Alistair Ramgoolam was.
Mr. Ramgoolam's way of creating a space and an identity for himself is to become punctilious in the performance of Hindu religious rituals he has previously ignored, to listen to Hindi radio programs, "paying full attention to the programs, not understanding a word that was said or sung."
"Security" is a masterly story, one of the richest in the collection. Another fine story, "Cracks and Keyholes," introduces the reader to an assortment of characters whose lives contain less happiness than humiliation. Again, the main character is a Caribbean immigrant, and the story, told in his voice, really sings. Lenny is a man who drifts from one minimum-wage job to another, and who at the moment is washing dishes in a strip joint on Yonge Street. The time is Christmas, and Lenny, looking at the tacky and worn street decorations, reflects that "it have few things more depressin' in this world than decorations that doesn't decorate."
This is a story about people trapped in their lives, about how some lives are very hard to get out of. Lenny thinks, "It ain't really a dog-eat-dog world, as my granma use to say. Is more a cat-eat-mouse world."
The title comes from a Caribbean Christmas story. In the tropics, where there are no chimneys, Santa is said to be able to get in and out by making himself very small, so that he can pass through the cracks and keyholes.
"The Arctic Landscape High Above the Equator" is set in an unnamed Latin American country, where American policy is concentrated on undermining stability. It is an attempt to investigate the conflict between the sacred impulses of the individual soul and the conditioned sense of duty. A diplomat, knowing that his lover's father is about to be assassinated, does not warn her because "he is too well trained for that."
Present and past repeatedly illuminate each other in Bissoondath's stories, and the meaning often comes out of the tension between them. In "Goodnight, Mr. Slade," an old man, Mr. Goldman, is being evicted from the apartment building where he has been the caretaker, to be put into a nursing home. As the story moves along, we become aware that this is the second time that Mr. Goldman has been robbed of his world. A survivor of the Nazi death camps, he finally chooses suicide over entering the nursing home, refusing, as he sees it, "to allow my life to be turned once more into nonsense."
It is unfortunate that the two stories that seemed to me not to work very well—the ambitious "Kira and Anya" and the rather slight and inept "Smoke"—should have been placed immediately after the opening story. Putting them so near the beginning of the book may mislead readers into thinking that this is the best Bissoondath can do, and that would be a pity. Fine stories lie ahead. The best that Bissoondath can do is very good indeed.
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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 manifestations encompassing a wide range of issues, from escape and exile to a search for an alternative homeland. In addition, it has brought to our attention the complexity of the individual in a state of crisis, when such questions as survival, identity, loyalty, dignity, self-esteem, and self-affirmation begin to dominate an embattled psyche.
Neil Bissoondath's new collection of stories, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, deals with the precarious and fragile world of the immigrant, a world occupying the narrow and barren territory that extends somewhere between "departures" and "arrivals." However, in some of the selections Bissoondath stretches the meaning of the word immigrant beyond its sociological significance—usually denoting up-rooted and displaced humans from other geocultural regions of the world—to symbolize a condition of not belonging to one's "own" country. Alicia in "A Life of Goodbyes" is such an "internal" immigrant. After twenty years of "itinerant life," she discovers with a sense of bitterness and resignation that she can no longer "reinsert" herself into a place which she had called her hometown. She also realizes that her "wanderings had come so easily largely because of that vague notion of a center, a place to go back to," but in her absence the center "grew fluid" and eventually "erased itself." With the illusion of the "center" thus shattered, what is left for Alicia is a life of circumference.
The majority of the stories, however, focus on "external" immigrants, those individuals who had seen Canada as a possible destination where a life of normalcy, after a life of economic hardship and political degradation, could be reinstated. Such a life of normalcy, as Bissoondath's characters quickly find out, is not easily realized. Most of them fall victim to a crippling sense of despair and anxiety, as their identities disintegrate in the face of an incomprehensible present and an uncertain tomorrow. The chief reason for much of their spiritual turmoil, besides the host country's inhospitable and insensitive response, comes from their inability to break with the past. In "Security," for example, Mr. Ramgoolam becomes more obsessed with his ancestral gods as the traditional role of the head of the family begins to slip away from him. The further he withdraws into his religion, though only into its ceremonial and histrionic dimension, the more intensely he experiences alienation from his wife and sons, whose determination to become integrated into the new society collides with his disjointed vision of a past that never was.
An overwhelming sense of loneliness, futility, and resignation, depicted in a variety of images suggesting enclosure and entrapment, runs as a leitmotiv through the entire collection and is nowhere more disturbingly presented than in the title story. "On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows" recalls the atmosphere of Dante's limbo, of a world without meaningful coordinates in which individuals are destined to an undefinable and aimless life and whose only hope of escape is, if they are strong enough, into an uncertain tomorrow, if not—and unlike in Dante—into death. The central image of enclosure in the story is a cafe, appropriately called "La Barricada," in which a group of immigrants gather for the comfort of being together and to relive in silence their memories of torture. It is a place that, as Joaquin, the protagonist, describes, "emphasizes somehow its sense of spirit broken into timidity. It is like a closet for the soul, built for containing dusty memories of lives long lost." It is in this decrepit hollow that Joaquin, a victim of brutal torture, together with other compatriots from Latin America, awaits the day he will be "processed" by the immigration office, knowing that his only hope of remaining in Canada lies in his severely mutilated body. In spite of the fact that La Barricada is the only place in an uncomprehending and indifferent world where people like Joaquin can experience a sense of belonging, it is also a place where there is no tomorrow, where "yesterday becomes forever." Joaquin, like so many characters in other stories, becomes aware that the real prisons are in our heads and that consequently "we must learn how to make the keys for when our tomorrow comes."
Hope may be illusory, but it is, as Bissoondath's characters experience it, a potent force, sometimes even miraculous, in helping us confront the unexpected. In this sense the remarkable new collection by one of Canada's most respected young writers shows us how we can, even in moments of greatest uncertainty, learn the vital lesson of, ultimately, who we are.
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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 would expect V. S. Naipaul's nephew to write of the immigrant experience, concentrating on those from the Caribbean, he has gone beyond.
The first story, which bears the same title as the collection, reveals to us the extent of his intended scope as it treats of the emotional rollercoaster suffered by seven awaiting word on their refugee status in Canada. It drives home to us the absurdity of weighing up against each other the experiences of those who have escaped hardship, pain and suffering. Are we any less cruel by allowing them to stay in Canada until we decide that no, they have not suffered quite enough or that no, the danger in their homeland is not as imminent as believed? Bissoondath shows us that we all face uncertain tomorrows, some filled with physical dangers, others with emotional or social upheaval and change.
While we might expect Bissoondath's characters all to come from his Trinidadian/Canadian background they are drawn from a varied pool. He takes us from Montreal to Toronto and from Spain to South America to World War II Paris. In so doing he reveals to us the link of our experiences, that we all carry vestiges of our past and of our parents' pasts with us, and that change is a constancy. Whether it be Mr. Slade contemplating the move into a retirement home or Monica's realization that life in Toronto is unlike that on the island. Bissoondath's characters all speak to us of their strength.
This is a highly recommended book for senior levels. It could be used on its own to generate discussion at several levels including the immigrant experience, the diversity of Canadian culture and of the changes and decisions that face each of us in our lifetime. It could also be contrasted with the experiences of immigrants in other countries, for example Samuel Selvon's Lonely Londoners.
"Here under this web of convention, [is] gold." The attraction of this work is immense, forcing us out of our shells of safety to confront all our uncertain tomorrows.
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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 through which, nimbly, as in a circus, / a tamed lion jumps."
Neil Bissoondath's On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, concerned as it is with that spiritual and material anguish of exiles, seems both an impressive collection of stories and a persuasive document of historical witness. Mr. Bissoondath, who was born in Trinidad in 1955 and emigrated to Canada in 1973, has written before on this subject, in a previous story collection, Digging Up the Mountains, and a novel, A Casual Brutality, but in this new book the focus on the plight of the exile seems more persistent. Much of this collection's power comes from the reader's sense that these fictions will not let go of their subject until we have acknowledged a whole people's pain. Even the stories' titles suggest the relentlessness with which these concerns are addressed: "Security," "Cracks and Keyholes," "A Life of Goodbyes," "Things Best Forgotten" and, of course, the title story.
Mr. Bissoondath's characters range from the dispossessed to those who have never possessed much in the first place, all living with the enervation and the resentment of having been forced by political or economic necessity to trade one world for another. Most of the stories locate characters cherishing a past warmth—emotional and meteorological—in a dismal, cold and low-rent Toronto, a world of "balconies cluttered with discards or strung with laundry lines," of "Yuffies and Vuffies, young urban failures and veteran urban failures."
For nearly all these characters, Canada and the West stand in for a dream denied, and for nearly all of them there is no going back. They find themselves working for people who "lived by only their own, deeply held priorities," people in whom "the spirit of slavery was not quite extinguished." They contrast a past life in which they demanded little, and usually got more than expected, with a present life that seems a barrage of promises, an ever-growing complex of dissatisfactions. They watch their families break apart into different and independent lives. They know they are not unusual.
They have what they recognize as "acute immigrant obsessions: success, provision, a gentle invisibility." They are dealing with the cruelties of context—living in situations that make them, they feel, everything they are. Most frightening of all is their realization that they have grown away not only from sons and daughters, wives and husbands, old homes and old ways, but also from themselves.
In the title story, a former electrician and union organizer named Joaquin, hands destroyed by torture, shares his holding pen of a rooming house with an Arab, a Vietnamese couple, a Haitian, a Sikh and a Sri Lankan while they all await word from their lawyer as to the fate of their requests for political asylum. In another story, "Kira and Anya," two young women writing for magazines at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum together interview the man who wrecked their families, the old despot who caused their exile and, finally, his own. And in "Things Best Forgotten," a father and son return to Spain to confront an old man who served on the firing squad that killed the son's grandfather.
The situation of Mr. Ramgoolam in "Security" is typical: "On the island, someone had always been there: his mother, his wife, a maid. But now—curious thought—his wife went out to work. His eldest son—after years of residence here, Canadian to the point of strangeness—was at his desk in a big, black office tower downtown, a telephone receiver plastered to one ear, a computer terminal sitting luminescent on his desk."
Typical also of this passage are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the stories as a whole: the honest directness of their exploration of the emotional situation, as well as the often unremarkable, workmanlike quality of the prose. One cheers the rich mix of sympathy and indictment embodied in that parenthetical "curious thought," even as one laments the unsubtle familiarity of the thematic point of that telephone "plastered" to an ear, or that desk, that office and that computer terminal.
There is throughout the collection, despite its focus on the dispossessed, a heartening range of protagonists, of voices: a 65-year-old building superintendent, supplanted from Vienna to Paris to Toronto, comparing all three cities; a young schlemiel of a salesman with only enough self-awareness to manage a dim and distressed understanding of his life as a "map of conventionality"; a C.I.A. spook tracking within himself the signs of a conscience that seems to him ill directed, both bureaucratically threatening and ideologically treasonous; a half-black, half-Indian dishwasher in a strip joint, streetwise but still more idealistic than he realizes; a restive, middle-aged loner who at 37 abruptly effaced her old life (mother, husband) for a solitary life of travel; an utterly exhausted mother of five who worked as a nanny while having to neglect her own children, and who now works as a cleaning woman while having to neglect her own house.
But while the moral insight behind the stories seems admirable, the social urgency that propels them at times seems to hinder the esthetic shaping we expect. Thus a story like the title one seems determined to lay out for us the full spectrum of anxieties and hurdles that confront the illegal immigrant, whatever its effect on our sense of the form and persuasiveness of the central characters' experience.
And while there's a commendable straightforwardness in the stories' attempts to further explore and articulate the various characters' emotional complexities, that impulse occasionally slips into an intrusive kind of authorial prompting that calls to mind 19th-century novels in its desire to do the reader's interpretive work: "Did she dare? How could she tell him that part of her still loved him or, at least, still loved the man he had once been?" A character musing upon some pigeons "in fluttering desperation" against a wall of chicken wire, while he himself is trapped in a rooming house awaiting news of possible deportation, is, we're told, "the one confined, by the chicken wire and by so much more." This same character's apartment is like "a closet for the soul, built for containing dusty memories of lives long lost, for perpetuating the resentments of politics long past. Here, he thinks, there is no tomorrow; here, yesterday becomes forever."
That desire on the part of a governing intelligence to take over the stories, to insure proper interpretive response, at times makes the fiction seem more manifesto than felt experience. One can sense that guiding hand most often with the stories' attempts at closure, when the ironies underline rather than expand our sense of what we've been coming to learn, when those ironies are a bit too crashing: an old torturer who dreams of the kind of peace he finds in a painting of a Venetian canal is killed while standing before it; a mediocre young man's obsessive pursuit of a woman is transformed in a revelatory moment when he discovers that her overlooked friend will do just as well: an exile reduced to contemplating the wreck of his life while gazing upon the spectacle of "The Price Is Right" imagines himself exhorted to "come on down!" when he suffers a fatal heart attack; an old survivor of the Holocaust, faced with abandonment in a nursing home, chooses to do what the Nazis failed to.
But the best stories overcome such weaknesses and provide us with those moments—glimpses into the heartbreaking and resilient worlds of these exiles—that are generous enough, and tender enough, to form the heart of what we carry away from the collection, what we remember. The torture victim waiting to hear whether or not he will be sent back to his own country gazes again upon those pigeons and notes that their "lack of beauty denies them his sympathy." The wife of an old torturer appears in early photographs as a solemn bride, "as if already doubting her luck." That same torturer, after a flare-up, reassumes control "as if shrugging into a coat."
A man remembers his emigre father standing before the bathroom mirror, "quietly working on his pronunciation of with—'vis, vis, vit, vith, ou-iss, ou-ith.'" A cleaning woman recalls the humiliation of being instructed by her employer concerning the right way to shut the front door and decides, every lunchtime, to eat her meager meal from her employer's best crystal and silverware. A mother refuses to take pride "solely in what she has been able to provide for her children," since "as accomplishment it is too selfless; as autobiography, too despairing."
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 underrewarded that the term "disadvantaged" is inadequate to describe them. At one point, one of the collection's characters, the victim of torture, recognizes that his destroyed hands are understood by his friends "as simply part of the universal damage." It is often Mr. Bissoondath's achievement that we are given a sense of the scope of that damage without losing sight of the individuals who are forced to endure it.
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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 one kind or another, and all have something important to tell us about ourselves and our assumptions. The author, a Trinidadian of East Indian ancestry who has lived in Canada since 1973, has a special feeling for people struggling to hang onto the traditions of their homelands while learning to survive in an alien urban environment.
Some of his characters manage to sustain themselves with small triumphs of humanity. In one story, the janitor of a strip-joint wins a dancer's friendship with his tales of a Caribbean Santa Claus slipping through cracks and keyholes of chimneyless tropical houses, though he can't find the magic to convince her to stop throwing away her life. A West Indian maid, working in the luxurious flat of a solitary young woman executive, finds the strength to assert herself within her own family.
Other outsiders don't fare so well. A once-prosperous East Indian merchant, trying to sell noisy vacuum cleaners in Canada, remembers how his house was cleaned on his native Caribbean island with a coconut-branch broom that "made a sweet, soft sound, a soothing swish that evoked in its trail the clucking of chickens and the distant bleat of a grazing goat." When he tries to light bowls of oil to observe a Hindu religious ceremony, the clouds of smoke bring the fire department crashing into his apartment. Finally, he is reduced to watching television game shows while his formerly submissive wife finds a new life as a restaurant cook. The author's sympathetic view of his character transcends the story's sadness, and the merchant's defeat becomes an eloquent tragedy.
Bissoondath's collection is full of variety—of characters, moods, styles, situations. All his stories show an awareness of Life's cruelty, but in some, humor is the best way to deal with it. A lonely Canadian salesman takes up smoking in order to have something in common with a beautiful woman in his French class; when she rebuffs him he has only his new addiction for consolation, until he takes a fresh look at his teacher.
In another story, a woman returns from her travels to her ex-husband's house, bringing along her current lover, a young South Sea islander. He is dismayed to learn that the tropical fish he once caught for export are being mistreated in pet shops. She has something to be dismayed about, too—she discovers, that she still loves her husband, though he has found happiness in a homosexual relationship. Somehow, the visit is concluded amicably, with the woman better understanding her compulsive search for new adventures.
When fiction leaves us less secure with what we think we know about the world, the effect can be painfully illuminating. In the powerful title story, two refugees await a court's decision about whether they are to be granted asylum or deported. Amin, an Arab, is determined to become "Amin Thompson, Canadian" in order to escape certain execution if he is sent home. His friend Joseph has been so brutally tortured in a Latin-American prison that he has become mute. When Amin's fate is decided, Joaquin briefly finds his voice again, but has nothing but rage to express with it. Life's only certainty, we discover, is that knowing where we belong and where we will live tomorrow can never be taken for granted.
The characters in On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, the author's third book, are all memorable and beautifully drawn, even in the couple of stories whose plotting goes astray. Like Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Bharati Mukherjee, Hanif Kureishi and other writers of what might be called the East Indian diaspora, Neil Bissoondath has learned to turn his exile to his advantage. This story collection is finally neither Canadian nor of the "Third World," but universal in its appeal and absolutely original. This is a work of compelling integrity and compassion.
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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 Brutality (1988) and another collection of stories On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990).
Bissoondath's writing stands out by its self-confidence and critical sharpness. The stories in his first volume, for instance, advance the view that after settling in the Caribbean for one hundred and fifty years, Indians may be forced to emigrate, in which case the Caribbean would have to be regarded just as a stopover for them, on their journey from India to other destinations. Stories such as "Insecurity" and "Digging up the Mountains" illustrate a real threat to Indian security in the Caribbean, and this is no doubt one factor motivating Indians to emigrate from the region. Obviously, this is not a view that would endear Bissoondath to Caribbean governments, especially those in Guyana and Trinidad.
But all the stories in Digging up the Mountains are not as political as this. "The Christmas Lunch" for instance, is set in Canada, and exposes the suppressed frustration and puzzlement of Caribbean immigrants when first confronted with some Canadian habits and customs. The result is a feeling of not belonging—to Canada, the Caribbean, or anywhere. Bissoondath reveals a similar feeling in stories involving East European and Japanese characters, the implication being that insecurity leading to emigration and a sense of homelessness are phenomena of modern twentieth century life. This is what links his fiction to that of his uncle V. S. Naipaul, whose writing provides perhaps the most complete fictional study of exile and homelessness in the postcolonial era.
Bissoondath's novel centers on Raj Ramsingh an Indo-Caribbean doctor who moves between Canada and the Caribbean, surrounded by events of violence and terror, and images of chaos and collapse. In the end, after the death of his Canadian wife and their son, he flees from his home island, which, at that stage, is bracing itself for an apparent invasion by American forces similar to the American invasion of Grenada in 1984. A Casual Brutality has more overtly political implications than the author's short stories: its portrait of the Caribbean is one of decay and disintegration, and the recurrent images in the novel are those of brutality, insensitivity, forlornness and annihilation.
The stories in On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows offer further meditation on brutality and disorder leading to emigration and exile, except that the focus is on immigrants living in Canada. The immigrants come from equally inhospitable backgrounds, whether of Caribbean chaos and brutality, or Latin American political persecution. For example, the title story recounts the interaction of several refugees—a Haitian, Sikh, and Sri Lankan, as well as a Vietnamese couple—living together in one house in a Canadian city. They are all forced into homelessness by a shared background of starvation, civil war, forced conscription and economic, deprivation, and their common fate is summed up by the unnerving sense of loss, uncertainty and feeble vulnerability that consumes one protagonist, as he awaits deportation from Canada, and possible death in his homeland.
The story "Security" in Bissoondath's second collection is a sequel to "Insecurity" in his first. In the earlier story Ramgolam was living in fear of persecution and death in the Caribbean. In the later story he is an immigrant living with his wife and sons in Toronto. He is no longer in fear of his life, but he is bored at home, aimlessly watching television and burdened by thought about his sons being transformed by living in Canada into barbarians who eat beef and pork, despite being brought up as Hindus. The fact is that Ramgolam is just as insecure as he was in the Caribbean, only in a different way. His situation compares with that of V. S. Naipaul's hero Ralph Singh who, in The Mimic Men escapes from the disorder of his Caribbean island to London, the supposedly stable center of Empire, only to find "a greater disorder" there. Through characters like Ramgolam, Bissoondath illustrates the futility of immigration and the essential inadequacy of being human.
Among South Asian Canadian writers from the Caribbean, Bissoondath may be regarded as the most perceptive and skilled commentator on characteristic themes of disorder and persecution leading to flight or displacement, and ultimately to uncertainty or inner disorder. Bissoondath's success is due partly to an Atwoodian grasp of topical issues, an analytic intelligence reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul, and a technical fluency all his own. His stories are packed with authoritative detail presented with naturalness and conviction. At the same time, this very perfection of technique carries a touch of perfunctory professionalism. This is most true of some non-Caribbean stories, but it may also be seen in "Power of Reason" (in his second volume) in which we are given a wonderfully exact portrait of the West Indian protagonist Monica, including excellent descriptions of her jobs, personal relationships and domestic circumstances. Yet the power of the technique itself contributes to Monica's inability to cope, and her eventual victimization: it makes it less likely that she will triumph over her circumstances. By the same token, it is the studied technique that increases the impact of stories like "Insecurity" and "Security."
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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 it is supposed to. Consequently, the individual effort to take control of the future by making sense of the present moment is an important theme in these stories. As the collection's title suggests, Bissoondath's characters stand precariously on the eve of a better tomorrow.
What that tomorrow will bring is, however, never clear. In the title story, for example, a political refugee waiting for landed immigrant status dreams at one moment about "fantasies of tomorrow" and then admits a short while later that "there is no tomorrow … yesterday is forever." For a number of characters the only future that awaits them is death, or what one character calls "glances of uncertainty."
Images of death and dying permeate the collection. Three of the stories conclude with the central character losing consciousness in the throes of death. "The Arctic Landscape High above the Equator" ends as the protagonist "feels himself beginning to shatter" and "Security" ends with the protagonist "blinded by the light." While offering a significant narrative challenge, such episodes also imbue Bisoondath's stories with a darker ethos than any of his earlier writing. The word "uncertainty," or variations of it, appears in almost every story.
While the injustice of everyday living, from the inevitability of death to the insidiousness of immigration lawyers and the disrespect of children for their parents, is a common concern in these stories, the effort of the human will to triumph over the tyranny of everyday living is equally important. In the excellent story "The Power of Reason," Monica, a single mother with five children, overcomes the feeling of stagnation that has infected her life by correcting the sense of alienation that has developed between her and her three sons. Although she understands her sons when they are at home because they speak with an "island accent" that she is familiar with, she does not know who they are when she hears them on the street as "they speak in a dialect not of the island, not even of Canada, which would not have surprised her, but of black America." Eventually Monica kicks her sons out of her small apartment. In doing so she not only stops their freeloading but forces them to take responsibility for their own lives as their sisters have. In this small act of defiance Monica relearns the power both to reason and to love.
Although "Smoke" and "Kira and Anya" are uninspired, bordering on banality, and "A Life of Goodbyes" is inexcusable for its homophobic presentation of a gay male couple, the best stories in this collection, "Crack and Keyholes," "The Power of Reason" and "On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows," are those which chronicle the inequities of a world irreparably fractured along numerous class, gender and racial lines and the efforts of individuals to mend those ruptures.
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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 with honesty and sensitivity. Yet it's only occasionally moving, and too often falls into trite and predictable ruts. It's possible that the author harbored some back-of-the-mind anxieties about whom he might offend—no small worry in a novel with a multiracial cast of characters, set in a city where touchiness rivals baseball as a pastime.
Some of the male characters are no more than rapacious stereotypes. And it seems churlish to complain about Lorraine, a good-as-gold '90s gal who handles hammers and popovers with equal dispatch. Nevertheless, readers of Bissoondath's previous work know he can create characters who are more vivid and less clichéd than these.
Pasco, the central character, is a long-time Toronto resident, the owner of a greasy spoon and five years a widower. His life consists of work, the friendship of cronies at a nearby pub, and the lonely sifting-through of memories and unfinished conversations with his late wife, Edna. Pasco's son Danny has no use for his dad's crowd, or for the city's unfortunates, people he derides as losers. He's a yuppie creep who prattles on about bucks and business to his staid old man. With true Toronto hubris, Danny decides to renovate Pasco's house for the eventual resale value and his dad offers scant resistance to a disruption he hates. It's hard to sympathize with Danny, and at this point in the story, it's equally hard to respect Pasco, who plays doormat to his son's Gucci shoes.
Gradually we learn that Pasco is driven by guilt to pander to a kid whose values he despises. It turns out he'd never paid back the nest egg he'd borrowed from Edna to open his restaurant—money that should have gone toward his son's education. Never mind that; Danny's managed to get an education of another kind. He's a protégé of Mr. Simmons, a real-estate developer and archetypal Toronto villain, who pontificates on the value of "profit, profit and more profit" and the joys of rent-gouging. The man functions as a signpost directing the traffic of the plot around him; an urban logo of evil, but hardly a fleshed-out character.
Mr. Simmons has a seamy—yet quite predictable—hidden life. His maltreatment of Sita, a tenant who is an illegal immigrant, provides the novel with its most gripping and horrific scene. When Danny overhears them, it forces his mothballed conscience out of drydock and into troubled waters.
Meanwhile Pasco has gotten chummy with his widowed neighbor Lorraine, who's as good-hearted in her own way as Simmons is awful. As a friend of Pasco's late wife, she's an anchor to the past and to some of its less savory truths. All these she tells us as she cooks comfort food, dashes off to her job at the crisis center, and struggles to come to terms with her daughter's lesbian lifestyle. It seems the only thing she doesn't do is sleep.
Lorraine puts Pasco in a better frame of mind as he tries to be of help to one of his drinking buddies. Montgomery, an immigrant from Grenada, is (along with Sita) the most vital character in the novel. He's a minor character, but when he speaks, his words carry the weight of his soul. He is ultimately a tragic figure who seems capable of both love and foolishness. Likewise, Sita combines fear and terror with survivor's grit, and a glance or a word from her alludes to depth that's just below the surface.
More often than not, the book has too much awkward dialogue, too many wooden statements of opinion that keep us from feeling the heart at work. Yet Bissoondath effectively conveys a sense of Danny's emptiness as a component of his larger, soulless city. He has an exacting eye for the character and detail of Toronto and its street life. Best of all, he shows a subtle and genuine sense of the process of grieving, and of the long, meandering road it takes through one man's life. Pasco finally frees himself of grief through a symbolic act that joins his past to present suffering and hope. It's a satisfying ending for The Innocence of Age, a book with a strangely engrossing mix of banality and wisdom.
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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 that can stifle debate in this country. That fear makes us hesitate to express views that might be controversial, unpalatable, or distasteful because we are afraid that those who disagree, or who find our opinions offensive, will condemn not only our ideas, but us—for having the temerity to voice them.
Bissoondath acknowledges this problem in the first few pages of his polemic about the shortcomings of multiculturalism as a public policy. He claims that "the countering of criticism with accusation is a tactic not unfamiliar to me. My own attempts to contribute to public discourse have been met with nervous silence, a certain vilification and, finally, the explicit demand at one conference that I Shut up! since criticism of multicultural policy, I was told, served only 'to encourage racists like the Reform Party.'" He argues that a free and healthy society must be wary of all orthodoxies. In his view, orthodoxy is itself a form of tyranny, "with ideology—political, social, racial, financial—as its angry deity."
Bissoondath, the author of two books of short stories and two novels, A Casual Brutality and The Innocence of Age, is celebrated as a fiction writer. Selling Illusions is his first nonfiction book. On one level it is a diatribe against a public policy that he finds bankrupt, but on another, more personal, level it is the story of his own experience living under that policy. It is hard to separate the two, for naturally Bissoondath's experience has influenced his thinking about multiculturalism. Another person with a different background, set of talents, aspirations, connections, or luck, might well have a different reaction—or, indeed, no reaction at all.
Multiculturalism became official government policy in 1971 to "support and encourage the various cultures and ethnic groups that give structure and vitality to our society," as then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said at the time. "They will be encouraged," Trudeau continued, "to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all."
Two years later, Bissoondath, aged 18, left his native Trinidad and arrived at York University in Toronto as an undergraduate. From the beginning he wanted to belong. For him, this country "offered hope" and was "a land worthy of commitment." What he found, though, was that he wasn't being asked to make any sacrifices, or to abandon old traditions to fit in with new ways. To his chagrin, "you did not have to adjust yourself to the society, the society was obligated to accommodate itself to you."
Bissoondath blames multiculturalism. He argues that Trudeau introduced multiculturalism not only as a sop to solicit immigrant votes, but as a means of putting Quebec in its place. He quotes Le Devoir publisher Lise Bissonette on why multiculturalism has never been as popular in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada. "Carried over into Quebec this multiculturalism would be suicidal, since it tends to make francophones a minority like the others."
And that, essentially, is Bissoondath's main complaint about multiculturalism. He believes that it highlights our superficial differences and undermines our essential sameness. By encouraging us to stress our cultural differences, Bissoondath argues, multiculturalism promotes divisiveness rather than solidarity.
Our sameness, he says, is that we all want to be Canadians, and that except for Native Peoples, we all came here—whether it was 200 years ago or last week—because we didn't want to be where we were anymore. We were looking for something better for ourselves and our children. He thinks multiculturalism is preventing us from realizing this dream and argues eloquently that we should remove personal culture and ethnicity from public policy. Heritage, he believes, belongs to the individual, and should be celebrated privately and unofficially.
What I like best about Selling Illusions is that it exists. I admire the cogent, forceful, and well-documented argument Bissoondath has engaged that multiculturalism leads to the simplification of culture, not its enhancement. His book has made me re-examine a policy that I had accepted as one of the benefits of being Canadian. He may be a little over-sensitive when he says that anybody critical of multicultural policy is immediately branded "racist," but I share his anxiety that he and not his arguments will be debated in the weeks following the book's publication.
I thought a lot about Selling Illusions when I went to the University of New Brunswick to a conference called "When Rights Collide," late in September. It was organized in the aftermath of the 1993 Matin Yaqzan debacle. He's the math professor who supplied an article to the student newspaper in which he argued that the date rape of a "promiscuous" girl was much less serious than the violation of a virgin. Yaqzan suggested that a sexually experienced young woman who was the victim of unwanted sexual intercourse should seek monetary redress for her "inconvenience" and "discomfort" and leave the moral outrage to others.
Yaqzan elicited so much moral outrage himself for his absurd views that he was suspended, barred from the UNB campus, and subjected to a performance review of his entire career, which spanned nearly 30 years. That decision by the university administration created its own furor on the editorial pages and talk shows of the nation, and Yaqzan was subsequently re-instated, and then offered an early retirement package that he seemed unable to refuse.
The Yaqzan incident—the appearance of his date rape article, his suspension, and re-instatement—all took place within 14 days. The speed with which it occurred astonished me. It sometimes takes longer to send a letter across the country. The university administration reacted so quickly that it didn't have time to isolate the issues, let alone think them through. As a result, the university damaged its own reputation—a reputation that it was still trying to cleanse almost a year later at a conference in which freedom of speech was pitted against the protective tenets entrenched in UNB's sexual harassment code.
It is indeed scary to live in a society in which one can be condemned for expressing thoughts and ideas that unwittingly give offense. There is little recourse today from the pernicious charge of being a racist or a sexual harasser. Those terms carry with them such a presumption of guilt that even if the accusation is eventually withdrawn, the damage has been done. Let's hope it doesn't happen to Neil Bissoondath.
As a postscript, let me add that while I was in Fredericton I read The Coffin Tree and Irrawaddy Tango, two novels by Wendy Law-Yone, the American writer who was to read in October at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Law-Yone was born in Burma (now Myanmar)—she relates the story of her escape from that tragic and terribly repressive country in the recently published Without A Guide: Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures, edited by Katherine Govier. Law-Yone's novels are psychological and political case sheets about torture and corruption. They are not in the least sentimental or self-pitying, but they are harrowing. If nothing else, they are a powerful reminder that in this country you can, if you have the courage, still say what you want. You may be criticized, you may be ostracized, but at least you won't be hauled off to the torture chamber.
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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 found so comforting. The only alternative to multiculturalism Bissoondath deigns to sketch out, however, is a vaguely envisioned Canada
where inherent differences and inherent similarities meld easily and where no one is alienated with hyphenation. A nation of cultural hybrids, where every individual is unique, every individual distinct. And every individual is Canadian, undiluted and undivided.
The trouble with Selling Illusions is not only that Bissoondath, despite his claims to be free of ideology, is pushing a liberal and laissez-faire individualism that went out about the time of the Great Depression; he also never defines for us in any persuasive or significant manner just what it means to be pure "Canadian," other than to possess a colder climate and to be quieter and more peace-loving than Americans. His exemplary Canadian immigrant experience turns out to be that of the Ignatieff family, whom he turns into Slavic Horatio Algers. Yet it's his own attitudes toward both his country of birth and country of adoption that Bissoondath is really trying to sell, and this leads him into some slippery maneuvers. Thus he attacks other Canadian writers, notably activist members of the Black, Asian, and Native communities, for attempting to curtail or destroy freedom of expression and imagination, while he himself is unaccepting of writers whose imaginations are energized by a sense of double belonging to here and "there"—artists who may be third-generation Canadians, but for whom ethnicity has everything to do with an inexpungeable historical and cultural awareness of the countries their families chose to or were forced to abandon. One of the most puzzling aspects of Selling Illusions is, in fact, Bissoondath's blindness to the fact that Canada's embrace of multi-rather than biculturalism has greatly assisted the emergence and positive reception of writers such as Kogawa, Ondaatje, Mistry, and Ricci, who have explored cultural difference and the dynamic of ethnicity with all the power, sophistication, and vision that Bissoondath's caricature of multiculturalism, Toronto's "Caravan," lacks.
There is nothing particularly new or inspiring in this book, which is more a compendium of right-of-center truisms and the multicultural equivalent of suburban myths than a vigorous polemic. Parts of the book are difficult to digest, not because of the complexity of Bissoondath's ideas, but because of the infelicity of his prose. Mixed metaphors abound; his diction is sometimes faulty, as when he uses the term "corollary" where "opposite" would be the logical choice, or describes the fears of certain Canadians regarding non-European immigrants as "legitimate" when one would hope he means "strong" or "real." His vision of Canadian campuses being invaded by the equivalent of Nazi stormtroopers who shut down free discussion is bizarrely exaggerated, and his presentation of certain antimulticulturalists disingenuous: Doreen Kimura, for example, he introduces as the eminent neuropsychologist she is, but he neglects to inform us that as the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a neo-conservative organization opposing the post-structuralist "paradigm shift" in the humanities, and linked to right-wing American organizations like the National Association of Scholars, she is of precisely that species of "ideologue" he otherwise excoriates.
While Bissoondath does acknowledge that the "old Canada" had its virulently racist moments, and while he occasionally makes valid points about the excesses of some present-day anti-racists, his presentation of multiculturalism is badly flawed by his inability to distinguish between what Linda Hutcheon has called the ideal and the ideology of multiculturalism. The ideal I would describe as a global phenomenon that, far from being Trudeau's brain child, is as much a part of the late-20th-century Zeitgeist as is postmodernism. It has been discussed as a positive and necessary development by thinkers of the caliber of Adam Michnik and Jürgen Habermas. The ideology as we know it in Canada can be linked to the state's attempts to control and trivialize the efforts of those formerly marginalized or silenced to empower themselves. Debunked the latter must certainly be—junked the former should not and cannot be. In trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater, Bissoondath himself ends up sailing down the drain, while the baby cries out, as lustily as ever, for some truly enlightened attention.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
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 Minister of Citizenship), sleights of hand, misleading juxtapositions, and simple ignorance. Bissoondath discusses Prime Minister Trudeau's introduction of a multiculturalism policy but immediately quotes from the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988), legislation from Mulroney, not the Trudeau government. Moreover, Bissoondath accepts without question the Quebec nationalist explanation for Trudeau's policy; he does not even mention the view that Trudeau introduced Multiculturalism in order to balance a bilingualism policy for Quebec with a multiculturalism policy for the West, a region with a very different history of settlement and almost no francophones.
Bissoondath also boldly states that Canada, a country without a state religion, is devoted to the separation of church and state. Any reader of the British North America Act (1867), or the Act incorporating Newfoundland into Confederation, would recognize that this American doctrine has almost no role in Canada. In discussing the famous 1993 advertisement for an Ontario government senior management position aimed exclusively at equity groups, the author confuses employment equity and anti-racism policies with multiculturalism, which was hardly favored by Ontario's NDP government. Somehow, even book-banning in Alberta school boards and the "culture of victimhood" get tied to multiculturalism!
Ultimately, critics of multiculturalism, whether from the right or from the left, are in the same camp, refusing to acknowledge the diversity inherent in Canadian cultures. Policies of multiculturalism, employment equity, and anti-racism are designed to ensure social justice and to promote the "peace, order, and good government" that are among the traditions all Canadians cherish. The importance of Bissoondath's book lies not in its inconsistent arguments but in its reflection of our difficult times.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3737
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 An Area of Darkness.
And you've never attempted such a trip?
No, I have no particular attraction to India.
As the eldest child in a literary family, was there pressure on you to do something or be somebody?
When it comes to my immediate family, there was never any pressure in particular to do anything. There was simply the idea that you would leave Trinidad, you would move to another country to live, and there was a good chance you would not return. I left Trinidad willingly, happily, looking forward to a new kind of life. The idea of being a writer, which was one that came to me at a very early age—around nine or ten—was something that I could not do in Trinidad, and was something that I was looking forward to trying to do in this country. But there was never any pressure. There was a sort of passive support. It was simply a question of "You do what you have to do." They let me do it with their fingers crossed. Certainly with my mother there were fingers crossed. My mother died in 1983, in fact just a few months before my first book was published, which is something that I'll never quite get over, the fact that she never saw it. After my mother died, about a year or a year and a half later, my father remarried and they then moved to Toronto, but not long after arriving in Toronto my father discovered that he had cancer. So he returned to Trinidad and died there in 1990.
You've written a good deal about parents and children, and the tensions that exist beside strong bonds of gratitude and loyalty and love.
Leaving Trinidad at eighteen, I never really got to meet my parents as an adult. My mother died before any of that could be done. And so when my father moved to Toronto, I thought, this is my opportunity to try to get to know him directly, as one adult to another, and to talk about things openly and honestly and without rancor of any kind, and with love. But of course, we could not meet on that level. My father was not the kind of man who was capable of discussing things other than politics and sports. It simply wasn't possible to meet him on the emotional level that I wanted. He was shaped by his own life. It was not a society in which people talked to each other in the way I wanted to talk to my father. But at least I had the opportunity to try. I'm hoping that I won't fall into the same traps as my father, and that I'll be able to have a different kind of relationship with my daughter.
Is Alistair Ramgoolam based on your father?
The Alistair Ramgoolam in "Insecurity" was not based directly on my father. He was based on a kind of businessman that I knew in Trinidad. Whereas the Alistair Ramgoolam in "Security" was informed more by my father, and the kind of life I saw him leading in Toronto. It was not a successful move to Toronto. He had come out of one kind of society and tried to insert himself into another, and I don't think he was happy in the end. He started to move towards a kind of Hinduism, a kind of ritual belief, or a belief in ritual.
Was that Hindu element present in your home when you were growing up in Trinidad?
No, it was not a religious household. My grandparents practiced Hinduism. My parents never did. I am very skeptical about religious belief and mysticism in general. It's not something that I understand. So many people just seem to depend on the ritual, in a hollow gesture that's unsupported by any kind of philosophy.
From your account of your father's inability to communicate certain ranges of feeling and experience, would it be valid to infer that Trinidadian society is very much a male-dominated society?
Yes, Trinidad is a very macho society. Canada was different. It was a kind of liberation. I grew up in Trinidad never really feeling quite at home there. I grew up in a family that read—which was my mother, and her sisters, the Naipaul family—but very few people in Trinidad enjoyed reading or the things that concerned me. So it was a society from which I felt fairly alienated. I was born in Arima, but I never actually lived there. My parents lived in a town called Sangre Grande, and that's where I grew up. My grandfather, like all his brothers, owned a store, so my father worked for him. The store was in Sangre Grande, and I went to Presbyterian primary school that had been started by Canadian missionaries. When I was about 13 or 14, my parents decided to build a house in Port of Spain, so that we would be closer to school. I went to Catholic high school, St. Mary's College. The school in "An Arrangement of Shadows" is based on St. Mary's.
I gather that your family were in relatively comfortable circumstances financially.
That's right. There are a substantial number of East Indians who have risen into the professions, so have become doctors and lawyers, and particularly businessmen. But I would think that the vast majority remain field workers. They cut the sugar cane.
Did you feel, as an East Indian, that you were part of a racial/political minority in Trinidad, despite your family's relatively privileged financial position?
There was the knowledge that politics would be divided along racial lines. But you also grow up with the attitude or belief that everybody's a thief. And it didn't matter really who formed the government or who formed the opposition. It just gave you greater opportunity to steal, and whoever was in power would steal. I suppose we were very cynical about politics. Everybody knows who is stealing politically, And then, in the class, in the circles in which we grew up, we were not really aware of the rural Indians. Although my grandparents started off life working in the rice paddies and the sugar cane fields, by the time my generation was growing up, we were traveling the world. We were thinking professionally, and that cut us off from the kind of life my grandparents had known, and that the majority of Indians still know in Trinidad.
A Casual Brutality reads at times like autobiography.
There's an autobiographical connection in almost everything that I've written, but it's autobiographical on different levels. It's not the story of my family, which remains to be written I think. But the people I've depicted are based on a variety of people that I knew when I was growing up in Trinidad. The grandmother, for example, is the archetypal Hindu Trinidadian grandmother. Everybody had one.
One of the things that novel seems to do is say farewell to Trinidad. Was there any sense in which you wrote A Casual Brutality to explain to yourself, or to anybody else, why you left?
That's a very interesting question. I've never thought of that. I felt when I'd finished that book that I had written it out. I was dealing there with things which had obsessed me for a long time throughout my growing up to the age of 18 in Trinidad. And then after that too, just hearing from family what was going on there. It's also things like the invasion, the takeover, on Grenada.
So you're running various places together.
Yes, Casaquemada is not simply Trinidad. It's mixture of Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada. What I've tried to do in creating Casaquemada is to create an island that will remind people of many places. The reason I didn't use a real island in the West Indies was to get away from any particular identification with one island and its particular problems, to try to internationalize it.
A Casual Brutality has been criticized for precisely this lack of historical specificity.
That would have come from someone who assumed that I had some kind of political agenda. I have no political agenda.
Has your experience of Trinidadian society and politics shaped your views on Canadian multiculturalism?
Absolutely. Absolutely. When you look at the kind of life that I had in Trinidad, the kind of upbringing, the attitudes that were offered of other races, the way various races viewed each other, I understand the kind of vision that creates apartheid, and I abhor it. I have seen people insist on dividing themselves for racial reasons, and religious reasons, and ethnic reasons, and I reject any idea of division. My reading of multiculturalism as practiced here in Canada is that it is a policy of division. It's a policy that falsifies the vision it pretends it wants to preserve. I find it simple-minded at best and I think it holds some dangers for us if we continue with it.
But surely the political implications of division depend on whether it is voluntary or imposed, and even then, the outcome can be ambivalent. Secession can be a way of avoiding being swallowed up by another society, but it can also trap people on a lower stratum of the vertical mosaic.
Yes, it's very complicated. I have to say that the criticisms that Bharati [Mukherjee] has leveled at Canadian multiculturalism I wholeheartedly agree with. I disagree, though, with her view of the United States and the melting pot. The American system likes to pretend that it is possible for individuals to shrug off their past, to pretend that it does not exist, and assume a new identity. Whereas the Canadian one says that it is possible to freeze the past, and maintain it as it used to exist, while the country one left, by the way, continues to evolve. The melting pot and the mosaic—they're equally false. There has to be a middle way. And the first part is to have governments and bureaucrats get out of it. I feel very strongly about that. And so my attitude, simply put, is leave it to the individual. Tradition is all very important, but it is up to the individuals and their families to preserve these things. When you start getting Government policy shaping this, we're entering some very dangerous waters.
You view Canadian society in a more positive light than, say, Himani Bannerji or Aruna Srivastava. Do you see the racism they speak of as being bound up with sexism?
That's very difficult for me to say. It may be. It's very difficult for me to talk about, because racism exists. I know it does. I keep thinking, my God, I grew up with more racism in Trinidad than you would find in this entire country. I have seen racism. I have lived with it. I grew up with racism. I know what racism is about. One of the areas in which I disagree with Bharati Mukherjee is where she talks about her preference for the United States because Canadian racism is always so polite—"You'd never know he's racist." Whereas the American racist is up front and direct. But my response to that is that I would rather have a racist who ignores me, or who says "Good morning" and then turns away, than one who puts a gun to my head and kills me.
You've seen that in Trinidad.
Exactly. I have seen the brutality, and I would rather live in a society where racism is unacceptable enough that even racists are not quite prepared to proclaim it openly. That isn't to deny that racism exists but that's how you deal with it.
Having grown up in a highly racist society, do you ever find yourself falling into racist patterns of thought?
Yeah, I do at times. We all catch ourselves at different moments. Sometimes I hear my father's voice in myself. I don't like it, but I know where it comes from. For example, when you hear reporting from the Middle East and I think, my god, those damned Arabs. And I think, No, wait a minute, think about this.
One critic has accused you of turning your back on your people.
Who are my people? I fear the automatic assumption of racial allegiance. My friends are of different colors, genders, sexual preferences, religions and so on.
As a writer, do you see yourself as part of any group of community, or as participating in any particular school or tradition?
I think I'm on my own path. When you get right down to it, when you're sitting in front of the typewriter or computer, you are working on your own path and no other path matters. Yet at the same time I've rather enjoyed belonging to one group I've been put into, and that is the group of writers who have emerged from the former British colonies. What is it—the empire strikes back? Although the only thing that unites us is the fact that we have a certain similarity of historical background. Apart from that, when I'm asked how I describe myself, I respond, "I am a Canadian writer," for the simple reason that that entails so much. It's a wonderful big box. You can put just about anything into that. Anything smaller would make me feel, I suppose, sort of enclosed.
You once mentioned that you dislike experimental writing.
I don't know why people would bother to not use periods or commas for example. I rather like paragraphs. I like a page that looks like a page. When people start using visual tricks on the page, I feel I'm being cheated, and I feel that this is somebody who has to stand on his head to transmit what he wants to say, and I don't think that's really necessary. I get irritated very easily by these kinds of things. And I cannot now read most of the Latin American writing. Mario Vargas Llosa is one exception. I love his work.
What are you trying to accomplish in your detailed descriptions of houses, streetscapes, and landscapes?
In the descriptive passages I'm trying to get as precise a feel for the place in which my character is as it's possible to get. What I'm interested in is individuals in a context, and the context is as important to me as the individual. The context informs the individual, and so the description is important to understanding the character, because what you're seeing is description not through Neil Bissoondath's eyes but through the character's eyes. How the character sees things tells you a lot about the character.
Do you see your descriptions functioning on symbolic or metaphorical levels as well?
No, I don't think on those levels at all. I'm not aware of them.
How do you think your work has changed or evolved since the stories of Digging Up the Mountains? In The Innocence of Age, your immediate focus moves away from the Caribbean, yet some of your earlier themes and preoccupations—things apparently derived from your Trinidadian background—remain.
Well yes, there are universal themes. The universality of human emotion in the end will inform all of my writing. The writer in Afghanistan whose son is killed by a Russian bullet, she feels the same pain as the mother in Latin America whose son is killed by an American bullet. That pain is the same. And where the damn bullet is made makes no difference. And this is the universality. When you strip away all the exoticism of different societies, you come down to the same basic naked emotions.
When so many people are striving to assert social difference, you're working in the other direction, looking for the common ground.
I think it's very easy to split people apart. I'd like to think I'm looking for the common ground. And I think that's more difficult. I get accused of all kinds of things. I've been called all kinds of nasty names. There's this controversy over appropriation of voice. What is amazing to me is that a lot the people who are saying that one does not have the right to appropriate another voice—to use their word—are also the people who march against apartheid. Those who would keep voices apart in literature are the ones who want to bring them together by getting rid of apartheid. There are basic contradictions in this stand. We spend our lives appropriating. And it's a basic human thing to do. It's one of the ways we learn from each other, and we learn to get along.
Some of your critics have taken issue with your portrayal of women. They say the women in your stories aren't real.
Well, I disagree with that. I like to think that my women are very real. A number of women—most of my readers seem to be women—have come up to me at readings and various functions, to talk to me about my women characters. A story like "The Cage" for example, about a Japanese woman, it's one that people still comment on continuously and positively. After reading that story, one woman from Malaysia told a friend of mine "I've never met him but it's as if he understood something of my own life." Now all I can do is go on that kind of reader reaction. I like women, and in fact I think that sometimes my female characters are more convincing than my males.
In The Innocence of Age, the women were more real. I guess I found Jan in A Casual Brutality a little less …
Yes. Jan has brought up a lot of adverse comment. One person said, "God, what would Canadian women think of the portrait of themselves through Jan in A Casual Brutality? But my point is I am not writing about Canadian capital-W Woman. I'm writing about one woman, and I insist on that always, that my characters are individuals unto themselves. They are not representative of any group, any race, any culture, any more than any of us is. I'm not a representative of my gender. I'm not a spokesman for my race, and my characters aren't either. Jan happens to be the kind of person she is. She may not be a very nice person, but, hey, I've met some people who aren't very nice, and some of them are Canadian women. Some of them are West Indian women, or West Indian men, or American. The problem is that this kind of criticism is almost a misunderstanding of what fiction, from a novelist's point of view, is all about. I'm writing about individuals.
Has having a daughter changed your perception of what it means to be a female in this world?
I don't think it's changed it. I think it's sharpened it. I don't think I ever had any illusion about what it means to be a female in this world. And I think every man continues to learn. You can't live in Montreal where the Polytechnic massacre took place without appreciating what it is like. You can't grow up in a family of women as I did—with many aunts and a working mother—and not realize what it's like in a society like Trinidad. When our daughter grows up I want her to learn karate, because I want her to be able to kick the balls out of any guy that tries to take advantage of her. I have lots of friends who are female and professional and you hear lots of stories of what goes on. It's unbelievable what goes on even among the most supposedly educated and liberal and open and professional people. I am determined that our daughter will do whatever she wants to do, will have none of these barriers put in her place, otherwise I'm going to have to kick a few balls myself.
Do you confer with anybody when you write?
I write completely alone. But the first person to read it once I've done it and am completely happy with it is Anne, my partner. And I listen to her very carefully. She's a very good reader. I trust her opinion. It's wonderful to have someone that you can actually trust. It's indispensable. I've made some significant changes on her advice.
Where do your ideas about writing and literary value come from?
I think they have just come up from my own reading and writing—being forced to think about it because people like you ask me questions. There's no formal thought behind it. It just evolved. I never studied English literature at university. In high school in Trinidad, the teaching of English literature was horrendous. There are writers I still cannot read. Like Henry James. The teachers at high school took these books, these things that I loved, and forced us to do autopsies on them, and of course you know what happens at the end of an autopsy. What are you left with? Certainly not anything that's living and breathing. And so when it came time to decide what to major in at university I decided to go for French for the simple reason that I liked the language. I'd studied it in high school, and I was determined never to take the chance again of having my love of English writing destroyed.
You studied Spanish at high school as well.
And English was always your first language?
Was Hindi ever spoken in your home?
Not a word. Never. The only people who spoke Hindi in Trinidad when I was growing up were my grandparents' generation.
When were you last in Trinidad?
In 1983 at my mother's funeral.
Ten years ago.
God yes, ten years. A long time ago now.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655
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 certain criticisms of his own art. For the reader concerned with the decontextualized interplay of writer, text, and critic, Selling Illusions is, then, a helpful volume.
But the policy of multiculturalism affects all Canadians, and by also promising "to look at where we are and how we got there," Bissoondath engages in a more public discourse, if not analysis, of Canadian political and social history as they relate to ethnicity. Regrettably, Bissoondath's discussion is constrained by a simplification of ethnicity heavily dependent on media sources and isolated quotations, sometimes uncited or selected from John Colombo's Dictionary of Canadian Quotations (1991). It is at this level that Selling Illusions flounders.
A strong component in critical discussions of ethnicity over the past two decades has been the substantial interdisciplinary effort invested in observing and articulating the process of racialization. Bissoondath acknowledges the entrance of the term "racialization" into the discourse on racism, claiming not to know the word, either, he says, through naivete, or his "distance from racial concepts and politics." Earlier in the text, he muses that racialization "seems to imply … to see life and all its ramifications through the color of one's own skin." Resting on his definition, Bissoondath's commentary skirts the complexities of racialization, and diminishes historical injustices it has caused. Simultaneously, his conviction that a racialized subjectivity is simply a matter of individual choice allows Bissoondath to subsume—as he does—individuals with a racialized sense of self under categories like the Nazi regime, and "the architects and defenders of apartheid."
Throughout Selling Illusions, Bissoondath links ethnicity with geography, the undeveloped imagination, the past, and an "ethnic" nationalism which entails patriotism, empire and exclusion. Bissoondath describes the dominant center of the "old Canada" as having been made "void" by the country's present "multicoloured" social reality. His desire is that Canadians fill this national void with a controlled "multiplicity of voices and visions," a center that would be, nonetheless, "distinct and firm and recognizably Canadian." This Canada would enjoy the inclusive "civit" nationalism that Bissoondath finds in Quebec.
The polemic of Selling Illusions rests on Bissoondath's equation of ethnicity with the subjection of mature selfhood to the "confines" of one's cultural past and skin color. Just as he asserts that the individual can choose to be racialized, Bissoondath stresses that each Canadian is free to choose between "continuing to be what one's parents have been" and the "psychological revolution" he has enjoyed, in coming to a lighter dependence on one's heritage "to guide or succor." Because Bissoondath constructs ethnicity and "race" as an individual matter of choice, multiculturalism as public policy is, a priori, flawed.
More ominous is Bissoondath's corollary that voices identifying systemic racism in Canada are "crying wolf," and that the most effective way to eliminate racism is for individuals to counter it with "an immediate challenge." Bissoondath decries the "culture of victimhood … the threads of which stitch themselves through the ideas of multiculturalism." Having constructed parameters of ethnicity that do not exceed individual responsibility Bissoondath must then denounce the social reality of victimization. Such a construction also facilitates his comparison of the call for "punitive" redress of past injustices with "arguing that the victims of torture must be allowed to torture their torturers."
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