On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

Rupinder Gill’s memoir On the Outside Looking Indian  (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) deals with her experience  of growing up with strict Indian parents in mainstream white eighties Canada–and her subsequent attempt to re-invent that horror story. Gill’s immigrant parents, who lived in Kitchener, Ontario, refused to let their daughter(s) get a dog, participate in  sleepovers or summer camp, or take tennis and swimming lessons, due to a knotty combination of sexism, financial constraints, and the alienness of such activities with respect to their own cultural constructions of girlhood. “Indian girls don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever,” says Gill wryly.

(A note: Gill’s working class parents moved from a farming community in rural Punjab to Canada and were hence unfamiliar with such childhood activities; affluent urban Indians might not have held such rigid attitudes. Gill’s book is very specifically set in the former context, and hence, while her memoir is indeed a universal story of outsiders trying to fit in, it is equally a very particular story of one family’s attempts to negotiate Canadian society while trying to validate their own (rural Punjabi Sikh) cultural norms.)

Gill’s childhood was thus filled with academic achievement, chores, and television, even as her peers were OUT HAVING FUN. On turning thirty, Gill decides that it’s not too late to live a second (ideal) childhood, and embarks upon a journey that includes not just swimming and tennis lessons, but sleepovers with other thirty-something friends (no, not like that), and even a trip to Disney World.

On the Outside… is an affectionate, mordant look at Gill’s parent’s prejudices as well as Gill’s own hang-ups, written in an endearingly self-deprecating voice. (The prose is adequate, though Gill favors the full forms of words in her dialogue. “I will really miss all of you so much.”  “I am happy to finally be here!”  It sounded rather awkward to my ear.)  Gill considers getting a dog, goes for tap-dancing lessons, and debates moving to New York. There’s not much about dating though; readers looking for romance are requested to glue the book into Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, Gill writes with a welcome degree of self-awareness–and an even more welcome refusal to take all of this too seriously.

As a child, Gill understandably projects her issues with her parents to India itself, holding the country responsible for her deprivation. My chief gripe with this book is that Gill hasn’t quite shed that attitude in her adulthood; she seems to assume (often for the sake of humor, and not always successfully) that her parents’ attitudes were/are typical of all Indians, and her consequent stereotyping of India begins to grate.  In a later chapter,  she does mention that Indian cities operate differently, and that things have changed despite her parents’ desire “to still believe  that India is perpetually suspended in the culture of 1971”, but that acknowledgement was too weak and came too late for my satisfaction. I also felt that the last chapter didn’t live up to the bite and verve of the rest of the book, dissolving instead into a soppy happy vision for Gill’s future children. But these misgivings apart, On the Outside… is a fresh,  intelligent and  (oh, thank you, goddess) funny contemporary take on territory that has been strip-mined by generations of immigrant writers.

I think The Walrus review by Emily Landau  that has been the subject of some debate got it mostly wrong.  Landau faults Gill for thinking “there is some Platonic ideal of a normal childhood, and is outraged that her parents — who, although stern and traditional, were loving and engaged — deprived her of this Elysian adolescence.”  Um, when you are an outsider trying to fit in, there indeed seems to exist a miraculously unremarkable “normal” ideal, and you would sacrifice your favorite family member or your favorite kidney to not stand out. Being penalized by society for being different means that you gaze at people who aren’t singled out with envy and longing for their happy lives. And: since when has the knowledge that your parents love you and are engaged with you ever consoled a teenager denied the opportunity to be popular and have fun? Of course parents will tell you it’s for your good and that you’ll thank them for it later while imposing a seven o’clock curfew…

And this brings me to my bigger point: I felt that Landau implied that Gill must be held to a different standard of behavior because of her ethnicity. Consider this:

“Always present, however, are notes of self-indulgent petulance and alarming disrespect toward both her culture and her parents.”

I found this quite infuriating.  If a “normal” Canadian dissed her cultural experiences as a teen, I bet a review wouldn’t call her “alarmingly disrespectful” for it. A reviewer wouldn’t wonder why a “normal” Canadian didn’t react with moderation, if, say, her mom didn’t allow her to attend a Hannah Montana concert when all her friends were going.  And anyway, how did Landau miss the obvious affection Gill has for her parents? Towards the end, Gill says, “When I was growing up, I had always wished they were more supportive, more understanding, that they might have said “I love you” just once. But now I knew that they had done what they could, and that it was time I did right by them, for they had had neither the childhoods nor the adulthood they might have wanted for themselves.” Not exactly disrespectful, that.

Landau adds: “The experience of a traditional Indian upbringing in a North American context offers rich territory for reflection, and certain moments, like Gill’s visit to India, or the jarring differences between the ironclad rule under which she was raised and her younger brother’s more lenient upbringing, beg for deeper insight. Instead, the cultural analysis is limited to broad strokes and crass generalizations. “Indian parents have a deathly fear of sexuality,” she gripes, in between calling her Punjabi “gibberish” and rolling her eyes at her mother’s traditional cooking. Her parents, meanwhile, are reduced to stock sitcom villains who have the gall to clothe her in non–brand name jeans. In attempting to illustrate the restraints imposed by her culture, Gill’s memoir only manages to expose her own narrow-mindedness.”

Hey, I like this book because it dares not to take the immigrant baggage seriously. It isn’t about Venerable Traditions or Preserving Your Culture or Respecting Indian Values. The Walrus review seems to view the deviation from such stereotypes as a shortcoming of this book; I think it’s one of its chief strengths. Immigrant writing isn’t just about subalterns reflecting on being the Other; we also chat about the fallout of non-brand name jeans on our teen selves.  Mainstream novels have been written about less.

The Agency Series by Y.S.Lee

At the ripe age of twelve, Mary Lang thinks she’s seen it all. As an orphan in Victorian England, Mary has known little other than poverty and misery, and when she’s sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, she almost welcomes death. But Mary is miraculously whisked away from the gallows to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The Academy provides free education and the prospect of a decent livelihood to promising girls, and Mary’s intelligence and spirit have deemed her worthy of rescue.

But Miss Scrimshaw’s doesn’t just produce governesses and companions. The Academy is in fact The Agency — a secret organization of female investigators who use the prevailing stereotypes of weak, helpless women as the perfect cover for their work. Now seventeen, Mary jumps at the chance to join the Agency. After learning code-cracking, lock-picking, pugilism, and more, Mary is ready for her first assignment: to investigate a shipping merchant suspected of smuggling antiques from India. Henry Thorold is a connected with the East India Company and the Far East Trading Company, and his daughter Angelica needs a companion. Enter Mary, now calling herself Mary Quinn.

But what should be a routine investigation is complicated by Angelica’s hostility, and by the opinionated James Easton’s interference in Mary’s activities. And when the trail leads to a refuge for retired Lascars (Asian sailors), Mary finds unforeseen danger. Secrets she’s guarded since her childhood threaten to unravel; the truth would lead to her undoing in London society. Solving the mystery of Thorold’s activities will take all of Mary’s considerable wit and courage — and discretion.

My main issue with genre fiction set in Victorian England is the tendency of these books to trivialize the implications of Britain’s colonial activities — the Empire is colorful background for a story that would work just as well in another setting. A Spy in the House places the damage wrought by (mercantile) colonialism at the center of its plot. Thorold’s luxury is “built on the backs of merchant sailors. International trade and dangerous labor [were] an unacknowledged, invisible source of wealth”. The ships were often overloaded in order to save on costs, especially when they were crewed by Lascars; such ships, which sank often, earned the name coffin ships.

Lee’s narrative is mindful of historical accuracy at every turn. While the Agency is indeed pure fantasy, it is one calibrated to espouse a historically-believable vision of feminine power rather than merely cater to modern-day sensibilities. And while Mary is very much a feminist, she never comes across as an anachronism, for her behavior reflects her character rather than any ideology. So, in all, I was very glad to see Mary and The Agency again in the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower. The tower of the title is St. Stephen’s Tower, more widely known as the clock tower that houses Big Ben.

Construction of the tower is twenty-five years behind schedule, madly over budget, and dogged by trouble, and Mary, in the guise of a young boy, joins the work crew on the building site to investigate the mysterious death of one of the bricklayers. As expected, James Easton reappears in a meaty role, and things progress nicely between the two. Lee’s narrative strengths (she is adept at withholding information so as to make readers pant for more, without skimping on plot detail) and command of the period are evidenced yet again in this installment, and she honors her teen audience’s often under-rated intelligence with her attention to historical detail. But while The Body… works well as a stand-alone mystery, many tantalizing loose ends from the first book continue to dangle at the end of this one. I assume All Will Be Revealed in The Traitor and the Tunnel, the concluding part of this trilogy to be published later this year. It’s going to be a long hard wait.

This review appears in the current edition of The Asian Review of Books.

***

A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower by Y.S.Lee

Candlewick 2010

Genre: YA

Visit Lee’s website and blog here.

 

Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.

***

Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

The Strike by Anand Mahadevan

The Strike by India-born, Toronto-based Anand Mahadevan combines a setting of great specificity—the world of high-caste South Indian Brahmins—with a universal coming-of-age tale. Twelve-year-old Hari lives in Nagpur in North India, and is growing curious about girls, the forbidden taste of fish, and the cultural divide between his family and that of the Northerner locals. When he accidentally sets off events leading to his grandmother’s death, Hari is caught in that no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood where he is old enough to understand his culpability, but young enough to be powerless. The first half of the novel is beautifully paced, with Hari gradually realizing that adults sometimes break the rules of fair-play without incurring penalties.

Every year, Hari and his mother take a train to Madras in South India to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents. During the journey, news of a much-beloved actor-turned-politician death arrives, and mourners on the train want the world to stop functioning in acknowledgement of their grief and rage. They hence decide to prevent
the train from completing the journey by lying upon the train tracks (such spontaneous demonstrations are common in the great Indian democratic circus, I add.) Hari is in the wrong place at a dangerous time, and matters take their course.

One of the chief issues in a book so firmly located in a particular culture is to do with the proposed audience. Said differently: where will the reader meet the author? The political landscape of South India is vastly complicated, peppered with movie stars and their mistresses, atheists and casteists, and much more. Mahadevan’s potted history of Tamil politics, I felt, would neither satisfy those looking for a meaningful analysis nor the reader who just wanted to get on with the story. Another case in point is Mahadevan’s usage of Indian (Tamil language) words in his novel. One of terms he uses is eccil , a purity-associated reference to saliva. It’s a word most (Indians) would not understand, and one that the author chooses not to explain. In a subsequent scene, however, Mahadevan mentions that a dosa (or dosai) is a sourdough crepe griddled in peanut oil. Google dosa, and you’ll get over two million hits; eccil is a LOT more obscure. I’m hard pressed to account for Mahadevan’s seeming arbitrariness in such matters of translation. The Strike is published by a Canadian small press and surely intended for a general North American audience as much as an Indian one, and I fear the Tamil words will daunt many readers—a pity indeed, because The Strike is a fine novel, with vivid, insightful prose that captures with finesse a child’s eye-view of an increasingly unpredictable universe.

Note:  I reviewed this book as a YA novel, though it isn’t explicitly marketed as such. Novels featuring young protagonists are rare in India, and I felt this book was an important addition to the genre.

(This piece originally appeared in a  slightly different form in Eclectica.)

The Strike by Anand Mahadevan

TSAR  Publications (October 30, 2006)

Genre: Literary fiction, YA

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

The Caribbean town of Marasaw is home to young Navi and Neela, whose mother must leave to find employment in the West—as a child minder. That bleak irony sets the tone for Toronto-based Andrea Gunraj’s promising novel The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha.

Brother and sister grow up competing for attention under their grandmother’s care, longing to escape each other and Marasaw. While math prodigy Navi wins an academic scholarship, Neela spurns family and her friends to elope with local bad boy Jaroon to a tourist resort “Eden” in the rainforest.

The Caribbean is considered a tourist paradise, but, asks Gunraj,  what is the cost to the locals? Eden proves anything but idyllic, for corruption breeds at the heart of the  enterprise. Neela, who planned to be a school teacher, discovers that the school building comprises four sticks on a concrete slab, that she won’t be paid for her work, and that there’s no going back to Marasaw. Inevitably, Jaroon prospers amidst such lawlessness, and an isolated Neela begins to face his abuse. Gunraj searingly describes the  powerlessness and humiliation experienced by victims of domestic violence; Neela, slapped by Jaroon, feels thrust into “that clumsy, in-between condition of part-child, part woman, foolish and slighted and put in her place.

When Jaroon spirits away their baby daughter Seetha, Neela must look for help to the family and friends she’d discarded. The search for Seetha provides the note of suspense in this story.

Gunraj, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Guyana, deals with (other) weighty themes (including racism and the bitter after-taste of colonialism)  in this layered tale, but the most intriguing aspect for me was Neela’s mysterious magic. Neela has a gift, passed down the maternal line, which enables her to influence events as she desires. This power however deserts her when she moves to Eden. Gunraj provides no explanation for this loss; and my guess is that Neela’s thoughtlessness in abandoning her family and friends killed her abilities, for this sort of power must come from a place of goodness and positivity if it is to flourish. And if my solution doesn’t quite cut it for you, well, this rich text gives you plenty to form an alternate theory. Gunraj is one of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” for 2009; well chosen, I say!

(A slightly modified version of this piece appears in Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.)

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009

Literary fiction

Canadian Book Challenge #4

I’m not a big fan of blog challenges–they are sometimes a bit frantic, and reading is, or should be, a slow pleasure.  But I’ve signed up for a couple this year for causes I believe in, like the Person of Color challenge.  I’m also signing up for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge–to  read and review thirteen books by Canadian authors over the next twelve months. I’d signed up for the first challenge, and I discovered a couple of terrific Canadian authors in the process–Alistair Macleod, for one, and Joy Kogawa. (I also read some purveyors of deadly boring CanLit, but the law of averages made that inevitable). If you are interested in Canadian writing, do check out this one at The Book Mine Set.

This challenge, I’m shooting for thirteen different genres of books–mystery, YA, picture book, memoir and so on. (I’m defining genre very loosely.) Books I’ve read thus far for the challenge:
1. 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (Graphic novel)
2. How it all Vegan by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard (Cookbook)

2 books by mid-July! If things keep up, I will turn into one of those bloggers who comments regularly and tracks feed subscribers and maintains a blogroll. You know, a real one.

500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

(This review appeared on 24 June in  rabble.ca I wanted to post this piece for Canada Day, so it appears here today.)

500 Years of Resistance is a comic book depicting a Native American view of colonial history. It seemed somewhat presumptuous of me to review this book, and for this week’s National Aboriginal Day, no less. I am not Native American; by some benchmarks, I am not even North American, having moved to Canada less than 10 years ago.

And yet. I am from India, the country Columbus set out to discover before he washed up on the American continent, a country intimately acquainted with European colonialism. It seems to me that the most prevalent approach today to a colonial past is to assert that colonialism was a mix of good and bad (mostly bad). But dwelling on that past is deemed morbid and pointless; what really matters, in this view, is a calculated embrace of capitalism so as to beat the erstwhile colonizers at their own game. But another perspective sees the struggle between colonizer and colonized as an ongoing resistance — colonialism, rather than being eradicated, is deemed to have simply taken on new shapes, and Gord Hill belongs to this school of thought. In his introduction, Hill states that the mainstream depiction of Indigenous people as (mostly) passive victims of European colonization now resigned to (or even willing accomplices of) the activities of the settler-state is a deliberate falsehood. The 60 pages of extensively-researched graphics that follow depict his world-view and his reasoning.

500 Years of Resistance

500 Years of Resistance takes as its scope the Americas, North and South, and roughly follows the chronological order of colonial expansion. The book is divided into four parts with the self-explanatory titles Invasion, Resistance, Assimilation and Renewed Resistance. Invasion focuses on the methods adopted by European settlers to acquire Native land, while the section on Resistance takes up specific episodes such as the Inca Insurgency and the Seminole Wars, and includes details such as the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets by the British forces to facilitate quicker genocide of the Native people. Interestingly, the last section (Renewed Resistance) describes the kinship between Native Americans and other peoples of the world, citing the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement as examples of a global struggle against oppression.

Hill concludes with the mention of recent armed conflicts between Natives and the state (such as the Six Nations standoff with the Ontario police in 2006), effectively making his point: for some, the resistance never ended. Even if you don’t agree with Hill’s approach, you’ll understand his sense of outrage after reading this book. The black-and-white artwork brings home the weight of accumulated injustices with an intensity few other formats could match.

Is any form of reconciliation possible (or even desirable) to a people whose histories and identities have been forcibly recast for centuries? 500 Years… emphasizes the actualities of the past and our interpretation of the present, but gives no vision for the future. The ultimate aim of any resistance movement is presumably to bring about social and political change that obviates the need for its existence. Hill, however, presents resistance as an end in itself — a problematic conclusion, given that this work is targeted at the youth. Fortunately, the book includes four-and-a-half pages of recommended readings, with titles that suggest a broader vision.

Consider yourselves warned: this book is a warrior’s celebration of armed resistance, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The violence of colonialism and the Indigenous people’s bloody resistance is laid out in detail, from the European settlers raping local women and chopping off the hands and noses of those who failed to supply them with enough gold, to the severed heads of the crew members of an American ship attacked by Nuu-Chah-Nulth warriors. Hill writes that the comic book format “…uses minimal text with graphic art to tell the story. This format is useful in reaching children, youth, and adults…” This book is definitely not for children, but it should be read by everyone else.

END

500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010

Genre/format: Graphic novel, history

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

Your hunt for the most boring Wikipedia entry ever ends now. Type “Yellowknife” in the search box, and you’ll hear the gurgle as the spirit is sucked out of one of the most intriguing cities on the planet.

I mention Wikipedia because most non-Canadian readers of Steve Zipp’s debut novel Yellowknife will in all likelihood want need to look the city up. So, here are some facts about Yellowknife before I begin my review.

First, a map of Canada.  Yellowknife is just above the big black C.

Political Divisions

(This map is available at http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/index.html)

Yellowknife is the capital of the NorthWest Territories. The NorthWest Territories are almost twice the size of France. The population of the NorthWest Territories is about 41,000 people. All together now: Looonely!

In the 1930s, sizable gold deposits were discovered in Yellowknife, leading to a mini gold rush. The rush waned towards the end of the century, but save your sympathy for the Yellowknifers; in the early nineties, the area turned up diamonds. The city now calls itself “The Diamond Capital of North America.”

And in what is possibly the most redundant sentence in Canadian prose, I add that Yellowknife is very cold.

***

Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife is set in the eponymous city in 1998. It’s a delirious read, one that incorporates the region’s history into a truly zany storyline. Endeavoring to describe the plot any further is akin to eating soup with a fork–you get some bits and pieces, but miss the main meal. Picking up my spork: The book features an entomologist who offers his arm for mosquito bait, a conceptual artist who wanders around garbage dumps, a drifter who learns to live off dog food, and about twenty other oddball characters who come together to do their thing in Yellowknife.

And what a city it is, in a region “so remote it’s almost mythical.” A restaurant menu in Yellowknife might include fried ptarmigan, sweet and sour bearpaw, scrambled caribou brains on toast, and detoxified bear liver.  There’s an annual  Caribou Carnival, where activities include tea boiling and log sawing; people sip frosty drinks “in glasses made of ice.” The local newspaper is called the Yellowknife Blade. A posh restaurant accepts diamonds in lieu of cash; waiters carry loupes on their person. Zipp assumes the reader is familiar with the region (or has a huge vocabulary); I for one had to look up “pomarine jaeger” (a sea bird),  mukluks (a type of boot), horsetails (a plant)…you get the idea.  At least I knew   Zamboni, thanks to my years in Canada.

The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing. Zipp quotes from Kafka, Jack London and Bulgakov, amongst others, and his prose is notable as much for its intelligence as its humor. You read it here first: Zipp is blood brother to Tom Robbins.  There are many interesting and erudite passages to showcase; it is purely a function of this reviewer’s base mind that the quoted section deals with sex (or its lack thereof).

Danny the drifter finally has a chance to get it off with the most beautiful woman in our dimension. But then she asks if he has a condom.

The answer was plain on his face. She might as well have been asking for a condominium. “Christ” she muttered and reached for her clothes
“No, wait, I can find something. A plastic bag. A rubber glove.”

No luck. Danny then tries to salvage the situation.

“No problem…I’ll pick some up tomorrow….Do you have a favorite brand?…Any particular color or flavor?”

yellow

If I have one quibble, it is that Yellowknife sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. It’s as though Zipp had a hundred great ideas, and he shoehorned them all into this 286-page book. The resulting read is breathless though manageable, but it gets sticky when it comes to the characters. There are so many appealing dramatis personae vying for the role of protagonist that ultimately, I wasn’t truly invested in any character. Just as I got into Danny’s adventures, bam! a new character squealing “Forget Danny, look at me!” would cavort on the page. I suppose I could have treated the book like the aforementioned soup and just enjoyed whatever came along, but I kept getting distracted, wondering where that tempting piece of pineapple lurked, and if the spongy object I was chewing on was a mushroom or a pellet of Bounty…

It is a sad, sad thing that Zipp’s novel, published by the small press Res Telluris, should languish in obscurity. I do not know the author (apart from exchanging a brief email correspondence regarding the timing of this review) and I have no hesitation in flogging his work in every possible way. Here is the publisher’s website, and here is the author’s blog. Do buy the book. Or, if you must, download it for FREE from the publisher’s site. And don’t forget to send Zipp a mash note asking him to write another novel real soon.

add to del.icio.us :: Digg it :: Stumble It!

Sweetness in the Belly, Redwork, The Paper Bag Princess.

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb:  Lilly, the child of British hippies, was was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Morocco, and moved to Ethiopia when she was sixteen. When we meet her, she has lived in England for many years, where she is an oddity as a devout white Muslim in Thatcherite Britain. 

Although I had to refer to the Wikipedia entry on Ethiopia to fully understand the political situation, I found the story fascinating, driven as it was by Lilly’s quest to locate herself and her community. As someone who has lived much of her life as a transplant, the question of how we define “home” is important to me. Is it by ethnic origin? the place of birth? religious affiliations? where we currently reside? the passport we carry?  Sweetness… is a must-read for those who like to think about this sort of thing.

Redwork by Michel Bedard: Mysterious landlord. Curious teenage  boy. Strange old house. Bullies. Intelligent feisty girl. All the makings for a good story, but then Cass (the fifteen-year-old-boy) began to have strange dreams. Books where dreams reveal plot points should come with warning labels “predictable literary device inside”.  Redwork builds up a nice creepy atmosphere, but the climax was rather anti-climactic…heck, I’ll be rude and say boring. I can’t believe this book won the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature. Aaugh!

 

 

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch: I’m probably the only participant in the Canadian book challenge who hadn’t read this one in her childhood. Kick-ass resourceful princess vanquishes the dragon and saves the prince.  Love it, love it, love it, so much that I’d like to do a Banksy and sneak copies into every known edition of Sleeping Beauty.

 

 

 

These three bring my tally for the Canadian book Challenge upto nine; four left to finish by the end of June.